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!
There’s a bass guitar riff which underpins this piece while the other musicians take a relaxed approach to timing. On the right system this is clearly intentional and skilfully done, and the piece hangs together beautifully. On the wrong system the timing is just vague; loose but not deliberately so; disconnected and slightly raucous.
We are living through what has been termed “A golden-age of luthiery” right now.
Some of the best acoustic guitars that have ever been built are finding their way into the hands of players who have been searching for a new voice. Advanced design and astonishingly detailed workmanship have come together to provide instruments of impressive sensitivity and tonal colour for those who have the ability to both understand and exploit them.
Acoustic guitar is, almost by its very nature and unamplified volume potential, an introspective (songwriting) instrument that has found a place in just about every type of music. Solo acoustic guitarists traditionally do not sell enormous amounts of their music and often rely on small intimate gigs .
The music on this list is probably not going to have you leaping around the room, dancing your body into unusual shapes in response to the driving rhythm. It’s largely a list of tracks to listen to with feet up and eyes closed. I’ve tried to vary the flavours a bit so, if it encourages you to further explore a few avenues, genres or artists you haven’t experienced before, then my work is done.
I hope you enjoy them. Listen to the full playlist on TIDAL https://tidal.com/playlist/82266f1e-599c-4838-b8be-563fbbf2244b
1: Michael Watts
Michael is a fascinating player with real depth. His sensitivity, touch and technical ability are shrouded in a calm tranquility on Vetiver. He never shouts but draws you toward the piece with his lyricism and quiet, precise technique and his music is full of space and atmosphere. He is entirely representative of the new breed of player, armed with a modern instrument of unparalleled potential made for him by high-end builder Jason Kostal in Arizona.
2: Pipo Romero,
Sentimiento (Tarantella), Folklorico
A wonderful coming together of Pipo’s Spanish heritage mingled with a modern approach. He plays steel-strung guitars in a kind of hybrid Flamenco style that is unmistakably Iberian, yet there are modern licks in there too. Again, he has an amazing technique, particularly his right hand which is likely a legacy of his his early days. Both his approach and musical heritage work really well together and I reckon that we will be hearing a lot more from him in the future.
3: Andy McKee,
When She Cries, Art Of Motion.
Very few can do the whole ‘tapping thing’ like Andy. Like all the players here, he has an almost ethereal touch and can set up a whole and complete picture of a tune before your ears. He draws tease shimmering harmonics from guitars in a beautiful way and expands his fantastic chord-work by building new percussive frameworks at the same time. It’s brilliant stuff.
4: Tony McManus with Beppe Gambetta,
Sleeping Tune, Round Trip.
Tony is another player of seemingly unlimited ability and highly respected within the acoustic guitar community. Sleeping Tune is one of those pieces often copied by other guitarists who also specialise in DADGAD tuning. He tours with Beppe quite often and together they are formidable. This is brilliant acoustic playing by a monster of a musician who seems equally at home with traditional tunes, especially Gaelic, or mood pieces. His sense of pace and rhythm are delicious.
5: Al Petteway
Sligo Creek, The Collectors Passion
Al is an American guitarist who also spans styles. He is just as happy with an arch top electric jazz guitar in his hands as playing Gaelic tunes or Appalachian country on a 1930’s golden-era Martin flat-top.
He often provides a backdrop to films about America’s huge open spaces and national parks and has that rare gift of phrase and taste that speaks of such wonderful places. His work is so varied and his knowledge of the instruments so deep that you can spend ages going through his repertoire, including that with his wife, Amy White.
6: Vicente Amigo
Campo de la Verdad, In Momento En El Sonido
Where to start with Vicente? Simply one of the best Flamenco players I have ever heard. Actually, make that one of the best musicians. He can rip it up with anyone. I saw him play once in London from the front row and his intensity was frightening. Astonishing speed and a right-hand technique that reaches right into you and speaks of passion and beauty. But while he is all flying hair and flared nostrils one moment, he has an almost angelic beauty to his softer, more melodic playing that can bring a tear to the eye. A force of nature.
