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!
“In one of his headmaster’s reports, it said that none of us seemed to know him very well. All the way through with Nick. People didn’t know him very much.” So said Nicholas Rodney Drake’s father, about his son who died tragically early at the age of twenty six, on the 25th November, 1974. The brother of successful seventies screen actress Gabrielle, he was old beyond his years, having a precocious talent that he found hard to handle. He recorded three studio albums, the most complete of which is surely Bryter Layter.
His death was down to an overdose of anti-depressants, Drake having struggled with his mental health for several years. Yet music was his release; at an early age he learned to play piano, compose songs and record them on the family’s open reel tape recorder. Then he bought a guitar, took up busking and then went to university. At Cambridge in 1967 he met his closest future collaborator, music student Robert Kirby, then hooked up with American music producer Joe Boyd. As the jigsaw pieces slotted together, a record contract followed and he duly dropped out of Cambridge to record his debut album, Five Leaves Left.
The essential components of his sound were in place; Boyd insisted on “no shiny pop reverb” on the vocals, and Kirby’s string arrangements were deliberately sparse. Still, his debut long-player was a patchy affair and Drake showed few signs of being proud of it. Then in August 1969, he went into BBC’s Maida Vale studio to record five songs for John Peel; Cello Song, Three Hours, River Man, Time of No Reply and Bryter Layter. These formed the centrepiece of his second and best album, which went on to be released on 6th March, 1971. Recorded the previous year at Sound Techniques studio in London, it featured collaborations with several Fairport Convention members and The Velvet Underground’s John Cale, plus Beach Boys Mike Kowalski and Ed Carter. This was fitting because Robert Kirby had said that Drake wanted to channel Pet Sounds.
Although Bryter Layter was technically a nineteen seventies album, in mood, style and production it harked back three years to the psychedelic era – to the likes of Love’s Forever Changes and The Beach Boys’ Surf’s Up. Admittedly it’s a little darker and more pensive, but is still packed with beautiful and contemplative songs with delightful instrumental texture. Producer Joe Boyd expected it to be a smash hit, yet it initially sold under 3,000 copies; Melody Maker grudgingly described it as, “an awkward mix of folk and cocktail jazz”.
Boyd moved back to the United States, leaving Drake to record the follow-up Pink Moon alone, and the result was a gloomier and more introspective work that reflected his declining mental health. After his death, his work soon began to be re-evaluated however, and is now credited as influencing many luminaries, from The Cure’s Robert Smith to REM’s Peter Buck. Bryter Later is now widely regarded as a folk/rock masterpiece, and has propelled Nick Drake posthumously to the status of genius. On silver disc, the Japanese remaster [Island Records UICY-3038] is the one to have.
Listen to all of our 2019 AOTM picks on TIDAL https://tidal.com/playlist/05aa8463-bc28-4a26-a1d1-c8fad7c3c32b
Having begun March’s Only the Music with a major living conductor’s ninetieth birthday, I’m going to devote this month’s classic recording to the great cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, who would have turned ninety two last month had he not died in 2007. Born in Baku, Azerbaijhan, in 1927, Rostropovich had a profound impact on the musical world over the second half of the twentieth century. Cellists can thank him for being the person for whom Shostakovich wrote both his cello concertos, as for whom Benjamin Britten wrote cello masterpieces including the three solo cello Suites. His teaching legacy has also been profound, and is still within touching distance today through major pupils of his such as Mischa Maisky and Frans Helmerson. So whilst ninety two may not be a notable anniversary, his birthday nevertheless saw social media awash with tributes to him. Plus, he holds a special corner in my own heart for being the musician who first woke me up to the riches to be found amongst the “classic” recordings of the past, via his 1975 Abbey Road recording for EMI of Haydn’s Cello Concerto No 1 in C major, directing the Academy of St Martin in the Fields from his cello. I was 21 at the time, the disc was a spare one which had been slipped onto my desk at Radio 3, and I’ll never forget the moment, sitting there with my headphones on, when Rostropovich made his first entry. That shining, singing tone… I was transfixed, and almost twenty years later I still instantly melt when I hear it.
Moving onto this month’s new releases, cellist BBC New Generation Artist Anastasia Kobekina’s first orchestral recording; then more Haydn but this time Easter-themed, with The Seven Last Words of Christ on the Cross from Ensemble Resonanz under Riccardo Minasi.
