Olafur Arnalds - Manchester Bridgewater Hall
Sometimes you take your eye off the ball for a second and bam! That precious little package you covet as one of your oh-so canny discoveries goes from not much more than exciting the lunatic pronouncements of questionable net-heads to, well, filling proper, respectable concert halls and receiving the kind of authoritative notices that really do represent critical approval of the sturdiest kind. What was I doing ? Those half dozen of us who swooned like girls over over Arnalds’ devastating debut Eulogy for Evolution a couple of years back, know just what a leap the young Icelandic composer has taken with 2010’s …and They Have Escaped the Weight of Darkness album. We just didn’t expect the world and his wife to jump the train. Welcome, regardless. Arnalds’ quite genius, his sympathetic welding of classical foundations to a wholly vital sense of the independent and the alternative, speaks volumes about that ever expanding audience - tonight's crowd, a clued up lot no doubt, could be just as much at home in the fleapit Academy down the road as they are in Manchester's most opulent concert hall. And his neo-classical trajectory now comes fired by deeper context (inspired by no less than Béla Tarr’s mercurial and foreboding Werckmeister Harmonies) and a broader narrative sweep. Seriously, what's not to fall for now?
Tonight that undeniable crossover appeal is confirmed by an audience high on expectation. Traffic woes mean I miss an opening charitably provided by Radiohead’s Johny Greenwood and his Popcorn Superhet Receiver. “Noisy but interesting”, I’m told later on. I’ve married on similar recommendations. Damnation. Ah well. Having assembled a bill of unquestionable good taste and prescient selections, it’s bad enough I have to pass on ya Greenwood but missing the Royal Northern College of Music performing Stravinsky’s ‘The Rite of Spring’ is enough to make me snort with petulant fury. You young fops can predict all the riots you like but how many riots have you actually started ? (Look it up, eh ?) The twentieth century’s most significant composer’s influence is writ large tonight.
Young Igor would have growled with ruffed approval at Arnalds’ youthful confidence and growing mastery of both composition and performance. This live premiere of the new album, accompanied by the RNCM Concert Orchestra, is memerising, hypnotic, the kind of musical journey that makes a mockery of the term as employed by feckless wannabes on trash TV singing competitions. Decked out in a dinner suit and bow tie combo that makes him look like a hurriedly dressed attendee at an older sibling’s wedding, Arnalds sits at the piano while all around him this absurdly sympathetic room handles the fuller live re-imaginings of the piece with care and love. …and They Have Escaped the Weight of Darkness is a beguiling piece when listened to alone. To see it fully immerse a troupe of players and captivate an audience like it does tonight further demolishes any notion that this might not be Popular Music. Arnalds' angular take on a form allegedly not for me and you is nothing less than the sound of minds being opened, barriers pried apart, doors being kicked down.