Peter Hammill, London Cafe Oto, 2-4 March 2017

Peter Hammill seems to be slipping gracefully into semi-retirement. Although there is apparently a new solo album on the way, when the most recent Van der Graaf Generator album, Do Not Disturb, came out last year, there was talk of it possibly being their last album. What’s more, Hammill’s formerly prodigious concert schedule is certainly less full than it used to be. It’s been five long years since I last saw him play a solo concert, which (happily for me) was at my favourite venue in the world, Porgy & Bess in Vienna. So it was a no-brainer to make the trip over to London for this mind-blowing three-night residency at what must surely be the smallest venue he’s played in Europe for years.

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Richard Youngs, Geneva Cave 12, 12 February 2017

Back in 2012, I made a fairly hopeful wishlist of the fifteen musicians I most wanted to see live. Fulfilling the list has been an uphill struggle, even though nearly all the people on it are still active and regularly touring; up until a week or two ago, I’d only been able to tick two of the fifteen off the list. Now, though, and thanks to the brilliant programming at Cave 12, I’m able to tick off a third.

Richard Youngs has actually been on my radar ever since 2002, when I reviewed his early acoustic masterpieces Sapphie and Making Paper for The Sound Projector. I’ve kept an eye on his output since then, without ever attempting to keep up with the endless flow of releases that have appeared under his name. Every so often, though, I’ve picked up one of them and have been staggered by the variety and the creativity Youngs brings to everything he does.

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The Musical Box, Geneva Théâtre du Léman, 25 November 2016

Growing up in the late 1970s, there was a certain amount of friendly rivalry between my younger brother S. and me, in music as in other areas such as sport. Whereas I, at the age of 11, was a hardcore Numanoid and Kraftwerk fan, the 10-year-old S. cottoned on at an early age to other electronic pioneers such as John Foxx and The Human League. (Not for us the dire worship of heavy metal that seemed to afflict so many of our peers at grammar school in Salisbury.) Even before that, S. was only nine when he first heard on the radio, and promptly fell in love with, Genesis’ breakthrough 1978 single “Follow You Follow Me”. At that age, and with pocket money a severely limiting factor, the extent of your appreciation for a band was measured by whether you merely bought the single or went the whole hog and shelled out for the album. If you were in the latter category, you probably hadn’t heard anything else on the album; but you were confident, based on your liking of the single, that there would be further stuff on there that you would enjoy. Thus it was that S. came home one Saturday afternoon with a copy of And Then There Were Three, if I remember rightly not only his first Genesis album, but the first album he ever bought.

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Swans, Vienna Arena, 22 October 2016

I never got around to writing about Swans’ last Vienna concert in 2014 or whenever it was, so this review can probably stand as a review of that one as well, especially since not much has changed chez Michael Gira since that time. Other than by exchanging Thor Harris for a new, nondescript and barely noticeable keyboard player, the group has declined to refine its approach from previous outings. The long, monotonous riffs, rudimentary songwriting and entirely predictable use of dynamics (The loud bit! The quiet bit! The loud bit again!) are all present and correct, testaments to the creative dead end into which Gira has steered himself since reactivating Swans six years ago.

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Peter Rehberg, Geneva Cave 12, 28 September 2016

Since I’m now based part of the time in Geneva, this blog, never frequently updated at the best of times, is becoming more sporadic than ever. There are a few decent venues in Geneva, but on the whole the live music scene is far quieter than it is in Vienna. For some reason there seem to be more concerts in the neighbouring cities of Lausanne and Vevey than there are in Geneva, even though they are both much smaller, which blows.

Anyway, since moving here in July I’ve only been to two concerts. The first of these was Cat Power, which I may get around to reviewing at some point (although I wouldn’t hold your breath). It was a great pleasure, though, to catch up with Peter Rehberg last week on the first date of a mini Swiss and French tour. The venue, Cave 12, seems to be the nearest equivalent to the Rhiz in Geneva, with an impressive roll-call of visitors from the avant rock, noise and experimental music scenes. Centrally located just a few minutes’ walk from the main station, staffed by friendly people and with a PA that has plenty of wallop, Cave12 gets the thumbs up from me.

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Keith Jarrett, Vienna Musikverein, 9 July 2016

My heart did little somersaults when I saw this concert announced, and did some more when I realized that I would actually be in Vienna on the relevant date. A Keith Jarrett concert is a rare event, a solo concert doubly so. Add in the fact that he would be playing at the Musikverein, the most acclaimed and legendary concert hall in Vienna but one which I had never previously visited, and you had an evening of unmissable proportions.