Cello and Orchestra: Shostakovich, Weinberg and Kobekin – Anastasia Kobekina, Berner Symphonieorchester/Kevin John Edusei
The Russian cellist Anastasia Kobekina isn’t yet a well-known name in the UK, but that’s set to change fast. Firstly because last autumn she joined the BBC New Generation Artist scheme, meaning that increasingly she’ll be popping up on BBC Radio 3 airwaves and upon stages around the country. Secondly because this first major release and first orchestral recording of hers is already turning heads. Gifted to her by the Swiss festival Sommets Musicaux de Gstaad for winning their annual young artists competition, the album is a beguiling and powerful celebration of three generations of the Soviet-Russian school of composition, featuring Dimitri Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No 1, Mieczyslaw Weinberg’s Fantasy for Cello and Orchestra, and the Bacchants for Cello and Orchestra by Kobekina’s own father, Vladimir Kobekin. Kobekina has made each and every one of these works her own; in fact never have I heard a more lyrical and ravishing-toned reading of the Shostakovich. However it’s Weinberg’s more pastoral 1956 work on this playlist, and I defy anyone not to be instantly seduced.
Haydn: The Seven Last Words of Christ, Ensemble Resonanz/Riccardo Minasi
Commissioned in 1786 for the Good Friday service at the Oratorio de la Santa Cueva in Cadiz, Haydn’s Seven Last Words of the Cross of Christ is an orchestral work composed to a very unique brief: seven contemplative slow movements to be played as the bishop prostrated himself at the alter in between seven mini-sermons on the seven last words uttered by Jesus on the cross. To these Haydn also added an introduction and a short climactic movement depicting the earthquake following the crucifixion, and when you factor in that this was all played out with black cloth covering the church’s windows, walls and pillars, the premiere must have been powerful stuff. On to this recording of it from Hamburg-based chamber orchestra Ensemble Resonanz under Riccardo Minasi, and this is the latest installment of an exploration of Eighteenth Century orchestral music which last year won them a Diapason d’Or for their cello concertos and symphonies of CPE Bach. Plus, interestingly, what sets these period-aware performances apart is the fact that, whilst the ensemble can and do use period-appropriate gut strings, for this series they’ve instead taken up the challenge of performing on modern metal strings, and the highly-charged results are proof that there’s more to sounding “period” than going authentic with your instruments. This playlist features the movement depicting the third words, “Behold your son, behold your mother”, when Jesus entrusts his mother Mary to the protection of the disciple he loved: one of the more serene moments, which beautifully showcases the rhetorical skills at play across the album. We then zip ahead to the climactic final earthquake, where the group’s virtuosity is on full display.
Listen to the full playlist on TIDAL https://tidal.com/playlist/d55e6baf-2cfc-4d5c-b506-d8f9a89cbf85
Any self-respecting nineteen eighties indie rock fan regarded Manchester as his or her mecca. From Joy Division and New Order to The Smiths, Stone Roses and Happy Mondays, the city turned out a torrent of great British bands that went on to indelibly stamp pop music in their own image. Some remained in splendid isolation with limited chart success, whilst others made it big right across the Western world and Japan.
Behind the famous names, there was a lower tier of Manchester acts that also showed flashes of brilliance, from The Bodines and The Charlatans to James and 808 State. One of the least well known – yet highly influential to other, far more commercial bands – was The Chameleons. Some critics regard their debut album Script of the Bridge as one of the best post-punk albums ever. What’s indisputable is that the band’s sound influenced a number of more successful groups across the decades, from The Cult and The Mission to The Killers, Elbow and Editors.
At the time of its release on the 8th August, 1983, Script of the Bridge sounded strikingly different to what had come before. Contemporary music journalists spoke about it as being a “sonic cathedral” no less, as it blended a massive Phil Spector-like wall of sound with hard, crunchy guitars set against a spacious, atmospheric backdrop. Recorded in Cargo Studios in Rochdale, England, and produced by the band and Colin Richardson – who later worked with Slipknot – it was hardly mainstream stuff. Yet if you’re a fan of dark, dour, brooding guitar rock then you’ll find this album still sounds very special, thirty five years on. Although the term wasn’t in common usage in 1983, many people would now call it ‘Goth’.
