Classic CD, November 1996

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Classic CD
  • 1996 November

UK & Ireland magazines


Rocking the medieval boat

Mark Funnell

Combining medieval polyphony, jazz and renaissance magic with Shakespeare's Twelfth Night and other literary masterpieces, John Harle’s new album is a strange brew. What does it all mean?

JH: I am trying to create something completely new that has a historical context in the words, not in the music. Juxtaposing these elements creates a surrealism and a sense of expectation in listeners that one can knock down, taking them by surprise."

How is early music relevant to your style?

JH: As a saxophonist I feel pre-baroque music is fair game – it's music that has no properly registered performance practice. In the last 10-15 years I've also been obsessed with that early music sound. It's always hit me hard in the stomach, and I've found great depth of feeling there."

How does Elvis Costello’s voice fit into this?

JH: I've long admired Elvis Costello. In Twelfth Night I tried not to alter the way he normally sings for this music to work. I want people to hear the level of detail and nuance in his voice throughout. As producer, I recorded his voice very closely, with high levels of detail; in the first song he sings "Oh Mistress Mine," it’s almost like your head is on the same pillow. I was keen to get his voice as clearly and untarnished as possible."

What about Sarah Leonard’s voice ?

JH: What I wanted from Sarah is hardest to get from a classical singer – simplicity. I didn't want all the paraphernalia of classical training. So I stripped away all the facets of a classical voice that detract from the words being clear."

Elvis, how confident were you that your voice fits into early music-based repertory?

EC: We just don't know how people in those days actually sang. There’s no way I would say ‘I fancy singing Wotan this week’, but the kind of colloquial music John's drawn on feels to me as acceptable sung by someone with my kind of vocal production as by a classical singer.

What qualities in your voice did John use?

EC: I'm singing predominantly in the lower ranges which meant my voice broadens out in tone, the vibrato gets wider and its quite warm sounding. I made a record live at Meltdown the same time I met John where because of the amount of work I was doing, I was actually very tired; the edges go off my voice when I’m tired – it becomes a different kind of instrument. But there was a lot of adrenalin rush through this very thrilling time: being completely awake to the possibilities at the same time as wrestling with your own fallibility makes for very affecting music. With John it was similar but I was able to make it a little more beautiful."

How did you find singing this music?

EC: I like singing at a slower tempo where you’re able to actually think about tone. At high speed it's all about the attitude of the words and what the rhythm’s giving you. I'm also not miked in the classical way – it's somewhere between pop and classical."

Did you enjoy working with John?

EC: John uses combinations of Elizabethan instruments with modern ones, making a wholly new sound. I believe John is taking inspiration from a period when things weren’t quite so formalised. We hope to do more work together."


Classic CD, November 1996

Mark Funnell interviews John Harle and Elvis Costello.

Barry Witherden reviews Terror And Magnificence.


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Page scan.

Costello ideal for Shakespeare

John Harle / Terror And Magnificence

Barry Witherden

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Given the kerfuffle over the omission of Marianne Faithfull’s "Twentieth-Century Blues" from the classical charts, this could give the pigeon-holers apoplexy. Aided by jazz musicians and a rock singer, Harle draws on sources from mediaeval ars nova to contemporary improv. However you slice it, it’s stimulating stuff.

Settings of Shakespeare’s songs tend to be either fakely folksy or fifth-rate Shaftesbury Avenue. Harle’s sound like purely modern quality-pop. Closer examination reveals traditional bones and sinews in the melodies. Costello is superb – intense and emotionally affecting – on three songs from Twelfth Night. Most classical singers, despite technically "better" voices, should study these performances as object-lessons in interpretation.

Harle has been well-served by all the vocal soloists. Sarah Leonard's renderings of anonymous ballads on Three Ravens tap into the fundamentals of love, death and hate, while on Sederunt, William Purefoy properly honours a crucial pioneer, Perotin.

Terror and Magnificence raises fascinating and controversial questions about categorisation, influences, correspondences and resonances, breaching normally well-policed frontiers between genres. One could consider whether, for example, Clarvis's ethnic patterns come from Morocco, via Nyman's Upside Down Violin, from medieval Moorish cross-fertilisations, or from Ambient/Dance sources.

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