7: Clive Carroll
Eliza’s Eyes, Life In Colour
Another one of those ‘complete’ players. Seemingly without musical boundaries, Clive is an acoustic guitarist to rival anyone. He’s great to watch and has a well of technical ability coupled with taste and brings it all together with precision and a sense of subtle musicality that is incredibly rare. He may look like a bank clerk but he plays like a God.
8: Tomatito /Josep Pons
Two Much, Sonata Suite.
Another great Flamenco artist who loves the counterpoint of his guitar against a full orchestral backdrop. This track finds him in more subdued mood. Josep Pons, the noted Catalan conductor brings out a different side to the uniquely Spanish flavours one usually hears from Tomatito. On this track it’s not hard to imagine the music as a film score as the arrangements are so sweeping and grand at times.
9: Mike Dawes
Titanium, What Just Happened?
A very modern guitar player and one who has bought his own rhythm section with him. Mike seems to find room to to embellish a beautiful and colourful voice with percussive elements all over the body and neck of the instrument. In this short piece he is so incredibly crisp and to the point yet never goes as over the top with the tapping because the tempo is all there, in his right hand. A quite amazing guitarist.
10: Will Ackerman
B4B, New England Roads.
The acoustic guitar has extraordinary potential, in the right hands, to portray wide open spaces, solitude and even and loneliness I think. Will Ackerman of Windham Hill established himself many years ago as a master of space and tone. His repertoire is extensive but this captures that perfectly. Slow, yearning and very understated. Music to drift away with.
11: Michael Chapdelaine
Portrait De Femme, Deluxe Portraits Musicaux.
I really wouldn’t know where to start in trying to describe what Michael Chapdelaine is all about. I have watched videos of him playing that defy belief. To be any good on an instrument, you have to have the technical side of things together and a naked acoustic guitar is as demanding as it gets in my book. Michael seems to embrace the impossible by doing about three things at once. He can be fiery but has a sensitivity and an ear for a melody that is uncanny. Quite simply, he is brilliant and a constant source of amazement (and inspiration) for me and I suspect, many others. He just needs to get more of his music out there.
The intro is in the style of a Romantic piano sonata. It might not be Beethoven but it’s rather better than the self-indulgent noodling that some systems make of it. On ‘Go Ahead’, on the right system, it’s clear that she is playing fast and loose with the rhythm, lesser systems just make it sound like she can’t keep up.
Very little melodic interest here; it’s all about the rhythm which should be insistent and propulsive and the harmony which is subtle. If the timing and tunefulness of the performance is compromised it loses the quality which holds your attention and makes it so compelling.
There is a wonderful sense of intimacy and yet vast space within this piece. It’s a contradiction which goes to the heart of the music. The solo should be expansive, not simply loud. If there is no sense of rhythmic intent (despite the South American origins of the music) or the harmony is bland and indistinct or the chorus sounds bored (probably because it has been shoved into the background), you might well dismiss this as not worth your attention. We think that would be a great shame.
Two things stand out on this track – the immense power and sonority of the piano and the subterranean depth of the bass guitar giving voice to Purcell’s famous ground bass. The problem being that, on the wrong system, neither is particularly connected to the other. It’s as though the musicians played their individual parts without hearing the others. Then the bass drags the piece down and the piano plods without the momentum or passion which is so evident when your system is really working well.
Welcome to dCS’s new Classical playlist. Each month here you’ll find a couple of the best new releases, alongside an older recording I think everyone should have in their life; although it’s also highly likely that from time to time I’ll deviate from that format, simply because the world of Classical recordings is too rich and historic not to occasionally go off-editorial-piste in the pursuit of worthwhile experiences.
For this month I’ve stuck to Plan A, though. So for my pair of new releases I’ve chosen the Elias’s Quartet’s new recording of Schumann Quartets Nos.2 and 3, and Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Mass in G Minor from The Choir of St John’s College, Cambridge: two albums which singled themselves out from the pack very swiftly for me. Read below to find out why.
My older recording was a slightly trickier decision on this particular occasion. After all, how to choose a first-playlist-worthy track from so many years of Classical listening? Ultimately, however, it had to be the first recording I ever heard on a high-end audio system: Christine Schäfer’s 1998 recording for Deutsche Grammophon of Mozart arias and Strauss orchestral songs, with the Berliner Philharmoniker, conducted by Claudio Abbado.
