BBC – Music – Review of Pritam Chakraborty

Having worked together on Life in a… Metro, director Anurag Basu must have had a hunch Pritam would be the perfect composer to create the soundtrack to Barfi!. As the award-winning maestro behind Bollywood hits like Jab We Met, Love Aaj Kal and Cocktail, his ability to produce catchy tunes and high-energy beats are in no doubt.

But would Pritam be the right choice for a musical featuring an unconventional lead character that lives in a vibrant, noisy world, but who happens to be deaf and mute? On a film influenced by the likes of The Artist and Amélie, his involvement could have been a risk.

Pritam is fond of loud, clubby remixes, borrowing riffs from Western pop classics. Fortunately, with Barfi! he holds back from obvious mainstream influences to create an inspired collection of tender, sweeping melodies that could melt the coldest of hearts.

You only have to listen to opener Main Kya Karoon to appreciate the quality of music on offer. Newcomer Nikhil Paul George brings Barfi’s inner voice, and the picture, to life. Having previously worked as a backing singer for Pritam on soundtracks like Mausam, his soft solo number and Aashiyan, a duet with Shreya Ghoshal, are superb.

Arijit Singh’s rendition of Phir Le Aya Dil is also a joy to behold. The romantic lyrics and gentle ghazal-like arrangement are a refreshing change from the high-pitched, pulsating compositions dominating Hindi film music. The same can be said for the nursery rhyme-style Saawali Si Raat.

Mohit Chauhan’s Ala Barfi, plus Papon and Sunidhi Chauhan’s nuanced performance of Kyon, add to the uplifting, magical experience. A part of the feel-good factor is due to Pritam’s humorous use of French accordion and acoustic guitar, which complement the movie’s charming vibe and 1970s Darjeeling setting.

The fact that Barfi! has been nominated as India’s official entry for the Best Foreign Language Film for the Academy Awards is testament in part to Pritam’s creative vision, but also Swanand Kirkire, Sayeed Quadri and Ashish Pandit’s beautiful lyrics. This is easy listening fit for both world cinema and music-loving audiences.

BBC – Music – Review of Carl Nielsen

Alan Gilbert admits that of all six Nielsen symphonies the Third does the most for him. So can he, in the Sinfonia Espansiva’s centenary year, provide the long-awaited ‘has-it-all’ performance that the piece so thoroughly deserves?

Gilbert gets tantalisingly close on this, the first disc of his new live Nielsen cycle with the New York Philharmonic. He conjures the fizzing atmosphere of Herbert Blomstedt’s famous San Francisco recording, without its faults: we hear the counterpoints, not just the top line, and we get four considered lessons in the meaning of the word “expansiveness”.                                     

In the opening Allegro Gilbert maintains his well-judged speed past the big moment of rupture at bar 388 (5:52), where plenty of others slow slightly for effect. It still grips you because Gilbert gets the contradictory factions of the orchestra to bounce off one another effervescently. For the gorgeous Andante pastorale – music that lies on its back and looks up at the sky – Gilbert has luminous vocal soloists who plant their contributions in the soil of the surrounding orchestral parts.

Where Gilbert really scores, though, is in the tricky Allegretto. He points its game-play in the direction of the symphonies still to come (particularly the Sixth) and from bar 120 to the end builds a kind of multi-layered, arching meta-phrase. The ugly duckling of the symphony is suddenly its subversive heart, and just as expansive as the music that surrounds it.

Gilbert’s take on the Second Symphony sets him apart further still. He pushes and pulls at his speeds in the first movement (brisk first subject, broad second subject) and throughout. He has his players – particularly strings – dig deep into phrases and find shape even in static chords. It makes for a second movement that seems to create its own time and space and a patient Andante Malincolio that unfurls like a Mahler Adagio.

Counterpoints that grind rather than dance, the weight and depth of the New York Phil’s sound and Gilbert’s ear for Nielsen’s symphonic mapping really make these recordings. These are rich and hugely enjoyable performances that add to the undernourished interpretative debate around Nielsen like few others have.

BBC – Music – Review of Hector Berlioz

One of the hottest new conducting talents around, British-born Robin Ticciati has been making waves with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra for several years, becoming its principal conductor in 2009. Berlioz has featured prominently in their concert programmes, so it is fitting that their first CD release together is of the maverick French Romantic’s seminal orchestral work, the Symphonie Fantastique.