Formed in Middleton, Greater Manchester, England in 1981, the original lineup was Mark Burgess on bass guitar and vocals, Reg Smithies and Dave Fielding on guitars, and John Lever on drums. Steve Lillywhite produced their first single In Shreds in March 1982 on Epic Records, but they soon moved to Statik Records, a subsidiary of Virgin Records, due to artistic differences. Technically they were not an independent record label, which meant they didn’t qualify for their key target market, followers of the New Musical Express’s Independent Charts, and this made it hard for them to get exposure. The album’s four singles – Up the Down Escalator, Don’t Fall, As High as You Can Go, and A Person Isn’t Safe Anywhere These Days – all made little imprint on the British pop charts. Two years later, The Cult’s She Sells Sanctuary was a global hit – despite being close in style, sound and quality to everything on Script of the Bridge.
This sultry yet poignant sounding classic album has remained in obscurity for over a generation; original vinyl pressings are now expensive collectors’ items for those in the know, but the first Compact Disc [Statik Records CDST 17] from 1985 is still affordable and sounds good via a serious digital front end. Just over a decade ago, a remaster was issued with an extra live CD [Blue Apple Music BAMCD01]; this is worth having but lacks the original release’s sonic purity. Either way – providing that you like atmospheric guitar rock – it is hard not to be impressed by the sheer power, breadth and depth of Script of the Bridge.
To listen to all of our 2019 AOTM picks visit https://tidal.com/playlist/05aa8463-bc28-4a26-a1d1-c8fad7c3c32b
It’s a major birthday that gets the spotlight for Only the Music’s March classic recording: that of the Dutch conductor Bernard Haitink, who celebrates his 90th this month. Haitink’s career has been an illustrious one, past roles including Amsterdam Concertgebouw Chief Conductor (1961-1988), London Philharmonic Orchestra Principal Conductor (1967-1979), Glyndebourne Music Director (1978-1988), and Royal Opera House Covent Garden Music Director (1987-2002). Plus, his concert diary is still a busy one, much as he’s planning a well-deserved sabbatical for next season. January’s Only the Music featured his recent recording with Gautier Capuçon and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe of Schumann’s Cello Concerto. For this birthday shout, I’ve chosen to celebrate his relationship with the London Philharmonic with their 1999 recording of Ralph Vaughan Williams’s In the Fen Country.
Moving on to the month’s new releases, these begin with French harpist Anaïs Gaudemard’s impressive debut recital for Harmonia Mundi, continue with two-violin French Baroque music from Johannes Pramsohler and Roldán Bernabé, before fortepianist Kristian Bezuidenhout plays us out with Haydn.
Anaïs Gaudemard: Solo
Henriette Renié – Légende in F minor 1HR.10
French harpist Anaïs Gaudemard’s career has been on a fast upwards trajectory since her 2016 debut album on the Swiss record label Claves, which was a concerto recording gifted to her as winner of the Sommets Musicaux de Gstaad festival’s young artist competition. Since then she’s been nominated by the Philharmonie de Paris and the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation in Lisbon for the prestigious ECHO (European Concert Hall Organisation) Rising Stars scheme, and now comes this first album for Harmonia Mundi through its young artist Harmonia Nova series: a solo harp recital designed to show off the instrument’s stylistic and colouristic range through repertoire ranging from Scarlatti and CPE Bach through to Hindemith. It’s an immensely beguiling listen from start to finish, and for dCS I’ve chosen the programme’s curtain-raiser, the other-worldly Légende in F minor first published in 1904 by the French harpist-composer Henriette Renié.
Sonatas for Two Violins Without Bass – Johannes Pramsohler/Roldán Bernabé
Louis-Gabriel Guilleman – Sonata in D minor, Op.4 no.2
Baroque violinist Johannes Pramsohler combines a busy touring and teaching schedule with a penchant for sight-reading stacks of completely unknown music from libraries around the world, on the look-out for gems worth bringing back to life. These musical hunts have yielded some intriguing and unfailingly superb recordings over the years, with his Ensemble Diderot on his own CD label Audax. This latest, for which he’s joined by his fellow Ensemble Diderot violinist Roldán Bernabé, celebrates the largely forgotten genre of “sonata for two solo violins without bass”, which enjoyed a short vogue in eighteenth century France as the country basked in a golden period of violin virtuosi. On the menu are works from violinist-composers Louise-Gabriel Guillemain (1705-1770), Jean-Marie Leclair (1697-1764), Jean-Pierre Guignon (1702-1774) and Étienne Mangean (c1710-c1756), with world premieres by Guignon and Mangean. It’s Guilleman’s Sonata in D minor I’ve chosen here though, rather than one of the premieres, simply because from a musical perspective it’s represents the programme’s crown jewels. Add a reading from Pramsohler and Bernabé that’ll have you hanging off its every note, and superb engineering which has the two violins’ respective personalities bristling out in glorious technicolour, and this is the one that’ll really have you appreciating what your sound systems can do.