So, what were the circumstances of that first listen of Schäfer’s album? Well, the year was 1999, and the location a radio studio in the bowels of BBC Broadcasting House, where I had just begun my first post-university job as a broadcast assistant at BBC Radio 3. The producer I was working with that day was particularly in love with Schafer’s performance of the Strauss song, “Morgen”, and because he wanted me to be equally in love, he not only programmed it, but also got the studio manager to crank up the volume when it came on. So we listened in silence (not something we’d ever done before as a programme went out, because there were always constantly-shifting programme timings to be on top of) as that ravishing combination of repertoire and voice filled our ears. Almost twenty years later I can still see us sitting there, and there’s no question that part of the magic from my own perspective came from this also being my very first hearing of what those studio speakers – the first professional-level speakers I’d ever had access to – were capable of. Never before had recorded music sounded so vivid to my ears.
I should add that the whole album is sublime, so don’t just stop at “Morgen”.
Schumann wrote his three quartets as a birthday gift to his new bride, Clara Schumann, in 1842, in what would end up being a year of frenetic composition all centred around chamber works: in addition to those three quartets he also managed the Piano Quartet, the Piano Quintet and the Fantasiestucke piano trio, all within the space of nine months. The Elias Quartet’s new recording of the second and third quartets is very fine indeed. Think supple lines, beautiful nuancing, and engineering which allows the four instruments’ individual timbral characters to shine out to an almost tactile degree. We’ve chosen Quartet No.2 for our playlist, but you’ll also want to hear the fragile and tender-toned magic they’ve worked on No.3.
The Choir of St John’s, Cambridge, can get overshadowed by the fame of that of King’s College, Cambridge, just up the street. However this choir which counts star countertenor Iestyn Davies amongst its alumnae is one of the UK’s finest, and with its own distinctive sound: boy trebles as with King’s, but with a warmer overall tone; and indeed their director Andrew Nethsingha has very deliberately gone after a very human (for want of a better word) sound. A couple of years ago they launched a new, distinctive-looking imprint on Signum, which has been doing much for their wider reputation, and their latest release of Ralph Vaughan Williams’s unaccompanied Mass in G Minor shows them off at their very finest. Beautiful engineering puts the final polish on the overall magic, showing off their magnificent chapel acoustic to its full glory. The poppy on the cover artwork recognises that Vaughan Williams wrote both the mass, and the other choral liturgical works of his on this disc, directly after his experience as a wagon orderly during the First World War.
This month’s older recording choice is Jean-Yves Thibaudet’s 1996 programme for Decca of the two Ravel piano concertos, partnered by the concertinos (short concertos) of Honnegger and Français, accompanied by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra under Charles Dutoit. This was the first classical CD I bought with my own money, as a teenager who had recently fallen in love with the slow movement of Ravel’s G major Piano Concerto. However the purchasing of it constituted a bit of a learning curve, because whilst I knew what music I wanted, I knew nothing about artists or recordings; so it was a bit of a shock when I wound up in the CD shop faced with about seven different recordings of the work, and without the foggiest clue as to which one to choose. Still, I wanted that concerto on my shelf, so eventually I took a leap in the dark and plumped for Thibaudet and Dutoit, on the basis that a French pianist and conductor presumably knew what to do with a French composer. Also (embarrassed cough) because the CD itself looked suitably smart and glossy….. By complete fluke, though, I had picked a fantastic recording, because when Ravel’s 1931 G major piano concerto is full of jazz influences inspired by his 1928 concert tour to America, Thibaudet is not simply a French pianist, but a French pianist who for years has been immersed in American musical life; for instance he’s currently artist-in-residence with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and is also considered to be one of the foremost interpreters of Bernstein’s Second Symphony for Piano and Orchestra, The Age of Anxiety. As for why this is the month to be showcasing this brilliant recording, it’s because one of my festival trips this summer was to Beaune, for Musique et Vin au Clos Vougeot, and one of the concerts I attended there saw Thibaudet accompanying Russian violinist Svetlin Roussev in Ravel’s Violin Sonata: another work crammed with jazz influences, having been composed between 1923 and 1927 when a St Louis blues band happened to be resident in Paris. And this was a performance which gave me cause to appreciate anew Thibaudet’s complete ease in the musical languages of both France and America. So, here’s that 1996 G major concerto recording for you now.
