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!
This month’s Only the Music lands the day before the inaugural evening of the Verbier Virtual Festival, an ambitious online event being streamed every evening on medici.tv from tomorrow till August 3rd in replacement of the Festival’s Covid-cancelled 2020 live edition, and which I’m having the pleasure of co-hosting alongside the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra’s Head of Artistic Planning and former Verbier Academy Director, Christian Thompson.
It’s a wonderfully rich offering, too: five hours of free-to-view broadcasting every night, comprised of exclusive new performances and interviews from some of the Festival’s biggest stars that have been recorded especially for the VVF, complemented by archive footage of concerts and masterclasses from previous editions. The majority of these evenings will focus on a single artist or group of artists who has become part of the Verbier Festival’s DNA, while others showcase the Festival’s Academy.
Evgeny Kissin, Carnegie Hall Debut Concert on RCA
Friday 17th is centred around Russian pianist Evgeny Kissin, who has performed at 23 of the Festival’s 26 previous editions. So to get you in the mood I’m opening Only the Music’s playlist with Kissin’s live RCA recording of Liszt’s piano transcription of Schumann’s song, Widmung, captured at his triumphant Carnegie Hall debut in September 1990, just days before his nineteenth birthday – an album which had Gramophone’s critic proclaiming, “The quality of his playing is outstanding, confirming that here we have no mere Wunderkind but an established artist of the first order”.
The new releases then open with a recording collaboration between two of the Baroque world’s brightest younger generation stars, harpsichordist Jean Rondeau and lutenist Thomas Dunford. Next up is Vivaldi from violinist Arabella Steinbacher, before a fireworksy climax in the form of yet another Beethoven Year dazzler of a release, Pablo Heras-Casado directing the Freiburger Barockorchester in the Symphony No 9, and the Choral Fantasy featuring pianist Kristian Bezuidenhout.
Barricades, Thomas Dunford and Jean Rondeau on Erato
While harpsichordist Jean Rondeau and lutenist Thomas Dunford are longstanding friends and collaborators (not least in recent times via Dunford’s Baroque band, Ensemble Jupiter), Barricades is the first time they’ve recorded together as a duo; and the fact that they’ve now done so, and with the music both have known effectively since the cradle, is good news for all of us.
Named after the enigmatically-titled opening piece by François Couperin, “Les Baricades Mïstérieuses”, the album’s running theme is one of repetition, presented via a programme of 17th and 18th century French music comprised almost entirely of rondos (refrain-verse-refrain-verse) and pieces with repeats in binary form 17th. That said, its raison d’être feels less to do with taking the listener along a structural form-shaped musicological journey, and more about weaving a dreamlike atmosphere inspired by the mysteries inherent in musical meaning, expression and collaboration. So first, sleeve notes that bypass all talk of the repertoire’s historical background in favour of a mission statement to the tune of the above (poetically-worded almost to the point of further enigmatism, in fact!). Then, that aforementioned rippling and swaying Couperin, famous for its supreme balancing of constant repetition with constant colouristic reinvention, and also for the abiding mystery as to what the barricades of its title actually were. Onwards, and the album is equally a dream in every sense. The harpsichord and archlute are a combination to die for on any day, for the way their respective plucked tones both dovetail and contrast with each other, but with the chemistry between this particular pair of musicians, it really is an uninterrupted tale of tightly-knitted musical lines and minds, to which guest appearances from mezzo Lea Desandre, baritone Marc Mauillon and gambist Myriam Rignol add further pleasure. I’ve given you the album’s first two works – “Les Barricades Misterieuses” followed by Robert de Visée’s Suite in D minor – but when conceptually this is an album which rewards listening from start to finish, I hope you’ll then feel inspired to do exactly that by yourselves.
