Our April selection of classical releases includes a celebration of 18th century London’s fascination with Italian-style music, courtesy of period ensemble Spiritato, a Rameau-themed programme from rising French-American harpsichordist Justin Taylor and a fizzing Beethoven triple concerto from Isabelle Faust, Jean-Guihen Queyras and Alexander Melnikov with the Freiburger Barockorchester under Pablo Heras-Casado. First up, however, is our archive choice: Benjamin Britten’s much-loved Jubilate Deo, linked of course to HRH Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh’s funeral service.
Britten: Jubilate Deo – Choir of King’s College Cambridge/Sir Philip Ledger
I think I wasn’t the only person who was incredibly struck by the music from HRH Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh’s funeral service, both for the sheer quality of the performances and also for the insight into the Duke’s musical tastes. I’m ashamed to say I had no idea he had such a keen interest in music, or that it was him who commissioned Britten’s much-loved and performed canticle in 1961. It seems he liked its sparse textures and breezy buoyancy very much, given that he chose it not just for his funeral, but also for his 80th and 90th birthday services. For this month’s playlist, I’ve chosen the Choir of King’s College Cambridge, led by Sir Philip Ledger.
The Taste of this Nation – Ciara Hendrick, Spiritato/Kinga Ujszászi on Delphian
Period ensemble Spiritato’s debut on Delphian is a celebration of early 18th century London’s cosmopolitan musical personality and, in particular, the success of Italian styles – everything which attracted Handel in the early 1710s, determined to make his own mark as a composer of Italian opera. Spiritato’s brilliantly varied programme is a roll call of non-Italians nailing the Italianate style that Londoners couldn’t get enough of: British composer Obadiah Shuttleworth’s concerti grossi reimaginings of Corelli’s popular violin sonatas; his fellow Brit William Corbett’s vibrant ‘Bizarre Universali’ concertos, plus a softly elegant Sonata for trumpet and oboe full of contrapuntal interplay – all drawing on Corbett’s extensive connections – as well as four vocal cantatas full of subtle theatrical flair from Prussian immigrant Johann Christoph Pepusch.
It’s all performed with tremendously elegant flair, and the fact that it’s essentially been programmed in shuffle mode – composers and forms jumbled up, meaning each work sits in delicate contrast with its neighbours – adds to the pleasure. I’ve given you Pepusch’s Chloe first, where mezzo Ciara Hendrick’s supple, bright, pure-toned voice provides the perfect match for the vocal line’s blend of short English-style recitative and Italianate arioso, with Spiritato under Kinga Ujszászi weaving responsively in and out of her lines with a lovely combination of airy, lilting charm and crisp, zesty warmth. Following the Pepusch is Corbett’s aforementioned oboe and trumpet sonata where, beyond the overall grace and delectable blending on display from oboist Oonagh Lee and trumpeter William Russell, it’s also worth training your ears on the continuo section’s lithe, nimble grace.
La famille Rameau – Justin Taylor on Alpha
Mention the name Rameau, and the assumption will be that it’s Jean-Philippe (1683-1764) you’re talking about. However, as with the Bach family, the musical Rameaux didn’t end with the superstar figure, as this fascinating, multi-hued and stylishly performed programme from young French-American harpsichordist Justin Taylor engagingly demonstrates.
It’s probably fair to say that the wider Rameau crowd are a less lofty bunch than the Bachs, but Taylor has used them well, making Jean-Philippe’s own original and adventurous works the centrepiece, around which he then carefully dots cherry-picked examples of the best of the rest. Prepare to meet Jean-Philippe’s son Claude-Francois (b.1727) via a merrily skipping gigue; his organist brother Claude (b.1689) via a pastoral Menuet barosais taken from a cantata titled ‘The Drinker Turned Amorous’ and, finally, his nephew Lazare (b.1757) via a delicately sparkling Rondo taken from the Sonata No 1, which is itself a special pleasure for the way it brings us firmly into the Classical style, Lazare being an exact contemporary of Mozart.
The tour doesn’t stop there. Taylor also treats us to a couple of Rameau homages. First, Jean-Francois Tapray’s 1770 borrowing of one of Jean-Philippe’s catchiest and most popular pieces, Les Sauvages. Then, while all the above is performed on the brightly sonorous, full-toned c. 1733 harpsichord at the Château d’Assas, Taylor’s masterstroke parting shot is Debussy’s 1905 Hommage à Rameau from Images Book 1, which he performs on an 1891 Érard piano. While this inevitably comes with an audible switch from one recording location to another, accentuated further by slightly less up-close capturing of the piano, it’s by no means jarring – it’s more just a final present, dropping you into an alternative world while simultaneously inviting you to imagine yourself back to the Gavotte and Doubles by Jean-Philippe himself.
For this month’s playlist, I’ve given you those closing tracks, moving from Jean-Philippe’s Sarabande in A and the Gavotte et doubles (from Nouvelles Suites de Pièces de Clavecin) to the Debussy.
Beethoven Triple Concerto, Piano Trio op 36 – Isabelle Faust, Jean-Guihen Queyras, Alexander Melnikov, Freiburger Barockorchester/Pablo Heras-Casado on Harmonia Mundi
Beethoven’s Triple Concerto has never fared quite as well as his solo concertos or symphonies in the popularity stakes. Perhaps because, if you end up with three major soloists who are determined to act as soloists, rather than adopting a mutually deferential piano trio mentality, the resultant battle for supremacy can sound not just exhausting but actually plain and clunkily unmusical. Fortunately, that was never likely to be an issue with violinist Isabelle Faust, cellist Jean-Guihen Queyras and pianist Alexander Melnikov, longstanding chamber partners as they are. For this release, they’re reunited with the Freiburger Barockorchester under Pablo Heras-Casado, with whom they recorded their recent acclaimed trilogy devoted to the concertos and trios of Schumann.
This latest recording is every bit as good as it should be. Before we even start on the playing, the period instruments themselves sound wonderful: the soft, tactile, multi-coloured tone of the gut strings from Faust, Queyras and the orchestra; Melnikov’s c.1815 ‘Langrassa’ Viennese school fortepiano and of course, the extra rasp, punch and pop of the orchestra’s period brass and woodwind. Add to that the inevitable chamber magic between three soloists lovingly and often merrily in each other’s musical pockets, the attentive, balanced partnering and joyously committed playing from the orchestra themselves, the right-feeling tempi and transitions, and the range and sophistication of the dynamic and colouristic detail from absolutely everyone, and it’s truly hard to see how anything could have been improved upon.
Following the concerto is a piano trio arrangement of Symphony No 2, penned just two years after the symphony’s initial 1804 publication, probably by Ferdinand Ries and then approved by Beethoven – a delicious listening window into the 19th century world in which most people would have had their first taster of a famous new symphonic work not via an orchestra, but via a chamber reduction, and an even more brilliantly worthwhile addition to the recording catalogue here for Faust, Queyras’s and Melnikov’s sparkily engrossing reading. While I’ve given you the concerto for the playlist, you’ll certainly want to explore the ‘symphony’ for yourself.