Haydn Piano Sonatas Hob.XV1:6, 20 & 18
Variations on the theme “Gott erhalte Franz, den Kaiser” in G major
In the history of the keyboard, the instrument sitting between the harpsichord and the modern piano – and therefore the instrument sitting under the fingers of Haydn and Mozart – is the fortepiano: basically a piano, in that its keys were hit with hammers rather than plucked as with the harpsichord, but one that was smaller and lighter of frame and sound than today’s models. For the pianist-composer it offered a highly responsive action that made it capable of beautiful definition, and whilst its colouristic range was narrower to that of the modern piano, it was still an entirely superior palette of possibilities to that of the harpsichord. Kristian Bezuidenhout himself is a colourist and sculptor extraordinaire with this instrument, and from this Haydn programme I’ve chosen the piece you’re most likely to recognise, i.e. the Variations on the theme “Gott erhalte Franz, den Kaiser” in G major, because it’s the melody now used for the German national anthem. It appears here in a loving, singing, delicate reading full of gorgeous filigree detail and beautifully judged part-voicing.
Like so many American soul greats, the Cincinnati-born Isley Brothers started life singing lightweight gospel and doo-wop-influenced pop songs in the late nineteen fifties. By the mid seventies however, the band had changed line-up, instruments and style to deliver some great soul/funk music for the up-and-coming disco era. In May 1976, the band released Harvest for the World, cementing their reputation as serious songwriters and performers. Their fourteenth album – released on their own T-Neck label – fused beautiful harmonies and catchy melodies with savvy, socially-aware lyrics that echoed the sentiments of Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, of five years earlier.
The Isley Brothers’ line-up changed over the years, but by the time this album came out it had settled into the six-piece unit that would rack up a number of classy chart hits up to 1983. It comprised Ronald Isley on lead vocals, plus O’Kelly Isley, Jr. and Rudolph Isley on lead and backing vocals, with Ernie Isley on guitars, percussion and drums. Marvin Isley supplied bass guitar and percussion, and Chris Jasper was on keyboard duties. In the case of Harvest for the World, this meant acoustic piano, clarinet and an early ARP synthesiser. The band themselves produced the album, alongside British jazz musician Malcolm Cecil.
Ten years earlier, the band had been signed to Motown with – surprisingly – Jimi Hendrix playing guitar on some of their singles, but they left in 1968. Fame came calling a few years later as they began to infuse rock with soul, scoring hit singles with their self-penned That Lady and a funk-infused cover of Seals and Crofts’ Summer Breeze. Harvest for the World was the album that broke them internationally; recorded at The Record Plant in Los Angeles, it had a distinctively warm mid-seventies, Californian feel and sold over half a million vinyl copies in its first three weeks of release – making it one of the fastest selling US albums ever. It was an appropriately sunny album for an America celebrating its bicentennial year.
The opening Harvest for the World (Prelude) – and then classic song following it – are surely the album’s highlight. The sense of tension rises as the mood switches from a soulful piano-driven ballad into an upbeat, acoustic guitar-driven protest song. Musicianship is superb, with beautifully syncopated piano work and percussion, alongside Ronald Isley’s plaintive but gutsy vocals, and brothers O’Kelly and Rudolph backing him. The album runs the gamut of styles, from the funky Superstition-era Stevie Wonder-tinged People of Today to the more mellifluous Superfly-period Marvin Gaye feel of (At Your Best) You Are Love.
Although by no means an ‘audiophile’ recording, Harvest for the World nevertheless has an earthiness and honesty that makes it a pleasure to play on any serious hi-fi system – and the sheer virtuosity of the musicianship is hard to miss. It first reached Compact Disc in Japan in 1995 [Sony Records SRCS 6465], but the later 2011 UK remaster [Big Break Records CDBBR 0083] sounds decent enough and is a more easily attainable introduction to The Isley Brothers canon.
To listen to our all of our 2019 AOTM choices visit https://tidal.com/playlist/05aa8463-bc28-4a26-a1d1-c8fad7c3c32b
No definitive account of nineteen seventies popular music would be complete without mentioning Dr Feelgood. Formed in Canvey Island, Essex, in 1971, from day one the band had the distinction of being one of Britain’s most unfashionable pop groups. At that time, pop music was moving from Progressive Rock to Glam, and then soon to Punk – yet guitarist Wilko Johnson, singer Lee Brilleaux, bass player John B. Sparks and drummer John Martin were none of the above. In love with rhythm and blues – a genre widely regarded as just an influence on other great bands, rather than a thing in itself – they were way out of time.
