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
As with so many American soul stars of the 1980s, Lionel Brockman Richie Jr. served his apprenticeship in the 60s, honing his talent through constant live performances in R&B bands. In 1968, he joined The Commodores, which soon gained fame from their single Brick House – a sinewy dance number that perfectly captured the early 70s funk zeitgeist. By the end of that decade, the band was at its creative peak, with the soaring soul ballads Three Times a Lady, Still, Easy and Sail On dominating the pop charts on both sides of the Atlantic.
After an acrimonious split from The Commodores, the question was “where next?” for the group’s greatest creative force. Richie duly went solo, releasing his eponymously titled debut album in 1982. Despite it selling over four million copies, its hit singles Truly, You Are and My Love were lacklustre compared to the magic of his earlier work. It wasn’t until Can’t Slow Down, released the following year, that he found his form again. The singles All Night Long (All Night), Running with the Night, Hello, Stuck on You, and Penny Lover made him a permanent fixture in the singles charts from August 1983 to September 1984, putting the former Commodore was back at the height of his powers.
Recorded at Sunset Sound and Ocean Way, Los Angeles, and mixed down the road at Motown Recording from March to September 1983, the double Grammy Award-winning Can’t Slow Down is a sunny sounding album that hit the charts on October 11, 1983. Music fans bought it in droves, making it the 50th best-selling album of all time, and its release propelled Richie to a level of international superstardom on par with – for a while at least – Michael Jackson and Madonna. The following year, he teamed up with Jackson to write We Are The World – a charity single which sold over 20 million copies. Not bad for a boy from Tuskegee, Alabama, who’d once considered studying divinity to become a priest in the Episcopal Church…
Oddly, early critical reception to Can’t Slow Down was mixed. Perhaps it was a sign of the stellar quality of pop music coming out of the USA at that time, but some music writers thought it a little lightweight. Yet it was full of excellent pop songs with infectious tunes and often poignant lyrics. Although Richie never claimed to have one of America’s greatest soul voices, his vocal technique was still touching, tender and affecting. Combined with the excellent musicianship, the result is an album that’s a pleasure to play from beginning to end – one with an uplifting feel that gets better and better.
Another attraction of this soul/R&B classic is its slinky production. This is a slick late-period Motown recording that sounds sweet through any serious sound system. It’s packed with 80s keyboards and drum machines which – nearly four decades on – give it real period charm. The Japanese remaster [Motown UICY-60180] is arguably the CD version to have, but all releases are great for both audiophile listening and late night parties. Indeed, such is its broad appeal that – had it come out 30 years later – Can’t Slow Down could have been hailed as a decade-defining masterpiece.
Five composers making powerful music for TV and film
A great piece of music can take a film or television show to new heights, helping communicate the soul of a narrative directly to a viewer’s ear. Take the awe and wonder of John Williams’ iconic Star Wars theme music, with its ascendent string sections that reflect the euphoric rise of Luke Skywalker, or the eerie sound of a dobro that permeates David Porter’s theme for Breaking Bad. Porter’s music is dread-inducing, reflecting the tension that runs through the series and the isolation of the desert where Walter White begins his life of crime.
The best scores help to turn a film or television show into something iconic. Yet they also work as powerful pieces of art in their own right. Here, we take a look at five composers creating extraordinary music for film and TV, and select some of our favourite scores from their impressive body of work.
The New York City composer has an ability to tap right into the core emotions of a story with his scores. His work with Oscar-winning director Barry Jenkins on Moonlight and If Beale Street Could Talk is transcendent in its beauty. These are complex films that touch on pain and structural racism, but Brittell’s gentle use of piano and jaw-dropping string sections show there’s still some light to be found amid all the darkness. His work on television is equally impressive: Britell is responsible for the grandiose theme music that helps us make sense of the power struggle that sits at the core of HBO’s Succession – a piece that has arguably become as famous as the show itself.
While 2019’s Joker proved divisive among critics, there’s no denying the brilliance of its score by Icelandic composer Hildur Guðnadóttir. The film’s music gets more and more twisted as Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) descends into madness and assumes his Joker persona. The eccentric synths and sketchy drum patterns often feel like heart palpitations, putting viewers inside the tortured mind of the film’s isolated character. Her TV work is exceptional too. Hildur was responsible for creating the haunting score for HBO’s Chernobyl series, including “Pump Room”, which sounds like a wave of ambient terror washing through your ears. Her work reveals fresh surprises every time you listen.
The 66-year-old composer uses instrumentation other musicians wouldn’t even think of. His hypnotic score for the 2002 Solaris remake is built around a Cristal baschet that creates an otherworldly hum, reflecting the strange glow of the emotive sci-fi film. His Drive score, meanwhile, is filled with chaotic energy and nocturnal electronica, which perfectly captures both the mood of the film and its neon-drenched aesthetic. Martinez’s music is so good because of the cinematic imagery it consistently creates in your mind, instantly transporting you to another time and place – whether it’s the Hollywood hills, or a space station orbiting a distant planet.
This legendary jazz trumpeter is perhaps most famous for his many collaborations with director Spike Lee, creating the energetic music for films including Malcolm X, 25th Hour, Inside Man, BlacKkKlansman, and Da 5 Bloods. One of the best brass players working in music today, Blanchard’s scores are fuelled by nostalgia and possess a warmth that speaks to the massive heart of the powerful Black characters who drive Lee’s movies. His “MLK Assassination” piece from Da 5 Bloods will knock you sideways with its poignant beauty, while “Fruit of Islam” from Malcolm X conveys the urgency of the political revolutionary’s fight against white elitism. Having worked with prominent musicians including Cedar Walton, Stevie Wonder, Dr. John, Ralp Peterson and Abbey Lincoln, there isn’t a style of music that Blanchard hasn’t mastered, which makes his work full of surprises.
