“It feels like love”: Barb Jungr’s ‘Bob, Brel and Me’

Guest review by Adrian Ainsworth

A new album by Barb Jungr is always a cause for celebration, but it’s a particular delight to be able to write about what must be one of her very finest recordings. ‘Bob, Brel and Me’ is the kind of coherent, complete – and importantly, open-hearted and generous – release that makes a long-term fan like me want to take an armful of copies out and press them into the hands of friends, relatives, even unsuspecting passers-by. I’d just have time to say, “If you want to understand why this artist is so special, take a listen to this. It’s all in there”… before moving on to my next target. But I will try to explain here, too.

For those of you yet to encounter Barb Jungr’s music, I would say the closest genre fit is jazz – that’s the section where you’ll find her CDs. But in fact, I think she’s one of the finest interpreters of  modern song – any song – we currently have. Whether it’s a number as old as the hills, rehearsed and retrod by hundreds of other musicians, or something relatively new or obscure – songs undergo a genuine transformation in her hands, and you never listen to them in quite the same way again. While the material might look like jazz – acoustic, usually piano-based, partly improvisatory – it doesn’t always feel like it. Jungr ranges across folk and rock for source material, especially the singer-songwriter lineage of the 60s and 70s. At the same time, somehow, she inhabits a world of cabaret and chanson: live, she is absolutely fearless, unpredictable and magnetic – totally unafraid to take the audience on a journey where they have no idea of the destination.

This powerful performing style might partly explain why, in particular, she has a special gift for covering songs by men. (One of my favourite discs from her back catalogue is called ‘The Men I Love: the New American Songbook’ – featuring material by David Byrne, Todd Rundgren, Paul Simon, Leonard Cohen and Bruce Springsteen among others.) But the Man She Loves The Most in this context is almost certainly Bob Dylan, who has two whole Jungr albums to himself (the mighty ‘Every Grain of Sand’ and the compilation ‘Man in the Long Black Coat’) and finds his way in some shape or form onto many of the others.

I don’t think it’s an accident that these blokes are especially renowned and valued for their lyrics – complex, intriguing words and images come pouring out of them – so their work immediately lends itself to Jungr’s storytelling charisma and technical precision (the way she seems able to communicate such emotion while dancing around the melodies and preserving crystal-clear diction is worthy of several air-punches throughout this new CD alone). A superb songwriter herself, Jungr’s own lyrics are witty, tender and rich in detail, so it’s an extra treat when one of her records features a few self-penned tracks.

Essentially, I think her versions of this kind of  ‘male canon’ are so successful because she has an uncanny ability to take the pulse of a song. Her strength and tenacity mean the material retains its grip, but at the same time she punctures any aggression or ‘toxicity’ in the masculinity – a double threat.

So we come to the latest record, which seems designed to bring together these three key areas of her craft: ‘Bob’ is of course Dylan, now accompanied by Jacques Brel to represent the chanson element, and a clutch of mostly new songs written by Jungr with a range of collaborators. Mixing up these three groups of songs results in a seamless listen, due not only to Jungr’s voice, but the talents of a really top-notch band – tight and responsive, every track seems to ‘evolve’ as you listen. There’s a large cast, but if I had to mention two specific players who have leapt out at me in the first couple of listens, it would be pianist and arranger Jenny Carr and drummer Rod Youngs.

Two songs sequenced together near the start really showcase their talents. ‘Jacky’ (Brel) and ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ (Dylan) make a perfect pair, presenting the ‘song and dance man’ troubadour side of both their creators. Accordingly, Youngs lifts a terrific version of ‘Jacky’ with the merest nod to the military might of the original, but with a world-weary, buffeted beat that, more than keeping time, colours the mood of the song around it. While on the other hand, ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ might be a song that almost everyone thinks they know inside out (especially through the Byrds version) – but here, Carr’s intricate arrangement makes her own piano part relatively sparse, but crucially features a tolling, slightly off-kilter, bell-like note, over and over again. It gives the song a flavour of the cyclic, eternal, like a jazz take on ‘Winterreise’s hurdy-gurdy man. And on both, Jungr weighs each word to perfection, making you wonder how she’s actually managing to get through every syllable-packed line while teasing new variations and additions out of the tunes.