Vivaldi: Allegro from “Spring”, The Four Seasons, Arabella Steinbacher on Pentatone
Arabella Steinbacher isn’t the first to think of pairing Vivaldi’s Four Seasons with Astor Piazzolla’s Four Seasons of Buenos Aires. Or indeed of splitting up the four Piazzolla pieces to sit as punctuations between the four Vivaldi concertos – most notably Gidon Kremer did two decades ago with Kremerata Baltica, and just last year Andrés Gabetta brought out a striking baroque instruments reading with Cappella Gabetta. However there’s no question that Steinbacher and the Münchener Kammerorchester have brought their very worthy individual spin to the concept, and not simply because unlike that pair of predecessors they’ve opened each season not with the Vivaldi but instead with the Piazzolla. Sticking with comparisons and taking the Vivaldi first, from Steinbacher and the orchestra we have steady tempi, plus a relatively silky, legato approach to articulation, all of which yields a gracefully floating quality to its delicacy, and thus offers a distinctive alternative to the briskier, airy bounce of the other two. Another defining characteristic of the Steinbacher is its continuo section, the harpsichord sitting far more prominently in the balance than with Kremer, but without the addition of theorbo served up by Gabetta. There’s then a similar degree of grace and unhurried control characterising the Piazzolla, which appears in a new arrangement for violin and string orchestra by Peter von Wienhardt. Across both sets of repertoire, Steinbacher herself serves up soft-toned, lyrical, unassuming yet commanding performances, full of finesse in their dramatic and colouristic details, and with a palpable chamber dynamic with the orchestra. All in all, therefore, this a thoroughly worthwhile contribution to the Four Seasons pile.
Beethoven – Symphony No 9, Choral Fantasy, Kristian Bezuidenhout, Pablo Heras-Casado & Freiburger Barockorchester on Harmonia Mundi
This latest excursion into the Classical era from the period-instrument Freiburg Baroque Orchestra in honour of Beethoven 250 reunites them with conductor Pablo Heras-Casado and fortepianist Kristian Bezuidenhout, after last year’s recording of Mendelssohn’s Symphony No 1 and Piano Concerto No 2. It’s magnificent stuff, all of it, but while its headline work is Beethoven’s “Choral” Symphony No 9, what’s got me especially excited is the work they’ve partnered it with – the Choral Fantasy Beethoven composed sixteen years earlier in 1808, which ended up feeding the Ninth in both conceptual terms and in actual material (or, as Bezuidenhout himself puts it, it’s “the Ninth with training wheels”). Entirely novel for its time, this Fantasy opens with a long, grand solo piano introduction, before the entrance of the orchestra provides the segue into a theme and variations on a simple folk-like theme, interspersed by other material, into which vocal soloists followed by a grand chorus eventually arrive for a whopping-forces fireworks show of a conclusion. I always think that this piece doesn’t get nearly the amount of airplay that it deserves, and to say that it’s now found some stellar champions in Bezuidenhout, Casado and the FBO is an understatement. Aside from the combination of playfulness and sheer joyous pizazz and bang they’ve brought to it all (and at a tempo which is fully on the virtuosic end of the speedometer when the orchestra kicks in), Bezuidenhout’s reading has all the freshness of a new improvisation, complete with his own embellishments; which is appropriate, because Beethoven actually did extemporise the piano solo at the premiere, because he hadn’t left himself enough time to write something down before the performance! With all this in mind, it’s the Fantasy I’ve put on this playlist, but I should also make clear that their reading of the symphony is equally phenomenal.
Playlist available on
In the great pantheon of eighties pop, Prince Rogers Nelson is surely close to the very top. Born in Minneapolis, Minnesota in 1958, he emerged onto that decade’s music scene somewhat out of time. Rather than adopting the (then) fashionable synthpop style, he imposed his own sound upon the pop charts by blending funk, rock, soul and psychedelia in a way that no one had previously attempted. A guitar virtuoso and multi-instrumentalist, Prince was also a great songwriter and ended up penning timeless classics for artists like Sinead O’ Connor (Nothing Compares 2 U) and The Bangles’ (Manic Monday).
Released on June 25th, 1984, Purple Rain was his sixth studio album. More than ‘just’ his finest hour, it went on to influence the sound of the decade as a whole – with pop artists adding funk embellishments to their music, and rockers sprinkling soft psychedelia into the mix. Indeed, it was by far Prince’s most commercially successful release, spending twenty four consecutive weeks topping the US Billboard charts. By the time he died of an accidental fentanyl overdose at his Paisley Park home in Chanhassen, Minnesota, he had sold over 130 million records worldwide – and it was this album that was later inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2010.