Playlist available below,
One of the finest R&B albums of the 1980s, Rapture made such an impact at the time of its release on March 20, 1986, that it came to define what many call the ‘quiet storm’ sub-genre. It sounded like nothing else around. Slick yet soulful, Anita Baker’s soaring vocals blended seamlessly with mostly electronic backing instrumentation and peerless recording quality to create a modern soul masterpiece.
At the time of Rapture’s release, R&B was at a crossroads. Just as Aretha Franklin’s bright star was fading, Whitney Houston surfaced to inject new life into the musical tradition. She blended soul stylings with sugary pop music to deliver a string of smash hit singles which put the genre back on the mainstream map. Yet behind the scenes, 29-year-old Anita Baker had been busy honing a sound and a style that was arguably more special. Her first solo outing, The Songstress, lacked mainstream appeal, but Rapture hit the spot perfectly. Featuring excellent songs played by top-notch session musicians, it was a total musical tour de force.
Polished to perfection, it oozed sophistication and class. Indeed it’s a testament to Rapture’s quality that critics still can’t decide whether it’s a soulful jazz album or jazzy soul album, but what is undisputed is that its technical standards were sky-high for the time. It seemed achingly modern, combining the glassy, chiming sound of the recently-released Yamaha DX7 digital synthesiser with Baker’s breathtaking vocals – with their bell-like clarity, gospel-bred emotion and explosive power.
The songs may be beautifully crafted, but the lyrics are not such a strong point. With almost any other singer they would sound trite, but Baker’s flawless vocal style ensures this doesn’t quite come to pass. As well as being a huge trans-Atlantic hit, Sweet Love is a sensual masterpiece, and Caught Up in the Rapture is another thing of beauty. Same Ole Love is lyrically clichéd, but Baker’s delivery is so beautifully nuanced that it still makes sense. What delights over and over again is her contralto voice’s combination of firecracker dynamics and gentle, considered restraint that she uses like a coiled spring.
The album proved a huge commercial success, putting Anita Baker on the global music map and selling over 8 million copies. This was thanks in no small part to its easy accessibility. You didn’t have to be a disciple of the R&B genre to love it, or even appreciate its calibre. Fascinatingly, it garnered praise in all corners of the music press of that time – even highly respected rock critics felt compelled to champion it.
By the early 1990s though, this album had spawned hundreds of ‘cocktail jazz’ imitators, and the whole musical sub-genre was becoming tired. Because the butter-smooth Rapture was so perfect, it could never be surpassed. In its place, a new wave of commercial hip-hop soon transformed the mainstream R&B music scene into something completely different. All silver disc versions sound special, but collectors will surely seek out the Japanese UHQCD MQA CD [Elektra WPCR-18232].
Playlist available below,
Our latest selection of classical releases includes a Paris-themed programme from violinist Hilary Hahn and the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, a fascinating presentation of rediscovered British clarinet music from the 1930s and 40s from Peter Cigleris and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, and an all-Elgar offering from violinist Renaud Capuçon with pianist Stephen Hough and the London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Sir Simon Rattle. First up, though, is our archive pick: a modern classic from US vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth…
Shaw: Partita for 8 Voices from Roomful of Teeth EP on New Amsterdam
Three magnificent concerto albums occupy pride of place in this month’s Classical Choices, each one dominated by repertoire from the end of the 19th century and first half of the 20th, but each also presenting its own very distinctive sound world. Contrasting sound worlds or not, though, it feels right to choose a palette-cleanser (or reverse palette-cleanser) for this month’s classic recording. This comes in the form of US vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth’s 2013 recording of Caroline Shaw’s Partita for 8 Voices, which won a Pulitzer Prize that same year, and which I think is one of the most brilliantly crafted and original new vocal works to have appeared in the 21st century.
An a cappella, polyphonic interweaving of the spoken and sung word, it’s made up of four movements, which each take their initial cues from a Baroque dance suite movement, before stretching that model to its limits by means of everything from square dance calls and Inuit-inspired hocketed breaths to a wordless quotation from the American folk hymn ‘Shining Shore’ and passacaglia variations. Be warned, this is not background music. It demands your full attention, but gloriously so, with as much beauty as shock factor.
Paris: Hilary Hahn, Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France/Mikko Franck on DG
The world is not short of classical albums themed around Paris. However, few are as imaginatively programmed and stylishly performed as this one from American violinist Hilary Hahn. Ernest Chausson’s Poème is the programme opener, coming with an unusual steely sobriety from Hahn, complemented by a correspondingly clean and poised support from Mikko Franck and the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France. It’s reading that feels worlds away from the warm, plump, perfumed, highly romantic language in which it’s often cast, and it feels revelatory. It also brings Chausson’s piece slightly stylistically closer to the following work, Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No 1 of 1917, which received its premiere in Paris and also sits in Hahn’s own teaching lineage. (Her teacher Jascha Brodsky played for Prokofiev – also in Paris – during the late 1920s.)
The album reaches its climax with the recording premiere of Einojuhani Rautavaara’s lyrical Deux Sérénades. Addressed to love and to life, and written for Hahn and Frank, these were the last pieces the Finnish composer penned before his death in 2016. Hahn and Frank then premiered them in Paris in 2019, where this live recording was taken. I’ve selected the first of these, which is post-Romantic and pastoral in language, and intense in feel. It’s also the recipient of probably the most ‘romantic’ reading of this whole programme, albeit still with an overarching clean purity. I’ve also included the Chausson Poème.
Rediscovered: British Clarinet Concertos by Dometsch, Maconchy, Spain-Dunk, Wishart – Peter Cigleris, BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Ben Balmer on Cala Signum
It was a search for the manuscript of Charles Villiers Stamford’s Clarinet Concerto at London’s Royal Academy of Music that set British clarinetist Peter Cigleris off on the chain of discoveries which led to this album. First, the chance discovery of a previously unknown clarinet concerto by Victorian composer Ebenezer Prout. Then, the discovery that there was in fact quite a lot of other long-buried British clarinet music; then, the four works here, which emerge as the stand-outs.
Those four works are Susan Spain-Dunk’s poetic Cantilena for Clarinet and Orchestra of 1930, Elizabeth Maconchy’s darker and more modernist Concertino for Clarinet and String Orchestra of 1945 (the only work of the four that’s been previously recorded), Rudolph Dolmetsch’s 1939 neo-Baroque concerto for the unusual combination of Clarinet, Harp and Orchestra, and Peter Wishart’s Serenata Concertante for Clarinet and Small Orchestra, which was completed in 1947 shortly after finishing studies with yet another female composer, Nadia Boulanger.
They’re all very different, and these readings have both masterfully realised those contrasting sound worlds, and revealed each to be a gem in its own right. For this playlist I’ve chosen the soft post-Romanticism of Spain-Dunk’s Cantilena, which features Cigleris smoothly soaring and dipping over an orchestral reading of joyous hedonism gently tempered by dignified British reserve; then the Dolmetsch, where a crisp, triumphal orchestral introduction leads to a pair of show-stopping cadenza-esque soloist entries from Cigleris and harpist Deian Rowlands, after which comes a dramatically taunt, organically unfolding musical argument that holds you firmly in its grip.
