Tag Archives: Delphian

SUCKLING / The Tuning


Having only recently reached his 40s, Glasgow-born composer Martin Suckling has already built up a quantity, quality and diversity of work that defines him as a major new-generation composer. He is strikingly original, as the works he completed during his 5 years (2013-18) as associate composer with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra testified. This excellent new Delphian CD, coming in the wake of last year’s orchestral portrait album on the NMC label, throws a spotlight on the more intimate dimension of Suckling’s impressive output. 

The performers here include mezzo soprano Marta Fontanals-Simmons, pianist Christopher Glynn and principal players from the Aurora Orchestra, appearing in various combinations.

The title of this latest CD, The Tuning, comes from the opening work, a setting of texts by the Irish-American poet Michael Donaghy. Suckling adds to their twilit, watery illusions an aura of introspective mystery. It’s there in the quietly sculpted vocal line, radiantly embraced by Fontanals-Simmons with flashing magnesium-like flourishes on the piano. It’s a mesmerising opener to a CD rooted overall in nocturnal inspiration.

That’s no accident, for it has been Suckling’s regular habit to compose “in the hours of darkness”, a time when the family is asleep and there are no distractions, but also a time in which he clearly contemplates the nuclear inner-workings of his distinctive musical language. That doesn’t mean everything sounds the same.

Take the Nocturne for violin (Alessandro Ruisi) and cello (Alexander Holladay) that follows The Tuning. This is a world of dreamy, troubled contemplation, vigorous and dramatic in its own hypertensive way, but softened by feathery spectral textures, haunting microtonal distortions and questioning melodic sighs.

It’s the perfect springboard to the vibrant string quintet, Emily’s Electrical Absence, a four movement collaboration with Edinburgh-born poet Frances Leviston. Suckling refers to its genesis as a “shared cultural memory” on both collaborators’ parts, arising from “the power of the precedent”, which in his case is Schubert’s celebrated C major String Quintet, and in Leviston’s case the challenging poetry of Emily Dickinson. The title alludes to the work’s present-day inspiration: a complex high-speed memory device, PETMEM, developed recently by physicists to significantly speed up computers. 

There’s no need to comprehend the science to appreciate the alternating sequence of words and music, the former spoken between movements by Leviston herself. The Aurora players are terrific in the precision and sensitivity they apply to Suckling’s translucent score. Beyond the feverish rhythmic insistence of the opening movement, the music edges more and more towards surreal wonderment. 

In Her Lullaby for solo cello, we return to the quiet of the night. As a nostalgic reflection on a time when Suckling once sang lullabies to his infant children, it is broodingly sentimental, charged with something akin to a woozy aural re-imagination of infra-red light. Alexander Holladay captures powerfully its lugubrious stillness.

Ken Walton

Raymond Yiu


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


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