This is an album that has been constantly on my stereo since it popped onto my doormat a month ago for review in Gramophone. Recorded in the nineteenth century hall of Valencia’s La Beneficencia cultural centre, with sound engineering absolutely reveling in that sonorous ornate space (but without overdoing it), this album is the typical scholarly effort we’ve come to expect from period violinist Fabio Biondi, prepared as it is with Paganini’s original manuscripts. Plus, the repertoire itself is a joy: singing, lyrical melodies which bring to mind both bel canto opera and folk music, and overall a sunnily serene style that every so often gets deliciously spiced by the devilish flavour of Paganini’s caprices which, like these sonatas, he was composing during the first two decades of the nineteenth century. On this playlist is No 6 in A major and No 12 in D major, and the second movement of No 12 has some wonderful sudden, vaguely sulphurous moments to listen out for, beautifully realised by Biondi and Pinardi. Take the skittish violin inflections at 1’48” and 1’55”, and the caprice-y downward tumbles and left-hand pizzicato flourishes right at the end between 3’47” and 3’56”.
Anyone familiar with La Serenissima’s zestily elegant 2016 Four Seasons will be aware that these musicians represent one heck of a crack team when it comes to the music of Vivaldi. Also indeed when it comes to the Italian Baroque in general, given that in 2017 they carried off the Gramophone Awards’ Baroque trophy for The Italian Job, a multi-composer assortment of sinfonias and concertos. Vivaldi x2 is as multicoloured as its award-winning predecessor is, presenting a medley of double concertos for hunting horns, oboes, bassoon, violin and cello. On this playlist is RV 539, the most glittering of Vivaldi’s two double horn concertos, which features some of the highest-tessitura horn writing in the entire Baroque period; and it appears here with some fantastically nimbly neat, exuberant period horn playing from soloists Anneke Scott and Jocelyn Lightfoot. The balance is lovely too: horns distinct but evenly-weighted with the orchestra, the softly luminous strings properly forward so as to really appreciate their timbres, and continuo equally nicely judged.
Listen to the full playlist on TIDAL
Having gone all the way back to 1959 for last month’s “archive” choice, I’ve gone precisely in the opposite direction for July, and chosen the Ébène Quartet’s 2016 Schubert Quintet and Lieder recording. Remember, though, that two years is in fact still plenty of time to forget about a recording, meaning that it speaks volumes that I’m reaching for today as regularly as I was when it first came out. So, why? Well, for starters there’s very little that could ever go wrong with this line-up of artists, because if the Ébène weren’t enough on their own (they are), they’re joined by two more top international names: joining Ébène cellist Raphael Merlin to make up the Quintet’s two-cello engine room is Gautier Capuçon; then it’s baritone Matthias Goerne who joins them for the lieder, whose string quartet accompaniments have been skillfully arranged from the original piano parts by Merlin himself. The playlist here features the Quintet, which appears luminously crisp, with expertly controlled sense of tension and release, and a beautifully judged feeling for Schubert’s lyrical, gossamer-weighted classicism. However don’t miss out on the lieder just because they’re not here. Goerne, much celebrated for his gentle-voiced and probing interpretations, is a joy. Plus, Merlin’s arrangements not only make us hear the inner workings and atmosphere of these songs with completely new ears, but also sound so very natural and idiomatic that it’s as though they were always meant to exist.
“Lamentatione” is Volume Six of a complete Haydn series from Giovanni Antonini; a series which has already garnered two Gramophone Awards, an Echo Klassik and a Diapason d’Or of the Year. Antonini has been divvying up the series between crack period instrument bands Il Giardino Armonico and the Kammerorchester Basel, and he’s directing the Kammerorchester Basel for this latest volume, whose unifying theme is symphonies with sacred inspiration behind them. For you here we have Symphony No 30, nicknamed “Alleluja” after the plainchant melody Haydn uses, and in it you hear the story of the whole: brilliant-toned fleet-footed pep, smartly virtuoso ensemble playing, and a lovely orchestral balance of weights and timbres.