Elgar: Violin Concerto & Violin Sonata, Renaud Capuçon, Stephen Hough, London Symphony Orchestra/Sir Simon Rattle on Erato
This is one of those rare recordings that feels absolutely right in every single regard. For starters, you couldn’t top this line-up for this repertoire. It was the London Symphony Orchestra that premiered Elgar’s Violin Concerto in 1910, and Simon Rattle himself has a decades-long relationship with it, both onstage and in the recording studio. Then there’s Capuçon, whose characteristic blend of tender, velvety warmth and biting passion are a perfect fit for Elgar’s noble passion, plus Stephen Hough, one of the most naturally poetic, intelligent pianists around.
Press play, and the Violin Concerto delivers on all the above: the richness and nobility of the LSO sound; Rattle’s tempi feeling absolutely spot on as he sails them smoothly through the first movement’s constant succession of choppy speedings up and slowings down; the freedom and poeticism of Capuçon’s lines as he sings over the top.
There are also some beautiful surprises within all this right-ness. First, the liberal use of orchestral portamenti – a period-appropriate touch that’s largely absent from other modern recordings, and done superbly well here. Then, there’s the occasions in the first movement when Elgar’s forwards-thrusting urgency and dynamic power suddenly evaporates and the violin is left floating in sweet, pianissimo weightlessness, and the degree on this particular recording to which time stands still in these moments is different and special.
The Violin Sonata is equally a tale of perfect sound and musical partnering, Capuçon and Hough capturing its big-boned majesty and softer poetry, and also satisfyingly bringing out the programmatic flavour of its darkly enigmatic central movement. I’ve given you the Violin Concerto here, but you’ll want to explore the Violin Sonata too.
Playlist available below,
In 1969, Manfred Eicher founded Edition of Contemporary Music Records (ECM) in Munich, Germany. This new label went on to release some of the most interesting and innovative new jazz of the next few decades. One of its early releases was Return to Forever, by a young and hugely talented jazz pianist called Armando Anthony ‘Chick’ Corea. Chick was in distinguished company, as some of the most stellar talents of the jazz fusion genre went on to share the label with him – from Keith Jarrett and Pat Metheny to Charlie Haden and Dave Liebman.
Return to Forever was released in September 1972, and recorded in A&R Studios, New York City in February of that year. Eicher was responsible for producing what has gone on to become an important point in the history of the ECM label, so-called electric jazz and of Corea himself. The album – which shares a name with Corea’s band – is a fascinating window into what was then a fast-developing and exciting avant garde scene.
In 1964, the young Corea had played for trumpeter Blue Mitchell, laying down tracks for the legendary Blue Note label where he met rising piano legends McCoy Tyner, Bill Evans and Herbie Hancock. There’s a chasm between the rich, acoustic warmth of his early work and the crisp, melodic and lively sound of this album, which is dominated by Corea’s Fender Rhodes electric piano. It features ethereal backing vocals by Flora Purim and fast-paced, almost rock-style drumming from Airto Moreira. Stanley Clarke’s virtuoso electric bass guitar makes a huge impact too, pushing the music along with gusto, while Joe Farrell’s flute and soprano sax bring occasional shades of early progressive rock.
By the time of this album’s release, the 30-year-old Corea was approaching the peak of his musical abilities. He’d already been part of Miles Davis’s band – which was breaking new ground by fusing jazz and rock – and played on the latter’s seminal Bitches Brew (1970), Jack Johnson (1971) and On the Corner (1972) before going solo. This album was the first of several Return to Forever line-ups, all of which understandably had Stanley Clarke on bass.
Later incarnations were titled more towards rock, whereas this is an interesting hybrid of electric jazz with touches of progressive rock and Latin. In its own quirky way, it’s a beautiful album, and one of the compositions, Crystal Silence, is now considered a jazz standard.
Such was the speed of Corea’s musical evolution that by the end of the 1970s, he was on stage with Herbie Hancock playing classical pieces by Bartók. “I have always just concentrated on having the most fun I can with the adventure of music”, he later explained. Chick Corea sadly passed away on February 9, 20201, leaving an amazing back catalogue of music – of which Return to Forever is a key part.
It will come as no surprise to jazz fans to hear that the first CD copy of this album was first released in Japan (Polydor 3112-8) in 1984. A SACD reissue appeared in 2017 (ECM Records PROZ-1088). Those wishing to obtain a more affordable version should seek out the 2010 German imprint (ECM 1022 ST).
Playlist available below,
Welcome to our latest pick of classical recordings. This month’s selection of new releases includes an exciting Rachaminov programme from The Philadelphia Orchestra, English Restoration theatre music from French Baroque ensemble Les Surprises, and English music for strings from the London Sinfonieta, conducted by John Wilson. First up though, is our archive choice…
Ravel: Introduction and Allegro – The Melos Ensemble of London & Ossian Ellis on Decca (track 1)
This month, I’m opening with honouring the luminary harpist Ossian Ellis, who died on January 5 aged 92. Ellis was Professor of Harp at the Royal Academy of Music from 1959 to 1989 and a regular member of the London Symphony Orchestra from 1961 to 1994. He was also a member of the Melos Ensemble and the backing orchestra for BBC radio series The Goon Show.
A musician, composer and teacher, Ellis was celebrated for the bright clarity of his playing, and for his close working partnership with Benjamin Britten. It’s that bright clarity I’m highlighting via my recording choice: his 1961 recording with the Melos Ensemble of Ravel’s Introduction and Allegro.
This was one of a pile of CDs I bought twenty-ish years ago on the first pay day of my first job after graduation, when I was looking for some Ravel. (Its case still bears a sticky label with my maiden name on it.) At this point in time, I knew plenty about repertoire, but next to nothing about artists or recordings.
By complete fluke, I hit on one of the greats, recorded with bright clarity in Walthamstow Assembly Hall by some of the leading lights of UK’s mid-century music scene along with Ellis, a former pupil of harpist Gwendolen Mason, who had performed with Ravel. Twenty years, on it still stands the test of time.
Rachmaninov Symphony No 1 & Symphonic Dances – The Philadelphia Orchestra/Yannick Nézét-Seguin – DG
“This music leaves an evil impression with its broken rhythms, obscurity and vagueness of form, meaningless repetition of the same short tricks, the nasal sound of the orchestra, the strained crash of the brass, and above all its sickly perverse harmonization.” So said one of the many unenthusiastic critics at the 1897 premiere of Rachmaninov’s Symphony No 1, from which the distraught 23-year-old composer himself walked out of early.
The experience precipitated such a crisis of confidence that Rachmaninov wouldn’t compose another note for a further three years, before therapy sessions finally enabled him to compose the Piano Concerto No 2 – a work which triumphantly relaunched his career.
