This section focuses on great music, providing:
A selection of ESSENTIAL TRACKS chosen to give your system a workout, some of which are seminal recorded performances.
DOWNLOADS of superlative quality recordings in a range of high resolution formats.
Our ALBUM OF THE MONTH and some words on why we chose it.
Invited COMMENT from dCS and leading members of the hi-fi world – although in most cases we offer these anonymously!
By the tender age of twenty five, Paul Simon was one of America’s most commercially successful recording artists. His partnership with Art Garfunkel started in 1956, and by the time Sounds of Silence was released in 1966 they were both household names. But after a stream of chart hits and the seminal Bookends album, the duo split in 1970, citing “artistic differences”. The nineteen seventies saw several unspectacular albums, with 1975’s Still Crazy After All These Years arguably the strongest. By the eighties his star was really beginning to dim, but in 1986 Simon came back with Graceland, an album so special that it didn’t just mark a complete return to form, but hit the cultural zeitgeist.
Recorded mostly in South Africa and New York, Graceland was released on August 25th, 1986 to rapturous critical acclaim. Two years earlier, Simon had become enamoured with South African township music, and visited Johannesburg to record with local musicians. The result was an album that mixed rock, pop and a cappella with traditional African music, creating a fascinating hybrid. It went on to sell a staggering sixteen million copies around the world, won a Grammy for ‘Album of the Year’ in 1987. It was hailed as “culturally, historically, or aesthetically important” by the United States National Recording Registry in 2007.
Despite introducing African music to a new Western audience, many critics frowned on Graceland for breaking the cultural embargo on apartheid South Africa, and for a while it became something of a political football. Yet Simon didn’t just use these musicians once and discard them, he went on tour with them and brought local styles like isicathamiya and mbaqanga to vast new audiences. He later reflected that, “I first thought, too bad it’s not from Zimbabwe, Zaire, or Nigeria. Life would have been more simple.”
Writing it was highly improvisational. Simon sat down in the studio and jammed with his fellow artists to see where he ended up. As such, many got writing credits. Joseph Shabalala contributed to Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes for example, with Ladysmith Black Mambazo and singer-percussionist Youssou N’Dour. The Boy in the Bubble came from working with Tao Ea Matsekha and Graceland used bassist Bakithi Kumalo and guitarist Ray Phiri. The infectious penny whistle playing on You Can Call Me Al was by Morris Goldberg, and Homeless was written jointly by Simon and Shabalala, based on a Zulu song. Other guest musicians feature too, like Los Lobos and Linda Ronstadt.
Recorded on analogue tape then heavily digitally edited – with lots of tape delay, echo and other effects added – Graceland does sounds heavily processed by modern standards. Yet still its inner beauty shines through – especially when played on high quality digital sources. Even today, it’s musically fresh and fun with a sunny and life-affirming feel. “Harmonically, African music consists essentially of three major chords — that’s why it sounds so happy”, said Paul Simon later. This didn’t go unnoticed, and subsequently influenced a number of other eighties artists. The 2012 CD remaster [Sony Music 88691984122] is a great place to start the fun.
Welcome to the first Classical Only the Music of 2020, a whoppingly significant year in the classical music world for being the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s death. This of course means that Beethoven’s music is going to be everywhere you turn over these next twelve months, and while some have argued that there’s enough Beethoven around already without being served up even more of it, I for one am thrilled. Beethoven represents a bottomless box of delights. Firstly in terms of the amount of repertoire to explore, not all of which is well known. Secondly in terms of the size and age of the recordings catalogue; for instance the Violin Concerto was recorded for the first time all the way back in 1916, by the largely forgotten violinist Juan Manen. No doubt I’ll be feeding you some truly old Beethoven recordings over the coming months, but I’m going to begin with one from more recent history: Sir John Eliot Gardiner and his period instrument Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique performing Symphonies 5 and 7 live at Carnegie Hall in 2012. This is easily my favourite recording of these works, both because of the earthy punch the period woodwind and brass bring to the timbral table, and because these are edge-of-the-seat interpretations brimming with fervour and understanding. I’ve given you the whole of Symphony No 7 (the one with the famous second movement funeral march).
This month’s new releases then start with Morgen, rising soprano Elsa Dreisig’s exquisite second album for Erato, after which comes a recording debut from the Kitgut Quartet, followed by the Franck and Chopin cello sonatas from two of the world’s most in-demand soloists, cellist Gautier Capuçon and pianist Yuja Wang.
Morgen – Elsa Dreisig & Jonathan Ware
The young French-Danish soprano Elsa Dreisig has been notching up a veritable string of awards and accolades over recent years, including First Prize at Plácido Domingo’s 2016 Operalia vocal competition, and Copenhagen Opera Festival’s 2017 Young Opera Artist of the Year. Her 2018 debut album of opera arias with Erato, Miroirs, garnered her further praise, and now this follow-up recital disc with pianist Jonathan Ware promises to continue her upwards trajectory. Titled Morgen, it interweaves songs by Strauss with thematically linked works by Sergey Rachmaninov and Henri Duparc, and it’s a pair of songs by those latter two composers I’ve chosen for this playlist: Duparc’s L’invitation au voyage and Rachmaninov’s Margaritki (or “Daisies”) from Romances Op 38. Wih steely, slender-toned purity up top, and a lovely rounded warmth in her lower registers, it’s a voice I could listen to all day, and the partnering from Ware is equally perfectly pitched.
