Howard Skempton: The Man, Hurdy-gurdy and Me

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We sometimes rave about albums but this is 100% wonderful. If we ever send a space rocket into space (in case you wondered where space rockets go), you could send this recording to sum up Britishness: witty, joyful, a bit mad, wildly eccentric and lots of fun. Whatever you want it’s got it, from early music to world, from art music to children’s and even Led Zep in their Marrakesh period.

We struggle to describe it. Even Howard’s nearest and dearest would probably not claim it had any hummable tunes and the purists of English music will probably get sniffy and say it souks (world music joke, snare roll and cymbal please). It’s a serious collection of music; just joyous.

The title track opens and it’s a piece for hurdy-gurdy, medieval harp and percussion, with Sara Stowe (soprano). Hurdy-gurdy aside, it almost passes for a normal piece of accompanied singing.

Random Girl follows, a “lyrical piece highlighting the melodic aspect of the vibraphone”; it sounds somewhere between the music for a kids’ television series set in a wood (“Bobbin the Wood Elf was wandering through the gloom”) and a sci-fi movie soundtrack.

Two Highland Dances, Half Moon and Bagatelle follow. We only thought of the Highlands when we read the sleeve notes; it’s thoughtful and slow and not really danceable, unlike the Concerto For Accordion And Oboe, a jolly tune that zips along nicely.

Apple-Blow, for soprano and Javanese gamelan instruments (bonang – gong-chimes – gendèr, peking, saron and two small hanging kempul gongs) is delightful, the music from a Victorian roundabout or kids’ Christmas show, at least until the soprano wades in.

Standout is possibly Gentle Melody, featuring Skempton’s own instrument, the accordion; it has a lovely, vaguely nautical air, somewhere between morris dancing and singing in church. Gloss for oboe and vibraphone is minimalistic and calming, with a celestial air to it while Feste’s Song is a more regular song, somewhere between artsong and early music – it’s a setting of Feste’s Song, from the clown in Twelfth Night. “The vocal part is remarkable for the contrasting tessituras used in the song’s verse and chorus,” the sleeve notes say, in case you understand such things.

Concerto for Hurdy-gurdy and Percussion closes, written in 1994 for Evelyn Glennie and Nigel Eaton, and with a definite Indian feel, though it’s got a Celtic feel too, thanks to the drone and military snare, becoming more playful, then more tribal and early; it’s this piece that momentarily sounds a bit Zep-ish, from the period when Page and Plant recorded with Moroccan musicians.

Founded in 1992, Sirinu is a British ensemble specialising in early and world music, performing and recording music from the 11th century to the present day. A brilliant CD to transport you away from the gloom of lockdown.

This is out on Divine Art’s Metier label, MSV 28580.

 

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About jerobear

Weekly newspaper editor in Cheshire, England. I blog my editorials and the CDs I write about. I play drums, drink coffee, play music, meditate. I hate filling in forms.

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