Conductors have since learnt how to conduct the symphony, but few with the degree of success achieved here by Yannick Nézét-Seguin with The Philadelphia Orchestra (an orchestra that Rachaminov formed an especially close bond with after his emigration from Russia). In fact, take every one of those aforementioned criticisms and convert them to their positive opposite, and you’ve got what’s going on here: rhythmic flow and propulsion, dramatically compelling forwards flow, clear architecture on both the micro and macro level, the soaring freedom of the strings, the percussion’s satisfying crisp snap and sparkle, intelligent development of the binding motifs, the dark power of the orchestra gliding through Rachmaninov’s piquant harmonic swerves…. It’s an absolute cracker, and the Symphonic Dances which follow – Rachmaninov’s final major orchestral work, completed in 1940 for the Philadelphia, and containing a bittersweet quote from the symphony – are every bit as good. It’s the symphony that I’ve given you for this month’s playlist.
Purcell – Tyrannic Love – Ensemble Les Surprises/ Louis-Noël Bestion de Camboulas on Alpha
“A hymn to love!” is how Louis-Noël Bestion de Camboulas, director of French Baroque Ensemble Les Surprises, describes this cherry-picked spread of vocal and instrumental music from Restoration-era English theatrical music, and that’s a perfect encapsulation of the joyous, multi-coloured and timbred energy they’ve brought to this programme, recorded with bristling immediacy at the Ferme de Villefavard.
Contents-wise, it’s the fizzing, fiery works written by Henry Purcell during the five massively creative final years of his life which dominate – a period when, following William (of Orange) III and Mary’s scaling back of court music, he contributed to London’s newly blossoming commercial music scene as an employee of the United Company.
While the programme includes a range of well-known pieces, including King Arthur (1961), whose jubilantly whirling hornpipe from Act II serves as the programme’s big-bang curtain raiser, de Camboulas also pushes far lesser-known gems under our noses. Take the sighing beauty of the Slow Air he’s plucked from the incidental music to Thomas d’Urfey’s c.1695 play The Virtuous Wife. Or “Hark, my Damilcar”, a vocal duet sung by two spirits in the 1694 revival of Dryden’s play Tyrannic Love – sung here with satisfyingly clean-toned and crisply spirit by soprano Eugénie Lefebvre and baritone Étienne Bazolaor.
Complementing all this are further choices from Purcell’s court colleague John Blow, his United Company colleague John Eccles (hold onto your hats for Lefebvre’s vigorous “I burn, my brain consumes to ashes”) and his followers, Daniel Purcell and Jeremiah Clarke. All in all, these French artists have succeeded in giving the unwavering impression of being front row at the liveliest theatre in Restoration London. I’ve given you the aforementioned Hornpipe and “Hark, my Damilcar”, plus the Saraband for the Graces from John Blow’s Venus and Adonis, and the Dance for the Fairies from Purcell’s The Fairy Queen.
English Music for Strings – Sinfonia of London/John Wilson on Chandos
When John Wilson founded the John Wilson Orchestra in 1994, I’m not sure anyone could have predicted either the sheer success of that ensemble devoted to performing music from the golden age of Hollywood and Broadway, or the impact that this work would go on to have on the core classical world.
Fast forward to 2021, and Wilson is conducting symphony orchestras across the world, teasing out from them in the classical repertoire of the same era that same delicious, glossy, early 20th century strings sheen he brought to its lighter repertoire. In fact, it’s arguably Wilson’s influence that’s behind the gradual reintroduction into orchestral playing of portamento (when you leap from one note to the next via a swoop rather than a clean jump), which until recently had been out of fashion.
Returning to the present, this programme of English music for strings is Wilson’s second recording with the Sinfonia of London, following their 2019 Korngold programme, which made the 2020 Gramophone award shortlist. To say that they’ve made this rather neglected repertoire shine is an understatement. It’s both a ravishing and an invigorating listen, with the luxurious, crisply glossy luminosity of their sound, coupled with smart articulation, rhythmic pep and nimble airiness.
Indeed, when it tends to be the Russian strings school that naturally leaps to mind when thinking of gloriously polished string ensemble playing, it’s a glorious surprise to have those expectations confounded by a British ensemble performing underplayed early 20th century English strings repertoire. I’ve given you Frank Bridge’s Lament, over which you can admire some very classy portamenti and some wonderful solo spots, then Lennox Berkeley’s Serenade for String Orchestra.
Playlist available below,
Originally from Peckham but he could as easily hail from the streets of Los Angeles: his sound has the sun-dappled 70s funk and soul touches of Angelenos like Anderson .Paak, until his spoken-word interludes reveal his London accent.
The singer, whose voice reaches gorgeous gravelly lows and stunning Prince-rivalling highs, has been releasing music since 2009. At 36, he’s a lot more experienced than your usual hotly-tipped new talent, and has only recently given up his full-time job as a learning mentor for children, but you get the sense that tastemakers are only just catching up to him because his sound is streets ahead.
His performance of the song ‘Woman’ has had over 12 million views since it was posted on YouTube channel COLORS in 2017, and revealed an incredible falsetto, drawing comparisons with US artist D’Angelo. This year, he’ll release his debut album Sgt Culpepper, which features the funk-licked single ‘Poetic Justice’, produced by popular jazz-soul artist Tom Misch.
Anna B Savage
Fans of the cathartic broodiness of Phoebe Bridgers and the dramatic tension of Nadine Shah’s indie-rock will find much to love in the music of London-based singer-songwriter Anna B Savage. She has supported Father John Misty and Jenny Hval on tour but beyond the name recognition, Savage’s devastatingly intimate music stands alone.
It’s been a while since her debut EP in 2015, but following a bout of imposter syndrome, she returned with her debut album, A Common Turn, at the end of January. Produced by Mercury Prize nominee William Doyle (aka East India Youth) it sees her raw acoustic guitar and rich alto voice emboldened with intense post-rock-style arrangements and haunting atmosphere. These are torch songs for listening alone to, a flame in the dark.
The independent record label Erased Tapes has long been a home for avant-garde instrumental music, from classical to jazz, electronic and beyond. Their latest signing, however, is like nothing else on earth. Hatis Noit performs with a loop pedal, layering her voice in a phantasmagorical style that recalls NYC experimentalist Meredith Monk, Buddhist chanting (which she discovered on a teenage trip to the temples of Nepal) and out-there Tokyo group Boredoms. Broadly speaking, it’s where western classical meets Japanese folk.
Noit’s name refers to the stem of a lotus flower and her music has a similarly organic feel, its tonal brilliance in tune with the pull and flow of nature. She has released one EP, Illogical Dance, as well as collaborating with producer The Bug, and is currently working on her debut album.
When you think of jazz, the violin isn’t necessarily the instrument that springs to mind, but German violinist, singer and composer Johanna Burnheart has a rather avant-garde approach to sound. Her way of playing is inspired by the horn giants of the modal jazz genre, such as John Coltrane and Miles Davis, as well as the coruscating house and techno that pulses out of clubs she discovered in Berlin (including, to quote one song title, ‘Sisyphos’).
Her debut album Burnheart, which she released last October, is a marvel, and has seen her likened to a jazz Tune-Yards, as her polymorphous, diaphanous music slinks in complex but never jarring swirls, pulling together avant-garde classical, electronic atmosphere and organic jazz textures. Burnheart is part of the much-feted UK jazz scene, but her futuristic and experimental style stands apart in an experimental league of its own.