Arguably the most risk-taking composer working in cinema today, Mica Levi graduated from experimental pop (make sure you check out her work as Micachu) to brilliantly weird, Alien-like film scores that sound like they’ve been dipped in acid. Jonathan Glazer’s 2013 sci-fi Under The Skin, about a man-devouring alien temptress (played by Scarlett Johansson) who lands in Glasgow, is driven by Levi’s unsettling score. Her music for the film combines piercing violins that sound as if they’re shrieking out in pain with DJ Screw-inspired beats that will make you feel as if you’ve somehow been sedated. Her more classical work on 2016 biopic Jackie proved Levi is much more than just an electronic producer, and her poignant track “Children” could make even the most hardened movie goer shed a tear. Levi’s work can go from minimalist to maximalist in just a flash, and is all the more impressive for its constant invention.
Playlist available on
This month’s playlist opens with a modern classic just named Recording of the Year at the 2020 Gramophone Awards: Weinberg Symphonies Nos 2 & 21 from the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra under its Music Director Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, joined by violinist Gidon Kremer and his Kremerata Baltica.
If you’ve never heard the name Mieczyslaw Weinberg before, fear not: most people in the classical music world (myself included) hadn’t either, until around five years ago. Polish-Jewish Weinberg was born in Warsaw in 1919, and settled in Moscow in 1943, where he became a close friend of Shostakovich. His lifetime wasn’t a story of complete rejection, but it wasn’t until after his death in 1996 that the international musical world began to wake up to his music, thanks to champions such as Kremer.
On to this album, and its major event: a beautifully captured recording of the 2018 UK premiere of Weinberg’s “Kaddish” Symphony No 21, performed at Birmingham Symphony Hall. Completed in 1991, the symphony is dedicated to the dedicated to the memory of those who died in the Warsaw Ghetto. Its six movements of immense and devastating war memorial manage to sound both grand and heartrendingly intimate – thanks in part to the huge crescendos and climaxes being balanced by
long stretches of chamber scoring. The scoring is non-typical for a symphony too, featuring piano solos, violin solos -played with deep soul here by Kremer – and an unearthly soprano solo in the final movement, sung here to ghostly pure-voiced perfection by Gražinytė-Tyla herself.
The first thing to hit your ears on this recording, however, is the ravishingly rich, dark and polished strings sound, which proves what a masterstoke it was to combine the might of the
CBSO with the Russian strings tradition of Kremerata Baltica. There’s also Gražinytė-Tyla’s deft sustaining of the tension and long lines to appreciate throughout.
The result is a performance of such beauty and power that I’m not sure I’ve been so very aware (at the end of a recording, at least) of the silence after the final chord. Add the Symphony No 2, recorded the following month in Vilnius, and it’s no exaggeration to say that this isn’t simply a wonderful recording – it’s a hugely important one that we will no doubt be using as a benchmark for generations to come. I’ve given you just the first movement of No 21 here, but please do listen to it all.
Respighi: Riccardo Chailly & Orchestra Filarmonica della Scala on Decca
For the latest in their series on the Italian masters, Riccardo Chailly and the Filarmonica della Scala orchestra have turned their attentions to Ottorino Respighi. The recording deserves praise for its unusually wide perspective, combining three often-recorded ‘greatest hits’ – Pines of Rome (1924), Fountains of Rome (1915-16), and the third set of Ancient Airs and Dances (1931) – with three early career rarities in the form of the Aria (1901), the Leggenda for violin and orchestra (1902), and Di Sera for two oboes and strings (1903).
It’s also a delight to listen to – and to say that the performances seem to leap out at you from the stereo would be something of an understatement. Right from the programme-opening Pines of Rome, where the glittering rush, playfulness and metrical fluidity heard from the first bars of its Villa Borghese perfectly captures Respighi’s picture of children playing games in the sunlight, while displaying some seriously virtuosic orchestral playing, all couched in Chailly’s trademark brightly lucid textures. The whole album, in fact, is awash with this opera orchestra’s feel for the theatrical and for colour, with superlative solo turns from its individual members providing the proverbial cherry on the cake. I’ve given you the whole of The Pines of Rome, plus the Leggenda.
Hope@Home on DG
At the height of the coronavirus lockdowns earlier this year, violinist Daniel Hope watched with fascination and admiration as many of his fellow musicians took to performing on social media via their mobile phones. This led him to wonder whether it might be possible to produce a stream from his own home that could sound as good as a performance in a concert hall – an idea he discussed with his friend Tobias Lehmann, co-owner of Berlin recording space Teldex Studio.
He was soon given the opportunity to test this out, when German-French cultural television channel ARTE invited him to perform a lockdown concert. The result was Hope@Home: a series of 34 live concerts, broadcast on consecutive nights from Hope’s house in Berlin, which was converted into a socially distanced DIY studio with one cameraman, two unmanned cameras and a sound team in the basement.
The programme has now been compiled for posterity, in an album captured straight from the live broadcasts, with no second takes or patches. “Some pieces were rehearsed, others were not,” writes Hope in his notes. “In some cases, Christoph Israel finished the arrangements literally minutes before we went live. You hear the frequent squeak of my living room floor, as well as other spontaneous bumps and bangs.”
Repertoire-wise, it’s a multi-genre release, with a quiet, late-night cabaret feel. Kurt Weill rubs shoulders with Nino Rota, Schubert with Richard Heymann. Faure with German hiphop. Beauty and calm is everywhere, as is wistfulness, and while it’s certainly sentimental, it is never cloyingly so. The listening experience feels a little close to the bone at times, given that we’re still inhabiting a strange semi-lockdown world, but it’s also strangely comforting, and the engineering, with its sense of place is very much part of that. The overall sound quality is sumptuously warm and intimate, and the balance surprisingly good. I’ve given you Schubert’s An die Musik, featuring Hope and Israel alone, so you can experience the full effect of how Hope’s violin sounds in the room, huskily cloaked in its lower registers and achingly sweet up top. Either side of that, there is Max Rabe joining the pair for a performance of Heymann’s Irgendwo auf der Welt, and singer-songwriter Joy Denalane with rapper singer-songwriter Max Herre for Berlin-Tel Aviv.