But the whole album is full of  commanding vocal performances. ‘The Cathedral’ (Brel) exchanges the manic intensity of the original with more of a seductive slow-build, Jungr’s vocal managing to caress the melody with more layers of attractive embellishment – while at the same time becoming more conversational and persuasive. I’m still not sure how she manages to communicate multiple, at times conflicting moods with just the timbre of her voice, but she does. Another song that benefits from this stately attention to detail is Dylan’s ‘Buckets of Rain’, which here is a hymnal blues underpinned by organ and double bass, elevating the earthly to something spiritual: accordingly Jungr moves apparently effortlessly between a delicate soar and a breathy intimacy.

One pleasing side-effect of these regular returns to Dylan is that the theme of each project overall affects the kind of light Jungr shines on his work. Here, Barb and band have placed him squarely in the Brel Building, with accordion decorating ‘Buckets of Rain’, and jazz-club piano and sax launching a propulsive pincer attack on the more Bob-like harmonica solo. ‘Simple Twist of Fate’ is sheer joy from start to finish, with the twist of the title finding its way into the vocal treatment, Jungr varying the circle of the vocal melody or pace while the band changes keys like they were gears.

Scattered among these masterful covers are several infectious originals, seemingly written and scored to stand shoulder to shoulder with the two other ‘B’s. ‘In the Secret Spaces’ (written with Jamie Safir) makes more of Youngs’s delicately hyperactive drumming, the two-left-feet rhythm matching the bright, conversational tone of the vocal (“the moon – my God, the moon is huge!”), while opener ‘Rise and Shine’ – a co-write with Level 42’s Mike Lindup, gives us tragicomedy in both lyrics and music, as Jungr cheerfully puns and rhymes her way through an agonising break-up story as the band seek to constantly buoy her up. My favourite new song on the record was also written with Lindup: ‘Incurable Romantic’ casts a characteristically amused look at the old clichés – what concision there is in lines like “Falling free / Into those arms, and no net / How many fish can there be in the sea?” – but set to a sublime tune of deceptively detailed beauty. Looking at the marriage of humour, heart and honesty in Jungr’s own work illuminates how and why Dylan and Brel must be so important to her – and, in turn, what she can bring to them.

Barb Jungr has made so many great records. But there’s an argument for this one being the finest distillation yet of  where she’s coming from, why and how performs such compelling music, and what makes her unique. Warmly recommended.

*

You can buy ‘Bob, Brel and Me’ online here.

Barb Jungr’s website lists all her upcoming live dates here – go go go!


Adrian Ainsworth writes for a living, but mostly about things like finance, tax and benefits. For light relief, then, he covers his obsessions – overwhelmingly music, but with sprinklings of photography and art – on the ‘Specs’ blog, which you can find at

Adrian is a regular guest writer for The Cross-Eyed Pianist

 

 

 

RISE: a sparkling debut disc from a vibrant young performer

I first encountered saxophonist Jess Gillam at a private party given by a friend of mine. Still just a young teenager, she burst on to the stage in a gold-sequinned mini dress and black DMs, and proceeded to play an unaccompanied, foot-tapping saxophone solo with all the energy, commitment and confidence of a seasoned professional artist twice her age. Her vibrant presence was palpable and hugely engaging: it was clear even then that she was going to go far.

And so she has. A finalist in the 2016 BBC Young Musician competition, she had already made her name as “one to watch”, not only for her striking stage outfits (shiny trousers, a homage to David Bowie jacket, and those DMs), but her obvious pleasure in music making. I attended the grand final of BBCYM at the Barbican and was rooting for Jess. Her stage presence was – and is – charismatic, infectiously extrovert, and highly expressive. She was assured and very comfortable on stage, interacting enthusiastically with the orchestra and lifting the sound out of her instrument and into the audience.

If anyone is going to succeed at advocating classical music to the younger generation – the generation that concert promoters are so keen to tempt inside classical venues – it’s someone like Jess Gillam. She’s personable, intelligent, articulate, enthusiastic and attractive, and can reach out to young people by engaging them without condescension.

Rise, her debut disc, reflects her democratic, joyful and eclectic approach to music making, and offers an enjoyably varied selection across genres of music which has inspired her, including This Woman’s Work by Kate Bush – as tender and tear-jerkingly poignant as the original – and Where Are We Now? from David Bowie’s penultimate album (in an arrangement by Jess’s teacher and mentor John Harle). These sit well with works by composers as diverse as Dowland and Weill, Marcello and Milhaud, and reveal Jess’s musical versatility, segueing deftly between the sombre elegance of the Adagio from the Oboe Concerto by Marcello (which Bach “borrowed” to create an equally striking concerto for solo keyboard), and Milhaud’s playful Scaramouche. Her sound is rich in expression and vibrant colours, her intonation so sensitively controlled, at times one might think she’s playing a clarinet. If previously you thought the saxophone was a “jazz instrument”, listen to Jess’s John Dowland; here she perfectly captures the haunting simplicity of this Renaissance music.