Jamael Dean comes from illustrious jazz stock – his grandfather is jazz drummer Donald Dean – and, a prodigal pianist and producer himself, he has played with the toast of the LA instrumental scene, from Kamasi Washington to Thundercat. He’s now signed to cult hip-hop label Stone’s Throw (alongside another 2021 one-to-watch, John Carroll Kirby) – not bad considering he’s still in his early 20s.
Already, he is showing early signs of Herbie Hancock-level prolificness: in 2019, Jamael released the album ‘Black Space Tapes’, drawing on spiritual jazz and Afro-futurist influences like Sun Ra and Alice Coltrane, followed by the Oblivion EP and solo jazz piano album Ished Tree in 2020. His forthcoming album, Primordial Waves, is due out later this year, and could well propel him into the same league as his aforementioned jazz peers.
The idiosyncratic scene surrounding south London live music venues The Windmill and The Bunker has given rise to one of the most exciting rag-tag movements of guitar-wielding, DIY-minded groups to emerge in recent years.
Local bands like Black Midi, Squid, Goat Girl and HMLTD have all found acclaim and/or record deals, with many of them putting out releases at lightning speed with the help of producer, writer, mixer and Speedy Wunderground label co-founder, Dan Carey.
Carey has also collaborated with London trio PVA, who signed to Big Dada – a respected UK imprint home to cult UK acts Kate Tempest, Young Fathers and Roots Manuva – last year. The group’s music sounds like electro-pop past and present: a bit Gary Numan and Depeche Mode, with shades of 90s Leftfield and acid house, as well as mid-2000s Metronomy and Soulwax (think ghostly synths, distortion and brooding vocals). Their debut EP Toner came out late last year; fingers crossed we’ll see an album in 2021.
Playlist available below,
Jan Berry and Dean Torrence are one of the 1960s’ best kept pop secrets. Eclipsed by the stellar success of the Beach Boys – a band with which they were good friends and musical collaborators – Jan and Dean ended up as a footnote to the decade’s California sound. It’s all the more sad because they helped pioneer it, and were one of its greatest exponents. Along with their subsequent album Drag City, Ride the Wild Surf is the best way to experience the duo’s sunny, hedonistic sound.
Beach Boys fans will be interested to know that Brian Wilson co-wrote four of this album’s songs, including the title track – which could have stood on its own as one of his band’s finest early efforts. It was a powerful songwriting partnership, which also delivered Surf City for the Beach Boys. Jan Berry’s girlfriend Jill Gibson joined in too, as well as his old high school friend Don Altfeld and a number of other associates. The songs are simple and direct, with catchy Chuck Berry-influenced guitar riffs and a touching naivety to the lyrics. Most people alive today were never suntanned Californian teens in the 60s, but these songs sure give you a taste of how it must have felt to be one.
At a time when US record labels called the shots, one of the joys of Ride the Wild Surf is that Jan Berry got to produce this album in his own way. Commissioned to soundtrack the movie of the same name, you could call it an early concept album as the songs are closely themed around beach life – summer, surfing, skateboarding and girls. The playing is jaunty, the rhythms infectious and the close-knit vocal harmonies are Beach Boys quality. Factor in the pithy and often funny lyrics and the result is an uplifting album that’s as charming as it is quaint. It’s also beautifully done, and surprisingly fine sounding considering it was designed to be throwaway pop.
The title track Ride the Wild Surf was released as a single, and peaked at number 16 in the US Billboard charts in 1963, doing worse than expected. This was a portent of things to come, as the surf pop scene was already on the wane and the Beach Boys quickly moved on to car songs – then of course, the beautiful psychedelia of Pet Sounds. Indeed, this epic was arguably the last ever surf hit if you exclude The Tradewinds’ belated New York’s a Lonely Town from early 1965. The genre was pretty much over, and Jan and Dean’s career with it, soon after.
As is so often the case, for many years Ride the Wild Surf was no longer available new. Long deleted on LP, it took the enterprising hand of EMI Japan to put it out on Compact Disc in 2012 [TOCP-71306], along with the rest of the Jan and Dean Liberty record label era output. Now though, it’s available on a number of streaming services, from Amazon Music to Qobuz, in its original stereo mix. (A number of later ‘Greatest Hits’ CD packages feature an inferior modern mix, which lacks the charm of the original.) The aural equivalent of a vitamin D shot, this album makes great winter listening.
Playlist available below,
Happy New Year! This month’s pick of classical recordings – our first of 2021 – includes an ambitious collection of miniatures from Uzbek pianist Behzod Abduraimov, an impressive recording debut from Norwegian violist Eivind Ringstad and a joyous combination of string quartets and Scottish folk. First up, though, is a catalogue recording which happens to be one of my favourite music discoveries of 2020…
Vaughan Williams A London Symphony (Symphony No 2) on Chandos
This month’s catalogue choice was put on my radar thanks to Classical Top 5 – a weekly podcast set up by Tommy Pearson in Spring 2020, which I’ve been a permanent guest on since last summer.
Each week, Tommy, my fellow Gramophone critic Richard Bratby and myself choose a topic and, often with the help of a special guest, talk, enthuse and occasionally argue our way through our personal top five choices. We’ve covered cello concertos with Steven Isserlis, piano concertos with Stephen Hough and song cycles with Simon Callow, as well as significant moments in musical history with Barbican director Nicolas Kenyon. Appearing on the podcast has been a voyage of discovery for all three of us because inevitably, not every topic set is one that each of us is already able to talk the hind legs off a donkey about. As a result, we’ve done a lot of learning along the way, and been introduced to some fantastic suggestions.
Some of these have come from the listeners themselves, who nominate music for each week’s show via our Twitter and Facebook accounts. Vaughan Williams’s “London” Symphony No 2 was one such recommendation, pegged to a week on Solos in Orchestral Works because its slow second movement abounds in them. To my shame, this was a symphony I’d never previously taken time to get to know, but to say I’ve been making up for lost time ever since is a bit of an understatement. The recording I’ve chosen for you here is the London Symphony Orchestra under Richard Hickox, released in 2001.
Correspondances – Eivind Ringstad and David Meier on Rubicon
A recent graduate of the BBC New Generation Artist scheme (2016-2018), Norwegian violist Eivind Ringstad’s debut on the Rubicon label has been made possible through the support of another prestigious body supporting young artists, the Borletti Buitoni Trust. His programme is a stylistically wide-ranging one, covering the Romantic, Neo-classical and modern periods by way of some distinctly non-run-of-the-mill choices. Take the opening Viola Sonata, written in 1942 by the Australian composer Arthur Benjamin. While a powerful recording of this wartime work was made by its dedicatee, the great British violist William Primrose, there’s been a paucity of subsequent efforts, so this new reading – with Ringstad hooking us in from his first soft, dark-voiced, poetic notes – is a thoroughly worthwhile addition to the catalogue.
