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!
Back in January I promised an above-average proportion of Beethoven on my 2020 playlists, in honour of this 250th anniversary year of his birth. This month I’m keeping to that promise by opening with his “Emperor” Piano Concerto No 5, recorded live in concert in 1979 by Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, in Vienna’s Musikverein with the Vienna Symphoniker under Carlo Maria Giulini. This is the album I’ve contributed to Deutsche Grammophon’s Cult Classics Beethoven series of film shorts, in which 25 music journalists from around the world champion a favourite DG Beethoven classic recording, so if you want to hear everything I have to say about it then you can find that film either via the record label’s Beethoven2020 website beethoven-playon.com/videos or via YouTube. However, in a nutshell, what makes this recording stand out for me is the freshness of the actual readings, Michelangeli’s personal combination of rhythmic precision and clarity of tone, and the fact that the piano itself is both brimming with its own distinctive character, and a perfect match for Michelangeli’s playing. Plus, it sounds absolutely glorious through the dCS Bartok.
Moving on to this month’s new releases, these are a stringy but very contrasting trio: rising British viola player Timothy Ridout’s concerto recording debut; the latest installment in Giovanni Antonini’s ongoing Haydn 2032 project with Alpha Classics; then violinist Isabelle Faust and pianist Alexander Melnikov’s second volume of Mozart Sonatas for Fortepiano and Violin.
Music for Viola & Chamber Orchestra: Vaughan Williams, Martinu, Hindemith & Britten – Timothy Ridout, Orchestre de Chambre de Lausanne/Phillips (Claves)
It’s quite an opening gambit to proclaim that rising British viola player Timothy Ridout has a sound of a knock-out clarity, richness and overall quality that only comes around every couple of generations in the viola world. However that’s what I think, and you’ll hear what I mean once you’ve heard even the opening seconds of this first concerto recording from him – his prize for winning the 2019 young artists’ competition at Swiss festival, Sommets Musical de Gstaad. Featuring twentieth century works for viola and chamber orchestra by Vaughan Williams, Martinů, Hindemith and Britten, this is fairly certain to become one of my top recordings of the entire year. Ridout himself shines with that aforementioned gorgeous tone, and a musical maturity far beyond his early-twenties age. Then there’s the rapturous support from Jamie Phillips and the Orchestre de Chambre de Lausanne, Philips deftly bringing out all the scores’ beautiful chamber moments. Plus, all of this is brought out to an achingly lovely degree by the vibrant and polished engineering. I’ve given you the three-strong Group I from Vaughan William’s Suite for Viola and Orchestra.
Haydn 2032 – No 8 – Roxolana, Il Giardino Armonico/Antonini (Alpha)
Haydn 2032 is the project between the Josef Haydn Foundation of Basel, Alpha Classics and conductor Giovanni Antonini which aims to have recorded all Haydn’s 107 symphonies before the 300th anniversary of his birth in 2032. I’ve featured the series before on Only the Music, but I’m especially enthusiastic about this eighth installment, for which Antonini leads period ensemble Il Giardino Armonico. Celebrating Haydn’s love for and contact with the folk music of the Habsburg Empire in which he lived, it leads with Symphony No 63 in C major, titled “La Roxolana” after the famous sixteenth-century sultana who was the wife of Suleiman the Magnificent after having been his slave, and also features the “Mercury” Symphony No 43 and Symphony No 28. All three zing with life, but for me the album’s magic ingredient is Antonini’s having chosen to complement the symphonies with two works showing how other composers of the region were also inspired by its folk music: Bartók’s Romanian Folk Dances of 1917, and an anonymous late 17th century sonata for two violins, three violas and basso continuo imitatingthe traditional Hanák music of the Haná region in what is now Moravia. The result is unusually original and exotic-sounding for a Haydn programme, and its various ingredients play superbly and enlighteningly off each other. To demonstrate the success of the juxtapositioning, I’ve given all of Bartók’s Romanian Dances (which absolutely fizz), preceded by the final movement of Symphony No 43, which sits just before them in the actual running order.
Mozart: Violin Sonata in F major, from Mozart: Sonatas from Fortepiano & Violin, Vol 2, Isabelle Faust/Alexander Melnikov (Harmonia Mundi)
You’d be hard pushed to find a violinist today with more natural Mozart bones than violinist Isabelle Faust. Her Mozart Violin Concertos for Harmonia Mundi won Gramophone Recording of the Year in 2017. Then in 2018 she released a well-received Volume 1 of the violin sonatas with her longtime duo partner, Melnikov. Now here’s Volume 2, and it’s very fine indeed. Recorded with her “Sleeping Beauty” Stradivarius strung with period gut strings, and Melnikov on fortepiano, it’s clearly one which will appeal especially to those who like that slightly more tactile period-forces sound – a stringy earthiness to the violin’s sweetness, against the jewel-like brightness and delicacy of the fortepiano, and overall the especial intimacy that these quieter-than-modern forces bring to the table. However with the gossamer delicacy of their passagework, their range of colour, attack and dynamics, and the fact that as ever they’re as one in both musical thought and technical execution, it should also be well capable of wooing those who normally prefer their Mozart on modern metal strings and concert grand. I’ve chosen their programme-opening Sonata in F major K376 for you here.