Without wishing to sound like an uncritical critic, I don’t think there’s ever been an album from Paul McCreesh and his Gabrieli Singers that I haven’t instantly loved at first hearing, and then continued to play regularly over the ensuing years. First there’s the fact that the singing is superb: female sopranos (rather than boy trebles), and a tone that ticks the box for the pure English choral sound, but without being so ethereal that warmth and humanity are lost. Then, there’s the fact that one absolutely always has the sense that McCreesh and his singers understand and feel every single word of their texts.
A Rose Magnificat is themed around the Virgin Mary, with Renaissance settings juxtaposed with modern ones. The extracts I’ve chosen show how wonderfully naturally McCreesh manages these this juxtapositions too, because it’s a trio of Ave Maris Stella settings: Renaissance composer John Sheppard’s in the centre, framed by two twenty first century works by James McMillan and Owain Park. Don’t stop at these three, though, not least because with McCreesh there’s also always a satisfying sense of a progression over the course of an album, meaning that Songs of Farewell and Incarnation will reward your sitting down and listening from beginning to end.
Two albums rather than one here. However they’re from the same Debussy centenary collection from Harmonia Mundi, and they’re equally superb. First, an Anglo-Spanish offering in the form of Pablo Herras Casado and the Philharmonia Orchestra with beautifully lucid and detailed accounts of Prélude á l’après-midi d’un faune, La Mer, and the incidental music Debussy wrote for Gabriele d’Annunzio’s play, Le Martyr de saint Sébastien. Then, from Russian pianist Alexander Melnikov, Debussy’s second book of Préludes, plus Debussy’s own piano four hands arrangement of La Mer, for which he’s joined by fellow Russian Olga Pashchecko. Both Melnikov and Pashcenko are period keyboard experts, and the piano they’re on is Melnikov’s own period-appropriate French Érard, dating from around 1885. This is a gorgeous instrument too: soft and resonant, with an upper register capable of bringing out the music’s fast-fingered details with far more delicacy than a modern concert grand; all qualities you’ll hear on the piece here – “Ondine” – along with Melnikov’s exquisite part-voicing. In fact both of these albums are proof, if any were needed, that you don’t need to be French to produce knock-out Debussy.
Welcome to June! Topping the new releases I’m drawing your attention to this month is young American violinist Caroline Goulding’s new recording of the Korngold Violin Concerto and Mozart’s Violin Concerto No 5, with the Berner Symphonieorchester under Kevin John Edusei. Then my other two shouts are for Thomas Dunford performing archlute arrangements of Bach’s music for solo cello and violin, and Bach Collegium Japan and Masaaki Suzuki’s latest choral release, of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis.
More on those three further down. First, though, my older recording choice this month is Yehudi Menuhin performing Debussy’s Violin Sonata. Not the famous one made for EMI in the early ’70s with pianist Jacques Fevrier, though, but instead the recording made by the BBC in 1959, in Aldeburgh Church, for which the pianist was Benjamin Britten.
Composed at the end of the First World War, Debussy’s Violin Sonata was one of the works Menuhin and Britten took to Bergen-Belsen in July 1945, to perform to survivors of the newly liberated Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. A nurse touchingly described the young pair afterwards as, “two compassionate men, clad simply in shirt and shorts, creating glorious melody and moving amongst the people”. For their part, what they saw there stayed with them for the rest of their lives; something that Britten only articulated near his own death when, after years of barely speaking of it, he commented to his partner Peter Pears that, “the experience had coloured everything” he had written subsequently. Back to this recording, and you can hear that experience colouring their playing, because – to me at least – it sounds like the work of a war-weary composer being played by musicians who have seen the worst of what war can do; and consequently it gets right under your skin. Sure, some might complain about the audible background noise, such as audience coughs, and the creak of wooden pews. Also a slight background hiss. However this is actually all part of its charm, because you hear so keenly the spartan church space itself, and how the instruments truly sound in it. In fact it’s all so incredibly intimate and immediate-sounding that, if you were to shut your eyes, you could almost imagine yourself being there.