The rest of the programme is no less engrossing. In fact, although I’ve mentioned his soft, dark poeticism, one of Ringstad’s aims has been to showcase his instrument’s potential as a virtuosic instrument. This is evident in Benjamin’s final Toccata and even more so in the album’s title track by Peder Barratt-Due, written for Ringstad in 2018. Meanwhile, although Elégie by 18th century violin virtuoso Henri Vieuxtemps certainly has its virtuosic figurations, the case Ringstad makes most fascinatingly of all with it is the viola’s capacity for upper register lyricism. Add superb partnering from pianist David Meier and it’s a strong recital debut. I’ve given you the Benjamin and the Vieuxtemps for this month’s playlist.
Behzod Abduraimov – Debussy, Chopin, Mussorgsky on Alpha
Fast-rising Uzbek pianist Behzod Abduraimov has chosen an ambitious programme of miniatures for his first album with Alpha, beginning with Debussy’s Children’s Corner, then on to Chopin’s 24 Préludes op.28, before culminating with Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition – which arguably counts as bringing us full circle, as Children’s Corner was inspired by Mussorgsky’s song cycle, The Nursery.
Abduraimov’s Debussy strikes for its clean-toned freshness and fluidity. The Chopin Préludes sound equally fresh, natural and flowing, their colouristic and dynamic gear-shifts happening with a nice organicism. With the Mussorgsky, he likewise offers up a constantly changing tonal palette. Tempi-wise, he doesn’t hang around, but neither does anything feel rushed: it all feels just right and is abounding in flow. Another feature is the lack of perceptible rubato – something you notice especially with his Chopin. All in all, it’s a satisfying listen that explains to anyone new to his name why his concert diary is filled with appearances with the likes of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and San Francisco Symphony, as well as festivals including Verbier. I’ve given you Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum and The Little Shepherd from Children’s Corner, Chopin Préludes numbers 1 and 15, and from Pictures at an Exhibition Promenade I and Limoges, le marché.
I don’t usually include albums here that I’ve reviewed elsewhere, but I’m afraid I’ve been powerless to resist the temptation to give another shout to the Maxwell Quartet’s latest release, having reviewed it for The Strad. It’s just too good, and also exactly the sort of life-affirming stuff we all need right now.
This programme punctuates the three op.74 quartets written off the back of Haydn’s 1793 London visit with three Scottish folk song sets. It’s an inspired idea, given the amount of Hungarian folk flavour in Haydn’s quartets, and the Maxwell Quartet’s readings brilliantly bring both folk vim to the salon and classical elegance to the barn dance through some luminously stringy-toned and technically superlative playing. I should also say that this is a follow-up to an earlier album, which pairs Haydn’s op.71 set (written at the same time as op.74) with more Scottish tunes, and I recommend equally that you make a date with that one. On the playlist here you’ll find Haydn’s Quartet No 1 in C major, followed by Coilsfield House – Drunk at Night, Dry in the Morning.
Playlist available below,
Note: Behzod Abduraimov – Debussy, Chopin, Mussorgsky (Linn) is unavailable on Qobuz and therefore does not appear on the playlist
The 1970s was a great decade for rock music, on both sides of the Atlantic. In the first half, the USA and UK seemed to be in sync with one another stylistically but by 1976, they were diverging fast. Britain was witnessing the beginnings of the punk explosion, while America was drifting ever further into the ‘LA sound’. This was sophisticated, beautifully crafted, adult-oriented rock personified by Steely Dan, The Eagles and Fleetwood Mac. Of course the latter was originally a British band, but Rumours came to personify those slick, laid back productions that dominated FM radio play across America at the time.
Yet at one point in late 1976, it looked like Boz Scaggs’ Silk Degrees could become the greater commercial success. Recorded in September and October of the previous year in Hollywood, California, it radiated blue skies, sandy beaches, shot bars and cocktails – and the louche lives of those who lived it. Released on February 18th, 1976, Silk Degrees ended up spending an epic 115 weeks in the Billboard 200 album charts, and was certified five times platinum by the RIAA. The amazing patience of Columbia Records paid off, as Scaggs’s seventh album of blues-tinged soft rock – so-called blue-eyed soul – finally caught America’s imagination.
Scaggs once explained that the name Silk Degrees didn’t mean anything in particular – and arguably nor did its collection of songs. Rather than trying to make any sort of dramatic statement, lyrically he chose to document the goings on of people around him. There’s some sardonic humour, a certain world-weariness but also tenderness too. Yet this album’s real strength is arguably its music, made possible by Scaggs’s decision to collaborate with some of the finest up-and-coming US talent – namely David Paich, Jeff Porcaro and David Hungate of soon-to-be Toto fame, plus Fred Tackett who went on to join Little Feat.
Silk Degrees was both Scaggs’s commercial and creative zenith. He’d left the Steve Miller Band some years earlier needing to prove himself, and with this album he finally did. Collaborating closely with Paich on songwriting duties, he delivered a jazz influenced soft rock classic that oozes sophistication thanks to Joe Wissert’s state-of-the-art mid 70s production – one that sounds great even today. It’s a quintessential seventies analogue sound, slightly soft around the edges but very clean and with a warm sepia tint. Tracks like Lido Shuffle, Lowdown, Georgia and Harbor Lights – plus We’re All Alone, which became a hit for Rita Coolidge – make it an album you can play from beginning to end. And if the catchy tunes don’t get you, the great musicianship will.
There have been hundreds of releases of this classic album, on formats as diverse as 8-track cartridge, Compact Cassette, MiniDisc and Blu-ray Audio. The 2007 remastered CD [Columbia, Legacy 82876 86715-2] is as good a place to start as any, but the long-deleted Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab version [MFSL UDCD 535] is the collector’s choice. Even the former sounds pretty spectacular on a high resolution dCS digital source, but the latter is more special still.
Playlist available below,
Dvorak: Cello Concerto in B minor 3rd movement, Pablo Casals, Czech Phil Orchestra, George Szell from George Szell The Warner Recordings 1934-1970 on Warner Classics
A boxset of reissues grabs the classic recording spot here this month: 12.5 hours (or 14 discs, if you buy the physical article) drawn from the 1934-1970 Warner recordings of the great Hungarian conductor George Szell, who led the Cleveland Orchestra from 1946 until his death in 1973.
Szell was known for the lucidity, precision, sternness and detail he drew form his orchestras – musical qualities that tallied somewhat with his real-life persona as a tyrant on the podium, and a meticulous and measured interviewee when faced with a journalist. This new collection offers a well-chosen spread of repertoire, orchestras and soloists via which to appreciate his sound.
While there’s a wealth of great material to choose from, I’ve gone for the remastered mono recording of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto for this month’s playlist, which Szell recorded in 1934 with violinist Bronislaw Huberman and the Vienna Philharmonic in the Vienna Konzerthaus. This is not only one of Szell’s own greatest recordings, but also one of the greatest recordings of this concerto ever made. In it, you’ll find the aforementioned clarity and precision from the orchestra, along with Huberman himself on brilliant form. His rhythmic precision is peppered with sudden accelerations and fiery dynamics and some deliciously coloured portamento slides and flicks.