The sharp-focus clarity and litheness of this relatively small-scale account will come as a surprise to most listeners – we are used to grander versions with full modern symphony orchestras – but Ticciati’s approach reaps great dividends. The portentous double bass pizzicato line in the atmospheric introduction has never sounded more unanimous, and the taut rhythm of the bouncing string chords beneath the gloriously legato woodwind melody ensures strong forward momentum.

There is a delightful lilt to the dreamy ballroom scene, the most carefree movement of the work, with liberal but discrete use of portamento sweetening the bold violin melody – and there is a genuine sense of danger in the brisk march to the scaffold. The detail and crisp delineation of textures that Ticciati achieves is nothing short of phenomenal, and the performance manages to regain much of the work’s shock factor, lost in decades of over-familiarity and superimposed romantic gloss.

But, however impressive this fresh detail is, it is impossible to escape the nagging feeling that Ticciati too often concentrates on micromanaging at the expense of Berlioz’s broader canvass. Many passages have little sense of line or direction, and the big tutti moments frequently lack the sheer power required to send thrilling shivers down the spine.

So, unfortunately, this new version is only a qualified success – but it is one that absolutely demands to be heard by all lovers of Berlioz’s best-known orchestral work. The Linn engineers have worked wonders to make the most of Ticciati’s forensic approach with superb clarity, while maintaining a warm, natural glow around the studio sound.

An assured, fleet-footed account of the quirky and sparkling overture to Berlioz’s last and arguably greatest opera, Beatrice et Benedict, provides an attractive makeweight.

BBC – Music – Review of Josef Suk

Late Romantic composer Josef Suk, Antonín Dvorak’s son-in-law, wrote a substantial body of works, many of them bold and ambitious and deserving of a place in the modern repertory.

Suk has no greater champion today than his Czech compatriot, Jiří Bělohlávek. Following up his previous Chandos release coupling Suk’s Symphony No.1 with Ripening, here Bělohlávek presents two substantial symphonic poems, again with ‘his’ BBC Symphony Orchestra – the excellent studio recordings were made in January 2012, eight months before he was due to stand down as the orchestra’s Chief Conductor of six years.

Suk’s best known orchestral work, the mournful Asrael Symphony, was written in memory of Dvorak and his daughter Otilka – Suk’s wife – whose deaths within months of each other in 1904 devastated the composer. The double tragedy occurred while Suk was already planning a new piece, one which subsequently reflected his acute loss. Prague, Suk’s Op. 26, was conceived as a symphonic poem dedicated to the Czech capital, incorporating elements of its rich, sometimes turbulent, history and reflecting its mystical allure. The finished 25-minute work conveys pride in his home city, but there is poignant sorrow in a love-theme originally written during his courtship to Otilka.

From the super-hushed atmospheric opening, shimmering strings representing the mist-shrouded Vltava river, through the swashbuckling Hussite horn calls and vivid battles scenes, to the triumphant conclusion with spine-tingling organ, Bělohlávek inspires a performance of total commitment. The orchestral sound may not be distinctively Czech, but the vibrant playing is full of character and brings the work alive brilliantly, compensating for a lack of musical development in its most programmatic passages.

They bring the same dedication to A Summer’s Tale, an hour-long, five-movement symphonic poem from 1907, the second of a four-part reflective cycle encompassing death and the meaning of life. More positive than the bleakness of Asrael, it explores the healing powers of nature through an enthralling score that fuses epic, Mahler-ian romanticism with adventurous forays into impressionism (Debussy’s La Mer had premiered in Paris two years earlier). Bělohlávek and the BBC SO make a powerful and impassioned case for this intense work, one that deserves to be much wider known.

BBC – Music – Review of Seth MacFarlane

This endearing album from Seth MacFarlane, the creator of TV’s Family Guy, is a valentine to the popular culture of the 1940s and 50s.

The choice of It’s Anybody’s Spring to open will come as no surprise to fans of that show. It was written for one of the Road to… pictures of Crosby, Hope and Lamour, a franchise that was affectionately parodied in Family Guy.

To successfully evoke that era, MacFarlane and his arranger/conductor Joel McNeely not only borrowed the microphone that Sinatra used at Capitol Records, but also recorded this collection in analogue. The results possess a warm, ambient glow where the voice and each section of the orchestra are ideally balanced, presented in a wide stereo spread.

The repertoire is refreshing, veering from the well known to hidden treasures. The arrangements capture each song’s mood in a most imaginative way. The Night They Invented Champagne, from Gigi, makes clever use of the song’s verse, alludes to the fin de siècle world of Colette’s Paris, and ends with a fade before one more pop from the bottle.