‘Tis Too Late to be Wise – Kitgut Quartet
‘Tis Too Late to be Wise may be the Kitgut Quartet’s debut album, but its four musicians – violinists Amandine Beyer and Naaman Sluchin, viola player Josèphe Cottet and cellist Frédéric Baldassare – are no strangers to the recording studio, being acclaimed soloists linked with some of Europe’s leading period-instrument ensembles; and if you’re wondering about the name, this refers to the period “kitgut” or catgut strings with which they’ve strung their instruments. On to the programme itself, and this is an exploration of the origins of the string quartet taken from the fascinating and highly original angle of presenting “Father of the Quartet” Haydn’s Opus 71 Quartet No 2, composed in Vienna in 1793 between his two London visits, alongside four-part English compositions dating from the second half of the sixteenth century – pieces known as “curtain music” or “act tunes” because they were composed to be played in front of the lowered curtain during set changes in the theatre, to stop the audience from getting bored and leaving their seats. I’ve given you Locke’s “Curtain Tune” from The Tempest, the first movement of the Haydn, then Purcell’s “Fairest Isle” from King Arthur. Recorded in the large stone-walled, wooden-roofed Ferme de Villefavard in Limousin, the surrounding acoustic is full of character and warmth, and the same is true tenfold for the actual playing – subtle drama, bags of heart and joy, and the beautiful bristle of those period “kitgut” strings.
Franck & Chopin: Cello Sonatas – Gautier Capuçon and Yuja Wang
It would be hard to come up with a starrier chamber pairing than Gautier Capuçon and Yuja Wang, who were recently named respectively as the world’s busiest cellist and pianist of 2019 by the international concert listings and reviews website Bachtrack in their annual retrospective numbers-crunch. So what better programme for them than the Franck and Chopin cello sonatas – two works so very equally weighted between cello and piano that it would be plain nonsensical to describe the pianist as mere accompanist; the piano writing in the Franck in particular feels almost concerto-esque in places. This in turn demands immense chamber awareness and sensitivity from both musicians, and to say that you’re hearing those qualities in abundance here is an understatement. Capuçon and Wang’s chamber partnership is now several years old, this programme was one they toured extensively across America in Spring 2019, and the superglued partnering that’s wound up on this resultant album very much reflects that. I’ve given you the Franck sonata in its entirety: a poised, subtle and spacious reading over which from Capuçon you’ll hear finely nuanced colourings at every turn, complemented by jewel-like delicacy and precision from Wang. Also on the album are Chopin’s Introduction et Polonaise and Piazzolla’s fiery showpiece, Le Grand Tango, and I urge you to also explore these and the Chopin sonata by yourselves.
Many pop music milestones are widely celebrated. Much has been written about the day The Beatles signed to Parlophone for example, or how Malcolm McLaren met John Lydon and formed the Sex Pistols. Yet there are others, such as when Kraftwerk shaped up to record Autobahn – thus launching modern electronic music – that are less well documented. The case of Sugarhill Gang is even more obscure; three young men from Englewood, New Jersey, created what was in effect the world’s first ever commercial rap record – and it went on to spawn a huge new genre of music.
Released on February 7th, 1980, The Sugarhill Gang is a forty minute-long album that contains the single Rapper’s Delight, which came out on September 16th, 1979. It got to number 3 in the UK singles charts, and 36 in the USA’s Billboard Hot 100. The album itself isn’t remarkable for anything aside from the fact that it contains the full, unalloyed 14 minute, 37 second version of the ground-breaking single – the latter was edited down to 4 minutes 55 seconds for seven inch vinyl release. The other tracks are light soul music flavoured fillers, plus one predictable disco instrumental. The reason for this is that the producer Sylvia Robinson thought that an album comprised entirely of hip hop music simply wouldn’t sell.
Sugarhill Gang comprised rappers Big Bank Hank, Master Gee, Michael ‘Wonder Mike’ Wright, with a backing band including Bernard Rowland (bass), Bryan Horton (drums) Albert Pitman (guitar) and Nate Edmonds (keyboards), with assorted extra percussionists and backing singers. In the words of Master Gee, “when I was in tenth grade in New Jersey, I went to a party and heard someone talking rhythmically through a mic. “That’s rapping,” he said. It was something we did at parties. Nobody thought of it as commercial. Then Sylvia Robinson, founder of the hip-hop label Sugar Hill, decided to make a record, and looked for talent in New Jersey. Big Bank Hank rapped and made pizzas, so she auditioned him in front of the pizza parlour. I rapped in her car, then Wonder Mike was next. “I can’t choose, so I’ll put you all together”, she said.”
Robinson chose Chic’s Good Times as the backing track for Rapper’s Delight, with the intro from Love De-Luxe’s Here Comes That Sound Again. Because there were no commercially available samplers back then, Positive Force were called in to physically play Good Times, and it was rapped over. At the time, Chic’s Nile Rogers was not happy, and legal action soon followed – but he now says that Rapper’s Delight is one of his favourite songs. “I thought we’d made the first rap record,” said Master Gee, “then I was at a party and heard the Fatback Band’s King Tim III, which featured rapping with singing. I thought someone had beat us to the punch. But they’d made it a B-side, and ours became a smash!”
This is an essential purchase for any serious hip-hop fan, simply for its full, unexpurgated version of Rapper’s Delight. The best way of hearing it is via the 30th Anniversary Edition CD [Sanctuary Records Group Ltd. 0602527427478] released in the UK in 2010.
When the Christmas season is so very dominated in musical terms by the sounds of choirs, I’ve decided to begin this month’s playlist with some festive music that’s purely orchestral: Ottorino Respighi’s Adoration of the Magi. Festive-ish anyway, because this is actually the middle movement of a trio of pieces he wrote in 1927 called Il Trittico Botticelliano, depicting Sandro Botticelli’s three most famous paintings (Spring and The Birth of Venus being the others), meaning that it wasn’t technically written as a Christmassy work. Yet it sounds thoroughly Christmassy nevertheless, because its thematic material is centred around the Advent carol, O Come, O Come Emmanuel. I’ve chosen the 1993 recording from the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, and then because it’s Christmas I’ve also given you two carols from Voces8’s 2011 Christmas album: Away in a Manger followed by I Wonder as I Wander.
On to the new releases, these begin with the first installment of Quatuor Ébène’s Beethoven quartets cycle for Erato. Sixteenth century Spanish lute music follows from Paul O’Dette, before an advance peak at 12 Ensemble’s Death and the Maiden album, out next month.
