Tag Archives: Delphian

Raymond Yiu

THE WORLD WAS ONCE ALL MIRACLE
Delphian

Occasionally, a new composer will spring from nowhere with a musical style that seems completely chaotic, unapologetically eclectic and to all appearances untutored. Yet through the apparent mire emerges a personality so stirring, so imaginative, so wonderfully refreshing that what might be mistaken for stylistic naivety turns out to be an instinctive statement of wild self-belief.

If you haven’t heard of Raymond Yiu, he was born in Hong Kong in 1973, came to the UK in 1990 to study for A levels, before reading engineering at Imperial College London. Mainly self-taught as a composer, and with a freedom of language emanating from his early exposure to 1980s Western pop sung in Cantonese, his music was soon being played by the BBC’s orchestras, the success of the London premiere of The London Citizen Exceedingly Injured leading to commissioning of Symphony for the 2015 BBC Proms. Both feature on this curiously exciting disc.

Just how important it is to know that The London Citizen Exceedingly Injured takes its title from a pamphlet issued by the 18th century Scots-born bookseller Alexander Cruden – something of a latter-day Mary Whitehouse who styled himself a moral “Corrector” – is debatable. More interesting is Yiu’s analogy of modern-day international citizenship, a kind of cultural morass that finds form in the madness of extremes.

While the motivic germ is a borrowing from Elgar’s Cockaigne – a portrait of a very different London – this “game for orchestra” soon explodes into a restless, shifting menagerie of colour, gesture and references. There is violence and calm, industrial grit and spiritual calm, pealing church bells, wanton dance pastiche. It’s a crazy cacophony, skittish in parts, but hugely addictive. The BBC Symphony Orchestra, under David Robertson, reveals Yiu’s underlying craftsmanship in a performance bursting with vital exuberance and energy. 

In Symphony, Yiu displays the same freedom of expression. The protagonist is a countertenor (Andrew Watts), present from the word go – or rather, the gradually emerging word “strong” – in a time-travelling selection of texts from Walt Whitman, Constantine P Cavafy, Thom Gunn and John Donne. The five-movement format offers greater scope for Yiu to frame his thoughts, self-regulating the seeming free-for-all of the earlier piece. 

In no way, though, does it curb his eclectic toolbox, from which the likes of esoteric modernism and seventies’ disco are plucked with shameless confidence. Watts’ flamboyant and versatile performance is matched by conductor Edward Gardner’s cool mastery over the BBC Symphony Orchestra, which is a remastering of the original Royal Albert Hall premiere.

The World Was Once All Miracle features the indomitable baritone Roderick Williams with the BBC SO, this time under the baton of Sir Andrew Davis. Written in the years immediately following Symphony, it’s an extended setting of words by Anthony Burgess, commemorating the 2017 centenary of the A Clockwork Orange author’s birth, in which Yiu explores ever wider musical influences, such as the Malayan instrumentation that haunts the third song. 

Burgess’ words, of course, are just another perfect excuse for Yiu to engage in further wicked satire. With musical quotes from Thomas Arne (one very obvious snippet of Rule Britannia) and a blatant parody on mid-20th century popular song to end with (somewhat abruptly), mixed with anything else that takes his fancy, the charm of Yiu’s music is its compulsive listenability. Scots label Delphian, in remastering these performances, has done well to bring it to wider attention.
Ken Walton

The Delphian Oracle

Twenty years ago Paul Baxter envisaged a bright future for a new Scottish record label.  He wasn’t wrong. KEN WALTON reports

Paul Baxter, founder and managing director of the classical music recording label Delphian, has never been one to hold back his irrepressible enthusiasm for the award-winning East Lothian-based company he established two decades ago. Then, freshly graduated from Edinburgh University, he ignored those in a famously fickle industry who advised him this was not a good idea. “I said I would break even in eight years,” he trumpets. “And that’s exactly what happened.”