The band’s name was taken from Willie Perryman’s 1962 hit Doctor Feelgood, recorded under the moniker of Dr. Feelgood & The Interns – as well as being a drug-related slang term. Brillaint young musicians, their skills were honed by relentless gigging in London pubs and clubs, and they were devoted to R&B in spite of it being very much a niche pursuit. Their playing style was certainly not in the manner of slick American greats such as John Lee Hooker, though. Instead it was spiky, raw and edgy to the point that at their best, their music was almost an assault on the senses. In a way, they presaged Punk Rock in this, doing to R&B what the likes of the Sex Pistols did to Rock and Roll. As The Independent’s Nick Hasted put it, “Feelgood are remembered in rock history as John the Baptists to Punk’s messiahs…”
The band’s first album Down By The Jetty was recorded for United Artists between the June 8th and November 27th, 1974, then released the following January. Its non-nonsense monochrome cover shot was a dramatic contrast to the ornate, colourful designs of Progressive rockers like Pink Floyd and Genesis – and its production way off too. Indeed, it was deliberately mastered in mono, which couldn’t have been more contrary to the fashion of the day for sophisticated multi-tracked stereo recordings. The result is forty-plus minutes of crunchy, stripped-down, guitar driven music that has an attitude that few debut albums have ever bettered.
From the opening thrash of She Does It Right to the grimy cover of John Lee Hooker’s Boom Boom, to the slippery rhythms of More I Give and the scratchy All Through the City, this album is a fascinating mish-mash of old school American Blues and nineteen seventies British teenage angst. Although the band never thought their music translated well to studio albums, Down By The Jetty sounds unique all the same. The Vic Maile production is refreshingly lean and mean, full of grit, energy and edge – things lacking in today’s over-produced, computer-assisted pop fodder. Because the band and their music were terminally out of fashion at the time of its release, Down By The Jetty has hardly dated and sounds strangely timeless now.
The most recent 2006 CD remaster [EMI 0946 363951] is very clean, and well able to capture the visceral energy of the musicianship, along with the catchy riffs and stripped-down rhythms. Lee Brilleaux’s vocals are crisp and clear, while Wilko Johnson’s razor-edged guitar work is breathtakingly syncopated with that super-tight rhythm section.
A couple of years after its release, Rock critics were waxing lyrical about the power and directness of The Ramones, largely neglecting the brilliance of a much less pretentious band closer to home. Indeed, Down By The Jetty went on to become a formative influence on the careers of greats like Paul Weller and Blondie, as well as being a seriously special album in its own right.
Listen to all of our 2019 AOTM choices for 2019 on our TIDAL playlist
When it came to choosing my first “older” Only the Music choice of 2019 it was very clear which route I’d be taking. Fresh in my memory as I type is the recent launch of Venus Unwrapped, the concert series at London’s Kings Place which will spend the next eleven months throwing a light on the achievements of women composers. That opening event saw soprano Mary Bevan and members of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment perform the music of seventeenth century Venetian composer Barbara Strozzi, and by the time the year is out over 100 women composers will have been represented across over sixty events. It should be fascinating, and I suspect many of us will emerge the other end having had previously-held perceptions challenged and changed. So the first track on this month’s playlist is the first movement of French composer Louise Farrenc’s 1847 Symphony No 3 in G minor, a magnificent work that represents a colossal achievement not simply for the fact that it was composed at a time when women were barred from composition classes at the Paris Conservatoire, but also because this was an era during which symphonic music in general was out of fashion on Parisian stages, audiences instead preferring grand opera. Opening with solitary oboe, before quickly and expertly building to a huge full-orchestra climax, this is a brilliantly crafted and thoroughly ear-grabbing work which thoroughly explains why Robert Schumann admired her music so much.
It’s Schumann who then tops this month’s three new release choices, in the shape of cellist Gautier Capuçon’s new all-Schumann programme for Warner Classics, after which we have Early Music vocal ensemble Stile antico on Harmonia Mundi, with a programme centred around English Elizabethan composers in exile. Then to finish, a first foray into the recording studio from the young Consone Quartet that’s resulted in a programme of Mendelssohn and Haydn which I’ve no doubt I’ll still be describing in eleven months’ time as one of the most satisfying recording debuts of 2019.