Recommended

 

Rise is available now on the Decca label and also via digital download and streaming


FW

 

 

 

Exquisite intimacy, fluency and warmth: Sarah Beth Briggs plays Schumann and Brahms

822252239829Schumann: Papillons, Kinderszenen; Brahms: Opp. 117, 118

Sarah Beth Briggs, piano

Avie Records AV2398

February 2019 was the centenary of the birth of Denis Matthews, a great pianist from an earlier era of British pianism, who was also a respected teacher and lecturer. Matthews studied with Harold Craxton (another pianist-teacher from an earlier era, and for those of us d’un certain age, a name forever synonymous, along with Donald Tovey, with ABRSM editions of the Beethoven piano sonatas).

Matthews’ most longstanding private pupil, the British pianist Sarah Beth Briggs, who commenced her studies with him at the age of eight, recalls her beloved teacher with great fondness and a profound respect for his intelligence, his insightful, fully rounded approach to teaching and music appreciation, and his own superb musicianship.

Denis Matthews was the most incredible inspiration. He was such a terrific all round musician. He made me understand that there was far more to being a good musician than playing the piano. Lessons would involve listening to Mozart operas, Beethoven string quartets, Brahms symphonies etc and then making the piano ‘become’ a singer, a string quartet, a pair of horns – always looking way beyond the dots on any given page!….So much was about the joys of being brought to great piano repertoire from a much wider musical perspective

– Sarah Beth Brigg, concert pianist

Matthews was renowned for his unaffected refined pianism. A performer who was more concerned to serve the interests of the music rather than the musician’s ego, his brilliant, questioning mind brought magic and freshness to his interpretations.

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Composite photo of Denis Matthews & Sarah Beth Briggs by Clive Barda

With her latest disc Sarah Beth Briggs pays tribute to her beloved teacher through the music that was central to her studies with Matthews and their joint musical passions: two sets of late Brahms piano pieces (opp 117 and 118), and Schumann’s Papillons and his popular Kinderszenen, music which was “the subject of a sort of ‘party game’ whenever Denis visited my family home, when he would begin one of the miniatures on one piano and expect me to take over – from memory! – on the other”.

While her debt of gratitude to Matthews is at the heart of Sarah’s new disc, Clara Schumann is the unifying thread in the selection of pieces included here. Kindeszenen was inspired by a comment by Clara about her husband’s childlike nature, while a sense of longing and unrequited love pervades Brahms’ late piano works. Sarah brings an exquisite intimacy, fluency and warmth to the late Brahms pieces, sensitively capturing their inherent poignancy and haunting tenderness with a refined dynamic palette, a glowing touch, supple rubato and a refreshing musical honesty.

The same intimacy is achieved in Schumann’s Kinderszenen: these pieces intended for children become grown up miniatures, reflective and touching, never sentimental. Traumerei, for example, too often the subject of clichéd readings, here finds a plaintive grace and elegant simplicity in Sarah’s discerning hands. Schumann’s Papillons, which opens the disc, has an expansive grandeur, but Sarah’s exceptional control of sound is always elegant and tasteful, even in the extrovert movements. The overall sound quality of the recording is excellent, the piano rich and colourful across its entire range, with an appealing sweetness in the upper register.

Recommended


FW

(this review first appeared on our sister site The Cross-Eyed Pianist)

Virtuosic concert pieces & elegant miniatures: Henselt piano works

If you didn’t know the name of the composer beforehand – and many may not – the opening notes of the first track might have you confidently exclaiming “oh it’s Chopin!” (indeed, Schumann dubbed this composer “the Chopin of the North”). There’s the same ominous tread in the opening as Chopin’s Op 49 Fantasie. And then you might think “it’s Liszt!” on hearing the tumbling virtuosic passages which sparkle under the lightness and precision of Daniel Grimwood’s touch. Other works recall the bittersweet lyricism of Schubert or look forward to the richer textures of Brahms and Tchaikovsky. But this is Adolph Von Henselt, a little known Bavarian-born composer whom Grimwood champions.