Arajuez – Thibaut Garcia, Orchestre National du Capitole de Toulouse/Glassberg on Erato
“One of the most sheerly beautiful takes I’ve heard from any guitarist to date” is how Gramophone magazine’s critic described young Franco-Spanish guitarist Thibaut Garcia’s recording of the Bach/Gounod Ave Maria on his 2018 album, Bach Inspirations. The accolade is even more impressive when you consider that Garcia was just 24 years old at the time, having signed to Erato two years previously. Now, we have his first concerto recording for the label, for which he’s paired up with the Orchestre National du Capitole de Toulouse under yet another 20-something rising star, British conductor Ben Glassberg – Principal Conductor of Glyndbourne Tour – who this season took up the musical directorship of the Opéra de Rouen.
While an album titled ‘Arunjuez’ doesn’t shout ‘voyage of discovery’ – particularly when Rodrigo’s Concierto de Arunjuez is the most famous guitar concerto of the lot – this album proves to be just that, for two reasons. First, because the partner concerto is Alexandre Tansman’s 1960 suite in neo-Baroque style, Musique du cour, and the solo works filling the remainder of the programme are equally unfamiliar (at least to non-guitar boffins) – four short pieces by the guitarist Regino Saintz de la Maza, to whom the Concerto de Aranjuez was dedicated, plus Garcia’s own transcriptions of the lute Suite in A minor written by Tansman’s inspiration, the 18th century guitarist Robert de Visée. Second, because I’m unsure when I last heard the Arunjuez sounding so very freshly minted. Garcia himself is luminous-toned and poetically lyrical, with his lines beautifully shaped and shaded, and his crisp articulation gorgeously coloured. The orchestral performance is an equal revelation, from the joyfully, alertly poised and deftly twinkle-toed manner in which they dance through the opening Allegro, to the partnering which is so generously responsive that it feels positively chamber-like. I’ve given you the Concierto de Arunjuez, then the Rondeau from the de Visée suite.
Playlist available on
Released on November 15, 1977, Saturday Night Fever was more than just a film soundtrack. At the time, it felt like the music of a whole new generation. Anyone growing up in “the decade that fashion forgot” couldn’t help but hear disco music –whether you liked it or not, it was everywhere. A fresh flavour of dance music that sprang out of early 70s soul, jazz and funk, it reached the UK pop charts in 1975. Within a couple of years, many famous recording artists from Rod Stewart to the Rolling Stones had discovered their love for the genre (or its commercial possibilities) and a disco beat and soaring string sections could be heard on practically every new chart release. ABBA’s Dancing Queen popularised the genre, while Chic’s Le Freak really made it stick.
The Bee Gees were early to the disco party. A vocal group formed in the late 60s, they carried out a radical transformation in 1975 into a funk-tinged dance act. They began to find their feet with Jive Talkin’ and You Should Be Dancing, released later that year, forsaking their Mancunian accents for something closer to Los Angeles, and turning up the pitch. It was the beginning of a purple period for Barry, Robin and Maurice Gibb, and the group were soon turning out hit after hit, starting with How Deep is Your Love in September 1977. The Saturday Night Fever soundtrack was released seven weeks later, and in December, Stayin’ Alive hit the top of the singles chart. Night Fever followed in February 1978, again reaching number one. In many western countries, these singles all topped the charts together and stayed there for months, such was the omnipotence of the Gibb brothers at that time.
The original soundtrack album contained all these hits and more but remarkably, the Bee Gees songs weren’t added to the movie until it reached post-production. Producer Robert Stigwood hurriedly commissioned the band to come up with new material and the Gibb brothers, who were recording their new album at Château d’Hérouville studio in France, stopped everything to focus on music for the film. Most of the songs were written over a single weekend, including several for other artists to record, such as More Than a Woman sung by Tavares, If I Can’t Have You by Yvonne Elliman and Emotion by Samantha Sang. It was arguably pop music’s most prolific week ever.
The result was 75 minutes of classic disco, released across two LP records. As well as the Bee Gees’ contributions, the soundtrack featured soaring incidental music composed by David Shire – including Manhattan Skyline, Night on Disco Mountain and Salsation – and appearances from seasoned session musicians and jazz soloists, from Sonny Burke on piano to Lee Ritenour on guitar. There was not a bad track on the entire album, nor a poor player.
Saturday Night Fever went on to become the bestselling film soundtrack of all time, making it far more successful than the mediocre movie. Recorded in the twilight years of analogue, it’s a sophisticated multitrack production with a clean and detailed feel, plus a touch of welcome warmth. The Japanese SHM-CD [Reprise Records WPCR-13264] is the collector’s choice.
Mozart: Divertimento in F–Mozart the String Quarters, Hagan Quartett on DG
Between writing this and last month’s Only the Music, something momentous happened: I attended my first live concert in six months. The artists were the French Quatuor Modigliani, the occasion a socially distanced concert in Bremen’s 1400-seat Die Glocke Grosser Saal, occupied by a mere 200 of us. It was indescribably moving, not least for the strange experience of hearing a public concert couched in the intimacy of a rehearsal acoustic-because of course, music reverberates around a near-empty large space in an entirely different way than it does in a fully peopled one.
This month’s playlist-opening recording fondly remembers that evening by way of the serenely sunny piece with which Quatuor Modigliani began their programme: Mozart’s serene Divertimento in F, K138. Quatuor Modigliani haven’t yet recorded the entire work themselves (although you can hear its finale on their brilliant 2019 Portraits album of shorts), so I’ve reached for the Hagen Quartett’s fine 1990 reading instead.
Mozart: Piano Concertos Nos 19 & 27, Rondo K 386–Francesco Piemontesi on Linn
Swiss pianist Francesco Piemontesi and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra under Andrew Manze are a proven dream team when it comes to Mozart’s piano concertos. For starters, the SCO themselves are long celebrated as Mozart interpreters. Their first Mozart partnership with Piemontesi was back in 2011, which led to a well-received 2017 recording of concertos Nos 25 and 26, so it should come asno surprise that their latest collaboration is wonderful stuff.