A conceptually delicious matching of two composer-prodigies named “Wolfgang”, Caroline Goulding’s first concerto disc – gifted to her as the Prix Thierry Scherz by the Swiss festival Sommets Musicaux de Gstaad, for winning their young artists competition – is an absolute cracker. First the Korngold Violin Concerto, the Bernersymphonieorchester under Kevin John Edusei opening luscious and softly sparkling, over which Goulding spins out clean-as-a-whistle long, supple, amorous lines, with will o’ the wisp nimbleness; and from here it’s a beautifully emotionally guaged journey from start to finish. As for Mozart’s Fifth, “Turkish” Violin Concerto which follows, their reading of this one is properly phenomenal: elegant and feisty, with their finale a particular pleasure for the way its theme wonderfully resists complete regentrification after a full-on earthy, Turkey-meets-the-hurdy-gurdy, central peasant stomp. Factor in that the recording is also acoustically a beauty, Berne’s Diaconis-Kirche lending a lovely bloom and gentle spaciousness, and the disc is probably my favourite release this year so far. So, whilst it’s the Mozart I’ve programmed here, please go listen to the Korngold too.
Thomas Dunford might well be the most compelling lutenist on the block at the moment, meaning that I’d been hoping for quite some time that he’d eventually release a solo album. So it’s a wonderful thing to have found that this one thoroughly meets all previous hopes and expectations. Bach might well be the most arranged of all composers, not least by himself, and so appropriately it’s his own lute arrangement of his Cello Suite No 5 in C minor that sits at the centre of Dunford’s programme. This is then framed by Dunford’s own deft arrangements of two of Bach’s most famous solo instrument works of all: the Cello Suite No 1, and the monumental Chaconne in D minor for solo violin; and whilst there’s a sense to which the Cello Suite No 1 makes a seamless shift to lute – especially with the broken chords of its famous opening prelude to ease you in – the Chaconne appears in an entirely new, and equally beguiling, light. It’s consequently the Chaconne that I’ve chosen for this playlist, and you’ll hear that, whilst it’s as profound and multi-shaded as previously, the softer lute sound works the music’s magic in an entirely different manner. It’s also the perfect vehicle for Dunford to show off his easy virtuosity, Bach’s semiquaver figures and runs flowing like water under his fingertips. The engineering is lovely too: warmly ample but not OTT, and miked so that you can really hear the archlute’s different textural colours. In short, I hope this is the first of many solo albums from him.
If you like your major choral works to come light, bright-toned, and with lucid textures, then this one is for you. For this playlist I’ve chosen the opening Kyrie, where you’ll hear all those qualities: air between the choral parts, a luminous orchestral sound, and superlative soloists who don’t go too heavy on the vibrato; and yet with the richness of Beethoven’s score also thoroughly there. This isn’t a mighty reading – if you’re after more weighty profundity then you might want to gravitate towards John Eliot Gardiner’s 1990 reading for Deutsche Grammophon – but this is an impeccably performed nimble, energetic and joyful listen that stands as a thoroughly valid alternative.
Listen to the full playlist on TIDAL https://tidal.com/playlist/02bb5f52-8967-4d13-9eb0-b136bca3005f
It’s always nice when this column’s “older” recording effectively chooses itself, and this is one of those months. It’s Bach’s great D minor Chaconne for solo violin, played by the great Romanian violinist, composer and conductor George Enescu in a recording made around the late forties or early fifties, and it’s here because the first of this month’s new releases features Enescu’s own Octet, recorded by a multi-star line-up of musicians led by violinist Vilde Frang, who herself has been inspired by Enescu.
Born in 1881 and living until 1955, Enescu was unquestionably one of the greatest musical figures of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. A child prodigy violinist who would go on to teach fellow violin child prodigy violinist Yehudi Menuhin, his initial inspiration to take up the instrument was an unusual one, because it was hearing some gypsy fiddlers near his village when he was three. The next day he attached some thread to a piece of wood, aged seven he was admitted to the Vienna Conservatory, aged ten he was playing for Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria, in 1923 he made his American conducting debut at Carnegie Hall with the Philadelphia Orchestra, and I could go on.