Born in 1814, just four years behind Fryderyk Chopin, Adolph von Henselt, music history has unfairly consigned Henselt to the status of an “also-ran”, the poor relation to Chopin and Liszt. Unable to make his name or a living in Germany, Henselt went to teach in St Petersburg, where his influence on Russian pianism was considerable: he taught Zverev, Rachmaninov’s teacher. His music is played more in Russia than anywhere else: I hadn’t heard of him until I became friends with Daniel Grimwood, and when I listened to his music, I wondered why his music has been sidelined for so long.

Organised in the manner of an old-fashioned recital disc, there is much to savour and enjoy in the variety of works explored here. Virtuosic concert pieces sit comfortably alongside elegant miniatures, offering the listener a broad flavour of Henselt’s style and oeuvre. The Nocturnes, Impromptus and Études prove Henselt was every bit a master of these genres as his contemporaries Chopin and Liszt – and he made similar technical and interpretative demands on the pianist too. There are passages of vertiginous virtuosity which appear sweeping and effortless rather than merely showy with Daniel’s acute sense of the scale and pacing of this music. It’s lushly expressive but Daniel’s clarity and delicacy means it is never cloying or too heavily perfumed.

This disc would go into my “lateral listening” recommendations: if you love Chopin, I guarantee you’ll love Henselt just as much.

This is the second of Daniel’s recordings for the Edition Peters label and it has delightful cover artwork by Janet Lynch and comprehensive liner notes. As Daniel himself says of this disc: “It’s my small way of restoring Henselt…..to his rightful place in the repertoire

Highly recommended

“Innate lyricism” – The Piano Music of Ralph Vaughan Williams

81qtgtkexyl-_sy355_Best known for his orchestral music and songs, Ralph Vaughan Williams (RVW) is not immediately associated with music for the piano (with the exception of the piano part of his song cycle On Wenlock Edge. But this new disc from SOMM demonstrates his skill and imagination when writing for this instrument.

Mark Bebbington, a champion of British piano music, is renowned for bringing lesser known or rarely-heard repertoire to light and this disc contains the first recording of the Introduction and Fugue for two pianos, written in 1947 and dedicated it to the famous two-piano team Phyllis Sellick and Cyril Smith. It is a work of Bachian polyphony, carefully-crafted counterpoint, rich orchestral textures and echoes of Debussy and Ravel in some of the filigree passagework, as well as English folksong idioms. There are even hints of Messiaen in some of the harmonies.  It’s the most substantial work on the disc and is handled with precision and sensitive colouration by Bebbington and Omordia. Beautifully paced, it combines moments of exquisite delicacy contrasting with grand statements and dramatic interludes, in keeping with its Baroque model.

The other longer work on this disc is a transcription for two pianos of the ever-popular Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, arranged by Maurice Jacob and Vaughan Williams. In this version it has a spareness which allows interior details to come to the fore and is more intimate than its orchestral cousin. The sparser textures reveal the Renaissance harmonies more clearly, reminding us of the inspiration for this work.

The rest of the disc is occupied with short works, including the Fantasia on Greensleeves (also recorded for the first time), A Little Piano Book and the Suite of 6 Short Pieces, works for junior piano students, which although miniature in scale reveal so many of the attributes of RVW’s musical language and innate lyricism which make his work so enduring and popular. But these are not mere trifles: the slower movements are reflective, tinged with melancholy.

The opening track, The Lake in the Mountains, also written for Phyllis Sellick, proved to be RVW’s last work for solo piano. Haunting and mysterious, it is a piece of great charm and is thoroughly pianistic in its structure and serene character.

Complete Piano Music by Ralph Vaughan Williams

The Lake in the Mountains for solo piano
Introduction and Fugue for two pianos *
‘Ach bleib’ bei uns, Herr Jesu Christ’  JS Bach BVW 649 arr. Vaughan Williams for solo piano
Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis for two pianos (arranged by Maurice Jacobson and Vaughan Williams)
Hymn Tune Prelude on ‘Song 13’ (Orlando Gibbons) for solo piano
Fantasia on Greensleeves – Piano duet —  adapted from the Opera ‘Sir John in Love’ *
A Little Piano Book (solo piano)
Suite of Six Short Pieces for piano solo

Mark Bebbington solo piano
Mark Bebbington & Rebeca Omordia, two pianos/piano puet

* World Premiere Recordings

Comprehensive liner notes by Robert Matthew-Walker

SOMM0164

Further information here

 

This article first appeared on our sister site The Cross-Eyed Pianist