Pairing sunny No 19 with the by turns mellow and magisterial No 27 (Mozart’s last concerto), plus the nine-minute Rondo in A major K386, reconstructed in 1989 by the SCO’s Conductor Laureate Sir Charles Mackerras, it presents readings which, in overall ensemble terms, are replete with limpid textures, exquisite delicacy, and exactly the kind of easy, natural lyricism Mozart’s music’s demands, but which is so difficult to achieve. There’s a beautifully conversational, improvisatory feel to Piemontesi’s lines, with the notes both crisply articulated and softly haloed, set off even further by the ravishingly light and luminescent Steinway he’s on. The Linn engineering is another draw for its warmth and definition. For Only the Music, I’ve picked out Piano Concerto No 27.
Ohrwurm–Tabea Debus on Delphia
Rising recorder player Tabea Debus’s debut on Delphian is as ear-catching as its Ohrwurm or “Earworm” title is eye-catching-proving yet again why she’s rightly being credited with changing public perception of the recorder. Repertoire-wise, it spans the gamut from the 14th to the 21st centuries, with each of its 20 pieces ticking the memory-lodging requirement in its own way,whether through construction or sheer melodic charm. It’s equally gamut-spanning when it comes to the range of tones and colours served up by Debus herself on her array of Renaissance and Baroque recorders.
My selection for this playlist begins with the fluidly dancing, circling Ciaconna after Antonio Bertali (1605-1669), Tarquinio Merula (1595-1665) and Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643), for which Debus is joined by gamba player Jonathan Rees and lutenist Alex McCartney. Next up is Caffeine for solo recorder by modern-day composer Freya Waley-Cohen, whose aurally discombobulating leaping figures are rooted in the Baroque rondo structure, with its constantly recurring melody, and finally, the low-voiced lyricism of the anonymous Lamento di Tristano, found in a manuscript owned by the Florentine Medici family, and representing the moment in history where the aural tradition of folk music met with the new practice of music publishing.
Charles Ives Complete Symphonies–Los Angeles Philharmonic/Gustavo Dudamel on DG
“It was, in its every gesture, vibrantly, rapturously, outrageously American”, said the Los Angeles Times back in February, of Gustavo Dudamel and the LA Philharmonic’s Walt Disney Hall performance of Charles Ives’s First Symphony–a work completed in 1908,but not premiered until 1953. Happily for the rest of us, not only was DG live-recording both this and that month’s other highly acclaimed performances of Ives’s remaining three symphonies(all of which formed part of the orchestra’s Ives-Dvořák festival), but they’ve also translated wonderfully onto “disc”,thanks both to the riveting vigour, beauty and sparkle of the actual readings, and to DG’s superb capturing of the orchestra’s rich-toned sheen and suave nimbleness.This is a fabulous addition to the recordings catalogue, perhaps especially so for non-US listeners given that Ives’s quirkily visionary,European-tradition-meets-America symphonies are rather lesser-heard on concert platforms on this side of the pond. It’s the First Symphony I’ve given you here, with its sublimely peaceful second movement Adagio and ebullient finale complete with marching band.
Playlist available on
Note: Mozart: Piano Concertos Nos 19 & 27, Rondo K 386–Francesco Piemontesi (Linn) is unavailable on TIDAL or Qobuz and therefore does not appear on the playlist
One of many bands to emerge from Britain’s 1980s alternative scene, the James Taylor Quartet came to fame – if that’s not too strong a word – thanks to its cool cover version of Herbie Hancock’s Blow Up. Whilst the UK’s independent movement of that time was dominated by guitar bands like The Smiths and The Cure, this foursome’s signature sound was its pulsating Hammond organ. They played self-consciously retro organ-driven funk and jazz, albeit at a higher pace and with greater, punk-like levels of energy. So influential were they that JTQ spawned a new music genre called Acid Jazz, which went on to become a major underground scene in the 90s – as well as the name of their own record label.
The James Taylor Quartet was formed from the ashes of The Prisoners, a cult 80s freakbeat band named after the epic 60s TV series starring Patrick McGoohan, and said to be a key part of “the Medway punk explosion”. Taylor teamed up with Mark Cox (guitar), Andrew McKinney (bass) and Pat Illingworth (drums) to form a four-piece out of Rochester, Kent. He was obsessed with 60s easy listening music, melding it with the intensity of punk and new wave, and described his combo as “a swirling mix of upfront organ, tantalising tenor saxophone and exciting rhythms.”
In 1987, Taylor released Mission Impossible, an album of cover versions of iconic 60s film and TV soundtracks. Then came the second JTQ long player, which was a soundtrack to an imaginary 60s spy film called The Money Spyder. By summer 1988, the band’s third album Wait A Minute had arrived. Described as “a tribute to the hip organ sound of cult heroes The Small Faces”, this was – and arguably still is – the group’s most accomplished release.
The album mixes catchy self-penned material with a seminal version of the Theme From Starsky and Hutch, which became an alternative club favourite, and conferred legendary status upon the band. It’s far from being the best track on the album, however. Most of the other compositions conjure up the musical image of swinging Casino Royale-era London, with its sartorial elegance and sense of style. Although a studio recording, it captures the tightness and virtuosity of the band when playing live, and is bolstered by Taylor’s massive sounding Hammond organ groove. It has shades of great film composers such as Henry Mancini, Quincy Jones and John Barry.
Wait A Minute was originally released on Taylor’s own Re-Elect The President record label, and was re-released in 1993, along with the group’s earlier albums, when the label was renamed Acid Jazz. By this time, Taylor was producing silky soul-funk songs that fitted in perfectly with the 1990s. This didn’t last however, and by the end of the decade, he was back with the sound pioneered by his classic third album. Fittingly perhaps, he subsequently went on to provide the soundtrack to the first Austin Powers film. A fine recording by the standards of its day, the best way to hear this great party stomper is via the original CD first pressing [Polydor – 837 340-2].