Years in development, Gautier Capuçon’s latest album is an all-Schumann programme of live concert recordings dating between 2009 and 2015, made with some of his longest-standing musical collaborators and champions. Its superlative curtain-raiser is the Cello Concerto (composed so the three movements flowed seamlessly into each other with no breaks, such was Schumann’s dislike of mid-work applause), recorded in 2015 in the Amsterdam Concertgebouw with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe under Bernard Haitinck (first concert together 1997). Capuçon’s playing here is supremely elegant and unfailingly beautiful of tone. However equally it’s taut with drama, and with a wonderful ever-so-slightly-untamed quality which brings to the fore the turbulence and instability which dominated so much of Schumann’s life and psychological state. Haitink and the COE meanwhile are with Capuçon every step of the way, with a multi-coloured reading imbued with understanding of both composer and soloist. The rest of the album then underlines Capuçon’s status as one of the world’s finest chamber musicians, with recordings made with pianist Martha Argerich (first concert 2002) at her Martha Argerich Project Festival in Lugano: the Adagio and Allegro op.70, the Fantasiestücke op.73 and the Fünf Stücke im Volkston op.102; then the Fantasiestück op.88 for which they’re joined by Capuçon’s violinist brother Renaud (first concert 1997). With all of these it feels every bit as much like perfection every step of the way, with chamber bonding which couldn’t be any tighter, closer or more instinctive. Or indeed more exquisite, when it comes to moments such as the brothers’ dovetailing lines of the op.88 central slow movement. Obviously it’s early days, but I have a feeling this will turn out to be one of this year’s stand-out albums. So lucky us that we get it as early as January.
This latest beautifully conceived album from Early Music vocal ensemble Stile antico is built around the music of Elizabeth composers who found themselves in exile as a result of their Catholic faith. Sometimes this was textbook geographical exile, with composers such as Peter Philips, Richard Dering and John Dowland effectively choosing spiritual home over physical home by leaving England’s shores for new lives on the continent. For other composers though, such as Robert White and William Byrd, the exile took the form of spiritual exile in England itself.
The works Stile antico have chosen span the emotional and stylistic gamut. On the one hand, there’s Robert White’s (1538-1574) affecting Lamentations a 5: a dramatic and individual setting of the Old Testament Lamentations from Jeremiah, meditating on the Babylonians’ destruction of Jerusalem, which would have felt especially pertinent subject matter for an England-based Catholic. But on the other hand there are works such as Peter Philips’ joyous and slightly more archaic-sounding “Gaude Maria virgo”. The Stile antico sound itself is clear and agile, with female sopranos so boy-treble-like of tone that at points you can’t believe that’s not what you’re listening to, and the two tracks I’ve chosen show that off to the full. First, Richard Dering’s Italianate, madrigal-like “Factum est silentium”, which sets a dramatic passage from the book of Revelation. The second extract is then the recording’s only modern piece, from one of today’s finest British composers: Huw Watkins’ 2014 setting of Shakespeare’s poem The Phoenix and the Turtle, which on the surface describes the funeral rites of the phoenix and the turtle dove (symbolic of perfection and devoted love), but which may also have been an allegory about Catholic martyrs.
Every so often a debut recording comes along which absolutely leaps out of the stereo at you as something special right from its first seconds, and this is one of these.
Formed in 2012 at London’s Royal College of Music, the Consone Quartet focusses on exploring Classical and Early Romantic period repertoire on period instruments, and their successes to date include winning the 2016 Royal Over-Seas League Ensemble Prize, and two prizes at the 2015 York Early Music Competition, including a place on the Eeemerging Scheme for young artists at Ambronay. At the centre of this programme now recorded through that same Eeemerging Scheme is the first of Haydn’s late-life op.77 pair of string quartets of 1799, commissioned by the wealthy Viennese patron Prince Maximilian Lobkowitz who at the same time commissioned a set of quartets from the young Beethoven. Bookending this are two Mendelssohn quartets: the String Quartet No 1 of 1829, written by the eighteen year old composer shortly after Beethoven’s death sent shockwaves across the musical world; then the four string quartet movements dating from various periods of Mendelssohn’s life, which after his death in 1847 were grouped together and published (in 1850) as his op.81. It’s Mendelssohn’s String Quartet No 1 you’ll find on this playlist, and the Consone Quartet’s tender and poised reading displays all the qualities you’ll hear across their programme: clean, lucid tone; tonally zinging and tightly superglued ensemble playing; beautifully spun long lines; and a compelling narrative to the phrasing which has you hanging on for their every next musical word.