Along with the single of the same name, Purple Rain is packed with hit songs – When Doves Cry, Let’s Go Crazy, I Would Die 4 U and Take Me with U. Yet it’s more than any greatest hits collection, because it has a distinctive and cohesive feel shared with all iconic pop albums. Recorded between August 1983 and March of the following year, the tracks were laid down in Minneapolis, New York and Los Angeles. It was the last time Prince used his backing band The Revolution; after this he would be a more electronic and studio-based artist, as evidenced by 1987’s Sign o’ the Times. Arguably, Purple Rain has a more timeless feel – its mixture of guitars and keyboards bring a powerful live vibe that’s the perfect soundtrack to the motion picture of the same name.
It shows Prince’s great musical innovation – such as releasing a mainstream pop single without a bassline, as he did with When Doves Cry. Some tracks bring traditional instrumentation together with electronics in a novel way, and others like Baby I’m A Star are back-to-basics rock numbers recorded live. Members of his band later described the Purple Rain sessions as a highly creative time, with Prince letting them contribute much to the songwriting. Indeed, Jon Bon Jovi later observed that, “there’s every emotion from the ballad to the rocker… all the influences were evident, from Hendrix to Chic.” Although this album’s name references America’s nineteen seventies rock classic, Ventura Highway, it’s a quintessentially eighties sounding work.
Purple Rain elicited high critical praise, with many music writers declaring it a seminal moment in popular music. It has a powerful yet polished sound that still seems fresh today. All Compact Disc versions sound crisp and punchy, but the ultimate collector’s version is the Japanese 24k gold CD [Warner Bros. Records 43P2-0004].
Ralph Vaughan Williams’s The Lark Ascending opens Only the Music this week, but not in the orchestral form it’s widely known today, but instead in its original 1920 version for violin with piano accompaniment. This first piano version has been almost completely eclipsed by the orchestral arrangement made the following year, yet it’s a gem, and not simply for the obvious reason that the smaller forces yield a much more intimate and feel. There’s something about the bell-like sonorities of the piano, and the greater silence and stillness surrounding its and the violin’s solitary lines, which speaks of feelings of a depth and introspection that you can’t really put into words. If it’s really true that Vaughan Williams dreamt up the piece in 1914 while walking the cliffs of Margate and watching warships engage in embarkation exercises, then this original version feels closer to what those sober, internal thoughts might have been than the more sumptuously scored orchestral transcription does, and consequently it’s the original that has become a regular soundtrack to my lockdown life. You’re hearing it here from the young British violinist Julia Hwang, with pianist Charles Matthews.
This month’s new releases then begin with JS Bach lute suites from Gramophone magazine’s June cover star, Scottish guitarist Sean Shibe. After that comes four-hand Schubert piano music via the recording debut of Duo Pleyel, and then finally violinist Lisa Batiashvili’s cross-genre City Lights album.
Bach – Sean Shibe
Confession time: I’ve never been much of a classical guitar person. However that all changed with Scottish guitarist Sean Shibe’s debut on Delphian of 20th century guitar works, Dreams & Fancies, which in fact stopped pretty much everyone in their tracks for its combination of personality and artistry. Then came his 2018 follow-up, softLOUD, pairing seventeenth-century Scottish lute music with 21st century works for electric guitar with yet more stunning performances, plus programming of an imagination which led in 2019 to him becoming the first ever recipient of the new Gramophone Award for Concept Album. So fast forward to 2020 and it’s no surprise that he’s now Gramophone’s June cover star for his new release of solo lute works by JS Bach, or that the album sounds as stunning as its predecessors. On the menu are the Lute Suite in E minor BWV 996, the Partita in C minor BWV 997, and the Prelude, Fugue and Allegro in E flat major BWV 998 – three works which may or may not have been also played (or possibly even intended…) for a curious and now long-forgotten instrument called the lute-harpsichord, which was quite literally a cross between a lute and a harpsichord, i.e. with the keyboard and legs of the latter, and the shell-shaped resonator and gut strings of the former (harpsichords have metal). The interpretations themselves have had me hanging off Shibe’s every note, marveling as ever at the technique on display, but also so entirely absorbed in the actual musical argument that to use the word “virtuosic” rather feels like missing the point. I’ve given you the Prelude, Fugue and Allegro.
