In recent weeks the internet has been flooded with lockdown remote ensemble projects. So much so, that it now has to be something pretty special to override the feelings of fatigue as yet another pops up. However there’s one in particular which has profoundly moved me and lodged in my brain – mezzo soprano Joyce DiDonato singing Handel’s Ombra mai fu with musicians from the Metropolitan Opera, in memory of their violist colleague Vincent Lionti who died in April from Covid complications. So, beyond providing you the link here, I’ve chosen as this month’s “not new” recording another deeply affecting Handel performance from Didonato – “Lascia ch’io pianga” from her 2016 album, in War and Peace.
Mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato sings 'Ombra mai fu' with members of the The Metropolitan Opera & MET Orchestra Musicians in a tribute to violist Vincent Lionti, who died in April from coronavirus complications. ❤️
Posted by Classic FM on Monday, 4 May 2020
Moving forwards, a live recording of Beethoven and Brahms from luminary Russian pianist Grigory Sokolov is the first of this month’s new releases. This is followed by another live offering and also a record label debut – Washington’s National Symphony Orchestra playing an America-themed programme under the baton of their director Gianandrea Noseda, for their own brand new National Symphony Orchestra label. Then to finish, an absolutely top-drawer solo recording debut from the young Swedish guitarist and theorboist, Johan Löfving.
Anyone who has attended a recital by the great Russian pianist Grigory Sokolov will know what a very unique experience it is: an unusually darkened and thus especially hushed hall, the only light being the one over his piano; Sokolov himself barely even acknowledging the audience, absorbed in his instrument alone, with the audience cast as privileged observers; a playing style that’s strikingly beautiful for its deft shaping and delicately pearly touch; then eight encores – always eight, and always unannounced; and while you could be forgiven for thinking that all the above sounds arrogant and off-putting in the extreme, Sokolov is such a quiet physical presence, and genuinely so in communion with his piano, that the reality is that it’s probably as close to a spiritual experience as you’d ever find in a secular concert hall. It also means that a live recording such as this one probably has even more going for it than a studio one. So the good news with this album, taken from three separate 2019 performances, is that you do indeed get some of that hushed, reverent atmosphere, along with some beautifully captured concert hall acoustics. The programme itself opens with Beethoven’s early Piano Sonata No 3, followed by Beethoven’s 11 Bagatelles. Then come Brahms’s six Klavierstücke Op 118 and four Klavierstücke Op 119, after which we get seven encores (I know! Where’s the eighth…?!) ranging from Rameau to Rachmaninov, complete with their applause, which in this instance feels right. I’ve given you the Beethoven sonata plus two of the encores: Rachmaninov’s Prelude No 12 in G sharp minor, and Debussy’s “Des pas sur la neige” (footprints in the snow) from his first book of preludes.
Another live recording of a 2019 performance, this America-themed programme from Gianandrea Noseda and the National Symphony Orchestra was taken at their home base of Washington’s John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, and marks their debut on their own brand new label. Its programming is highly effective for its partnering of two works which in their own ways stand as a celebration of the longstanding cultural bridges between America and other cultures. First, Billy the Kidd, the 1938 ballet by Aaron Copland – a composer born in Brooklyn to a family with Russian origins, whose gift to his country was the creation of a quintessentially American sound which palpably reflected both its vast, dramatic landscapes, and the culture of its inhabitants. Then Dvořák’s Symphony No 9 “From the New World”, composed in 1893 shortly after the Czech composer had arrived in New York to take up the directorship of the city’s brand new National Conservatory of Music of America, and full of the echoes of the musical inspiration he had discovered there – from American and Native American folk songs to African American spirituals. Again, there’s a nice sense of “real” concert hall space around the polished playing, together with a whole-programme attitude to architecture. I’ve given you the entirety of the Dvořák.
Johan Löfving & Consone Quartet
Regular readers might remember me waxing lyrical last year about the period instrument Consone Quartet’s debut album, of Haydn and Mendelssohn string quartets. Now they’ve partnered with Swedish guitarist and theorboist Johan Löfving for his own debut album, recording Boccherini’s Guitar Quintet No 4 to sit as the climax of a beautifully imaginative programme of Romantic guitar repertoire by early nineteenth century guitarist composers from all over Europe, which opens and closes with two fandango movements designed to illustrate the music’s Spanish folk music influences. The guitar quintet itself is a joyful listen – played with palpable pleasure in the music and in each other, its dancing energy served up in exquisitely delicate and tender form, beautifully shaped and shaded, with the whole adding up to a gently ravishing timbral and colouristic feast. The preceding solo recital is no less of a stunner, Löfving drawing out all manner of colours and moods from his own period instrument, a French original dating from around 1850. I’ve given you the Boccherini, preceded by Introduction et Caprice Op 23 by Swiss-born Giulio Regondi (1823-1872).