A new release from French string quartet Quatuor Ébène always feels like an event, but none more so than this one: the complete Beethoven string quartets, timed to coincide with the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s death and the twentieth anniversary of Quatuor Ebene themselves, recorded live on tour around the world with each of its seven albums recorded in a different city (everywhere from Paris and Vienna to Sao Paulo and Nairobi), and also the quartet’s first recording with its new violist, Marie Chilemme. This first installment was recorded in Vienna’s Konzerthaus and features the first two “Razumovsky” Quartets (numbers seven and eight overall in the cycle), and it’s wonderful. Think lived-in performances glowing with conviction and electricity, captured with vibrancy, and utter synchronicity of musical thought between the four. The other six albums are to be released all in one go in March, but I’m so happy they gave us this one early. I’ve given you No 7 in F major.
Albert de Rippe – Un perfaict sonneur de leut – Paul O’Dette, on Harmonia Mundi
You’ve got to be pretty specialist in your lute knowledge to have heard of the early sixteenth century Spanish composer Albert de Rippe, so Paul O’Dette’s latest recording for Harmonia Mundi first deserves brownie points simply for bringing de Rippe to a wider audience at all. It’s beautiful stuff, too – music whose textures are often wonderfully rich and chordal (de Rippe was a fan of six-note chords where his contemporaries often went for more transparent textures), melding ear-catchingly detailed multi-part writing, and even the odd cheeky dissonance, with gentle poetic expression. Paul O’Dette then brings it all to life with deftly fingered beauty and freshness, supported by classy and immediate engineering. I’ve given you Fantasie XIX and Fantasie III.
Death and the Maiden – 12 Ensemble
If they haven’t yet entered your radar, 12 Ensemble are one of the most exciting rising UK, performing without a conductor and presenting an intriguing mixture of old music (often recasting pillars of the string quartet repertoire into their very different, fuller sonorities) and groundbreaking new commissions. Death and the Maiden is therefore typical of them, its title work by Schubert representing one of the greatest quartets of all time, surrounded by striking arrangements of more recent music. It actually isn’t released until January, but I’m pointing you in the direction of its two pre-released tracks now, because conveniently for us its powerful programme-opener is a transcription of a choral work you hear particularly at this time of year: Tavener’s The Lamb, written in 1982. I’ve then also given you the album’s final work Fljótavik by a quartet of composers, Georg Holm, Jon Thor Birgisson, Kjartan Sveinsson and Orri Pall Dyrason.
Playlist also available om Qobuz https://open.qobuz.com/playlist/2640152
There were many great pop records that came out of the nineteen eighties, and this was one of them. Whilst wine bars buzzed to the sound of Sade’s Diamond Life and FM radio crackled to the strains of Simply Red’s Picture Book, Talking Heads’ Stop Making Sense soundtracked the lives of indie rock fans, pop fans and students alike. Released in September 1984, it was by far the biggest hit record the band ever achieved in the UK, and was notable for two things. First, it was a soundtrack to a film of a live concert, and second it was effectively a ‘greatest hits’ package of the band’s best-selling single releases. Admittedly, until then Talking Heads hadn’t achieved mainstream commercial appeal, so those singles hardly troubled the charts. But thanks to this album, for a moment at least, the band made it big.
Formed in New York City in 1975, Talking Heads came out of the art rock scene that was to sweep the likes of Blondie and The Ramones to critical acclaim and then chart success. It was the unusual combination of a number of gifted, creative musicians cemented together by the relationship between Scottish-born David Byrne (lead vocals, guitar) and Jerry Harrison (keyboards, guitar), with a great rhythm section courtesy of Chris Frantz (drums) and Tina Weymouth (bass guitar). They soon began collaborating with Brian Eno and created three critically acclaimed early albums – More Songs About Buildings and Food (1978), Fear of Music (1979), and Remain in Light (1980). These set the foundations for Stop Making Sense, which reprised much of the music from this period – live and on a grand scale.
The album was the edited soundtrack to Jonathan Demme’s concert film of the same name, and arguably one of the most successful recordings of its type. Whilst many live albums involve sacrificing perfect studio sound for the vagaries of a concert venue, Stop Making Sense has a cathedral-like recorded acoustic, a rich and fulsome sound and the spontaneity of a band at their musical peak. All the stars seemed to align for it, and the result was much better than the band expected. Chris Frantz later called it, “funky and big as a house. (Or should I say church?)” It’s a great snapshot of the band’s early phase, just at the time when they were transitioning to being stadium material.
The track listing is a delight – all Talking Heads’ best songs were there. Psycho Killer, Once in a Lifetime, Burning Down the House, Slippery People, This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody), Girlfriend is Better and Genius of Love are all masterpieces in their own quirky ways. Byrne’s lyrics are oddball, funny, poignant and challenging – while his performance seems quite electric, and the rest of the band back him with power and punch. There’s also a powerful spontaneity and edge to this album that is down to it being one of pop’s great live recordings, and this is deftly captured by producer Gary Goetzman. There are umpteen excellent remasters of this seminal album, with the CD/HDCD Special Edition [EMI – 7243 5 22453] released in 2000 as good as any.
Listen to all of our AOTM choices for 2019 on TIDAL and Qobuz
As I write my dCS column this month I’m newly back from Paris. The main commission of this trip was to cover the Long Thibaud Crespin International Piano Competition for International Piano. A side event was that I gave a workshop to a class of young musicians on how to present yourself effectively to journalists. Essentially therefore, the linking theme throughout was what happens when a music critic gets their first hearing of a young artist, and whilst it’s hard to adequately encapsulate in words what it is that will make me sit up and pay attention, I’d say it largely boils down to two elements. The first of these is the quality of the tone they’re making on their instrument; especially with string players. The second is about the impression of truth – is this a voice which has become the music and is speaking its own words, or am I hearing what someone else has taught it to mimic? Because there’s plenty of the latter around. So for my catalogue recording this month I’ve picked a 2015 recording by a young Canadian cellist called Stéphane Tétreault which took me completely by surprise when I reviewed it, grabbing me from its opening notes despite Tétreault’s name being entirely unknown to me, and despite a rather awkward-looking cover photo which did nothing to sell the album. I’ve given you the opening work, which is Haydn’s Divertimento in D major.