MacFarlane is very much his own man when it comes to phrasing and pointing the words in a lyric, and this approach really drives home what each song is about. “You break the spell when you start to speak,” he observes on the title track, “That technique is all wrong.” And on occasion he varies the written tune to heighten its drama, as in his deeply expressive account of It’s Easy to Remember.

On the other side of the coin, he relishes the good-natured Nine O’Clock and has dug up some unfamiliar lines to period piece The Sadder but Wiser Girl, from The Music Man. Norah Jones, her delicious voice redolent of crème caramel, is a perfect match for his in Two Sleepy People; and Sara Bareilles excells on the wisecracking Love Won’t Let You Get Away, originally written for Crosby and Rosemary Clooney.

In many ways the world inhabited by these songs seems remote from our present pop culture. So it’s good to see them so lovingly presented at the beginning of the 21st century.

BBC – Music – Review of The Touré-Raichel Collective

When leading his own band, guitarist Vieux Farka Touré has lately been getting increasingly deeper into the Hendrixian electric zone, his Malian desert roots steadily saturated by rock’n’roll seepage.

This project reveals a different aspect, as Touré comes closer again to his heritage, concentrating on the acoustic guitar. He’s now sounding nearer to the musical spirit of his departed father, Ali Farka.

The other half of this album’s fresh equation is the Israeli keyboardist Idan Raichel, whose reputation is still somewhat underground outside his homeland and probably bigger in the USA than Europe. Even though this collaboration is equally billed, the tunes mostly sound closer to a Malian source. It’s an unlikely teaming, forged out of a chance meeting between the two artists on the road.

Raichel is the producer of this improvised session, which lasted just three hours. The participants began in a jamming frame, then subsequently refined the results into repeatable tunes, arranging on the hoof. They don’t sound improvised, but these linear pieces were created in totally spontaneous fashion, with only a few subsequent overdubs. Raichel and Touré were joined by Israeli bassist Yossi Fine and Malian percussionist Souleymane Kane on calabash.

Raichel favours the acoustic piano, frequently preparing its strings or dampening them with his fingers. Several of the pieces work in a subliminal vocal humming, thickening the textures into a dense sound. When Raichel starts off Experience, the track possessing a noticeably Middle Eastern vibration, his style is reminiscent of Maurice El Médioni’s Jewish-Algerian orientalism.

Guest Frédéric Yonnet plays harmonica on Touré, setting off at a sprightly pace. He gets a solo bridge, accompanied solely by minimal percussion, growling into his harp and flapping his fingers. Another guest, the singer Cabra Casay, takes the lead on Ane Nahatka, with Raichel moving to electric piano.

Many fusion adventures such as this one have found success in recent years, as artists increasingly traverse the globe, becoming authentically grounded in each other’s previously alien sounds, styles, cultures and religions. The players here use that joyful experience to forge exciting new traditions.

BBC – Music – Review of Rose Royce

Although many know its remarkable title track, fewer may recall that Car Wash was actually the soundtrack to a 1976 comedy film that introduced comedian Richard Pryor into the mainstream. It became a word-of-mouth success, costing $2 million and turning in a gross profit of $20 million.

It also made a name of Rose Royce. Originally put together by Motown producer Norman Whitfield to back The Temptations on tour, they wrote the music for the film on the set, resulting in a double album – on which they played every note – that captured their remarkable creativity.

Car Wash positively brims with life, featuring some of the tightest funk this side of James Brown and Parliament: just listen to the groove of Daddy Rich and the steamy grease of Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is. Kenny Copeland’s keening vocal on I Wanna Get Next to You showed that this was superior soul; you could just imagine The Temptations themselves singing it.

However, it was the vocals of Gwen Dickey and the seven introductory handclaps of the title track that the mass market rightly lapped up. Zestful, special and difficult to tire of, the track Car Wash still transcends, no matter how many times it is compiled and terribly cheap acrylic wigs are worn to accompany it.

I’m Going Down, later covered memorably by Mary J Blige, was another standout. The Pointer Sisters, still light years away from Jump (For My Love), add a low down and dirty contribution on You Gotta Believe.

But it is not all about the obvious: Sunrise, all 11 minutes of it, was a true tour-de-force, with its muted horns and incessant synthesiser riff. It owes not just a very obvious debt to Isaac Hayes, but also to the highlife rhythms of Afrobeat. With its spare bass and looped horns, it’s arguably Whitfield’s last long-form masterpiece.

This is a superlative collection that touches on funk, gospel and disco. It set Rose Royce on a steady commercial course for the next half-decade and underlines Whitfield’s gravitas as a producer/arranger.