This, however, is just a sliver of what this vast box set has to offer. If you’re keen to explore more by yourselves, then I’d recommend moving onto his 1970 Schubert Symphony No 9 with the Cleveland, before hopping back to the 1938 recording of the Dvorak Cello Concerto with the great Pablo Casals and the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, a performance which Szell himself described as “memorable” in a 1969 interview with Gramophone.
From there, it’s on to this month’s pick of new releases, which begins with a programme of Italian Baroque oratorio arias for countertenor from Philippe Jaroussky, followed by a highly imaginative concept album from Baroque violinist Théotime Langlois and lutenist Thomas Dunford, and a collection of Advent carols from the Choir of St John’s College, Cambridge. And finally, because it’s Christmas, I’ve snuck in a bonus track from one of my favourite albums by The King’s Singers to round things off.
La Vanità del Mondo – Philippe Jaroussky & Artaserse on Erato
When French countertenor Philippe Jaroussky releases a new album, you know that it’s likely to be both wonderful and treading at least some previously untrodden ground. This programme of Italian Baroque ortario delivers on both of these fronts, with ravishing performances and five world premiere recordings, all wrapped up in some immediate yet natural engineering.
“It’s my belief that composers from this period often gave the best of themselves when called upon to set the great sacred histories of the Old Testament to music,” says Jaroussky in his sleeve notes.
“Embodying in music a saint, or even sometimes God himself, calls for a stronger spiritual sense than do the amorous passions of some prince or queen.”
To that idea of artistic riches and spiritual potency, we can also add a sense of miracle. The album was initially scheduled to be recorded in April, but sessions were delayed until June 2020 due to Covid restrictions, and it doesn’t feel completely fanciful to say that you can feel the sense of relief, release and musical passion that the musicians must have been feeling when they were finally reunited and allowed to complete the project.
Take their programme-opening “Perche piu franco” from Pietro Torri’s Abramo. This aria actually depicts one of the Bible’s most disturbing scenes, when Abraham prepares to obey God’s command to sacrifice his only son Isaac. Torri, however, turns it into a transcendental, major-keyed aria in which Isaac tells Abraham that in order to make this sacrifice, he must forget that he is his son. Here, Jaroussky’s voice is both wonderfully light and delicate, luminous-toned and glowing. Artaserse, meanwhile, are equally giving everything. For one of their best moments, hop to Antonio Maria Bononcini’s minor-keyed “Bacio l’ombre e le catene”, where their sighing accompaniment alternates between ravishingly blended tutti passages and deftly shaped chamber-forces weavings around Jaroussky’s voice, followed by a Sinfonia all for themselves. It’s these two arias which I’ve included in the playlist, but there are other lesser-known names to be enjoyed on the programme, including Nicola Fago and Fortunato Chelleri, alongside the likes of Handel and Vivaldi.
The Mad Lover – Théotime Langlois de Swarte, Thomas Dunford on Harmonia Mundi
What is it about concept albums all of a sudden? Not only are they arriving at a rate of knots – but they also seem to be largely clever, creative and beautiful things, dropping us into new worlds we didn’t even know we wanted.
And so it is with young French Baroque violinist Théotime Langlois de Swarte’s The Mad Lover, for which he’s partnered with lutenist Thomas Dunford. A surprising exploration of the notion of 17th century English melancholy, it uses a three-minute ground plucked from English composer John Eccles’s incidental music to the 1616 comedy of the same name by the English dramatist John Fletcher as a springboard from which to imagine the music that might have been played by an itinerant violinist from the composer’s own time, as he roamed the streets with just a lute player to accompany him, hooking the interests of passers by with small-forces versions of popular grounds and preludes, along with some of the more sophisticated music that would have been heard at court and in the private homes of the affluent.
The musical result is an exquisite, intimate-voiced programme with the power to properly get under your skin. Langlois de Swarte draws a breathtaking array of colours from the soft-toned original 1665 Stainer violin he’s on. Equally mesmerising is his singing quality, and linked to that, his ability to unfurl a perfectly smooth legato line, no matter how wide the leaps between a melody’s notes. Dunford provides a perfect accompaniment, matching him colour for colour. The engineering, meanwhile, offers closeness and bloom, but subtly so – just enough to accentuate the intimacy, but miles away from ever feeling overproduced. Really, this is a recording which rewards listening from end to end, but for the playlist, I’ve selected the Sonata in G minor by Sonata sesta for violino solo by Daniel Purcell (believed to be a cousin of the great Henry Purcell), the Fantasia in A Minor “Alia Fantasia” by Nicola Matteis Jr and finally, A New Division Upon the Ground Bass of “John Come and Kiss Me” by Clancy Eccles.
Advent Live, Vol 2 – Choir of St John’s College, Cambridge & Andrew Nethsingha on Signum
The Choir of St John’s College, Cambridge, has been broadcasting its Advent Carol Services on BBC Radio 3 since 1981, and its Director Andrew Nethsingha has been commissioning an annual new work for the service since 2008. This latest collection of recordings follows on from the choir’s first Advent Live album, released in two years ago, and features moments from their 2008, 2018 and 2019 services. In addition to repertoire staples such as Otto Goldschmitt’s A tender shoot (heard each year at the start of their Advent services), it also features four of Nethsingha’s original commissions: Gabriel Jackson’s Vox clara ecce intonat from 2013, Cecilia McDowell’s A Prayer to St John the Baptist (2018), Judith Bingham’s An Introduction to Hark, the glad sound (2019), and the first in the annual commissions series, John McCabe’s The last and greatest Herald (2008).
As for how it sounds, beyond the interest and variety of the repertoire itself, for a strange year in which we’ve been denied the usual joys of carol services, the combination of the choir’s distinctive colouristic and emotional warmth, and the beautifully captured acoustic of the college’s chapel, makes this musical escapism at its finest. I’ve given you the Goldschmitt, Hark the Glad Sound with Judith Bingham’s highly effective introduction for choir and saxophone (it’s a wonderful moment when the organ finally kicks in) and a traditional carol, The Linden Tree.
Playlist available below
Pop music is full of surprises – and never more so than when artists thought to have passed their creative peak come back with a seminal release such as this. Imagine is the second solo album from an artist about whom questions were being asked at the time of its release on September 9, 1971. Of course, no excuses were ever needed for John Lennon’s Beatles material, but his debut solo release – 1970’s John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band – was widely regarded as sub-par. Yet he returned one year later, confounding his critics with what is arguably the best solo album by any of the former Fab Four.
Recorded during the first half of 1971 at Ascot Sound Studios in Berkshire, Abbey Road in London and New York City’s The Record Plant, Imagine featured Lennon himself on lead vocals and guitar, plus his friend George Harrison on guitar, Nicky Hopkins on keyboards, Klaus Voormann on bass and drummers Alan White and Jim Keltner. Co-produced by Lennon, Yoko Ono and Phil Spector, the result is a dreamy and sometimes ethereal sounding album, yet one that’s very much of its time, with an early multitrack, analogue feel reminiscent of The Beatles’ Let It Be.