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Ever since sound recording was invented in 1860 by a French printer called Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville, there’s been a close and special relationship between technology and music. A decade later, for example, it was American inventor Thomas Edison who made the concept a more practical proposition with his ‘hill and dale’ groove cut into a wax cylinder, then as a spiral groove within a shellac disc. Magnetic recording tape arrived in 1929 when German inventor Fritz Pfleumer patented a system using oxide bonded to a strip of paper or film, then BASF mass produced it six years later. The microgroove LP arrived in 1948, then went stereo ten years after – and of course Compact Disc-based digital audio finally reached consumers in 1982.
All of these advances have progressively raised the bar in recording quality, and also slowly but surely made consumer music formats easier to use, longer lasting and more durable. For the first century of recorded music’s life, technologists battled with the rules of physics and chemistry to perfect analogue media that was able to store music recordings with ever less noise and wider bandwidth. Then in the past forty or so years, as the music world has slowly gone digital, the struggle has been for higher data rates – to produce digital converters that can encode and decode analogue musical waveforms with ever greater resolution. In this, dCS has played an historically important role.
When the company launched in 1987, Compact Disc was still in its infancy – and digital recording was a long way behind today’s technology. In 1989, dCS began supplying a number of studio pioneers with analogue-to-digital, and then digital-to-analogue, converters that ran at 24-bit resolution, rather than the industry-standard 16-bit. This increased resolution brought about a dramatically better signal-to-noise ratio and lower distortion – particularly at low signal levels where so much of the nuances of a recording are present.
Since then, dCS has constantly refined its products – and in the process set a number of technological firsts. For example, in the early nineties the company’s ADCs and DACs got 24/96 capability, then in 1996 the dCS 972 became the world’s first 24-bit, 96kHz-capable upsampler. A year later, the dCS 904 and 954 launched, updates of the 900 ADC and 950 DAC with world’s first 24/192 functionality. In 1999, the dCS 992 Master Clock arrived, again transforming high end digital audio by reducing jitter (time domain distortion) to vanishingly low levels. Twenty years later, practically all new hi-fi DACs have 24/192 functionality, upsampling and careful attention paid to clocking.
In other words, the company has been a technological pioneer in the field of digital recording and playback; its products have transformed the modern landscape by making superlative digital recordings possible. Reflecting this, dCS recently created on its Legends Awards to celebrate the role of leading content creators – the studio geniuses in the recording industry who have pushed forward the boundaries of sound quality. The year-long campaign is a way of saying “thank you” to these behind-the-scenes champions of sound quality.
The dCS Legends Award programme was conceived to acknowledge the outstanding efforts of luminaries like Bob Ludwig, Al Schmitt, Tony Faulkner, and Chuck Ainlay, Frank Filipetti, James Guthrie, Leslie Ann Jones, George Massenburg, John Newton, Elliot Scheiner, Mark Wilder, and the late Ed Cherney. It’s thought that by celebrating these industry professionals, dCS can inspire others to continue to raise their game by creating ultra high quality recordings – as well as thanking those who have pushed the industry forward over the past three or so decades.
At the first Legend Awards ceremony at the Audio Engineering Society (AES) Convention in New York, October 2019, Managing Director David Steven was there to present Bob Ludwig with a bespoke dCS Bartók network DAC. He adds that, “dCS is overwhelmed by the positive response that our Legends Award campaign has received from music professionals and enthusiasts alike. We have been working closely with the Recording Academy Producers & Engineers Wing to identify and tell the incredible stories behind a diverse group of legendary engineers, and plan to continue this effort through the remainder of this year”.
dCS feels that studio professionals – recording, mixing, and mastering engineers – who have strived throughout their careers to deliver the finest music listening experience, need greater recognition. They may not seek publicity but they do warrant it, thanks to the good that they have done, are doing and will do in future. Hopefully, it will help move us towards a world of true “studio quality” recordings that normal music fans can directly access and enjoy. In the past, huge technological limitations have held back the propagation of great sounding recorded music, but now we’re getting beyond this – thanks to the pioneering work of dCS Legend Award recipients.
To find out more, click here: https://dcslegends.com
As the story of the KLF proves, pop music moves in mysterious ways – the coming together of Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty was another strange chapter in its history. The former was a record industry executive, and the latter the guitarist from Brilliant – a band that Drummond once managed. They formed The JAMMS in 1987, and went on to assail the British singles charts with cheesy, sample-laden hip-hop records. The pair constantly courted controversy, ending up with their first album being forcibly withdrawn from sale.