A couple of months ago, one of the most joy-giving box sets I’ve ever received landed on my desk from Warner Classics. With 62 CDs and eight DVDs, Alban Berg Quartett: The Complete Recordings covers everything from Joseph Haydn through to Erich Urbanner, via Smetena, Brahms, Beethoven, Webern, Schubert and Stravinsky. While digital music streams don’t come in the shape of beautiful boxes, it’s the ABQ I want to put under your noses this month for my classical recording choice – and if you are still interested in buying physical CDs when you’re not streaming, then this really is one to own.
Some brief background: the ABQ was founded in 1971 by four young professors at the Vienna Academy of Music, and disbanded in 2008 while still at the height of its fame, soon after its violist Thomas Kakuska died from cancer. The group’s name refers to its founding principle to champion twentieth century music alongside the great repertoire of the past, and it was Vienna’s first full-time quartet, breaking the Viennese tradition whereby members of the city’s quartets also performed in its orchestras. Since then, it’s become a reference point for string quartet playing, with a truly enormous discography.
For Only the Music I’ve chosen the first movement from its recording of the Opus 3 String Quartet of its namesake, Alban Berg, recorded in 1974, and the final movement of Haydn’s String Quartet in G minor, “The Rider”, recorded in 1973. These two works formed the quartet’s recording debut, on Teldec, and were the result of a bargain. Teldec had invited the quartet to record the complete Haydn quartets, but the group decided that such a recording debut would be at odds with its commitment to twentieth century music, so they reached an agreement to simultaneously release one Haydn recording and one of Berg. Both ended up receiving a Grand Prix du Disque.
Augustin Hadelich – Bohemian Tales
From the ABQ, we move to Augustin Hadelich’s new Dvořák Violin Concerto also for Warner. As the title suggests, Bohemia is the star of Augustin Hadelich’s latest album, with music drawing on the languages, stories, landscapes and folk music that its native composers began to develop during the second half of the nineteenth century in response to a national yearning for cultural identity. Taking the headline spot is Dvořák’s Violin Concerto of 1879, which begins with a satisfying bang and bags of momentum from the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra under Jakub Hrůša before Hadelich’s cadenza-like entry turns on the Czech romance and panache with his well-placed rubatos and portamentos. Hadelich’s interpretations of the big Romantic works always seem to provide a fresh twist and this case is no exception, as he leans into the work’s drama and passion with his clean, ringing tone and folk inflections. Another joy is the way Dvořák’s many woodwind solos are so lovingly played and brought out by the engineering as much as Hrůša and the orchestra. The ensuing varied chamber remainder of the programme with pianist Charles Owen is no less satisfying, with Hadelich making the move from the concerto’s whirling finale to Janáček’s emotionally intense Violin Sonata of 1922 via the equally intense fourth of Dvořák’s Romantic Pieces. Suk’s Four Pieces of 1900 follows, before Dvořák transcriptions bring us back full circle to Songs My Mother Taught Me from Gypsy Songs, and the famous Humoresque. I’ve given you the concerto, but do listen to it all.
The Beethoven Connection, Volume 1 Jean-Efflam Bavouzet
Next month Jean-Efflam Bavouzet releases the complete Beethoven Piano Concertos on Chandos. In the meantime, its recent predecessor is a welcome addition to the catalogue, contextualising Beethoven via a solo recital of contrasting works by his contemporaries, the majority of whom are far from household names. Joseph Wölfl, Muzio Clementi, Johann Nepomuk Hommel, Jan Ladislav Dussek, all of whom knew Beethoven well, were important voices of their time, and like Beethoven were virtuoso pianists themselves. Bavouzet’s interpretations are beguiling in the extreme – full of delicacy and elegance of touch, forensic thought and overall poetry. Once you’ve got your ears around each of their individual languages, there’s an intriguing bonus track to be enjoyed in which Bavouzet attempts to highlight a few similarities between certain passages from the various sonatas. For this playlist I’ve selected the opening sonata, Joseph Wölfl’s Piano Sonata in E major.
Francis Poulenc: Piano Concerto & Concert Champêtre – Mark Bebbington, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Jan Latham-Koenig
The first thing to say about this new all-Poulenc recording from Marc Bebbington with Jan Latham-Koenig leading the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra is that it’s a programme worth having, championing less familiar works that deserve to be heard and known. Unsurprisingly it’s the Piano Concerto that sits as the star of the show, in a vivid performance which thoroughly hits the work’s invigorating blend of Romantic and neoclassical styles interjected with tongue-in-cheek jazzy quips. The neoclassical Concert champêtre also shines, with Bebbington and the orchestra bringing brightness, precision and air to this work, which was originally played on a steel-framed harpsichord fashioned by the piano manufacturer Pleyel for its commissioner, harpsichordist Wanda Landowska. RPO musicians then join Bebbington for the chamber portion of the album. In between the two orchestral works comes the Trio for Piano, Oboe and Bassoon, with oboist John Roberts and bassoonist Jonathan Davies. The programme concludes with Roberts’s poised and beautiful reading of the Oboe Sonata Poulenc, written near the end of his life in 1962. In short, a knock-out album, and I’ve given you the Piano Concerto here.
Playlist available on
Sometimes the stars align just at the right time, to produce a musical work of exceptional virtuosity and artistic merit – and such was the case with Michael Alden Hedges’ Aerial Boundaries. Born in Sacramento, California, 1953, he was obsessed with music from an early age and soon took up the classical guitar. After formal music training, he showed promise with the steel stringed version and by 1976 was playing in a jazz rock group. Hedges then moved to solo acoustic, and fast developed a following for his unique style and live theatrics; soon jazz label Windham Hill signed him up.
His first long player – 1981’s Breakfast in the Field – was an interesting taste of things to come. He employed a host of tricks – alternate tunings, right hand ‘hammer ons’ and slap harmonics, and percussive slapping of the guitar – to great effect. These weren’t strictly new, but had rarely been used in such a cohesive way. Another facet to his playing was his use of timing, both of played notes and the spaces between them – and this gave his work a uniquely impactful sound. A multi-instrumentalist, Hedges was both a muso’s musician and a guitar player’s guitarist – and when Aerial Boundaries was released in 1984, all his talents came together.