The folk spirit of his homeland was never all that far beneath the surface though, both in his violin playing and his compositions, and you should hear that in this recording. Now, the sound quality is not great. Plus, his intonation (tuning) betrays his age, because it’s often a bit wide off the mark. In fact if I were really playing safe then I’d be telling you to hunt out the recording he made further back in 1932 with Menuhin, playing Bach’s Concerto in D minor for two violins with the Orchestre Symphonique de Paris under Pierre Montreux. However, why play safe? Especially when, if you stick with it, what you ultimately get out of this solo Bach recording is so transcendentally powerful. The music of a legendary artist whose time on this earth was nearing its end, playing each note as though it was his last, in an interpretation that could only have been his. So please, keep listening. And I mean really, really listening. Because you will get there, and when you do, you might even feel the tears well up inside you as they do with me.
Vilde Frang – Bartók 1
There are enough recent fantastic recent recordings of Bartók’s exquisite Violin Concerto No 1, composed when he was twenty three, to suit all tastes. However, when the overwhelming majority of them pair it with Bartók’s Violin Concerto No 2, it’s very refreshing indeed to see Vilde Frang coming up with something a bit more thoughtfully off-piste, pairing it instead with Enescu’s Octet. The Octet has all sorts of pertinent parallels with the Bartók concerto too: another youthful work (Enescu was seventeen), composed by another violin prodigy who was not only born the same year as Bartók but also in the same country. Furthermore, the two men admired each other and played in recitals together. So it’s the Enescu I’ve given you here, for which Frang has assembled a stellar combination of top-tier chamber players and top-tier chamber-playing soloists, including cellist Nicolas Altstaedt, violinist Gabriel Le Magadure of the Ebène Quartet and violist Lawrence Power. It’s a beauty, too: luminous-toned chamber blending, and delivering in spades on both the music’s late-Romantic lyricism and tumult, and its slightly untamed folk quality.
Vienna: Fin de siecle – Barbara Hannigan & Reinbert de Leeuw
It’s becoming a bit of an event when the Canadian soprano and conductor Barbara Hannigan releases a new vocal album, and all the more so since she carried off the 2016 Gramophone Awards contemporary category for Hans Abraham’s let me tell you for soprano and orchestra (and anyone who thinks they don’t like contemporary classical should listen to that one). Hannigan stands out for the almost superhuman qualities of artistry and total immersion she brings to every music project she touches, and when it comes to newer repertoire her voice is a perfect fit with its personality-rich combination of purity, clarity and warmth. So it’s happy news that she’s teamed up with her regular collaborator, Dutch pianist Reinbert de Leeuw, to turn her attention to some of the major composers writing at the turn of the twentieth century who, whilst surrounded by the music and culture of Romanticism, were exploring what could come next; and the recorded result is every bit as bewitching as one could have hoped for. For this playlist it was tempting to choose some of the programme’s lesser-spotted songs, such as those by Alma Mahler (Gustav’s wife). However in the end I’ve gone for Schoenberg’s Four Songs Op 2 of 1899-1900, simply because they’re a fascinating and classically beautiful entry point for all those who see Schoenberg as the guy who ripped up the harmonic rule book and made music unpleasant to listen to.
Calling the Muse: Old and new pieces for theorbo
I’m half-tempted to apologise for drawing your attention to a theorbo album so soon after trumpeting the joys of Thomas Dunford’s Bach transcriptions for archlute. However only half tempted. Firstly because, if we’re really splitting hairs, the theorbo and the archlute aren’t quite the same thing. Mostly though, because this is one of the most striking albums I’ve heard so far this year. Theorboist Bruno Helstroffer himself writes of Calling the Muse, “It’s a logbook, the one I’ve never really kept. My years of blues/rock and early music mingle here; the thousands of kilometers travelled with that theorbo of mine, the cities and the countryside, the railways, the skies, the scents, the lights; but above all, the music of the people”. What this means in practice is a completely genre-bending programme featuring everything from early seventeenth century lute pieces, through an arrangement of Satie’s Gnossienne no 1, to the more modern musical vernacular of Helstroffer’s own compositions. It was agonising trying to pick just one work to trumpet this multi-coloured feast, but hopefully I’ve done it with Helstroffer’s own, “Thanks Toumani”. This piece expresses his fascination for the music of the Mandinka people though an improvisation that reimagines the theorbo as a kora (a West African lute-bridge-harp), bookended by a prelude and postlude in harmonics which recall the sound of a metallophone keyboard called the “sanza”.