I’ve been preoccupied with the matter of Jarrett ever since I first heard The Köln Concert, a stunning piece of work and one that is fully deserving of all the accolades that have been heaped on it over the years. Subsequent solo recordings such as The Carnegie Hall Concert and (oh, the irony) Vienna Concert connected with me as no other piano music has ever done. Here was music that seemed to exist outside space and time, its every note an instance of shimmering beauty, the performance as a whole a vast depiction of Jarrett’s rare improvisational gifts.

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Shearwater, Vienna Arena, 27 June 2016

Every time Shearwater come to Vienna they play in a larger venue, their début visit to the Chelsea in 2012 having been followed by a 2014 appearance at the Szene Wien. It was inevitable, therefore, that their 2016 tour should bring them to the Arena, which was nicely full on this occasion, a clear sign that more and more people are waking up to the greatness of Jonathan Meiburg and his group. I’m happy, though, for them to remain at this level of support; I wouldn’t much care to see them at the Gasometer, gratifying as such a level of fandom would no doubt be to Meiburg and co.

Anyway, this was an absolutely thrilling concert that pretty much confirmed Shearwater as one of the most daring and powerful forces in rock today. I have to admit that I’ve not gone a bundle on the new album Jet Plane and Oxbow so far, finding it a tad overcooked compared to the Arctic chill of the ‘Island Arc’ trilogy and the impassioned disturbance that animated 2012’s Animal Joy. In a live context, though, and stripped of their excessive studio-based production, Meiburg’s new songs stand revealed as the taut, controlled masterpieces they are. Bristling with barely concealed rage, songs like “Prime” and “A Long Time Away” present a seething vision of contemporary, battle-scarred America.

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Philip Glass/Maki Namekawa/Dennis Russell Davies, Landestheater Linz, 29 June 2016

Since Philip Glass is nearing his 80th birthday, his previously relentless touring schedule must surely be winding down to some extent. It was a no-brainer, then, to make the journey to Linz to see him perform a piano concert of his own works, flanked by Glass’ long-time musical collaborator Dennis Russell Davies and Japanese pianist (and Davies’ wife) Maki Namekawa. This was the second time I’d seen a Glass event at the magnificent Musiktheater, the first being the baffling opera The Lost in 2013. I hadn’t seen Glass playing piano before, although I’ve seen him twice with the Ensemble playing keyboards on Music in Twelve Parts.

The concert began with Glass solo, playing his composition Mad Rush. At fifteen minutes or so it’s a comparatively short piece, yet characteristically Glass in the way it glides around the listener on a surface of glistening melodies and hypnotic repetitions. The title of the piece seemed to be something of a misnomer, since Glass played it unhurried and with a minimum of fuss. This was perhaps the saddest Glass music I’ve heard, wintry and elegiac and (even though he wrote it nearly forty years ago) perfectly suited to a composer in the twilight of his years.

Glass then exited stage right to make way for Davies and Namekawa, who together played Glass’ 2008 piece Four Movements for Two Pianos. In pointed contrast to the dreamlike euphoria of Mad Rush, this was a beautifully labyrinthine piece of music. Flying through Glass’ magisterial arpeggios in bold and lucid harmony, Namekawa and Davies made an immediate and forceful impression that became stronger and stronger throughout the four movements. By the way, I’m no expert on the niceties of classical music etiquette, but I’m not sure you’re supposed to applaud at the end of each movement as the enthusiastic Linz audience did.

After the interval, all three performers re-emerged to play a suite of six short pieces from Glass’ 1996 “dance opera” Les Enfants Terribles. Since these were pieces that relied, in their original form, on the visual as much as the aural for their impact, the suite was perhaps a surprising choice to round off the evening. Nevertheless it provided a wholly satisfying conclusion to the programme, with the composer leading Davies and Namekawa masterfully through the unflinching density of the music.

There was an interesting coda at the end of the evening, prompted by the signing session after the concert. Never having been to one of Davies’ concerts before (although I once made it as far as the lobby), I thought it would have been remiss of me not to ask him about a subject that has long interested me. It’s not exactly a secret, but nor is it widely known, that Davies is the father of the musician Annabel Lee, who together with her husband Michael Moynihan form the core of the neofolk group Blood Axis. As far as I’m aware Davies has never spoken publicly about his daughter’s music, so I thought it might be interesting to see what he had to say about Blood Axis, since it is, to say the least, a controversial project. Rather than rehash the many arguments that have been made against Blood Axis in general and Moynihan in particular, I’ll simply point the reader to this extensive analysis of his activities, which concludes by saying that “Moynihan is a racist and a Fascist, and he believes that creating a culture accepting of [Charles] Manson’s nihilism is half way to making it also amenable to Fascism”. Having said that, when you look at this photo of Moynihan, you have to wonder what all the fuss is about.

