Review: John Surman at LJF 2012

Simon Adams says that if John Surman's choral writing in Lifelines at the London Jazz Festival was effective rather than adventurous, the singing by the Bolsterstone Male Voice Choir swept doubts aside and Surman's closing soprano improvisation reminded of his huge skills

John Surman's latest venture is an intriguing work for male voice choir, piano and saxophones. Jointly commissioned by BBC Radio 3 and the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, Lifelines was premiered in Huddersfield on Saturday 17 November and made its London debut the following night.

John SurmanLifelines is formed of two triptychs of music: the first three evocative sections based on a Chinese painting of a man fishing in an empty landscape, an Australian aborigine legend, and a hunting song from the Brazilian rainforest. The second triptych was closer to home: The Machine, Mother At The Mill and Coal exploring our industrial heritage. Quite what linked all this lot together I never quite worked out. Surman's choral writing was effective rather than adventurous, but the singing by the Bolsterstone Male Voice Choir swept doubts aside. Tenor and bass lines were particularly strong, as were the four soloists that opened the piece and the choir's repetitive phrases to evoke the constant work and noise of mill machines. Surman's electronically enhanced soprano and baritone saxophones floated over the singing, adding commentary and providing breaks between sections.

The choir finished with a smuggler’s song from Cornwall and a piece about the rescue of all passengers and crew from an Australian liner in difficulties off Plymouth in 1907. Surman then played a short soprano improvisation over an ambient background, a reminder of his huge skills in this field.

Photo by John Watson

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