Mike Westbrook (OBE) has his fingers in so many pies.
Heís been in, led and composed music for all sorts of jazz groups, both
small and large. Heís written "classical" music, notably a
Saxophone Concerto. Heís written music for film and television, and
a small stack of cabaret and theatre pieces. There will be plenty of
us, Iím sure, who recall his Big Band Rossini Prom concert in
I wonder, does this place him in the "cross-over"
camp? I am very suspicious of anything labelled "cross-over"
(which I take as meaning rather more than a musician of one sort borrowing
tasty morsels from another sort). This not because I dislike the actual
idea of different musical genres cross-fertilising. far from it: much
of our finest music has what we might call, in this context, a dubious
pedigree. No, itís because itís become fashionable, and I mistrust
the motives of those who try to make us believe that itís something
special, somehow "important" and "innovative". I
just wish theyíd shut up banging on about how clever theyíre being and
simply get on with the job, like "cross-fertilising" musicians
have done since time immemorial.
Nowadays too many musicians, anxious (perhaps understandably)
to make their mark, see "cross-over" as a convenient band-wagon
on which they can hitch an easy ride to fame and fortune. Less understandably,
they seem to overlook the fact that cross-fertilisation is only a Good
Thing when it produces Something Wonderful. Some folk tend to forget
that such a result is not guaranteed - rampant interbreeding can often
(and often does) create monstrosities. I get the impression that in
the past composers quietly buried their mistakes, whereas now they (the
mistakes) are paraded in welters of aggressive media promotion. We,
the poor punters, are made to feel reactionary if we donít cheer
to the rafters the Emperorís latest taste in new clothing.
Thatís already a fair old mouthful, and I havenít even
touched on umpteen other considerations, like the "oil and water
effect" or the "cross-over take-over" of a dominant genre
(and, letís face it, one usually is). To get back to the question: is
Mike Westbrook in the "cross-over" camp? Well, on the strength
of Platterback, Iíd say not (go on, then, tell me - I was wasting
my breath on that little tirade!). To be sure, it does use certain elements
from the "classical" side of the street. Formally, it bounces
happily in the ball-park labelled "song cycle" - by definition
as much as anything, seeing as itís a series of songs with a common
narrative thread. The theme of the first song, Riding Down to Platterback,
subsequently adopts the role of a ritornello, linking and occasionally
seeping into the substance of the main numbers, though thankfully the
idea isnít flogged to death.
However, these and a couple of other details no more
make Platterback a "classical" work than does Ravelís
adoption of contemporary jazz idioms make his Piano Concerto in G
a jam session. In this sense, Platterback simply "borrows",
and it borrows from right, left and centre: from the "classical"
right, from the "Jazz Duke Ellington style" left (as a first
approximation, at least), and from the "cabaret song" centre.
The result is a work that is pretty flexible, compact
enough to be performed on a concert platform as a purely musical and
poetic observation of its characters, or as a theatre piece - which
is really what it is! Maybe though itís a mite too compact: the two
principals - taking the parts of an army conscript townward-bound for
his call-up and the British Ambassadorís cook townward-bound on her
way to work - are purely singing parts. The three instrumentalists double
as the vocal chorus, and everyone has to be able to act a bit. The scoring,
for piano-accordion, cello and tuba doubling piano - which is to some
extent designed with particular players in mind - amounts to an ensemble
of a sort that hardly lies thick on the ground! All of which, I might
guess, militates against the work being taken up generally by less exalted
performing groups, unless they are prepared to do a spot of adaptation.
Roughly, very roughly (because I donít want
to give all the plot away!), the scenario is that of a "commuter
train" journey from the mountain village of Stiltsville down to
Platterback, the localeís big city, and centres on the interaction of
those two passengers, who have highly contrasted reasons for travelling.
At the very start, there is a confused polyphony of voices, as if we
are hearing the thoughts of the milling passengers waiting for the train.
In passing, just in case you are still insufficiently
de-sensitised to such things, I should warn you that this work contains
some strong language and a reference to solvent abuse. In this brief
prelude, amongst much that was not clearly apprehensible, I quite clearly
heard the "F" word. Iíd much rather I hadnít, because (a)
as often as not (and certainly here) it doesnít mean anything, (b) its
shock value is now severely diminished, so that it either makes no real
impression or merely causes offence, and (c) well, there are far more
powerful - and meaningful - adjectives in the English language. Itís
not so much "rude" as simply "lazy".
That one blooper apart, I have only praise for the
librettist, Kate Westbrook. She also takes the part of the Cook, and
is a truly formidable vocal actress - her voice can charm the birds
out of the trees yet, when she has a mind, it can also pack a punch
that would floor Mike Tyson. Would that more of the worldís great opera
singers had even half of her powers of expression!