Another 12 years on, Delphian has done significantly better than break even. Its astute focus on niche market territories – choral and chamber music and an eye for spotting and nurturing nascent young talent – together with Baxter’s sharp production skills and wheeler-dealer persona, have more than paid off. The company now employs twelve professional staff worldwide, production is frenetic and sales are soaring, even during the current pandemic. Its most recent choral release, Christmas in Puebla (see VoxCarnyx reviews) is racking up rave commendations and reviews.

“It’s going to appear in history that we weren’t affected at all by Covid,” insists the bullish Baxter. Really, I ask? Can anyone truly claim that? As he outlines the plain facts they speak for themselves. “In August alone, we did eight new recordings, which was pretty unique for any organisation at that time. Our physical CD sales in the UK alone have gone up by four times.” 

Hits to the Delphian website during peak lockdown increased an eye-watering 243,000 per cent, he claims, 80 percent of which were completely new customers. Baxter admits they do not all translate into purchases, but it’s an interesting indicator of where classical aficionados are turning in the absence of live music. 

“We don’t actually encourage sales from our website, as we are a record label not a store, so we price our CDs above the actual stores. Yet since March we’ve sold 14,000 discs directly through our website. Multiply that by the other websites that sell for us and the figures are mind-blowing.”He admits the international picture is varied, depending on whether customers prefer high street or online purchase.

“The Japanese are massive buyers of western classical music, and they want it on CD. Unfortunately, under lockdown, because they don’t buy their CDs online, the Japanese market was devastated,” says Baxter. “And in a country like Spain, where people still go down to their local record store, we sold no CDs the whole summer, whereas other territories, including the UK, thrived under lockdown in a way that was completely unanticipated.”

To sell, of course, you need to produce the goods. Baxter claims it was foresight and planning that helped maintain lockdown productivity, a policy of “line them up, stack ‘em and rack ‘em”. Social distancing, though, posed inevitable problems. 

“Straightaway it was clear choral recordings weren’t going to happen anytime soon,” he recalls. Given Delphian’s significant ongoing relationships with such choirs as Merton College Oxford and King’s College London, the ramifications were considerable. “Any choral projects we had in the timeline we knew would have to be postponed.”

But Baxter had a plan. “We needed to reach out to venues that were going to be dark, where nothing else was happening for them, where we could bash projects out the moment we are allowed. So we approached the Queen’s Hall in Edinburgh, told them we had cash and nowhere to spend it, and could we have it for the whole of August at a reduced rate. They agreed, we were delighted to get so much done, and the artists were just as delighted because they were getting paid fees.”

The process was not without its headaches, particularly the logistics of bringing three globally-spread singers and a pianist together for a new album, due out next April, of Erik Chisholm songs. “With four days to go, the original Vienna-based Scots soprano made a last-minute decision not to travel, so we had to find someone available and willing to step in. Mhairi Lawson kindly agreed, but then we had to find a rehearsal venue for her. David Wilde [a regular Delphian artist] very kindly hosted us in his drawing room with a Steinway, pianist Iain Burnside flew up from London, and all was well.” The other two singers were tenor Nicky Spence and bass-baritone Michael Mofidian.

Mhairi Lawson credit Lloyd Smith



All is not well, of course, in a wider recording industry that is currently struggling to come to terms with the advent of streaming, via companies like Spotify, which has blown apart the old industry economics. 
Last week, a Commons culture committee looking into “The Economics of Music Streaming” heard evidence from pop artists like Mercury prize nominee Nadine Shah who have found themselves unable “to keep the wolf from the door” with the pittances they are receiving in royalties, compared to the percentages going to the corporate stakeholders, including some big labels. 

For classical musicians it’s in many ways worse. Scots composer Stuart McRae tested the water by putting one of his own works on repeat for two days on Spotify, generating over 1000 plays and a remuneration of 87p. Explaining this in a Tweet, he had calculated that running the same piece 24/7 for an entire year would have netted him £172.64. Violinist Tasmin Little has claimed that, in return for 5-6 million streams over a six-month period, she received just £12.34.