Imagine begins with the title track, a song that many regard as Lennon’s finest ever. Delivered two years after leaving his former band, its release was a clear sign that he wasn’t going to live off past glories. The album contained a further three-world class songs – Jealous Guy, Gimme Some Truth and How Do You Sleep? – providing a defiant response to all those who suggested Lennon had lost his edge. The latter two tracks were excoriating attacks on the media and his former collaborator Paul McCartney, while the former two showed Lennon’s tender, sensitive side like never before.
Musically, there were strong overtones of the rock’n’roll that Lennon grew up playing, yet Jealous Guy is closer to something that Burt Bacharach might have wished he’d written. Nine years later, Bryan Ferry’s respectful cover took the song to the top of the charts, following Lennon’s tragic and untimely death on December 8, 1980. Unsurprisingly, EMI re-released Imagine as a single at this time too and it became a posthumous hit worldwide. The album was then reissued, along with seven others, in 1981.
Despite being the object of Lennon’s ire on one of its songs, Paul McCartney praised Imagine both for being a musically beautiful thing – and for being less political than Lennon’s debut solo release. Lennon allegedly later retorted that it was political, but that he had “sugar coated” it for commercial consumption. Either way, Imagine – both the song and the album – went on to become Lennon’s musical calling card and his most iconic creation.
Whatever your thoughts on politics in music, it’s hard to deny the stellar quality of the songwriting and playing from an album that captures the mood of the times it was made in. It’s like a softly faded, patinated Polaroid picture of the early 1970s. Various CD releases have preserved Imagine for posterity, but 2003’s Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab is the best [UDCD 759].
Tsfasman: Suite for Piano and Orchestra – from Verbier Festival 25 Years of Excellence, Mikhail Pletnev, Verbier Festival Orchestra/Nagano on DG, tracks 22-25
Without intending to, I’ve managed to pick three relatively slow-tempo albums for November’s Classical Choices, which makes this month’s playlist an especially good choice for evenings hunkering down in the warm as we get through another round of lockdown. This also means, however, that this month’s archive opener needs to be both seriously upbeat and indisputably merry. Alexander Tsfasman’s Suite for Piano and Orchestra of 1945 meets both of these requirements, while also offering the joy of discovering some decidedly niche repertoire.
Tsfasman (1906-1971) was a Soviet pianist, composer and big band leader, and the first Russian to perform Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. As for his rarely-performed Suite for Piano and Orchestra, it’s perhaps best described as, ‘Hollywood meets Looney Tunes by way of Russia’: a first movement with outer sections that meld the suave froth of a Fred Astaire musical with the madcap fun of a Tom and Jerry cartoon, separated by a lushly romantic central section which could have been plucked straight from a Rachmaninov piano concerto; a second movement Waltz with a similar haunting quality to those Shostakovich was writing in the same era; a tongue and cheek Polka, and a final Presto that’s actually titled “Career” – presumably because of the breakneck speed at which the pianist’s passagework needs to be dashed off. I’ve given you Mikhail Pletnev playing this with the Verbier Festival Orchestra under Kent Nagano, and the nonchalance and featherweight touch with which he dashes off the final movement in particular is utterly staggering.
From there, we move on to the new releases, which include British composer Alex Woolf conducting his powerful Requiem of 2018, an exquisite programme of night music from pianist Bertrand Chamayou, and a fascinating programme of culture crossings from Egyptian soprano Fatma Said.
Alex Woolf Requiem – Nicky Spence, Philip Higham, Iain Burnside, Vox Luna and Alex Woolf on Delphian
It’s hard to believe, listening to Alex Woolf’s Requiem of 2018, that this is a composer in his mid 20s. To write a requiem at all is a major statement, and this one packs a whopping emotional punch through writing that seems to sit simultaneously within the requiem, English church and concert hall music traditions, while also giving us something entirely new. In terms of shape, it’s scored for chorus, solo tenor, piano and organ, and alongside the traditional Latin texts, it incorporates three poems by Welsh writer Gillian Clarke, who served as National Poet of Wales from 2008 to 2016.
The first of these poems, The Fall, is placed where the Dies Irae would traditionally sit, and describes a very different day of wrath – September 11, 2001. A universe away from the usual doom-laden Dies Irae fortissimo tutti shout, this is an intense, silence-weighted, long-lined lament for solo tenor, cello and piano, and the performance here by tenor Nicky Spence, cellist Philip Higham and pianist Iain Burnside is one that will stop you in your tracks with its taut poise.
If all this sounds a little depressing, know that this work is in fact anything but. Its trajectory is one that takes us from despair to consolation, as In Paradisum (which provides a wonderful showcase for the clarity, warmth and emotional commitment of Woolf’s choir Vox Luna) later makes plain. For this playlist, I’ve given you the Introit, The Fall and In Paradisum.
Good Night! Bertrand Chamayou on Erato
Bertrand Chamayou has been doing some wonderful things in the recording studio of late. In 2019, he gave us Saint-Saëns Piano Concertos Nos. 4 and 5 plus solo works, which ended up scooping Gramophone’s Recording of the Year. He’s also set to release a collection of rarely recorded Saint-Saëns chamber works at the end of this month, for which he has partnered with violinist Renaud Capuçon and cellist Edgar Moreau. But before that, we have Good Night!, a solo recital honouring the lullaby (or the berceuse, to give it its French name).
This is a very different offering to the Saint-Saëns, but the berceuse is equally well-suited to Chamayou’s trademark delicacy and breadth of colour. Its overall mood is every bit as tranquilly nocturnal as you would expect, yet the collection of works is so stylistically diverse that the ear ends up being as stimulated as it is lulled. There’s a similar balancing act to the actual playing, with Chamayou slipping idiomatically into each fresh musical language, while maintaining a dreamlike atmosphere of his own creation, accentuated by the spacious chapel acoustic he’s in. For this month’s playlist, I’ve given you three pieces that sit next to each other on the programme: Liszt’s Wiegenlied or Cradle Song S198 (1881), “A Doll’s Lullaby” from Lyapunov’s 6 Easy Pieces (1914) and Chopin’s Berceuse Op 57 (1844).
El Nour – Fatma Said on Warner Classics
I had the good luck to hear Egyptian soprano Fatma Said last year at a small Berlioz-themed concert at London’s French Institute, and was struck not just by the luminous, clear warmth of her voice in classical repertoire, but also how her vocal delivery subtly and beautifully changed flavour for her encore of an Egyptian folk song, with its Arabic quartertones and embellishments.
El Nour is her debut disc, and it’s a similar story of culture crossings inspired by her homeland: Middle East-inspired art songs by French and Spanish composers, plus art songs by Egyptian composers, combined with Egyptian folk songs and popular songs from the Middle East. The three tracks I’ve chosen for this playlist highlight not just the span of repertoire on display, but the range of superb musicians she’s partnered with for El Nour: Asie from Ravel’s Shéhérazade, accompanied by Malcolm Martineau on piano; Falla’s Tus ojillos negros with guitarist Rafael Aguirre; and her programme-closer of Dawood Hosni’s Sahar Yamama Beida, with Vision String Quartet, pianist Tim Allhoff, percussionist Itamar Doari, double bassist Henning Siverts and kanun player Tamer Pinarbasi.
Playlist available below