John Winfield, in the role of the Conscript, although
blessed with an expressive voice well suited to ballads and tender reflections,
might at first seem to be having a fair old struggle to keep his end
up (and DONíT take that the wrong way, please!). However, that turns
out to be part - a somewhat central part - of the drama. The Conscript
is a sensitive, artistic type, convinced that he is leaving the Love
of His Life in Stiltsville and setting off to Certain Death (Strafe
Me with Friendly Fire) whilst the Cook is a pretty rugged character,
eager to get back to her Day Job (Boiled Beef). It gets to the
point where in one number, Tragedy of a City, the "masculine"
sounding Cook is directly contrasted to the "feminine" sounding
Conscript, a vaguely disconcerting passage!
At heart Platterback is a serious work. Mike
Westbrookís apparently facile use of orchestrated train noises, particularly
in the evident context of a downhill journey, is I think meant to represent
the relentless driving of forces outside our control - it sweeps us
all helplessly along, whether it be to success or failure, happiness
or doom. Against this mechanised Force of Destiny, the composerís more
intimate utterances immediately gain added poignancy (and why not?).
But, lest we drown in our own tears, the Westbrooks
provide a couple of well-placed comic turns, of which top billing must
go to The Stiltsville Yodel. This starts off sounding like a
send-up of the Grand Ole Opry. Yodelling which comes nowhere near the
achievements of even Frank Ifield (remember him?) gives way to
a flurry of farm animal impressions which would impress even the best
of farm animal impressionists. These in turn yield to some really fruity
whistling and warbling. Coming as it does practically slap-bang in the
middle of the work, certain dyed-in-the-wool cynics might read into
all these shenanigans some profound philosophical significance. I just
think itís a hoot!
The choice of instruments, a fairly radical departure
for Mike Westbrook, works surprisingly well. Westbrookís stylish piano-playing
furnishes the main foundation, but when he turns to the tuba, and pumps
away in comical numbers like Boiled Beef and The Stiltsville
Yodel, there is no danger whatsoever that the music will lapse into
ill-considered good taste. Stanley Adlerís cello playing, distinguished
by expressive range, virtuosity and imagination, conjures a number of
fascinating illusions. Sometimes he sounds like a lead guitar, sometimes
like a rhythm guitar, sometimes like a stand-up bassist. At one point,
he lets rip with a more than passable imitation of a Blue-Grass fiddler.
Not surprisingly the relatively softly-spoken cello, which for this
reason has ever been a problematic soloist, is amplified. But be warned!
This is not a matter of upping the fader on the cellistís spot mic.
a notch, but of "wiring up" the instrument itself. This artifice
undoubtedly enhances Adlerís ability to imitate, but it also constitutes
a gilding of the lily not extended to any of the other instruments.
Iím not making a judgement: whether you like it, or even find it "acceptable",
is entirely up to you.
The real highlight of the instrumental side of this
CD, and which alone makes it worth the price, is the accordion playing
of Karen Street. Anyone who thinks of the accordion as just a crude
"squeeze box" to accompany boozy singalongs, or a noise-generator
for Red Army ensembles, or the musical equivalent of a bottle of French
Dressing, really must hear Streetís playing: it is phenomenal.
The very first reference I made in my listening notes, during Strafe
Me (track 3), was "1st. time heard accord. clearly
- very expressive instr!" By the time Iíd got to The
Streams of Lovely Lucienne (track 8), in which the accordion has
a big solo, I was noting "as ever, beaut[ifully] artic[ulated]".
That, and more - from touching mellifluousness to congested anger, whether
intimating a fine-spun lyric or chomping away in the "rhythm section",
the exertions of Karen Streetís arms and fingers were, quite literally,
music to my ears.
Letís return to the question of sound. This recording
is very much a "studio" artefact in the finest "pop"
tradition, with everything individually miked and mixed. Nevertheless,
the "natural" timbres (other than the cello!) set in an "unnatural"
acoustic (in Lovely Lucienne, the accordion is double-tracked,
so thereís no argument really) are all very cleanly captured and within
these parameters the recording is more than acceptable. Apart, that
is, from the use of the detestable "fade-out finish" to portray
the departing train. Come on, Westbrook and Company, you are much more
imaginative musicians than this!
The booklet could perhaps have said more about the
music: all we get is a track-by-track synopsis of the "action",
some photographs of the performers, and a whole page full of credits.
The pictures are described as "live-photographs". Suppressing,
admittedly with a struggle, the urge to enquire as to what might constitute
a "dead-photograph", I guess that these were taken at a "live"
performance. The omnipresent individual microphones in the photographs
lead me to suspect that this recording actually does fairly represent
how Platterback sounds "live".
Some commentator or other has said of Platterback,
"The pianist has written more important works", while another
has dismissed it with, "[It is] perhaps not quite as characterful,
musically explosive or capable of absorbing you in the fortunes of the
cast as some Westbrook ventures". On the other hand, we have comments
such as, ". . . such is the power of the music and of its performance
that the whole piece grips like a thriller" and ". . . serve[s]
up a dazzling display of sound". Opinions are divided, then, I
reckon. Youíre going to have to hear it and decide for yourselves, and
thereís plenty to chew on. Whether you find Platterback painful or pleasurable,
Iíll lay odds that youíll be as enchanted as I was by that superlative