The new releases then begin with the first installment of a brand new Schumann symphony cycle from the London Symphony Orchestra under Sir John Eliot Gardiner. Next up is pianist Alexandre Tharaud’s Versailles album, presenting on a modern piano harpsichord pieces written for the courts of the French kings Louis XIV, XV and XVI. Then, because it’s almost December, the final album is a special-edition live recording of last year’s Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols from King’s College, Cambridge, celebrating the centenary of this famous British Christmas Eve musical tradition, and also marking the choir’s final Christmas under the direction of Sir Stephen Cleobury, who has just stepped down after 37 years in the post.
Schumann – Symphonies Nos 2 & 4; Overture: Genoveva – London Symphony Orchestra/Gardiner on LSO Live
Two years ago Sir John Eliot Gardiner recorded an award-winning Mendelssohn symphony cycle with the London Symphony Orchestra. The cycle was important because Mendelssohn’s posthumous reputation hasn’t had the easiest of times, because while his Violin Concerto is one of the most famous, too often his contemporary success has been attributed to his child prodigy status (he composed his first symphony aged fourteen and a half) and the luck of coming from a well-heeled and influential family. Into that context therefore Gardiner’s vibrant readings felt revelatory, forcing us all to take a second look, and to admire. So now they’re back to take on the symphonies of Schumann, which equally have had a shakier footing on the concert platform than his concertos and chamber music, and if this vivid, multi-coloured first offering of the Second and Fourth symphonies recorded in London’s Barbican Hall is anything to go by, then we’re in for a treat. Also on the album is the Overture to his only opera, Genoveva, and it’s this I’ve chosen for the playlist.
Versailles – Alexandre Tharaud on Erato
Versailles sees French pianist Alexandre Tharaud turn his attentions to the composers associated with the courts of the French kings Louis XIV, XV and XVI, and whilst his programme features the big names of the era you’d expect – Lully, Rameau, Charpentier and Francois Couperin – it also showcases the lesser-known masters d’Anglebert, Forqueray, Royer, Duphly and Balbastre. However that’s not the album’s only selling point. The other is that Tharaud plays on a modern concert grand; and whilst we’re all thoroughly used to hearing Bach’s harpsichord works on the piano, it’s much less usual for this French repertoire to be served up in this shape (or at least is is for the moment, because Icelandic pianist Vikingur Ólafsson also has a Rameau project in the pipeline). As for how it sounds, Tharaud’s trademark delicacy and precision are perfectly matched to the task of successfully translating this gossamer-fine music into the concert grand’s heavier tones, meaning the result is enough definition and lightness in the touch, and enough air in the textures, to remind you of the music’s harpsichord roots. Equally though, he shows what the piano’s greater capacity for softness, combined with measured use of the sustaining pedal, can bring especially to the slow movements. For this playlist I’ve selected Couperin’s almost impressionistically-titled Le Rappel des oiseaux (the memory of birds) followed by Royer’s L’Aimable or The Aimable one.
A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols – The Centenary Service – The Choir of King’s College Cambridge/Sir Stephen Cleobury
If you only listen to one Christmas release this year then make it the special-edition live recording of last year’s Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols from King’s College Cambridge, celebrating the centenary of the world-famous service while also marking the end of an era – the choir’s final Christmas under the direction of Sir Stephen Cleobury, who had directed the choir since 1982. Contents-wise, this is the entire service as we heard it over the airwaves last Christmas Eve: the congregational carols, the choir solos, the readings and the prayers. Also the annual newly commissioned carol, which for 2018 was O Mercy Divine by current Master of the Queen’s Music, Judith Weir, for which cellist and former King’s chorister Guy Johnston joined the choir. Engineering-wise meanwhile it’s a beaut, presented in 5.1 surround-sound and high definition stereo, and sounding so good that you could be sat in King’s College Chapel yourself. I’ve given you Joys Seven, Stille Nacht and Once in royal David’s City.
The nineteen eighties was a time of huge change for pop music. It started with the New Romantic explosion, a new synthesiser-based sound that propelled Spandau Ballet and Duran Duran to the top of the charts. It then saw some great guitar pop from The Smiths and their imitators, which was followed by slinky jazz-infused sounds from the likes of Swing Out Sister. Finally, the decade ended with the acid house explosion, and techno luminaries like 808 State dominating the charts.
In the midst of all this – unexpectedly perhaps – there was a sixties American rock revival. R.E.M. was the first of many US bands to make their way to the top of the UK’s independent charts, fusing British post-punk sensibility with shades of US psychedelia. A tranche of similar acts followed, from the rowdy Jason and the Scorchers to The Byrds-inspired The Long Ryders. By 1986, Britain was awash with the sound of jangling guitars, from The Queen is Dead-era Smiths to REM’s Life’s Rich Pageant. It was around this time that Scottish indie rockers Primal Scream released their debut single, Velocity Girl on Elevation records. Bristling with catchy melodies and close-miked vocal harmonies, it had a certain swagger.
Lead singer and songwriter Bobby Gillespie was an astute reader of the musical runes, and caught the zeitgeist perfectly with this single – so what next? Sonic Flower Groove was the answer, the band’s debut long player released on the 5th October, 1987. A gentle journey back to the sixties, it was packed with chiming Rickenbacker guitars, last heard on The Byrds classic Eight Miles High. In the great scheme of things, the album brings little to the party aside from a sequence of charming, lovingly crafted melodic rock songs, with dreamy, introspective lyrics. Gentle Tuesday, May The Sun Shine Bright for You, Silent Spring and Imperial are conspicuously Byrds-influenced affairs, with subtle shades of The Velvet Underground too.