Even now the album sounds striking. Its technical virtuosity is as disarming now as it was thirty six years ago, along with Hedges’ obvious talent for musical composition. The songs are relatively short and pithy, but show a great sense of purpose and emotional expression. From the title track to Rickover’s Dream, Hot Type and Ménage à Trois, we hear a wonderfully vibrant sound that belies its straightforward production values. There’s even a loving tribute to Neil Young, with a cover of After The Gold Rush. The result is wonderfully all-of-a-piece, a wonderfully cohesive work that whisks the listener off into an atmospheric and haunting world of sound.
Indeed Aerial Boundaries made quite an imprint on the nineteen eighties and nineties new jazz scene; it was widely regarded as a seminal work and did wonders for the profile of his label Windham Hill. Hedges popularised exotic guitar techniques and aspects of his sound went on to be taken up in the wider pop music diaspora. Also, this album’s recording quality was state-of-the-art then, and still sounds superb today – all the more so through high resolution digital front ends. The transient speed of those struck steel guitar strings is quite a thing to hear via a dCS source component!
In 1997, Michael Hedges’ life was tragically cut short by a car accident. His death resounded around the guitar playing community and effusive praise ensued. “I can always hear his heart when he plays. He respected my playing too, and that simply thrills me”, said Pete Townshend. “His playing has a feel and timbre all its own – technically brilliant, but always organic and true”, added Joe Satriani.
Totally out of time then and now, Aerial Boundaries is an enchanting album. To this day, folk still argue about what to call it – “new age”, “ambient”, “neofolk”, “acoustic jazz”, etc. But whatever label you give it, the good news is that all silver disc versions of this classic sound great – with the original Windham Hill Records CD [WD-1032] being the collectors’ favourite.
This month’s Only the Music lands the day before the inaugural evening of the Verbier Virtual Festival, an ambitious online event being streamed every evening on medici.tv from tomorrow till August 3rd in replacement of the Festival’s Covid-cancelled 2020 live edition, and which I’m having the pleasure of co-hosting alongside the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra’s Head of Artistic Planning and former Verbier Academy Director, Christian Thompson.
It’s a wonderfully rich offering, too: five hours of free-to-view broadcasting every night, comprised of exclusive new performances and interviews from some of the Festival’s biggest stars that have been recorded especially for the VVF, complemented by archive footage of concerts and masterclasses from previous editions. The majority of these evenings will focus on a single artist or group of artists who has become part of the Verbier Festival’s DNA, while others showcase the Festival’s Academy.
Evgeny Kissin, Carnegie Hall Debut Concert on RCA
Friday 17th is centred around Russian pianist Evgeny Kissin, who has performed at 23 of the Festival’s 26 previous editions. So to get you in the mood I’m opening Only the Music’s playlist with Kissin’s live RCA recording of Liszt’s piano transcription of Schumann’s song, Widmung, captured at his triumphant Carnegie Hall debut in September 1990, just days before his nineteenth birthday – an album which had Gramophone’s critic proclaiming, “The quality of his playing is outstanding, confirming that here we have no mere Wunderkind but an established artist of the first order”.
The new releases then open with a recording collaboration between two of the Baroque world’s brightest younger generation stars, harpsichordist Jean Rondeau and lutenist Thomas Dunford. Next up is Vivaldi from violinist Arabella Steinbacher, before a fireworksy climax in the form of yet another Beethoven Year dazzler of a release, Pablo Heras-Casado directing the Freiburger Barockorchester in the Symphony No 9, and the Choral Fantasy featuring pianist Kristian Bezuidenhout.
Barricades, Thomas Dunford and Jean Rondeau on Erato
While harpsichordist Jean Rondeau and lutenist Thomas Dunford are longstanding friends and collaborators (not least in recent times via Dunford’s Baroque band, Ensemble Jupiter), Barricades is the first time they’ve recorded together as a duo; and the fact that they’ve now done so, and with the music both have known effectively since the cradle, is good news for all of us.
Named after the enigmatically-titled opening piece by François Couperin, “Les Baricades Mïstérieuses”, the album’s running theme is one of repetition, presented via a programme of 17th and 18th century French music comprised almost entirely of rondos (refrain-verse-refrain-verse) and pieces with repeats in binary form 17th. That said, its raison d’être feels less to do with taking the listener along a structural form-shaped musicological journey, and more about weaving a dreamlike atmosphere inspired by the mysteries inherent in musical meaning, expression and collaboration. So first, sleeve notes that bypass all talk of the repertoire’s historical background in favour of a mission statement to the tune of the above (poetically-worded almost to the point of further enigmatism, in fact!). Then, that aforementioned rippling and swaying Couperin, famous for its supreme balancing of constant repetition with constant colouristic reinvention, and also for the abiding mystery as to what the barricades of its title actually were. Onwards, and the album is equally a dream in every sense. The harpsichord and archlute are a combination to die for on any day, for the way their respective plucked tones both dovetail and contrast with each other, but with the chemistry between this particular pair of musicians, it really is an uninterrupted tale of tightly-knitted musical lines and minds, to which guest appearances from mezzo Lea Desandre, baritone Marc Mauillon and gambist Myriam Rignol add further pleasure. I’ve given you the album’s first two works – “Les Barricades Misterieuses” followed by Robert de Visée’s Suite in D minor – but when conceptually this is an album which rewards listening from start to finish, I hope you’ll then feel inspired to do exactly that by yourselves.