The JAMMS transitioned into The Kopyright Liberation Front (KLF) in 1988, to focus more on dance music. The trance-infused Last Train to Trancentral followed, seeing Cauty collaborating with The Orb and getting increasingly into ambient. On February 5th, 1990 – to many people’s great surprise – the duo released an album of a subtlety and beauty unexpected from this pair of pop pranksters. The music press described it as genre-defining; a fusion of traditional Brian Eno-style ambient music and house, Chill Out was lauded as the first ever ‘ambient house’ LP.
Forty-four minutes of gently swirling analogue synthesisers, subtle drum machine hi-hat loops and samples of Elvis Presley’s In The Ghetto, Fleetwood Mac’s Albatross and Acker Bilk’s Stranger on the Shore, Chill Out is a unique montage of sounds with an ethereal quality. Reportedly about a mythical night-time journey from Texas to Louisiana, there’s a constant sense of movement, with a few short stops along the way. Recorded live in the basement of Cauty’s squat in London’s Stockwell, it has an atmospheric, impressionistic feel.
As well as being done in one take, the recording didn’t need much in the way of gadgetry and effects – and such technological simplicity gives the album a quaint, almost naive charm. It also has a dreamy, romantic feel; at the time of its release, Drummond commented that, “I’ve never been to those places. I don’t know what those places are like, but in my head I can imagine those sounds coming from those places, just looking at the map.” The track names are evocative of a Gulf Coast road trip – Brownsville Turnaround on the Tex-Mex Border, Pulling out of Ricardo and the Dusk Is Falling Fast and Elvis on the Radio, Steel Guitar in My Soul and 3 a.m. Somewhere out of Beaumont.
Structurally, Chill Out has a number of ‘set pieces’ which gently slide into one another, while sometimes referring back to earlier motifs. The overall effect is ethereal and hypnotic at times; there are samples of birds singing, trains passing by and Deep South American FM radio evangelists, knitted together by gentle synthesiser loops and occasional pedal steel guitar, plus flashes of 808 State’s Pacific State underneath. Unlike much ambient music, this album has a sense of fluidity and movement – it’s anything but bland and repetitive.
Although not an audiophile work by any means, Chill Out still sounds enjoyable via a high resolution digital front end. For its sheer collectability, the original CD release is the one to have [KLF Communications JAMSCD5]; this has the additional delight of having just one track number which contains the entire recording, whereas later reissues reverted to standard practice. Whatever, fans of electronica will find it hard not to love.
So, how’s everyone enjoying the lockdown? Nope, me neither. In fact never has recorded music felt so important, so this month’s playlist is very much about lifting the spirits. Consequently for my classic recording I’ve chosen Wolfgang Schneiderhan’s radiant 1962 reading for DG of Mozart’s Violin Concerto No 5 with the Berlin Philharmonic under Eugen Jochum. This is swooningly lovely, taking what’s already a life-affirming slice of Classical-era heaven and raising it to the classiest, sweetest and most luminously lucid heights. Turn up the volume and let it fill your four walls with its graceful joy.
The world is not exactly short of great solo cello Bach recordings, but Alisa Weilerstein’s addition will be sitting up with the best of them for some time to come. A period-aware reading on modern metal strings, this album is described by Weilerstein as her most project yet. And while that’s not necessarily a surprise in the context of the number of cellists who nurture lifelong obsessions with these works (Pieter Wispelwey has recorded the complete set no less than three times, for instance), these are immensely satisfying readings: ravishingly rich, rounded and glowing of tone; a strong sense of architecture on both the grand and small scale; a constantly shifting palette of colours and shadings; and striking a great rhythm and metre balance between creating the impression of unfolding improvisatory thought, and honouring the dance roots of their various forms. Plus, while Weilerstein couldn’t have known this when she recorded it, it’s also been perfect repertoire with which to take to the internet as live performance temporarily shuts down. So for those wishing to know more of her personal thoughts on interpretation, and indeed hear how they sound under her fingertips when outside of a professional studio, look up her #36DaysOfBach project, for which she’s been playing and discussing a different movement of the suites each day via her Facebook, Twitter and Instagram feeds.
Beethoven Piano Trios – Renaud Capuçon, Gautier Capuçon and Frank Braley on Erato
If there was one Beethoven 250 recording I was looking forward to as much as Quatuor Ébène’s complete Beethoven quartets, it was this offering of Piano Trios Nos 5 and 7 from violinist and cellist brothers Renaud and Gautier Capuçon, and pianist Frank Braley. This is the first time they’ve all recorded together since their critically acclaimed 2001 album of Ravel chamber music, and there’s every bit as much symbiotic magic and heartfelt playing here. I’ve given you the “Ghost” trio, named after its second movement which Beethoven’s famous piano student Carl Czerny (who in turn became Franz Liszt’s teacher) claimed reminded him of the ghost of Shakespeare’s Hamlet’s father; and in fact Beethoven’s notes on the manuscript suggest that he may indeed have had Shakespearean original intentions for it, albeit not with Hamlet – the Witches’ scene in a proposed operatic production of Macbeth. The superglued-together ebullient vim with which the Capuçons and Braley launch into the trio’s racing and rhythmic opening gambit is electrifying stuff, and the movement’s ensuing succession of sharp dynamic contrasts are met with the same virtuosic degree of togetherness and blending, coupled with bag-loads of clean-toned tender warmth and vigorous life. The “Ghost” movement brings fresh pleasures with its taut, sombre stillness, and likewise the final Presto’s combination of sunny grace and high drama. Add some equally warm, polished and immediate engineering, and it’s a nonstop joyride.