Sonic Flower Groove sounds oddly timeless today, because it was never really of its time then. The Mayo Thompson production feels soft around the edges – especially when compared with fellow Scots The Jesus and Mary Chain, for whom Gillespie was also drumming. The musicianship is to a high standard, with some fine 12-string electric guitar work from Jim Navajo. Andrew Innes provides deft rhythm guitar playing, while Robert Young takes care of bass and Dave Morgan and Gavin Skinner share drum credits. The album was not an inexpensive thing to record by the standards of the day, costing a cool £100,000.
The result is something that one critic called – perhaps unfairly – “pristine but dull.” Actually, Sonic Flower Groove is a real grower, sidling its way into your soul if you let it. The record finally reached number 62 on the UK album chart, which wasn’t a bad showing for a hitherto unknown independent band. It’s a rather decent sounding recording too, the best example being the Japanese CD reissue [WEA WPCR-64]. Something a little different, this album has stood the best of time better than anyone expected.
Listen to all of our 2019 Album of The Month choices on TIDAL
I’m writing October’s Only the Music just days after the 2019 Gramophone Awards, which saw British soprano Dame Emma Kirkby receive the Lifetime Achievement award to one of the most unanimously joyful applauses I’ve ever witnessed at an awards ceremony, complete with standing ovation. For good reason too, because it’s actually hard to quantify the enormous impact that her pure, crystalline voice had – over countless lovingly engineered albums – on winning the wide public over to the beauties of Baroque music performed in a historically-informed manner. In fact it was through her that I personally came to love the music of Henry Purcell. So I’ve begun this playlist with her 1982 recording of Purcell’s Evening Hymn, accompanied by Christopher Hogwood on organ and Anthony Rooley on lute.
Moving forwards, this month’s trio of new releases begins with a Czech piano feast: the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra and their Czech conductor Jakub Hrusa joining forces with Czech pianist Ivo Kahánek for a superb performance of Dvořák’s Piano Concerto, inventively paired with an equally superb reading of Martinů’s Piano Concerto No 4 “Incantation”. Next comes a sparkling all-Vivaldi programme: the recording debut of Jupiter, lutenist Thomas Dunford’s new Baroque ensemble which is comprised of some of the younger generation’s brightest rising soloists. Finally, the first installment of what promises to be a keeper of a Brahms series from Edward Gardner and the Bergen Symphony, beginning with his First and Third symphonies.
Dvorak Piano concerto – Kahánek/Bamberg SO (Suphraphon)
Dvorak’s Piano Concerto (the only one he wrote) has never really properly achieved core repertoire status either on the concert platform or in the recording studio, which in my view is a tremendous shame given that it’s got everything you could wish for from a Dvorak concerto: a sombre, fiery and heroic first movement, a dreamily warm and beautiful central slow movement, and a finale which trips along with the dance rhythms of Czech folk music. So there’s an extent to which simply having another recording of it is a good thing in itself. However this one is also very, very good: joyously performed with the perfect balancings of drama, romance and perkiness, plus palpable Czech soul (and of course conductor Jakub Hrusa and pianist Ivo Kahánek are both Czech themselves). There’s also an appealing lightness to the orchestral sound itself: enough dark meatiness to satisfy those who like their Czech with plenty of sombre bass, but also fleet-footed and ringing in tone. As for the engineering, this satisfyingly captures all the little passings of solo lines between the orchestral instruments, whilst casting the piano itself in a brightly golden and resonant light. Then, they’ve not only kept the Czech theme for the Dvorak’s partner piece, but done something genuinely interesting by again skirting the standard repertoire, this time in favour of Martinů’s two-movement Piano Concerto No 4 “Incantation” of 1956. In short, a big thumbs up.
Vivaldi – Jupiter – Thomas Dunford (alpha)
I’d been impatiently waiting for this album for well over a year before it finally hit my desk, and the reality absolutely matches up to my high expectations. Jupiter Ensemble is a new Baroque ensemble founded by lutenist Thomas Dunford, which counts amongst its number some of the brightest stars of the younger generation: Baroque specialists such as harpsichordist Jean Rondeau and mezzo Lea Desandre, but also non-Baroque-specialist cellist Bruno Philippe, who casts off his modern soloist’s mantle to become a wonderfully sensitive continuo (accompaniment) player on gut strings. I attended their Paris concert debut last year – a Vivaldi programme at the Auditorium du Louvre – and was blown away by the freshness of their sound, and pleasure in both the music and each other. Now it’s that Vivaldi programme which they’ve taken into the recording studio, and all the previous adjectives still apply, along with some bristling and tactile engineering. It’s also as varied and wide-ranging as Vivaldi’s own output, featuring concertos for bassoon, cello and lute, along with sacred and secular soprano arias. Plus, make sure listen all the way to the end, because there’s a hidden bonus track in the form of their sparkily genre-bending self-composed, “We are the Ocean”. As for my playlist though, in a bid to give you a flavour of all that aforementioned variety, my choices begin with the central slow movement of the Bassoon Concerto in G minor, RV 495 with soloist Peter Whelan, where the outer movements’ harpsichord continuo has been replaced with organ, adding a wonderful soft blackness to the supporting sound against bassoon’s contrasting reediness. Next I’ve gone for the Cum Dederit from Dessandre, over which the poise and control on display from everyone adds up to a tension you could cut with a knife. Then finally some major tonality in the form of Dunford playing the final movement of the Lute Concerto in D major, RV 93.
Brahms Symphonies Nos 1 & 3 – Gardner/Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra (Chandos)
This the first installment of a new Brahms series from Edward Gardner and the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra, and it couldn’t have begun in stronger fashion. Firstly, the choices themselves: the momental Symphony No 1 which after its premiere was quickly dubbed “Beethoven’s Tenth”; contrasted with much shorter, more turbulent and far more personal Symphony No 3, with its sublimely lilting Third movement and its musical nods to the emotionally-draining but artistically enriching relationships he had with Robert and Clara Schumann. The Bergen themselves are on top form, with a wonderful sheen and rhythmic suppleness to their sound, and always the strong impression of chamber music mentality in their understanding of the score and in the no-holds-barred conviction of their playing. All of which has been beautifully captured by the engineering itself, which itself has been recorded in surround sound. I’ve given you the First Symphony, so by way of example listen to the proudly ravishingly, shining lyricism of the flute in the First symphony’s final movement at 2’47” as Brahms prepares us for the famous heroic theme’s entrance at 4’16”.