Schubert Lebensstürme – Music for Piano Four Hands, Duo Pleyel on Linn Records
Of all the great composers of the nineteenth century, it was Schubert who left the greatest body of work for piano four hands. Yet while it’s music of masterpiece quality, it’s also repertoire that often tends to get overlooked in today’s professional performance world, not least because it’s a rare instance that two highest-level pianists are together in the same place for long enough to establish a duo rapport and actually begin to think about a recital or a recording. However here we have a beautifully chosen snapshot of it courtesy of Duo Pleyel, i.e. not a one-off collaboration but an actual permanent duo comprised of acclaimed period keyboardists Alexandra Nepomnyashchaya and Richard Egarr, which they formed three years old with the aim of bringing the four hands repertoire to a wider public, and named after their 1848 piano by Chopin’s preferred maker, Pleyel. The first half of their programme presents two early-career works dating from 1818 when Schubert was 21: the Rondo in D major D 608 and the Sonata in B flat major D 617. We’re then zipped to the end of his painfully short life for three works penned during the year of his death, 1828 when he was still aged just 31: the Fantasie in F minor D 940, the Rondo in A major D 951 and the “Lebensstürme” (Storms of Life) Allegro in A minor D 947. Unsurprisingly, the first thing to hit the ear is the characterful sound world of the Pleyel piano itself – softly bright, highly articulated, jewel-like tones, sounding golden lower down and sharper but not acidicly so up top, and arguably more multi-coloured in its resonances than a modern concert grand. To this add joined-at-the-heart-and-hip duetting which captures with equal success the pained, sharp-edged turbulence heard in that final “Lebensstürme”, and the smiling-through-tears delicacy you get in the Sonata in B flat.
City Lights – Lisa Batiashvili
I love it when top classical artists do crossover with brilliance and class, and this is one of those. Named after the 1931 film which marked Charlie Chaplin’s debut in writing his own film scores for his productions, City Lights is an autobiographical travelogue from Berlin-based Georgian violinist Lisa Batiashvili paying duel homage to the eleven most important cities in her life, and also to Chaplin – popular in Georgia as Batiashvili grew up – in an extension of last year’s celebrations of the 130th anniversary of his birth. The result is a multi-genre programme ranging from JS Bach and Dvořák to Piazzolla and Morricone, opening with a suite based on Chaplin’s film music (including “Smile” from Modern Times of 1936), all of it recorded for the very first time, and with Batiashvili joined by a host of top artists drawn from both the classical and the non-classical musical worlds: singer Katie Mulua, jazz trumpeter Till Brönner, guitarist Miloš Karadaglić, cellist Maximilian Hornung, the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin and the Georgian Philharmonic Orchestra. It’s beautiful stuff, too. If something can be gently but also sumptuously romantic, then that’s what this is, both in terms of Batiashvili’s playing and in overall feel. Think Golden Age Hollywood, unashamed of wearing its heart on its sleeve, but always in unfailingly elegant form. I’ve chosen No Better Magic, her London tribute written by and featuring Katie Melua and Zurab Melua (the latter on guitar), supported by the Georgian Philharmonic under Nikoloz Rachveli, who orchestrated both this and the majority of the album’s arrangements. Then the traditional Evening Song for Helsinki for which Batiashvili is joined by the strings of the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin.
Playlist available on
Note: Schubert Lebensstürme – Music for Piano Four Hands, Duo Pleyel on (Linn records) is unavailable on TIDAL or Qobuz and therefore does not appear on the playlist
Like so many great bands that made their names in the seventies, Lynyrd Skynyrd had been touring for nearly a decade when it hit the US album charts with this, its debut long player. Formed in Jacksonville, Florida, in 1964, five years of gigging and line-up changes took place before it got its distinctive name in 1969. Four years after that, the group’s first album was finally released. It went on to popularise America’s so-called ‘Southern rock’ phenomenon, with its big, raw, gutsy blues sound tinged with a touch of English psychedelia.
The line up comprised Ronnie Van Zant (lead vocals, lyrics), Gary Rossington (lead guitar, rhythm guitar, slide), Allen Collins (lead guitar, rhythm guitar), Ed King (lead guitar, bass guitar), Leon Wilkeson (bass guitar, backing vocals), Billy Powell (keyboards) and Bob Burns (drums). The band’s name was an ironic tribute to their school’s physical education teacher – Leonard Skinner – who energetically enforced an anti-long hair policy. It was changed to the misspelled ‘Lynyrd Skynyrd’ around 1970, and the album title was a reference to this. Pronounced ‘Lĕh-‘nérd ‘Skin-‘nérd went on to be one of the decade’s most iconic rock albums, selling over a million copies. This was helped in no small part by the band getting the chance to open for The Who on its US Quadrophenia tour that year.