Playlist available on
The nineteen eighties was the golden age of what we now call “synth wave”, electronic synthesiser-based music that’s epic in scale and hypnotic in rhythm. Although its roots go back to German electronic music pioneers Kraftwerk, Britain’s Trevor Horn played a major part in turning it from conceptual music to mainstream pop. His work with The Buggles and Frankie Goes to Hollywood made the genre a near permanent fixture at the top of the UK charts, but arguably his finest hour was Propaganda’s A Secret Wish.
Because Horn was such a towering figure, many assume Propaganda to be manufactured band of his – yet it was actually the creation of Ralf Dörper. A former member of industrial band Die Krupps, he was a formidable talent with ambition to venture beyond his indie roots. After a few lineup changes, he settled with classically trained musician and composer Michael Mertens, and singers Claudia Brücken and Susanne Freytag. The band signed to ZTT Records in 1984, a record label that was largely the brainchild of Horn and former New Musical Express writer Paul Morley.
Propaganda moved to the UK, where they received powerful image shaping from Morley, and duly released their first single Dr Mabuse – a reference to a character in a Fritz Lang film. Then the album sessions began, with engineer Stephen Lipson in a production role because Horn was too busy with Frankie Goes to Hollywood. The band released Duel as a single in April 1985, then the album surfaced in July. The single p:Machinery followed in August, and the band began touring with former Simple Minds men Derek Forbes and Brian McGee on bass and drums respectively, plus Kevin Armstrong on guitar.
If you’re a fan of intelligent pop music, then A Secret Wish will charm you. A seriously strong package, it boasts a string of excellent songs – opening with Edgar Allen Poe’s A Dream Within a Dream poem set to a trancey synthesised backdrop, and with a loving cover version of Scottish indie pop legend Josef K’s Sorry For Laughing. The three singles are also included, and throughout the album you can hear the voices and/or playing of Steve Howe (Yes), David Sylvian (Japan) and Glenn Gregory (Heaven 17).
A Secret Wish is a rich tapestry of sounds, packed with period early eighties electronics such as Fairlight CMI, DMX and DSX synthesisers, Roland M5 keyboards and Linn drums. It’s a self-contained, expansive musical soundscape that pushed the limits of what was possible technologically, back in the day. It has an epic, windswept feel with multiple musical layers, catchy tunes and crashing beats. Dorper’s lyrics – ‘assisted’ by Paul Morley and delivered by Claudia Brücken’s icy voice – are suitably grandiose.
Recorded on an early Sony PCM-1610 digital recorder, it’s by no stretch of imagination a great hi-fi album – but the chilly, grey patina does suit its gothic feel. The CD release was actually a light remix of the LP, with a three month delay giving Stephen Lipson time to improve it slightly – but the 2003 SACD ZTT [ZTT183SACD] is by far the best way to experience this long, lost synth pop gem.
As I’ve been writing this month’s dCS Only the Music my mind has been full of two other large scale commissions from Gramophone and The Strad, the two magazines in which I’m most often to be found. The Gramophone piece is a Collection on Beethoven’s Violin Concerto – that’s where the critic listens to every single recording of a musical work, then picks twenty or so to discuss at length before announcing their top choices; and the first electrical recording of the Beethoven was made in 1926 by Jascha Heifetz with Toscanini. The Strad piece meanwhile is an extended opinion for the magazine’s 130th anniversary issue, assessing where we are today in terms of playing and recording trends, and making some predictions about the future. Unsurprisingly, the Gramophone piece is giving me food for thought with the one for The Strad, and it’s got me thinking afresh about the degree to which modern playing is far less varied than it was up to the first half of the 20th century, simply because in a recordings-heavy, online, global-travel world in which everyone is listening to everyone else, individuality is a tough ask. Don’t read that and think I’m depressed about where we are now – I think these are particularly exciting times for classical music, and our industry’s pulse is currently beating more healthily with each passing year – but the individuality thing is nevertheless interesting. So for my February classic recording I’ve decided to leap back more substantially in time then I’ve been doing of late, to give you Bronislaw Huberman’s almost wildly impulsive 1934 recording of the Beethoven concerto first movement with the Vienna Philharmonic under George Szell. Followed by the same movement from Christian Ferras in 1963 with Sir Malcolm Sargeant and the gloriously fulsome Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, which is equally distinctive in Ferras’s own, highly polished way.