In the stormy month of October 1979, Paul Weller, Bruce Foxton and Rick Buckler were at London’s Townhouse Studios, putting the finishing touches to The Jam’s fourth album, Setting Sons. Finally released on the 16th of November, it took the band from new wave heroes to one of the UK’s strongest popular music forces. Producer Vic Coppersmith-Heaven captured what was at the time, one of British rock’s greatest live bands at their absolute musical peak.
Since the 1977 release of The Jam’s first album In The City, lead singer, guitarist and songwriter Paul Weller had been presenting himself as Britain’s edgiest, angriest young man. Yet his band was actually quite mature and long-established, having been formed back in 1972 at Woking’s Sheerwater Secondary School. The boys did their apprenticeship playing Motown and Stax covers, then became immersed in The Who’s early work. By the time that Setting Sons was released, a more polished Paul Weller was writing polemical yet worldly-wise songs that reflected the social and economic turmoil of nineteen seventies Britain.
Most tracks on the album combine catchy melodies and rousing vocal harmonies, with lots of cranked-up Rickenbacker guitar work from Weller. Foxton supplies pile-driving basslines and Buckler delivers a hard-as-nails, uptempo backbeat. Brusque and edgy but with a keen pop sensibility and reflective lyrical themes, Setting Sons sounds more mature than most other new wave releases of this period, yet is no less powerful. The barnstorming hit single Eton Rifles is its masterpiece, but there are plenty of other highlights including Smithers-Jones and Wasteland – plus an impressive rework of Holland-Dozier-Holland’s Motown classic Heat Wave.
The album’s cover art – a photograph of Benjamin Clemens’ bronze sculpture of The St John’s Ambulance Bearers from 1919 – shows how wilfully contrarian the band were. In a world of glossy, seventies disco-dominated imagery, it was the polar opposite. Yet the album still became The Jam’s best selling long-player up to then, and laid a path for the band’s subsequent stellar chart success. The single Going Underground subsequently shot to the top of charts in early 1980, and made Paul Weller a musical superstar. He stayed in the media spotlight right up until the band split in December 1982 – citing musical differences – having racked up eighteen consecutive UK Top 40 singles. Setting Sons spent nineteen weeks on the UK album charts, getting to No. 4, and also achieved serious sales success in the United States, too.
Although you could never call this album an audiophile recording, it’s a powerful listening experience through a serious hi-fi system. The production is sparse, and in a way this works in its favour because it makes for a natural, organic tone. Musically excellent, it boasts super-tight, beautifully syncopated playing from Weller, Foxton and Buckler, plus a guest appearance from Mick Talbot on piano – who later went on to partner Weller in The Style Council.
Although not cheap, the Japanese ‘super deluxe’ SHM CD [Polydor UICY-76951] is the best sounding version, although new wave rock fans will love this album on any format.
To listen to all of our 2019 Album Of The Month picks visit our TIDAL playlist https://tidal.com/browse/playlist/05aa8463-bc28-4a26-a1d1-c8fad7c3c32b
As a general rule, the music I push in your direction via this column is on the “pure enjoyment” end of the stylistic scale. That’s not to say that I won’t suggest the odd work which stretches you slightly with a more modern-sounding harmonic language; and equally if you’re after “smooth classics” then I hope that I’m a crushing disappointment on that front too. Still, I’m not sure that I’ve ever gone quite so far as I am this month with my older recording choice, because it’s Shostakovich’s cantata for bass, chorus and orchestra, The Execution of Stepan Razin. This is not a well-known piece at all. In fact I’m not sure whether it’s even ever performed in the UK, and the only reason it’s entered my own radar is because it featured on the Russian leg of this month’s inaugural concert tour of a new Anglo-Russian orchestral initiative for conservatoire students, the Britten-Shostakovich Festival Orchestra, for which I have written the concert programme notes; and its sound and emotional world is so very unrelentingly harsh and violent-sounding that as I researched it my husband poked his head around the door of my office and asked in tones of horror, “What are you listening to? It’s horrible!” But the thing is, it’s fabulously horrible if you know what you’re listening to. Composed in 1964, it sets a poem by Shostakovich’s young Russian contemporary, the poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko, which tells the story of a seventeenth century Cossak leader Stepan Razin who led a peasant rebellion against the Tsar and was subsequently executed. Musically, it’s a big and bad: loud; harsh; primitive-sounding; a strong element of Russian folk; a relentlessly pounding beat; and both the orchestra’s and the singers’ lines constituting an unstable smorgasbord of shrieks, thumps, slides and stabs. Plus, modern scholarship has suggested that Shostakovich wove his DSCH monogram into the score in cloaked form, meaning that even whilst it was taken at face value when it was first presented to the Russian public, we can’t completely rule out the possibility that there was a contemporary political subtext to the work too. The recording I’ve chosen for you is the one made in 1967 by the Moscow Philharmonic under Kiril Kondrashin.
Clearly after that we need something a little less thumpingly severe. So I’ve gone from obscure to core repertoire, and the recording debut of the Sinfonia Grange au Lac under Esa-Pekka Salonen with Beethoven’s Symphony No 3 “Eroica”. Next Serious Classical meets Hollywood for John Wilson’s glittering new recording of Korngold’s Symphony No 3. We then finish back where we began, i.e. with death, but this one is of the heavenly variety: Brahms’s Ein Deutsches Requiem, from the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra and Chorus under Daniel Harding.