Along with the fine song writing on Pronounced ‘Lĕh-‘nérd ‘Skin-‘nérd, much of its success is down to the work of producer Al Kooper of Blood, Sweat & Tears, who signed them to his Sounds of the South label, backed by MCA Records. Although certainly not in the style of the Beach Boys, the album has a warm summer sound, making its release date of August 13, 1973 ideal. You can almost feel the sweet Florida heat, as the band run through many of the songs they toured with for years, on their way up.
Gimme Three Steps, Simple Man and Tuesday’s Gone are gruff, simple and direct rock/blues infusions with brilliantly syncopated playing. The song that launched the band’s international stardom though, is the epic Free Bird. The band’s tightness is a joy to hear, and caused Al Kooper to remark on how well rehearsed the guys were for the studio recording sessions. Even though there’s a wonderful ease and flow to the playing – with masterful rhythm guitar work – no improvisation took place. This shows just how serious the group members were, by the time they came to record their first album.
After years in the rock wilderness, Pronounced ‘Lĕh-‘nérd ‘Skin-‘nérd took the band straight into the belly of the rock industry, and their follow up album The Second Helping, featuring the smash hit single Sweet Home Alabama, cemented that success. Yet it was not to last, because Ronnie Van Zant and Steve Gaines were killed in an airplane crash on October 20, 1977. This debut album captured a brilliant and driven blues rock bank in its prime, not long before tragedy struck. Even today’s standards, the CD remaster [MCA Records 088 112 727-2] sounds fantastic on a serious digital front end.
In recent weeks the internet has been flooded with lockdown remote ensemble projects. So much so, that it now has to be something pretty special to override the feelings of fatigue as yet another pops up. However there’s one in particular which has profoundly moved me and lodged in my brain – mezzo soprano Joyce DiDonato singing Handel’s Ombra mai fu with musicians from the Metropolitan Opera, in memory of their violist colleague Vincent Lionti who died in April from Covid complications. So, beyond providing you the link here, I’ve chosen as this month’s “not new” recording another deeply affecting Handel performance from Didonato – “Lascia ch’io pianga” from her 2016 album, in War and Peace.
Mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato sings 'Ombra mai fu' with members of the The Metropolitan Opera & MET Orchestra Musicians in a tribute to violist Vincent Lionti, who died in April from coronavirus complications. ❤️
Posted by Classic FM on Monday, 4 May 2020
Moving forwards, a live recording of Beethoven and Brahms from luminary Russian pianist Grigory Sokolov is the first of this month’s new releases. This is followed by another live offering and also a record label debut – Washington’s National Symphony Orchestra playing an America-themed programme under the baton of their director Gianandrea Noseda, for their own brand new National Symphony Orchestra label. Then to finish, an absolutely top-drawer solo recording debut from the young Swedish guitarist and theorboist, Johan Löfving.
Anyone who has attended a recital by the great Russian pianist Grigory Sokolov will know what a very unique experience it is: an unusually darkened and thus especially hushed hall, the only light being the one over his piano; Sokolov himself barely even acknowledging the audience, absorbed in his instrument alone, with the audience cast as privileged observers; a playing style that’s strikingly beautiful for its deft shaping and delicately pearly touch; then eight encores – always eight, and always unannounced; and while you could be forgiven for thinking that all the above sounds arrogant and off-putting in the extreme, Sokolov is such a quiet physical presence, and genuinely so in communion with his piano, that the reality is that it’s probably as close to a spiritual experience as you’d ever find in a secular concert hall. It also means that a live recording such as this one probably has even more going for it than a studio one. So the good news with this album, taken from three separate 2019 performances, is that you do indeed get some of that hushed, reverent atmosphere, along with some beautifully captured concert hall acoustics. The programme itself opens with Beethoven’s early Piano Sonata No 3, followed by Beethoven’s 11 Bagatelles. Then come Brahms’s six Klavierstücke Op 118 and four Klavierstücke Op 119, after which we get seven encores (I know! Where’s the eighth…?!) ranging from Rameau to Rachmaninov, complete with their applause, which in this instance feels right. I’ve given you the Beethoven sonata plus two of the encores: Rachmaninov’s Prelude No 12 in G sharp minor, and Debussy’s “Des pas sur la neige” (footprints in the snow) from his first book of preludes.