Pop music is here today and gone tomorrow – which is why it so powerfully embodies its time. Twenty five years after Parklife was released, Blur’s third album does precisely this – it’s a musical time capsule that whisks the listener back to British cultural life, circa 1994. Although not quite a top tier album in the great scheme of musical things, it’s still an interesting and enjoyable fifty minutes that shows this fine Britpop band at its creative height.
Blur’s lead singer and songwriter Damon Albarn was a fan of the The Kinks, and there’s more than just a hint of them running through Parklife – yet there is more to it than that. Blur started life in London in 1988 as a rather fey student band, with guitarist/singer Graham Coxon, bassist Alex James and drummer Dave Rowntree joining lead singer Albarn. Leisure (1991) was their first album, a weak thing helped along by uptempo ‘indie dance’ numbers like There’s No Other Way. Modern Life Is Rubbish (1993) saw Blur really finding their feet, with a classic pop sensibility reminiscent of The Beatles, T Rex and XTC. By the time Parklife appeared a year later, the band was on top form – running through British popular music history for inspiration and adding a good deal of their own.
The first single wasn’t particularly representative of the album as a whole; the disco-infused Girls & Boys reached number 5 but was the most throwaway song on the album. The tender ballad To the End showed a more mature and contemplative band, while the plaintive End of a Century was something Ray Davies could have penned himself. However, it was the album’s title track – released in May of that year – that really put Blur on the map. The decision to invite Phil Daniels – star of mod movie Quadrophenia – to guest on vocals was genius. It was a hugely catchy pop tune that went on to epitomise the whole Britpop genre.
Recorded between August 1993 and January 1994 at Maison Rouge Studio, Fulham and RAK Studios, St. John’s Wood, Parklife has aged well. The production by Stephen Street – most famous for his work with The Smiths in the nineteen eighties – is clean and crisp. Although a little compressed, it uses no instruments that were fashionable at that time, so doesn’t sound dated today. The strong melodies, soaring choruses and mixture of late sixties pop sensibility and punky, thrashy guitar could be from any period. Albarn’s lyrics are funny, quirky and sometimes quite profound, without trying too hard. The Japanese CD release [EMI PCD-0476] is the one to have for the best sound quality and packaging.
Parklife was in the right place at the right time, and saw young British musicians begin to pay homage to their cultural past. Perhaps unwittingly, Blur became the scion for the so-called Cool Britannia movement that included everyone from the Spice Girls to Michael Caine. Parklife went on to sell over five million copies worldwide, as Damon Albarn had predicted. Back in 1990 he presciently told some music journalists that, “when our third album comes out, our place as the quintessential English band of the nineties will be assured. I intend to write it in 1994.”
Listen to Blur, Parklife on our TIDAL dCS 2019 Album of The Month Collection https://tidal.com/album/68735433
Christmas has to be the most exciting time of the year for music, what with all the wonderful repertoire you’re technically only allowed to listen to during December. In fact don’t expect to hear very much music in the Gardner household that isn’t Christmassy once the first of the month has dropped, and for my older recording this month I’ve chosen the musical work most attached to my own family’s Advent traditions: Handel’s Messiah, which we listen to every year as we bring in and decorate the tree (whilst determinedly ignoring the fact that the Messiah is in fact only one-third Christmas, and two-thirds Easter!). As for what I’m personally looking for in a Messiah recording, the answer is something warm and nimble on period instruments, its orchestral textures zinging and lucid, with clean-toned vocalists who sound as though they truly mean what they’re singing. For me that means Rene Jacobs’ 2006 recording with Clare College Choir and Freiburg Baroque for Harmonia Mundi, from which I’ve given you the chorus, “And the glory of the Lord”. Then, because I can’t not give you some actual carols too, I’ve slipped in Voces8 singing “Once in Royal David’s City” and “In Dulci Jubilo” on their 2011 Christmas album, which equally gets a lot of December airtime in my house.
On to the new releases, an album that actually hit the shelves a few months back, but is too good to not champion before the year draws to a close: the second installment of Lorenzo Gatto and Julien Libeer’s Beethoven Violin Sonatas cycle on alpha. Then finally some more Handel, in the form of Italian cantatas from the Concert d’Astr ee under Emanuelle Haim, with two of France’s most sought-after sopranos as Haim’s soloists: Sabine Devieilhe and Lea Desandre.
