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October 22, 2013 5:10 pm
The BBC’s recent Sound of Cinema season has been an ear-opener. Film scores are the way most of us are exposed to contemporary “classical” music – minimal, piano-led and poignant or portentous according to a movie’s need. “Contemporary” classical is a different matter, of course. I mention this only because the work of Agnes Obel, the Berlin-based Dane whose current album, Aventine , has been top 10 in five European countries, is another means by which the uninitiated get a sonic glimpse into this world. As this bewitching show proved, Obel excels at the poignant end of the spectrum.
She began with an instrumental, though not the Chopin-esque reflections that open Aventine (they came later). Instead, it was “Louretta”, from her debut album, Philharmonics, delicately picking a path into a set that went fully trip-trapping into the enchanted wood on that LP’s title track. The interplay between Obel at the piano, cellist Anne Müller (herself a recording artist with composer Nils Frahm) and violinist Mika Posen (from Canadian group Timber Timbre), had a chamber trio’s vigilance. Certain parts were subtly looped with effects pedals, as the sung harmonies overlapped like dryad spells.
“Fuel to Fire” was the first song from Aventine. Its rhythmic drive and the swooning vocals’ alternate hush and wail echoed early Bat for Lashes. Brittle tremors of startled strings added to the sense of a hiding place revealed. Obel’s nationality – and our obvious thoughts of Hans Christian Andersen – enhance the perception that hers is a territory where fairy-tale longings meet the disappointments of modern romance. “Words Are Dead”, as beautiful as a withered rose, was a typically autumnal lament.
Although the piano’s Satie-like hypnotic patterns and the pizzicato promptings of the strings are the music’s main features, the melodies have an implicit pop yearning. No more so than on “Dorian”. At any point, its scudding brightness could dazzle in glossily conventional fashion; that it doesn’t makes it all the more memorable. The tunes were eminently hummable, but fans hardly dared to, in case they spoiled the mood (fortunately, nobody coughed or sneezed).
A frizzy hank of blonde hair often obscured Obel’s profile. Her between-song remarks made a mumblecore actress seem the model of projection. At the close, the audience’s reverent attention exploded into rapturous acclaim. By the time she performs at the Barbican next April, Obel will have to have got used to being a much bigger star.
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