Another live recording of a 2019 performance, this America-themed programme from Gianandrea Noseda and the National Symphony Orchestra was taken at their home base of Washington’s John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, and marks their debut on their own brand new label. Its programming is highly effective for its partnering of two works which in their own ways stand as a celebration of the longstanding cultural bridges between America and other cultures. First, Billy the Kidd, the 1938 ballet by Aaron Copland – a composer born in Brooklyn to a family with Russian origins, whose gift to his country was the creation of a quintessentially American sound which palpably reflected both its vast, dramatic landscapes, and the culture of its inhabitants. Then Dvořák’s Symphony No 9 “From the New World”, composed in 1893 shortly after the Czech composer had arrived in New York to take up the directorship of the city’s brand new National Conservatory of Music of America, and full of the echoes of the musical inspiration he had discovered there – from American and Native American folk songs to African American spirituals. Again, there’s a nice sense of “real” concert hall space around the polished playing, together with a whole-programme attitude to architecture. I’ve given you the entirety of the Dvořák.
Johan Löfving & Consone Quartet
Regular readers might remember me waxing lyrical last year about the period instrument Consone Quartet’s debut album, of Haydn and Mendelssohn string quartets. Now they’ve partnered with Swedish guitarist and theorboist Johan Löfving for his own debut album, recording Boccherini’s Guitar Quintet No 4 to sit as the climax of a beautifully imaginative programme of Romantic guitar repertoire by early nineteenth century guitarist composers from all over Europe, which opens and closes with two fandango movements designed to illustrate the music’s Spanish folk music influences. The guitar quintet itself is a joyful listen – played with palpable pleasure in the music and in each other, its dancing energy served up in exquisitely delicate and tender form, beautifully shaped and shaded, with the whole adding up to a gently ravishing timbral and colouristic feast. The preceding solo recital is no less of a stunner, Löfving drawing out all manner of colours and moods from his own period instrument, a French original dating from around 1850. I’ve given you the Boccherini, preceded by Introduction et Caprice Op 23 by Swiss-born Giulio Regondi (1823-1872).
Playlist available on
As the story of the KLF proves, pop music moves in mysterious ways – the coming together of Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty was another strange chapter in its history. The former was a record industry executive, and the latter the guitarist from Brilliant – a band that Drummond once managed. They formed The JAMMS in 1987, and went on to assail the British singles charts with cheesy, sample-laden hip-hop records. The pair constantly courted controversy, ending up with their first album being forcibly withdrawn from sale.
The JAMMS transitioned into The Kopyright Liberation Front (KLF) in 1988, to focus more on dance music. The trance-infused Last Train to Trancentral followed, seeing Cauty collaborating with The Orb and getting increasingly into ambient. On February 5th, 1990 – to many people’s great surprise – the duo released an album of a subtlety and beauty unexpected from this pair of pop pranksters. The music press described it as genre-defining; a fusion of traditional Brian Eno-style ambient music and house, Chill Out was lauded as the first ever ‘ambient house’ LP.
Forty-four minutes of gently swirling analogue synthesisers, subtle drum machine hi-hat loops and samples of Elvis Presley’s In The Ghetto, Fleetwood Mac’s Albatross and Acker Bilk’s Stranger on the Shore, Chill Out is a unique montage of sounds with an ethereal quality. Reportedly about a mythical night-time journey from Texas to Louisiana, there’s a constant sense of movement, with a few short stops along the way. Recorded live in the basement of Cauty’s squat in London’s Stockwell, it has an atmospheric, impressionistic feel.
As well as being done in one take, the recording didn’t need much in the way of gadgetry and effects – and such technological simplicity gives the album a quaint, almost naive charm. It also has a dreamy, romantic feel; at the time of its release, Drummond commented that, “I’ve never been to those places. I don’t know what those places are like, but in my head I can imagine those sounds coming from those places, just looking at the map.” The track names are evocative of a Gulf Coast road trip – Brownsville Turnaround on the Tex-Mex Border, Pulling out of Ricardo and the Dusk Is Falling Fast and Elvis on the Radio, Steel Guitar in My Soul and 3 a.m. Somewhere out of Beaumont.