There’s no question that has to be fixed. But it’s not the only area of change affecting artists and their relationships with the record companies. Smaller independent labels like Delphian have had to work harder and more imaginatively at partnerships with artists in order to fund projects and provide wider planning and support. 

“For twenty years the way recordings are funded and how they are valued has been changing,” Baxter argues. “Artists are absolutely au fait with the fact that they need to bring money to the table, because labels can’t survive otherwise. Now it’s a competition as to which label is going to offer you the best PR, which label is going to make sure that your record is in front of the right reviews editors, and therefore stands the best chance of winning a Gramophone Award. 

“Look how we’ve built a career like Sean Shibe’s,” says Baxter, offering a classic example of his label’s nurturing strategy. The 28-year-old  Edinburgh-born guitarist’s latest Delphian disc, released in May during lockdown and featuring Bach lute suites, hit No 1 in the UK Specialist Classical Charts, and led to a cover feature in Gramophone Magazine’s June edition, in which it was named Editor’s Choice. Shibe previously won a Gramophone Award for his 2019 album softLOUD. “That’s all very carefully considered, very carefully planned out, years in the making,” Baxter insists. 

Spotting talent early, he says, is done increasingly these days through social media. Take the guitarist Alexandra Whittingham. “We had a look at her stats – millions and millions of listens on YouTube – and reached out to her with what we had done for Sean.” She signed up with Delphian in July. Her debut album, My European Journey,  hits the streets in March 2021. Baxter’s latest new signing is Scots percussionist Calum Huggan, who has just recorded his launch CD of 20th century American music for marimba. 

Alexandra Whittingham


To make it work for everyone, Baxter argues that loyalty is a two-way street. “It’s like with authors and book publishers. If an artist shops around and records with six different labels, nobody will invest in you uniquely because I’m not going to pay several thousands of pounds out for a campaign on the basis that other labels are going to benefit from it. But if you can work together and form an exclusive relationship that is mutually beneficial, it’s win, win, win.” 

Not always, it seems. In June, Shibe announced he had signed a multi-album deal with Dutch-based label Pentatone.

Nonetheless, Baxter is comfortable with the kind of deal he puts on the table. “I think for a period things will operate as they currently are, whereby it’s incumbent on artists to find funding for projects. That’s becoming an integral part of their portfolio of work – entertaining patrons, making funding applications. They are now accepting this as a common day occurrence.” For its part, Delphian has established an additional new supportive association with The Young Classical Artists Trust. 

As for the current Commons committee enquiry into streaming, Baxter preference is clearly that an eventual outcome reflects his belief in the key driving role of record labels in benefitting the artist. “If it’s made incumbent on streaming sites to better remunerate record labels, then good record labels will use that money to initiate new projects, not just take it and keep it in a war chest,” he argues. “Good labels are increasing their intellectual property all the time by commissioning projects.”

Even as Covid lingers, Delphian continues to do so. Baxter is anxious, though, to get back to full operation. “I just can’t wait to be working with choirs again. I had no way of anticipating how much I’d miss working with young people in choirs. I’ve missed that so much.”  

And there’s the small matter of a 21st birthday bash to organise for 2021.

Main Image: Paul Baxter

Christmas in Puebla

Siglo de Oro/Allies

(Delphian)

From one point of view, this album is a shocking tease, because travel to the beautiful city of Puebla in central Mexico, and the Renaissance Cathedral there, is not an option at the end of 2020. But that is what 30-year-old composer and instrument-maker Juan Gutierrez de Padilla did exactly 400 years ago, leaving his post at Cadiz Cathedral to seek his fortune in the colony of New Spain.

He found work as assistant to Gaspar Fernandes, who had made a similar journey from Portugal around 25 years earlier, and then succeeded him as maestro of the cathedral in 1629, composing music for the church until his death in 1664. For half of that time Puebla Cathedral was a building site, and although it was dedicated in 1649, work on it would carry on for another 200 years.