Beethoven’s violin sonatas 1, 10 and 5 “Spring” – Lorenzo Gatto and Julien Libeer
As previously mentioned, this one was released earlier in the year, but it’s been on my stereo so many times in the intervening months that it thoroughly deserves its place here. The second installment of this Belgian duo’s Beethoven cycle, this is one of those core repertoire recordings that leaps out of the stereo and makes you listen as if for the first time, and to make that point I’ve given you the most famous sonata here, i.e. “Spring”. So enjoy the energy, the brightness and sweetness, the air in their textures, the equal weighting of piano to violin, and an interestingly straighter reading than many of that jokey third movement race.
Handel Italian Cantatas – Haim, Desandre etc
It’s funny to think that only a few years ago I hadn’t even heard of soprano Sabine Devieilhe, and that it wasn’t until earlier this year that mezzo Lea Desandre entered my radar. Their respective career trajectories have been nothing sort of supersonic, and to understand why you need only listen to this new collaboration between them and the superlative Le Concert d’Astree under Emmanuelle Haim, which presents Handel’s recently-rediscovered, early-career cantatas (effectively mini-operas written for just one of two characters, which would have been performed in the homes of wealthy patrons). From Devieilhe and Desandre think purity of tone and crisply elegant virtuosity, with the texts themselves imbued with bucketloads of life and drama. Then from Haim and Le Concert d’Astree, an equal story of interpretational sparkle and high virtuosity. For you here we first have Desandre singing “Fiamma bella ch’al ciel s’invia” from Aminta e Fillide (a love story between a shepherd and a shepherdess), then Devieilhe singing “Ah crudele! E pur ten’ vai” from Armida abbandonata (about a sorceress who ends up falling in love with a Christian warrior).
The disco era is rightly derided for its outlandish kitsch, yet it delivered a rich seam of pop music throughout the nineteen seventies. It took the classic Motown soul tradition, mixed in funk and added solid, four-on-the-floor rock rhythms to create a sound that transformed the latter half of that decade. Although much of it was of little artistic merit, some great albums came from that era – and Chic’s C’est Chic was surely the genre’s finest moment. Formed in 1976 by guitarist Nile Rodgers and bassist Bernard Edwards, the band delivered a torrent of soaring dance floor anthems that captured the spirit of the age.
Rogers and Edwards were virtuoso musicians at the very top of their game, crafting a highly sophisticated sound that was as close to technical perfection as it was possible to get, back in the days before sequencers and drum machines took hold. Hits like Dance, Dance, Dance (Yowsah, Yowsah, Yowsah) (1977), Everybody Dance (1977), Le Freak (1978), I Want Your Love (1978), Good Times (1979) and My Forbidden Lover (1979), showed their breathtaking technical prowess. The music sounded so tight, yet there was a synergy between the two men that made it more than the sum of the parts. Indeed, Rodgers and Edwards became prolific session musicians and producers too, writing and playing for everyone from Sister Sledge, Diana Ross and David Bowie to Duran Duran, Madonna and latterly Daft Punk.
Steeped in the nineteen seventies New York club scene, they moved from session work with Walter Murphy to being the greatest disco band in the world in the space of just eighteen months. The band borrowed its concept from British avant-gardists Roxy Music; like them they would be immaculately dressed and their artwork would denote an escapist, luxurious world. Chic’s eponymous debut album released in 1977 won many friends, but it wasn’t until 1978’s C’est Chic that the band got into top gear. Le Freak was its smash hit single, and became an anthem for the disco era, selling an amazing six million copies. Released on August 11, 1978, it featured a welter of musicians including Tony Thompson, who contributed the superlative drum work, Robert Sabino for clavinet, acoustic piano and electric piano and Raymond Jones on Fender Rhodes. Marianne Carroll, Cheryl Hong and Karen Milne provided the soaring strings, and there was a superb brass section too.
Aside from Freak Out and I Want Your Love, the album has no other hits but is still a work of beauty from start to finish. The lyrics are sometimes plaintive yet never attempt to be deep and meaningful; instead the lushly orchestrated melodies do the talking. The result is uplifting to listen to from start to finish, with a uniquely rich and vintage sound. Recorded to a very high standard at the Power Station, N.Y., with Bob Clearmountain engineering, C’est Chic is treat for any self-respecting high end hi-fi system. The standard CD pressing sounds good, the Japanese HDCD [Atlantic AMCY-2725] even more so, but the widescreen hi-res FLAC version of 2014 is best of all.
To listen to all of our 2018 Album Of the Month picks visit our TIDAL playlist https://tidal.com/playlist/5c4a2912-a1ac-4e45-82f0-121bd77cd4e3