Structurally, Chill Out has a number of ‘set pieces’ which gently slide into one another, while sometimes referring back to earlier motifs. The overall effect is ethereal and hypnotic at times; there are samples of birds singing, trains passing by and Deep South American FM radio evangelists, knitted together by gentle synthesiser loops and occasional pedal steel guitar, plus flashes of 808 State’s Pacific State underneath. Unlike much ambient music, this album has a sense of fluidity and movement – it’s anything but bland and repetitive.
Although not an audiophile work by any means, Chill Out still sounds enjoyable via a high resolution digital front end. For its sheer collectability, the original CD release is the one to have [KLF Communications JAMSCD5]; this has the additional delight of having just one track number which contains the entire recording, whereas later reissues reverted to standard practice. Whatever, fans of electronica will find it hard not to love.
So, how’s everyone enjoying the lockdown? Nope, me neither. In fact never has recorded music felt so important, so this month’s playlist is very much about lifting the spirits. Consequently for my classic recording I’ve chosen Wolfgang Schneiderhan’s radiant 1962 reading for DG of Mozart’s Violin Concerto No 5 with the Berlin Philharmonic under Eugen Jochum. This is swooningly lovely, taking what’s already a life-affirming slice of Classical-era heaven and raising it to the classiest, sweetest and most luminously lucid heights. Turn up the volume and let it fill your four walls with its graceful joy.
The world is not exactly short of great solo cello Bach recordings, but Alisa Weilerstein’s addition will be sitting up with the best of them for some time to come. A period-aware reading on modern metal strings, this album is described by Weilerstein as her most project yet. And while that’s not necessarily a surprise in the context of the number of cellists who nurture lifelong obsessions with these works (Pieter Wispelwey has recorded the complete set no less than three times, for instance), these are immensely satisfying readings: ravishingly rich, rounded and glowing of tone; a strong sense of architecture on both the grand and small scale; a constantly shifting palette of colours and shadings; and striking a great rhythm and metre balance between creating the impression of unfolding improvisatory thought, and honouring the dance roots of their various forms. Plus, while Weilerstein couldn’t have known this when she recorded it, it’s also been perfect repertoire with which to take to the internet as live performance temporarily shuts down. So for those wishing to know more of her personal thoughts on interpretation, and indeed hear how they sound under her fingertips when outside of a professional studio, look up her #36DaysOfBach project, for which she’s been playing and discussing a different movement of the suites each day via her Facebook, Twitter and Instagram feeds.
Beethoven Piano Trios – Renaud Capuçon, Gautier Capuçon and Frank Braley on Erato
If there was one Beethoven 250 recording I was looking forward to as much as Quatuor Ébène’s complete Beethoven quartets, it was this offering of Piano Trios Nos 5 and 7 from violinist and cellist brothers Renaud and Gautier Capuçon, and pianist Frank Braley. This is the first time they’ve all recorded together since their critically acclaimed 2001 album of Ravel chamber music, and there’s every bit as much symbiotic magic and heartfelt playing here. I’ve given you the “Ghost” trio, named after its second movement which Beethoven’s famous piano student Carl Czerny (who in turn became Franz Liszt’s teacher) claimed reminded him of the ghost of Shakespeare’s Hamlet’s father; and in fact Beethoven’s notes on the manuscript suggest that he may indeed have had Shakespearean original intentions for it, albeit not with Hamlet – the Witches’ scene in a proposed operatic production of Macbeth. The superglued-together ebullient vim with which the Capuçons and Braley launch into the trio’s racing and rhythmic opening gambit is electrifying stuff, and the movement’s ensuing succession of sharp dynamic contrasts are met with the same virtuosic degree of togetherness and blending, coupled with bag-loads of clean-toned tender warmth and vigorous life. The “Ghost” movement brings fresh pleasures with its taut, sombre stillness, and likewise the final Presto’s combination of sunny grace and high drama. Add some equally warm, polished and immediate engineering, and it’s a nonstop joyride.