Vivaldi: Allegro from “Spring”, The Four Seasons, Arabella Steinbacher on Pentatone
Arabella Steinbacher isn’t the first to think of pairing Vivaldi’s Four Seasons with Astor Piazzolla’s Four Seasons of Buenos Aires. Or indeed of splitting up the four Piazzolla pieces to sit as punctuations between the four Vivaldi concertos – most notably Gidon Kremer did two decades ago with Kremerata Baltica, and just last year Andrés Gabetta brought out a striking baroque instruments reading with Cappella Gabetta. However there’s no question that Steinbacher and the Münchener Kammerorchester have brought their very worthy individual spin to the concept, and not simply because unlike that pair of predecessors they’ve opened each season not with the Vivaldi but instead with the Piazzolla. Sticking with comparisons and taking the Vivaldi first, from Steinbacher and the orchestra we have steady tempi, plus a relatively silky, legato approach to articulation, all of which yields a gracefully floating quality to its delicacy, and thus offers a distinctive alternative to the briskier, airy bounce of the other two. Another defining characteristic of the Steinbacher is its continuo section, the harpsichord sitting far more prominently in the balance than with Kremer, but without the addition of theorbo served up by Gabetta. There’s then a similar degree of grace and unhurried control characterising the Piazzolla, which appears in a new arrangement for violin and string orchestra by Peter von Wienhardt. Across both sets of repertoire, Steinbacher herself serves up soft-toned, lyrical, unassuming yet commanding performances, full of finesse in their dramatic and colouristic details, and with a palpable chamber dynamic with the orchestra. All in all, therefore, this a thoroughly worthwhile contribution to the Four Seasons pile.
Beethoven – Symphony No 9, Choral Fantasy, Kristian Bezuidenhout, Pablo Heras-Casado & Freiburger Barockorchester on Harmonia Mundi
This latest excursion into the Classical era from the period-instrument Freiburg Baroque Orchestra in honour of Beethoven 250 reunites them with conductor Pablo Heras-Casado and fortepianist Kristian Bezuidenhout, after last year’s recording of Mendelssohn’s Symphony No 1 and Piano Concerto No 2. It’s magnificent stuff, all of it, but while its headline work is Beethoven’s “Choral” Symphony No 9, what’s got me especially excited is the work they’ve partnered it with – the Choral Fantasy Beethoven composed sixteen years earlier in 1808, which ended up feeding the Ninth in both conceptual terms and in actual material (or, as Bezuidenhout himself puts it, it’s “the Ninth with training wheels”). Entirely novel for its time, this Fantasy opens with a long, grand solo piano introduction, before the entrance of the orchestra provides the segue into a theme and variations on a simple folk-like theme, interspersed by other material, into which vocal soloists followed by a grand chorus eventually arrive for a whopping-forces fireworks show of a conclusion. I always think that this piece doesn’t get nearly the amount of airplay that it deserves, and to say that it’s now found some stellar champions in Bezuidenhout, Casado and the FBO is an understatement. Aside from the combination of playfulness and sheer joyous pizazz and bang they’ve brought to it all (and at a tempo which is fully on the virtuosic end of the speedometer when the orchestra kicks in), Bezuidenhout’s reading has all the freshness of a new improvisation, complete with his own embellishments; which is appropriate, because Beethoven actually did extemporise the piano solo at the premiere, because he hadn’t left himself enough time to write something down before the performance! With all this in mind, it’s the Fantasy I’ve put on this playlist, but I should also make clear that their reading of the symphony is equally phenomenal.
Playlist available on
In the great pantheon of eighties pop, Prince Rogers Nelson is surely close to the very top. Born in Minneapolis, Minnesota in 1958, he emerged onto that decade’s music scene somewhat out of time. Rather than adopting the (then) fashionable synthpop style, he imposed his own sound upon the pop charts by blending funk, rock, soul and psychedelia in a way that no one had previously attempted. A guitar virtuoso and multi-instrumentalist, Prince was also a great songwriter and ended up penning timeless classics for artists like Sinead O’ Connor (Nothing Compares 2 U) and The Bangles’ (Manic Monday).
Released on June 25th, 1984, Purple Rain was his sixth studio album. More than ‘just’ his finest hour, it went on to influence the sound of the decade as a whole – with pop artists adding funk embellishments to their music, and rockers sprinkling soft psychedelia into the mix. Indeed, it was by far Prince’s most commercially successful release, spending twenty four consecutive weeks topping the US Billboard charts. By the time he died of an accidental fentanyl overdose at his Paisley Park home in Chanhassen, Minnesota, he had sold over 130 million records worldwide – and it was this album that was later inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2010.
Along with the single of the same name, Purple Rain is packed with hit songs – When Doves Cry, Let’s Go Crazy, I Would Die 4 U and Take Me with U. Yet it’s more than any greatest hits collection, because it has a distinctive and cohesive feel shared with all iconic pop albums. Recorded between August 1983 and March of the following year, the tracks were laid down in Minneapolis, New York and Los Angeles. It was the last time Prince used his backing band The Revolution; after this he would be a more electronic and studio-based artist, as evidenced by 1987’s Sign o’ the Times. Arguably, Purple Rain has a more timeless feel – its mixture of guitars and keyboards bring a powerful live vibe that’s the perfect soundtrack to the motion picture of the same name.
It shows Prince’s great musical innovation – such as releasing a mainstream pop single without a bassline, as he did with When Doves Cry. Some tracks bring traditional instrumentation together with electronics in a novel way, and others like Baby I’m A Star are back-to-basics rock numbers recorded live. Members of his band later described the Purple Rain sessions as a highly creative time, with Prince letting them contribute much to the songwriting. Indeed, Jon Bon Jovi later observed that, “there’s every emotion from the ballad to the rocker… all the influences were evident, from Hendrix to Chic.” Although this album’s name references America’s nineteen seventies rock classic, Ventura Highway, it’s a quintessentially eighties sounding work.
Purple Rain elicited high critical praise, with many music writers declaring it a seminal moment in popular music. It has a powerful yet polished sound that still seems fresh today. All Compact Disc versions sound crisp and punchy, but the ultimate collector’s version is the Japanese 24k gold CD [Warner Bros. Records 43P2-0004].
