Making strikingly pretty voyages into English chamber music, the NSRO are a vehicle for the Frank-Zappa-meets-Benjamin-Britten compositions of the former Shrubbies/Lake Of Puppies guitarist Craig Fortnam. They feature a cross section of classical musicians and serious moonlighters from latter-day London art-rock bands like Cardiacs and Stars In Battledress; and they mingle a palpable innocence of intent with a taste for engagingly convoluted melodic decoration. All this plus eminent Victorian poetry too. At this rate, Craig will wake up one day to find out that the National Trust has staked him out.
He could use some backup, to tell the truth. This time, budget constraints mean that the NSRO’s flexible little company of clarinets, piano, violin, organ, cello and harmonium (plus Craig’s own nylon-strung electric guitar) gets squeezed into a recording vessel too small to give them justice. It’s a measure of the music’s innate charm that it transcends these cramped conditions, aided in part by the loving assistance of head Cardiac Tim Smith at the console.
Music For Two Clarinets And Piano, in particular, strides out in delicious pulsating ripples as it evolves from a folky plainness to an increasingly brinksman-like disconnection. The clarinets hang off the frame of the music like stunt-riders, chuckling and babbling cheerfully at each other, held up by bubbling piano. The keyboard trio of Nest Of Tables also overcomes the plinking tones of the necessarily-synthesized vibraphone and harp to embark on a long, waltzing journey over a stack of tricky chords: leaning on the piano, the benevolent spectres of Tim Smith and Kerry Minnear nod approval in the background like a pair of proud godfathers. Organ Miniature No. 1 (written and delivered by Stars In Battledress’ James Larcombe) manages to find a convincing meeting point for relaxed Messiaen, strict chapel and the better-groomed end of Zappa.
For many it’ll be the three Alfred Lord Tennyson settings which encapsulate the heart of the North Sea Radio Orchestra’s appeal. Featuring the soprano vocals of Sharron Saddington (Craig’s longtime musical and romantic partner), they’re as tart and sweet as freshly pressed apple juice. Somehow they manage to dress the poems up in artful, beautifully-arranged chamber flounces and frills without swamping them in too much chintz. It’s a fine line, which the NSRO tread by matching Tennyson’s blend of mellifluous personal introspection and cosmological scenery with similarly perfumed and illuminated music. Soft but increasingly detailed puffs of chamber organ gently rock Sharron’s summertime lament on The Lintwhite, from where it’s cradled in its bed of harmonium. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that Craig chooses to orchestrate The Flower (a fable of beauty, nurture and prejudice which conceals a sharp judgmental barb) with a muted brass arrangement reminiscent of another sharp musical fabulist, Kurt Weill.
The crowning glory is Move Eastward Happy Earth, where Sharron sings a hymnal wedding waltz over joyfully welling piano. Refusing to sing in either classical bel canto or pure pop, Sharron comes up with her own tones in a full sweep of approaches between urchin, candyfloss and diva: here, she carols in a kind of beautifully-mannered choirboy ecstasy. She’s backed up by an exuberant miniature chamber choir who sweep between yo-ho-ho-ing madrigal accompaniment and full-throated burst festive celebration via a set of boldly harmonised canons. It’s a little trek through the bluffness and friendly beauty of English music – all clotted cream and cider.
Perhaps that last idea is as fancifully romantic of me as is Tennyson’s own image of the spinning planet, racing him on towards his marriage day. Or perhaps underneath it all I’m being as phoney as John Major, last decade, waxing corny about a vintage Albion of cycling spinsters and cricket whites on the village green. Dreams of English innocence and cleanliness can end up trailing their roots through some pretty murky places unless you’re careful. Nonetheless, for three-and-a-half minutes North Sea Radio Orchestra could restore your faith in its well-meaningness – all without a trace of embarrassment, or recourse to snobbery. They earn their right to their genuine dreamy innocence, and (for all of their blatant nostalgia) to their sincerity too.
Shoebox recording or not, here’s a little piece of wood-panelled chamber magic for you.
North Sea Radio Orchestra: ‘North Sea Radio Orchestra’ demo EP
North Sea Radio Orchestra (no catalogue number or barcode)
Released: late November 2002
Buy it from:
(Updated, 2016) Best obtained second-hand – although it’s as rare as hen’s teeth.