Trumpeter Simon Höfele then opens this month’s new releases with his Standards album of classic trumpet concertos. Next there’s Bach keyboard works transcribed for viol consort by Phantasm, before we conclude with Byrd and Kesha from The King’s Singers.
Standards – Simon Höfele on (Berlin Classics)
When 25 year old German trumpeter Simon Höfele’s previous two recordings were attention-grabbing for their ambitious, non-standard programmes – avant-garde works for his Mysteries album of 2018, and a cornucopia of 20th and 21st-century works for Concertino in 2017 – I love that this current ECHO Rising Star and recent BBC New Generation Artist is now giving us an album devoted to the famous “standards” of the trumpet repertoire: Haydn’s trumpet Concerto in E flat major, preceded by the E major concerto written for the same trumpeter by Haydn’s pupil, Johann Nepomuk Hummel; then Copland’s bluesy Quiet City of 1939, followed by Armenian composer Alexander Arutjunjan’s 1950 Trumpet Concerto in A flat major. However while we’ve moved from lesser-spotted to always-spotted, what has remained constant is the fresh zing and vibrant virtuosity with which Höfele has approached every piece, and the elegance and multi-coloured versatility of his tone. Plus he’s superbly matched at every turn by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra (Hummel and Haydn) and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales (Copland and Arutjunjan) under Duncan Ward. For dCS I’ve programmed the Haydn concerto followed by the Copland.
Johann Sebastian Bach – The Well-Tempered Consort– 1 by Phantasm (Linn records)
While it was the harpsichord for which Johann Sebastian Bach wrote his many non-sacred keyboard masterpieces, the fact that its strings are plucked rather than struck – meaning it’s capable neither of sustaining notes nor of achieving dynamics (beyond increasing the number of notes being played at any one time) – means it’s also an instrument with distinct expressive limitations. So it’s interesting that although in general Bach’s music has been transcribed countless times, it’s been less common to rearrange the major keyboard works, beyond simply moving them onto a modern piano. Certainly it’s a first for them to have been transcribed as they have here: backwards in time, and geographically sideways across the English Channel, to the viol consorts beloved of the English from Tudor times until around the 1680s when Bach himself was born. Phantasm’s programme is drawn largely from the two Well-Tempered Clavier books, the Musical Offering and the Clavier-Übung III, and it’s a feast of fresh expressive tricks and psychological insights, coupled with the fascination of suddenly hearing links between these great fugal German works and the British Fantasy form. Beautifully shaped, deftly articulated and warmly captured, it’s no wonder Phantasm is already planning a second volume for 2021. I’ve given you the Prelude and Fugue No 22 from the Well-Tempered Clavier Book 1 and Kyrie, Gott heiliger Geist from Clavier-Übung III.
King’s Singers from Finding Harmony (Signum)
All-male a cappella group The King’s Singers celebrated their fiftieth anniversary season in 2018. Yet even with that sort of longevity it’s doubtful whether any of their previous album titles are quite so weighted in meaning as In Harmony is, referring as it does not just to their actual musical craft of harmonising with each other, and to their reputation for multi-national, multi-style and multi-genre programmes, but also to music’s ability to give people of different or even warring nationalities and opinions a common language with which to connect. The programme itself then explores particular songs from throughout history which have either brought communities together behind a common cause, or have helped to give identity to people whose culture or language has been threatened in some way. For instance the American civil rights movement is represented by This little light of mine. Or there’s Mu ismaa on minu arm from Estonia, which which came to represent the country’s largely peaceful “Singing Revolution” of the late 1980s, which helped to eject the occupying Soviet forces. For this playlist I’ve chosen Ne irascaris, Domine, a motet depicting the Israelites’ captivity in Babylon written by William Byrd, a secret Catholic at the court of Protestant Elizabeth I. Then the album’s following track, Praying, written in 2017 by singer-songwriter Kesha, whose name and experiences became synonymous with the #MeToo movement; and while on the one hand this pair represents quite the leap in time, faith and emotion, they’re ultimately both songs about spiritual redemption. Add the King’s Singers’ trademark smooth beauty and warmth, and the segue is one of the most effective across the whole album.
Note: Johann Sebastian Bach – The Well-Tempered Consort– 1 by Phantasm (Linn records) is unavailable on TIDAL or Qobuz and therefore does not appear on the playlist
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.
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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