Bach: St Matthew Passion, Choir of King’s College Cambridge/Cleobury
Yes, more Bach. However it’s Eastertide, and this Bach St John Passion from the Choir of King’s College Cambridge is a special one – an exquisite final musical parting from its director of 37 years, Sir Stephen Cleobury, recorded last April in King’s College Chapel shortly before he retired, and just seven months before his November 2019 passing away due to cancer. They’re joined by the mixed voices of The Choir of King’s College School, the Academy of Ancient Music and a stellar line-up of soloists in the form of James Gilchrist, Matthew Rose, Sophie Bevan, David Allsopp, Mark le Brocq and William Gaunt. Crisply articulated and fluidly flowing, light of physical tread while deep of thought and understanding, it’s beautiful stuff. To give you a spread of textures and styles, I’ve begun with the lilting, full-forces opening chorale, Kommt, ihr Tochter, helft mir klagen, then for a chance to appreciate the AAM’s chamber awareness (and it’s softly perky flutes) I’ve also plucked out the alto aria “Buss und reu” and its preceding recitative, sung by countertenor David Allsopp.
One final thing. If you’re in need of further classical entertainment during this period of evenings spent within your own four walls, you’ll find on the Gramophone website (gramophone.co.uk) a comprehensive and regularly-updated list of the various video streaming options being offered in response to the crisis – often for free – by the world’s top orchestras, concert halls and video streaming platforms. I’ll also point you in the direction of my March column for Takt1, given that it was equally aimed to give everyone something else to think about: The Show Must Go On
Playlist available on
It’s a testament to the speed at which pop music was moving in the nineteen eighties, that Vince Clarke – the brains behind Yazoo – was inspired by hearing one particular song just eighteen months earlier. “Electricity by Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark sounded so different to anything I’d ever heard,” he once said, “that I suddenly wanted to get into electronic music.”
Amazingly, between his first hit single with Yazoo (Only You, released 15th March, 1982) and hearing that early OMD single, he’d already been a founder member of chart-topping synthpop band Depeche Mode – and written their first album and first three hit singles. He then left to team up with an old acquaintance from his home town of Basildon, Essex. “Alison Moyet was looking to join a blues band, but she hooked up with me because she thought doing a demo would look good on her CV”, he later explained.
The result was Upstairs at Erics, released 20th August, 1982. Many think it’s one of the quirkiest albums of the nineteen eighties, because it’s a melting pot of deadpan electronica courtesy of Clarke and the bluesy vocal stylings of Moyet. Recorded at Blackwing Studios in south east London where the former had previously recorded Depeche Mode’s debut long player Speak and Spell, it was committed to tape in the early mornings because the studio’s daytime slots were already booked. Its owner Eric Radcliffe produced, from whom the album got its cryptic name.
“A lot of stuff was us just experimenting in the studio. I learnt a lot. There wasn’t an intentional sound”, said Clarke. Yet the album seems highly distinctive today, and amazingly fresh too. There are a number of reasons for this, the first being Clarke’s instinctive feel for simple, catchy melodies – as he’d already shown with Depeche Mode. Second was the purity of the song’s arrangements; Clarke says most songs used just six or seven tracks. And also, the technology of the day mitigated against lavish, over complex work – not least because the sequencers were so primitive back then.
“We used a Roland Juno 60 polyphonic synth mainly”, remembers Clarke, “while most of the percussion came from the ARP-2600 and a Roland TR-808. The lead lines and bass were courtesy of a Pro-One and Roland MC-4 Microcomposer.” In other words, late nineteen seventies and early eighties kit that’s now celebrated for its classic, vintage sound. Such freshness and crispness complements some truly memorable melodies, and the result is a series of catchy pop tunes with infectious riffs. It’s a testament to the beauty of Only You, Don’t Go and Goodbye 70s that they’ve been widely covered by many other artists from the rock, pop and soul arena.
Despite lacking any great, overarching theme, Upstairs at Erics is still a charming and compelling listen today. It works by the quality of each individual song, plus the rousing vocals and punchy, edge-of-the-seat electronic backing. Compared to so much overproduced, auto-tuned modern pop, it is stirring stuff – and of course gives any serious hi-fi system a real work-out. Arguably the best way to listen is via the 2008 Mute CD remaster [CDXSTUMM7].
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.