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Siobhan LAMB (b. 1963)
The Red Shoes (based on the story by Hans Christian Andersen) (2016) [51:17]
Copenhagen International Children’s Choir, Suoni Ensemble
rec. 2016, Studio 3, DR Koncerthuset, Copenhagen, Denmark
DACAPO 8.224729 [51:17]

It is possible that a work entitled The Red Shoes may elicit a touch of cultural cryptomnesia in certain individuals. For some the title might to bring to mind the eponymous 1948 Powell/Pressburger movie (and its magnificent Brian Easdale score), for others it might be Kate Bush’s similarly titled (and somewhat underappreciated) 1993 album. So it’s helpful to be reminded that the original ‘Red Shoes’ was a rather grim (pun unintended) Hans Christian Andersen fairy story, and this has inspired an appealing score by the English-born flautist and composer Siobhan Lamb, who is now appropriately based in Denmark.

As it turns out I’m writing about it on the hottest day of the year (possibly on record) in the Yorkshire Dales, protected from the searing sun by the benign shadows of an ancient stone cottage, and on one level at least Lamb’s music provides a cool, refreshing antidote to the heat and humidity. Her particular ‘thing’ is musical narrative, and The Red Shoes clearly follows in the tradition of other examples by this composer (which have been recorded by the Swedish label Proprius) such as Through the Mirror -Tales from Childhood (after Aesop’s Fables – review) and The Nightingale and the Rose (after Oscar Wilde - review). Both of these works involve more substantial forces than the small group of instruments to which Lamb restricts herself here. On this disc the flexible Suoni Ensemble thus consists of flute, trumpet, cello, percussion and harp. There are also fleeting cameos for a children’s choir and a tap dancer. Evidently the live performance of the work involved a considerable kinetic, theatrical element – beyond the dancer’s role the members of the choir and musicians were required to interact and move around the stage.

Andersen’s original tale is helpfully presented in the booklet in a recent translation. If readers don’t know the story I don’t want to compromise their zest for discovery by summarising it here, but suffice to say it’s a rather brutal allegory which on the face of it concerns vanity, conformity and freedom of choice, but in common with much of Andersen’s other work, there is plenty of ambiguity and room for interpretation.

Siobhan Lamb’s re-telling of The Red Shoes is arranged over nine varied and attractive titled movements, and her small ensemble is most imaginatively deployed; thus instruments taking on the personalities of particular characters in one movement might combine to create emotional backcloths or topographical suggestions elsewhere. Much of the melodic weight falls on the flute (played by the composer) and the trumpet (Lamb’s husband, the renowned jazz performer Gerard Presencer), whereas harp and percussion (ECM scion Marilyn Mazur) seem to offer more in the way of textural, coloristic possibilities. Notwithstanding Lamb’s background (and training) as a classical flautist, over time she has developed a strong interest in big band jazz and often the playfulness of her music reflects this expertise. So much of this music is graceful, poised and inevitably danceable. On repetition, I have found that some of her tunes are easily retained by one’s memory. The moods she evokes are mercurial, so music which at one moment seems to sparkle with wit and joy can quickly morph into something more unsettling. Lamb thus seemingly has the happy knack of easily creating material that can dance, sigh, sing, mourn or startle as required. However, with the greatest respect to composer and performers, I suspect this score only comes fully to life when one can match her sounds with the onstage action. In consequence, I find it difficult to imagine a scenario where I am likely to play this disc on a whim, or for serious listening purposes.

Interestingly, I found Lamb’s compositional style at times recalls the music of another contemporary musical storyteller, Joby Talbot. I first got to know his work as an enthusiastic supporter of his band The Divine Comedy; he eventually became composer-in-residence with Classic FM and in that capacity produced a suite inspired by the changing of the seasons called Once Around the Sun (Sony BMG 82876 695252). In that work Talbot uses a similar ensemble to Lamb’s and while his music is also tastefully crafted I seldom feel the need, or the motivation to play it. At one point I would have said the same for his even more ambitious orchestral scores for Christopher Wheeldon’s Royal Ballet productions, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and The Winter’s Tale. Yet when I saw both these shows on DVD, Talbot’s remarkable music blew me away. It still does. Dacapo seem to have issued quite a few DVDs of late – I would humbly suggest that Siobhan Lamb’s new score is crying out for such a presentation.

I must add that encountering this music has piqued my curiosity regarding other areas of Lamb’s output; apart from the Proprius discs mentioned above, I am especially interested in another work released on the same label, Meditations (PRCD 2067); this is an ambitious piece she produced for the 2006 Marsden International Jazz Festival which weaves together string quartet, medieval chant, solo harp, a ‘world music’ percussionist and a children’s choir. It received superb reviews and I look forward to hearing it.

Regardless of my own impressions, I suspect certain other readers may well derive more in the way of long-term rewards from Lamb’s beautifully crafted and proportioned Andersen score than I did. The playing of the Suoni Ensemble is expert and committed throughout, though Gerard Presencer’s fluent and natural trumpet playing is the highlight for me. Dacapo’s recording is warmly sympathetic and detailed. Marilyn Mazur’s percussion part, much of which is more restrained and nuanced than might be expected, has been caught handsomely.

Richard Hanlon

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