Ralph Vaughan Williams’s The Lark Ascending opens Only the Music this week, but not in the orchestral form it’s widely known today, but instead in its original 1920 version for violin with piano accompaniment. This first piano version has been almost completely eclipsed by the orchestral arrangement made the following year, yet it’s a gem, and not simply for the obvious reason that the smaller forces yield a much more intimate and feel. There’s something about the bell-like sonorities of the piano, and the greater silence and stillness surrounding its and the violin’s solitary lines, which speaks of feelings of a depth and introspection that you can’t really put into words. If it’s really true that Vaughan Williams dreamt up the piece in 1914 while walking the cliffs of Margate and watching warships engage in embarkation exercises, then this original version feels closer to what those sober, internal thoughts might have been than the more sumptuously scored orchestral transcription does, and consequently it’s the original that has become a regular soundtrack to my lockdown life. You’re hearing it here from the young British violinist Julia Hwang, with pianist Charles Matthews.
This month’s new releases then begin with JS Bach lute suites from Gramophone magazine’s June cover star, Scottish guitarist Sean Shibe. After that comes four-hand Schubert piano music via the recording debut of Duo Pleyel, and then finally violinist Lisa Batiashvili’s cross-genre City Lights album.
Bach – Sean Shibe
Confession time: I’ve never been much of a classical guitar person. However that all changed with Scottish guitarist Sean Shibe’s debut on Delphian of 20th century guitar works, Dreams & Fancies, which in fact stopped pretty much everyone in their tracks for its combination of personality and artistry. Then came his 2018 follow-up, softLOUD, pairing seventeenth-century Scottish lute music with 21st century works for electric guitar with yet more stunning performances, plus programming of an imagination which led in 2019 to him becoming the first ever recipient of the new Gramophone Award for Concept Album. So fast forward to 2020 and it’s no surprise that he’s now Gramophone’s June cover star for his new release of solo lute works by JS Bach, or that the album sounds as stunning as its predecessors. On the menu are the Lute Suite in E minor BWV 996, the Partita in C minor BWV 997, and the Prelude, Fugue and Allegro in E flat major BWV 998 – three works which may or may not have been also played (or possibly even intended…) for a curious and now long-forgotten instrument called the lute-harpsichord, which was quite literally a cross between a lute and a harpsichord, i.e. with the keyboard and legs of the latter, and the shell-shaped resonator and gut strings of the former (harpsichords have metal). The interpretations themselves have had me hanging off Shibe’s every note, marveling as ever at the technique on display, but also so entirely absorbed in the actual musical argument that to use the word “virtuosic” rather feels like missing the point. I’ve given you the Prelude, Fugue and Allegro.
Schubert Lebensstürme – Music for Piano Four Hands, Duo Pleyel on Linn Records
Of all the great composers of the nineteenth century, it was Schubert who left the greatest body of work for piano four hands. Yet while it’s music of masterpiece quality, it’s also repertoire that often tends to get overlooked in today’s professional performance world, not least because it’s a rare instance that two highest-level pianists are together in the same place for long enough to establish a duo rapport and actually begin to think about a recital or a recording. However here we have a beautifully chosen snapshot of it courtesy of Duo Pleyel, i.e. not a one-off collaboration but an actual permanent duo comprised of acclaimed period keyboardists Alexandra Nepomnyashchaya and Richard Egarr, which they formed three years old with the aim of bringing the four hands repertoire to a wider public, and named after their 1848 piano by Chopin’s preferred maker, Pleyel. The first half of their programme presents two early-career works dating from 1818 when Schubert was 21: the Rondo in D major D 608 and the Sonata in B flat major D 617. We’re then zipped to the end of his painfully short life for three works penned during the year of his death, 1828 when he was still aged just 31: the Fantasie in F minor D 940, the Rondo in A major D 951 and the “Lebensstürme” (Storms of Life) Allegro in A minor D 947. Unsurprisingly, the first thing to hit the ear is the characterful sound world of the Pleyel piano itself – softly bright, highly articulated, jewel-like tones, sounding golden lower down and sharper but not acidicly so up top, and arguably more multi-coloured in its resonances than a modern concert grand. To this add joined-at-the-heart-and-hip duetting which captures with equal success the pained, sharp-edged turbulence heard in that final “Lebensstürme”, and the smiling-through-tears delicacy you get in the Sonata in B flat.
City Lights – Lisa Batiashvili
I love it when top classical artists do crossover with brilliance and class, and this is one of those. Named after the 1931 film which marked Charlie Chaplin’s debut in writing his own film scores for his productions, City Lights is an autobiographical travelogue from Berlin-based Georgian violinist Lisa Batiashvili paying duel homage to the eleven most important cities in her life, and also to Chaplin – popular in Georgia as Batiashvili grew up – in an extension of last year’s celebrations of the 130th anniversary of his birth. The result is a multi-genre programme ranging from JS Bach and Dvořák to Piazzolla and Morricone, opening with a suite based on Chaplin’s film music (including “Smile” from Modern Times of 1936), all of it recorded for the very first time, and with Batiashvili joined by a host of top artists drawn from both the classical and the non-classical musical worlds: singer Katie Mulua, jazz trumpeter Till Brönner, guitarist Miloš Karadaglić, cellist Maximilian Hornung, the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin and the Georgian Philharmonic Orchestra. It’s beautiful stuff, too. If something can be gently but also sumptuously romantic, then that’s what this is, both in terms of Batiashvili’s playing and in overall feel. Think Golden Age Hollywood, unashamed of wearing its heart on its sleeve, but always in unfailingly elegant form. I’ve chosen No Better Magic, her London tribute written by and featuring Katie Melua and Zurab Melua (the latter on guitar), supported by the Georgian Philharmonic under Nikoloz Rachveli, who orchestrated both this and the majority of the album’s arrangements. Then the traditional Evening Song for Helsinki for which Batiashvili is joined by the strings of the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin.
Playlist available on
Note: Schubert Lebensstürme – Music for Piano Four Hands, Duo Pleyel on (Linn records) is unavailable on TIDAL or Qobuz and therefore does not appear on the playlist