Album: MURCOF – The Versailles Sessions (Leaf BAY67CD 2008)

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Conductor Thomas Beecham once said “the sound of the harpsichord resembles that of a bird-cage played with toasting-forks.” It’s a sentiment I share. In fact, most Baroque music leaves me cold. It’s too genteel, too shallow, designed not to offend the ladies of the aristocracy. I don’t suppose Fernando Corona agrees with me, since his latest collection is based around the opulent court of ‘the Sun King’, Louis XIV, who reigned throughout the second half of the seventeenth century (and well into the eighteenth). Or maybe he does, because The Versailles Sessions is no soundtrack for a bunch of bewigged, prancing ninnies in a gilt-drenched ballroom.

The music is played on a quartet of traditional Baroque intruments – viola da gamba, viola, flute and the aforementioned harpsichord and is based on the work of seventeenth century French composers such as Couperin and Lully. But then seriously abused. “Welcome to Versailles” makes its intentions very clear, and may come as much a shock to seasoned Murcof fans as it would to Louis and friends. Beginning with an ominous stomp, the track sets some seemingly random plucked strings against long drawn out drones with no hint of real melody emerging until eight minutes in.

The viola on “Louis XIV’s Demons” scrapes a ghostly sound and the harpsichord’s strings sound like suspension bridge wires snapping under tension. It’s an eerie piece of music. This isn’t a ‘difficult’ album. Strange, yes, but not difficult. “A Lesson for the Future” introduces the mezzo soprano of Sarah Jouffroy whose voice dies in a haze of echo to leave a simple harpsichord melody with a quivering Moog shadow.

“Death of a Forest” is a piece of sound sculpture – the instruments sounding like creaking branches, falling trees and braying dogs before breaking into a sombre melody, over which Jouffroy sounds a vocal requiem. It’s a darkly beautiful track that somehow reminds me of Future Sound of London’s “My Kingdom”. “Spring in the Artificial Gardens” is the most ‘traditionally’ Murcof sounding piece, with its swirling drones harking back to last year’s Cosmos album. It’s heady stuff.

The album closes with a dance by Louis’s court composer Jean-Baptiste Lully played on flute, but turned into a fizzing electro track. It’s a gleeful combination of the past and present that typifies this highly original album. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anything quite like it before. It’s a weird mixture of seventeenth century melodies, avant-garde clattering, ambient drone and modern electronica. It all hangs together brilliantly, though.

Murcof returns in 2009 with Oceano, the fifth instalment of the M-U-R-C-O-F sequence. If The Versailles Sessions was merely intended as an experimental side project, then I think Corona does his own work some disservice. It’s far better than that.

Tracks
1 Welcome To Versailles 11:30
2 Louis XIV’s Demons 4:58
3 A Lesson For The Future, Farewell To The Old Ways 7:54
4 Death Of A Forest 6:44
5 Spring In The Artificial Gardens 12:10
6 Lully’s “Turquerie” As Interpreted By An Advanced Script 6:42

Websites
www.murcof.com
www.myspace.com/murcof

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