Beethoven: Symphony No 3 “Eroica” and Strauss Metamorphosen – Sinfonia Grange au Lac/Esa-Pekka Salonen on alpha – tracks 2-5 Eroica
If you’re not fully immersed in the classical music world, and indeed also with an eye not just on your own nation’s classical scene but also the international one, then there’s every possibility that you will never have heard of the Sinfonia Grange au Lac. However it’s well worth getting acquainted with it, for this is the orchestra which forms each year for Switzerland’s prestigious Rencontres Musicales d’Evian (founded in 1985 by the great Russian cellist Mstislav Rostripovich and then revived in 2014), and its players are a heavyweight bunch: musicians from leading European orchestras in Amsterdam, Berlin, Frankfurt, Leipzig, London, Munich, Paris, Saltzburg, Valencia and Vienna, who have been handpicked by its equally heavyweight Finnish conductor, Esa-Pekka Salonen. Furthermore, they’re blessed with a permanent concert hall admired for its fine acoustics – La Grange, which despite its name is possibly the swankiest “barn” ever constructed: crafted almost entirely from wood in homage to Rostropovich and his cello (cedar and pine, with birch panelling behind the stage), with statement chandeliers, and a huge aluminum shell for a ceiling. This live recording of Strauss’s Metamorphosen and Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony No 3 is the orchestra’s first, and it’s a story throughout of classy, committed playing which makes these repertoire crowd-pleasers sound thoroughly fresh. I’ve given you the Beethoven.
Korngold: Scherzo from Symphony in F sharp Major from John Wilson on Chandos
It’s a taken a bit of a while for artists to begin to thoroughly explore the concert music of Austro-Hungarian composer Eric Korngold, at least beyond the Violin Concerto he wrote for legendary twentieth century violinist Jascha Heifetz. The reason is in large part down to the fact that Korngold primarily made his name as one of Hollywood’s greatest film composers, which unfairly was a fast-track way to not be taken terribly seriously by the serious classical fraternity; and certainly much of his “serious” music does have a Hollywood-friendly element – dramatic, accessible even when sounding a bit more angular, a luminous quality to its romantic writing, and plenty of heroic quality. In fact my daughter when she was little once approvingly described the Violin Concerto as sounding like Disney. However, what’s wrong with crowd-pleasing music if it’s brilliantly written, with an absolute mastery over form? Furthermore, Korngold was probably the first composer to bring classical tricks of the trade into film music, such as attaching certain music to a certain character. As for this particular album, there couldn’t be a better person to bring Korngold’s concert music to life than John Wilson, lauded as he is both for his John Wilson Orchestra’s interpretations of film and Big Band music, and as Associate Guest Conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra; and he’s imparted all that prowess across light and classical music to the Sinfonia of London. On the menu are the Symphony in F sharp major, the Theme and Variations Op 42 and Straussiana. I’ve given you the Symphony’s second movement Scherzo here – a fabulously colourful movement which has more than a shade of Star Wars about it for those with an ear to hear it. Enjoy!
Brahms Ein Deutsches Requiem – Karg, Goerne, Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra and Radio Choir, Daniel Harding on Harmonia Mundi
When it comes to requiems that keep to softly comforting music and dispense with the traditional hellfire-and-brimstone Dies Irae movement (that’s the one which warns of judgement beyond the grave), it’s Faure’s Requiem which pops first into people’s minds – a work so very serene and peaceful that it’s actually been dubbed his “lullaby of death”. However the requiem Brahms wrote just over twenty years earlier, inspired by the death of his mother and of his friend Robert Schumann, comes pretty close, because it likewise focusses on giving comfort to the living: talking about God’s eternity, and about how wonderful heaven is. Plus, to ensure that his audience knew exactly what they were hearing, Brahms unusually didn’t set words from the traditional Latin-language mass for the dead, but instead set words drawn straight from the Bible, and sung in German. Recorded in Stockholm’s Berwaldhallen, this reading from Daniel Harding and the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra and Choir is beautifully pitched, capturing all the music’s combination of glow and sobriety, and the soloists’ voices are equally a great fit for the repertoire: clear, light soprano tones from Christiane Karg, contrasted with Matthias Goerne’s creamy baritone. I’ve given you the first movement.
Not all tracks are were available on TIDAL at the time of publishing so please try our QOBUZ PLAYLIST for full listings.
New Order was one of the select few bands that made the musical weather in the nineteen eighties. It – like The Smiths, The Cure and Simple Minds – laid down a powerful template for others to copy or rework. As Joy Division, guitarist Bernard Sumner, bass player Peter Hook and drummer Stephen Morris dominated Britain’s independent music scene of the late seventies, but their success was tragically curtailed when lead singer Ian Curtis committed suicide in May 1980.
They swiftly reinvented themselves as New Order, and went on to shape the pop music scene of the new decade. Whereas Joy Division had given the world intense, angst-ridden, guitar-dominated indie rock, the new band embraced the fast emerging world of electronics. New Order was clearly influenced by German avant-garde electro pioneers Kraftwerk, yet still fashioned a distinctly British – Northern English, if truth be told – sound, with Sumner’s dour vocals and Hook’s throbbing bass guitar playing. These were set against the pristine synthesiser work of Gillian Gilbert, stripped bare by producer Martin Hannett and then gilded by Peter Saville’s striking cover art.
By the time that Technique was released on the 30th January, 1989, the band had been on a roller-coaster ride. It had experienced huge chart success with Blue Monday five and a half years earlier, setting a template for electro dance music that still sounds fresh today. Limited album success followed, with each one getting more polished to the point that singles like 1987’s True Faith were perfect mainstream pop songs. The big question was where would the band go next? The answer was back to dance music, to a sound that had changed dramatically in just a few years. Recorded at Mediterranean Studios, Ibiza – and also Peter Gabriel’s Real World Studios in Wiltshire – Technique was an interesting fusion of Balearic house music and New Order’s traditional sound.
The band’s fifth studio album feels upbeat, propulsive and catchy – but is still dominated by Hook’s rock-style basslines, together with Sumner’s thoughtful lyrics delivered in his trademark deadpan way. Technique lacks the glib cheeriness of many chart-topping dance acts of that time, instead having a brooding intensity that gives the album great poignancy. Hook later joked that that the recording session became, ”an epic power struggle between the sequencers and me. I was resisting it valiantly, because I still wanted us to be a rock band.” Three singles were released, Fine Time, Round & Round and Run, although arguably these aren’t the strongest tracks – Vanishing Point and Dream Attack are better still.