Listen to the complete playlist on TIDAL
It is clear that Diana Krall is working here with some very fine musicians who play with real commitment, confident that they can rely on each other. It makes for a propulsive, energetic and memorable performance. But the timing is subtle and exacting. Some systems smear, for example, piano and percussion which can sound disconnected as if, once again, the performers are not paying proper attention. It’s the difference between an unforgettable night out or a so-so one, the sort where you might not want your money back but you won’t be talking about the gig for years afterwards.
We all have a soundtrack to our lives.
Music is surely, amongst many other things, about life, expression and ideas. Musical ideas intertwine with our lives and this can lead to new possibilities and ways of looking at things. A melody, a solo, a chord change or a simple arrangement can give birth to feelings, thoughts and impressions of musical landscapes and tonal textures and colours that speak to us on a fundamental and rather earthy level, as well as inspiring us and helping us to better understand our world. It is an incredibly powerful force.
In the future I will be listing some tracks that you may or may not like. That’s what Playlists are all about. If they encourage you to check out the artists at a deeper level, then that would be great.
As a guitarist myself I thought I would start off with some electric players that have meant something to me. There will be more to come, as well as acoustic guitar players, vocalists, vocal groups, Bluegrass, Flamenco, Jazz, Fusion etc – as well as just about anything else that comes to mind. None of the lists come with any claims like being the best of this or that. It’s just music in some of its many forms. I hope you enjoy them.
Listen on Tidal https://tidal.com/playlist/cdbe0829-6f7f-4bad-a4ed-4728a14764db
Comments per track
A wonderfully understated performance from Sinatra. His exquisite sense of timing, the way he plays with rhythm but never loses the sense of forward motion, is a large part of his greatness. In a well set up system he works intimately with the piano and the orchestra’s involvement is surprisingly subtle. On other systems the piano noodles away to itself unconnected to the music, the orchestra swamps the rest when it plays and Sinatra’s timing isn’t exquisite, just listless.
A familiar sound at hi-fi shows, this one, and with good reason. There is real anger and emphatic playing in this track but on the wrong system it simply fails to come across. It opens with a percussion crescendo which can seem merely to get louder but to no good effect. On the right system the percussion builds with a real sense of increasing energy and urgency. Also the vocals (it’s spoken rather than sung) and playing are suffused with anger and awareness of great injustice, whereas some systems can make it sound like Masekela is simply reading from a list.
On the right system the build up to the entry of the main theme is skilfully and subtly crafted, the bass and piano are exquisitely timed and there is a real sense of jazz rhythm informed by enormous respect and understanding of Bach’s music. The instruments have proper mass and there’s a real sense of swing to the rhythm changes. If there’s little sense of note or tunefulness to the bass, and bass and piano feel disconnected, it becomes adequately, but not memorably, played.
This can sound tight and energetic, vigorous dance-making music which is hard to ignore – and why would you want to? Or it can sound disconnected, as if the musicians are not paying enough attention to each other.
In the wrong system the distinctive vocal style of these women and their a cappella songs will sound merely shouty, overwrought and tiresome. A well set up system, though, will reveal the remarkable depth of feeling and control that these singers bring to what is, in effect, tuneful yelling. One piece is fast and dynamic, the other lyrical. Both are extraordinary.
This is fairly typical of Senegalese popular music. It can sound plodding: the bass can dominate, but tunelessly, and the backing group can sound a bit bored. If it’s your introduction to world music, and you don’t see what people find in it, that might be why. On a good system everything gains life and vitality, the bass is less dominant and more tuneful and the vocals, including the backing group, are much more engaging and interesting to listen to.