Anyway, Dennis Russell Davies seemed disinclined to discuss Blood Axis when I mentioned the subject to him in Linz. Asked to comment on the precarious ideological basis of the project, he could only offer up platitudes about Moynihan being “a wonderful man” who makes “wonderful music”. Given his familial ties with both Lee and Moynihan, I hardly expected him to condemn their music out of hand; it’s strange, nonetheless, that he clearly feels so unperturbed by it.

Shampoo Boy, Vienna MUMOK, 9 April 2016

What a rum evening this was. Shampoo Boy, the group consisting of Editions Mego label boss Peter Rehberg alongside Christian Schachinger on guitar and Christina Nemec on bass, played a curtain-raising set on the second and final night of some heavily sponsored festival or other at the Museumsquartier. (The forerunner of this group, the sadly missed Peterlicker, also played the opening set at a similarly corporate shindig five years ago; see my review of that event here.) Thanks to the logos plastered everywhere about the place, entrance to the entire festival was free. The event was originally supposed to take place in the main Haupthof of the MQ, which would have been nice; sadly, however, inclement weather meant that it was moved inside to a very large and swish hall known as the Hofstallungen, where I had never been before. The audience was fairly large, but I suspect I was the only one among them who had come especially to see Shampoo Boy.

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Philip Glass: Akhnaten, London English National Opera, 18 March 2016

My long, slow initiation into the world of opera continues, all of it so far through the music of Philip Glass. Following the overwhelming experience of Einstein on the Beach in London in 2012, and the intermittently fascinating but relatively minor The Lost in Linz a year later, last month I made a return trip to London for my first ever visit to the English National Opera. The occasion, of course, was the last night of the ENO’s new production of Akhnaten, the third part of Glass’s major trilogy of operas about historical figures. (At this rate I should be able to tick off the second part of the trilogy, Satyagraha, somewhere around 2020.)

Although the interior of the Coliseum was every bit as lavish as I had expected, it proved to be no match for the visually sumptuous staging of this opera. Phelim McDermott’s production swirled with inventive beauty, from the singers’ resplendent costumes to the rich set designs (which may have owed something to Robert Wilson’s groundbreaking Einstein staging), while the hypnotic work of the jugglers provided a stunning visual counterpoint to the rippling tides of Glass’s music. The chorus, meanwhile, presented a vaguely steampunk image that contrasted vividly with the Egyptian splendour elsewhere onstage. Having received with glum resignation the news that the chorus were planning to go on strike for the first act on the very night I had booked to see this thing, it was a huge relief to learn that the action was later suspended. Without them, the impact of the piece would have been greatly reduced.

The part of Akhnaten was sung with great expressiveness by Anthony Roth Costanzo. In keeping with the historical tendency to depict the ruler as androgynous, the character’s sexuality was indeterminate: his full (male) nudity during the coronation scene was undermined by later scenes in which, diaphonously clad, he appeared to be exhibiting female sexual characteristics. Adding to the indeterminacy was Costanzo’s countertenor voice. The countertenor appears to be something of a rarity in the operatic repertoire, but Costanzo’s reedy yet powerful voice was greatly impressive to this neophyte.

Equally impressive was Glass’s score, as blissful and romantic as any Glass I’ve heard. With no violins in the orchestra, but plenty of woodwind and brass, the soundworld steered clear of stridency and found deep lyrical softness in Glass’s ravishing melodies. The funeral scene in Act I, meanwhile, was powered by a tumultuous percussive throb that pitched the opera into moments of high, stirring drama.

Whereas Einstein on the Beach seemed to stretch out time itself, leading to an epic five-hour sweep that drew the viewer/listener ever closer towards the infinite, Akhnaten seemed to pack an extraordinary amount of incident and detail into its three acts. As a result the three-hour running time flew by; indeed, I frequently wished it had been longer. Sung mostly in Egyptian, the opera tells the tragic story of the pharaoh who abolishes the old polytheistic religion, introduces a new monotheistic one and is finally overthrown and killed by his own people. Thanks to the useful programme notes, the language barrier did not pose any particular problems. In any event, the narrative thread of the opera was never less than gripping, thanks to the otherworldly dream logic with which it proceeded towards its inevitable conclusion. And it was thrilling to see Glass himself join the cast onstage for a hugely deserved standing ovation at the end of this magnificent production.