Technique turned out to be the end of an era, the band’s final release on the legendary Factory Records label. New Order had effectively bankrolled Tony Wilson’s company for much of the eighties, but the commercial failure of a new Happy Mondays album cleaned him out, and the band was forced to leave. Fortunately, this was New Order’s most successful long player, and the band’s first to reach number one in the British charts. This great piece of electronic dance music – fused with an indie rock sensibility – is well worth seeking out. The first Japanese CD release [Factory – 25CY-3083] is arguably the best pressing to have, but all versions sound punchy and fun.
To listen to the album on TIDAL click https://tidal.com/browse/album/51462429
For all of our 2019 AOTM choices please visit https://tidal.com/browse/playlist/05aa8463-bc28-4a26-a1d1-c8fad7c3c32b
Every so often with this column I kick myself over “the ones that got away”, i.e. the new releases I didn’t manage to cover when they were newly out, but which I’ve since discovered and fallen for. The latest one of these is French countertenor Philippe Jaroussky’s March 2019 release, Ombra mai fù, but happily it’s also one whose title track is just begging to be juxtaposed with an old recording, meaning that I can still feature it at the top of this month’s playlist without breaking the “old recording first” template (or at least that’s the line I’m sticking to). The reason for this is that Jaroussky’s album title is a cheekily misleading one, because whilst Ombra mai fù will instantly have opera and Baroque music fans dreamily humming Handel’s much-loved aria of that name, here it’s referring instead to a setting of the text by an Italian composer and pupil of Monteverdi who had died before Handel was even born: Francesco Cavalli. This Cavalli aria has been a new discovery for me, and it couldn’t have finer champions than Jaroussky and his band Artaserse. So that’s what I’ve given you here, preceded by a heavenly-sounding 1999 recording of the Handel version from Andreas Scholl with the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin. Do then look up the remainder of Jaroussky’s and Antaserse’s Cavalli programme, because it’s all wonderful.
On to this month’s new releases, and these begin with a brand new period instrument recording of the first version of Mahler’s Symphony No 1 from Francois Xavier-Roth and Les Siecles. Next it’s early music vocal ensemble Vox luminis, with cantatas written by members of the Bach family. We then close with the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin once again, this time with their latest Handel release, of six of the Opus 6 Concerti grossi.
Mahler Symphony No 1 “Titan”, Les Siècles/François-Xavier Roth
Mahler’s Symphony No 1 had a rather painful and protracted birth, because whilst the final 1894 version we play today has the standard symphonic four movements, there were two previous versions. The first, premiered in Budapest in 1889, was a five-movement work split into two parts, the extra movement being its second, “Blumine”, which is now played as a stand-alone work. “Blumine” is still there in the second version Mahler came up with between 1893 and 1894 in Hamburg, where he’d moved to be Kapellmeister. However he now also gave the symphony a loosely programmatic element by nicknaming it “Titan” (after a book by a favourite author of his, John Paul), to convey the idea of a hero struggling through the battles of life; and it’s this second “Hamburg” version of the symphony which period performance specialist François-Xavier Roth with his orchestra Les Siècles has recorded for the very first time (live), after working with the original manuscripts and with Mahler scholars. Les Siècles are also on the types of instruments it would originally have been played on, which makes for a particularly noticeable difference in the brass and woodwind sections, with a wonderfully more tactile, less polished edge to their sound. I’ve given you the first movement, whose opening thoroughly places the spotlight on those two sections as they utter a mix of distant fanfares, and sounds of the countryside.
Bach Kantaten: Vox luminis, Lionel Meunier on Ricercar
Johann Michael Bach: Ach bleib bei uns, Herr Jesu Christ (track 1)
If you hear the name Bach, then it’s Johann Sebastian who instantly pops every head. Perhaps followed, if you’re relatively knowledgable, by his sons, most notably CPE Bach. However the Bach musical lineage didn’t by any means begin with the Great JS. Au contraire, he came from a long line of musical talents, and one with multiple branches. Vox Luminis and Lionel Meunier have already recorded the complete motets composed by Johann Sebastian’s ancestors, and now this gorgeously rendered album sees them turn their attentions to his ancestors’ complete spiritual concerts and sacred cantatas: works in which you’ll hear that instruments, and particularly strings, play an important role. I’ve chosen “Ach bleib bei uns, Herr Jesu Christ” (“Oh abide with us, our Lord Jesus Christ”) for you here, which is by Bach’s second cousin Johann Michael Bach. This particular relative was just that little bit older than him – 1648-1694 against Johann Sebastian’s 1685-1750 – and you can hear that in its slightly more ancient language. In fact to my ears there are shades of Heinrich Schütz (1615-1672), who incidentally is viewed by many as Germany’s greatest composer before Johann Sebastien Bach. Enjoy the beautiful blending and smooth agility of Vox Luminis’s voices and their sympathetic reading of the texts. Also though, make sure you soak up the gorgeous strings introduction with the timbrally bristling, intonational consonance of its chords, and the delicious little curves you hear in their sound across the phrasings, bowings and ornamentations.
Handel Concerti grossi – Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin (Pentatone)
Handel’s Concerti grossi were late-career works written in London to serve as interludes to his English oratorio performances. This recording of the first six of the twelve-strong Opus 6 set marks the beginning of a Handel trilogy from the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin, led by their first violinist Bernhard Forck, and based on these performances it promises to be a very fine trilogy indeed. Speeds are sprightly but dignified, with bags of dancing charm and elegance, and an overall polish of attack which sits on the smoother end of the Baroque band spectrum. Textures and balance are all hugely enjoyable too, both in the tutti and solo sections: wonderfully stringy-sounding (but still soft) strings, oboes just that little bit further back, complemented by a nice amount of theorbo, and with harpsichord softly ringing in the background. I’ve given you No 2 in warm F major.