It helps to think of this place of worship as a mix of inside and outside when listening to this seasonal release. What conductor Patrick Allies has assembled for his golden-toned singers and their instrumental accomplices is a notional Christmas celebration that combines the more formal motet and mass-settings of Padilla and his contemporaries, with the altogether livelier ‘villancicos’ which he and others composed. They have dance rhythms and lyrics that speak directly of the devotional life of the congregation, as well as of the nativity – think gospel songs programmed next to traditional hymns in our own age.

Based on the archives of the cathedral in Padilla’s time, the programme incorporates compositions by his predecessor Fernandes, his successor, Juan Garcia de Zespedes, native Mexican Francisco de Vidales, Palestrina and the Catalan Joan Cererols. The latter’s Serafin, que con dulce harmonia is a highlight, even if its inclusion is stretching the concept a little, while Zespedes’ Convidando esta la noche – by far the most familiar tune on the album – gets things off to a very lively start.

The longest single offering, and the pinnacle of the set, is a late example of one of the many villancicos by Padilla himself, A la xacara xacarilla. With six of the eight singers taking two verses each, it is lyrically a charming mix of the Christmas story and the way it is celebrated, like many carols in English.

This group’s fourth Delphian album in as many years deserves as much praise as its predecessors. If none of us can choose to go somewhere warm and sunny for Christmas, Siglo de Oro and Patrick Allies bring that sort of celebration into your home.
Keith Bruce

Vox Luna/Woolf

Alex Woolf: Requiem
(Delphian)

“What constitutes a requiem for the 21st century?” Wolfgang Marx’s thought-provoking booklet essay with this new release tackles the question fully, around the central premise that “a broader perspective might be considered part of the modern definition of a requiem”. 

Like many composers from even the 19th or 20th century, Alex Woolf’s Requiem, on the Scots-based Delphian label, casts a freer, fresher perspective on the once iron-clad shackles of the centuries-old liturgical blueprint. The most obvious divergence, as in Britten’s War Requiem (a moving and testy post-Second World War juxtaposition of Wilfred Owens’ poetry amid the standard Latin texts), lies with Woolf’s similarly-minded punctuation of the time-honoured tracts with three settings of poems by Welsh writer Gillian Clarke.

In the same way that Britten distinguishes the traditional from the untraditional through self-defining textural identities, Woolf confines the free-winging presence of tenor Nicky Spence and pianist Iain Burnside to the interwoven Clarke settings. The rest of the work is dominated by a grounded ensemble of organ (Anthony Gray), cello (Philip Higham) and Woolf’s own choir Vox Luna. Where 25-year-old Woolf differs from Britten – and this simply may be a reflection of current post-modernist trends – is that the overriding mood is one of relative ease and composure, rather than the troubled political undertones of the War Requiem. 

The work opens, nonetheless, in a darkish place. A sombre, subterranean introduction for cello and organ, transformed initially by the translucent entry of the choir, is questioned further in a mercurial Kyrie that variously explodes (splashes of invigorating dissonance quasi-Kenneth Leighton) and contemplates (the cello now engaged in luxuriant lyrical display).

It’s in the first of the Clarke settings, The Fall, that Woolf’s music takes truly human flight. With words written in response to 9/11, the imagery is theatrically exciting, the heated passion of the sung line evoked movingly by Spence and pictorially underpinned by Burnside and Higham.

It is Woolf’s ability to create an engaging continuity out of disparate elements that gives this entire work its ultimate sense of completeness. Yes, there are derivative strains that occasionally diminish originality in the aforementioned organ influences and largely safe-leaning contemporary choral idiom, but there is a sincerity and self-assurance running throughout this performance, conducted by the composer, that lends lasting emotional weight to a convincing Requiem for today.
Ken Walton