Bach: St Matthew Passion, Choir of King’s College Cambridge/Cleobury
Yes, more Bach. However it’s Eastertide, and this Bach St John Passion from the Choir of King’s College Cambridge is a special one – an exquisite final musical parting from its director of 37 years, Sir Stephen Cleobury, recorded last April in King’s College Chapel shortly before he retired, and just seven months before his November 2019 passing away due to cancer. They’re joined by the mixed voices of The Choir of King’s College School, the Academy of Ancient Music and a stellar line-up of soloists in the form of James Gilchrist, Matthew Rose, Sophie Bevan, David Allsopp, Mark le Brocq and William Gaunt. Crisply articulated and fluidly flowing, light of physical tread while deep of thought and understanding, it’s beautiful stuff. To give you a spread of textures and styles, I’ve begun with the lilting, full-forces opening chorale, Kommt, ihr Tochter, helft mir klagen, then for a chance to appreciate the AAM’s chamber awareness (and it’s softly perky flutes) I’ve also plucked out the alto aria “Buss und reu” and its preceding recitative, sung by countertenor David Allsopp.
One final thing. If you’re in need of further classical entertainment during this period of evenings spent within your own four walls, you’ll find on the Gramophone website (gramophone.co.uk) a comprehensive and regularly-updated list of the various video streaming options being offered in response to the crisis – often for free – by the world’s top orchestras, concert halls and video streaming platforms. I’ll also point you in the direction of my March column for Takt1, given that it was equally aimed to give everyone something else to think about: The Show Must Go On
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It’s a testament to the speed at which pop music was moving in the nineteen eighties, that Vince Clarke – the brains behind Yazoo – was inspired by hearing one particular song just eighteen months earlier. “Electricity by Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark sounded so different to anything I’d ever heard,” he once said, “that I suddenly wanted to get into electronic music.”
Amazingly, between his first hit single with Yazoo (Only You, released 15th March, 1982) and hearing that early OMD single, he’d already been a founder member of chart-topping synthpop band Depeche Mode – and written their first album and first three hit singles. He then left to team up with an old acquaintance from his home town of Basildon, Essex. “Alison Moyet was looking to join a blues band, but she hooked up with me because she thought doing a demo would look good on her CV”, he later explained.
The result was Upstairs at Erics, released 20th August, 1982. Many think it’s one of the quirkiest albums of the nineteen eighties, because it’s a melting pot of deadpan electronica courtesy of Clarke and the bluesy vocal stylings of Moyet. Recorded at Blackwing Studios in south east London where the former had previously recorded Depeche Mode’s debut long player Speak and Spell, it was committed to tape in the early mornings because the studio’s daytime slots were already booked. Its owner Eric Radcliffe produced, from whom the album got its cryptic name.
“A lot of stuff was us just experimenting in the studio. I learnt a lot. There wasn’t an intentional sound”, said Clarke. Yet the album seems highly distinctive today, and amazingly fresh too. There are a number of reasons for this, the first being Clarke’s instinctive feel for simple, catchy melodies – as he’d already shown with Depeche Mode. Second was the purity of the song’s arrangements; Clarke says most songs used just six or seven tracks. And also, the technology of the day mitigated against lavish, over complex work – not least because the sequencers were so primitive back then.
“We used a Roland Juno 60 polyphonic synth mainly”, remembers Clarke, “while most of the percussion came from the ARP-2600 and a Roland TR-808. The lead lines and bass were courtesy of a Pro-One and Roland MC-4 Microcomposer.” In other words, late nineteen seventies and early eighties kit that’s now celebrated for its classic, vintage sound. Such freshness and crispness complements some truly memorable melodies, and the result is a series of catchy pop tunes with infectious riffs. It’s a testament to the beauty of Only You, Don’t Go and Goodbye 70s that they’ve been widely covered by many other artists from the rock, pop and soul arena.
Despite lacking any great, overarching theme, Upstairs at Erics is still a charming and compelling listen today. It works by the quality of each individual song, plus the rousing vocals and punchy, edge-of-the-seat electronic backing. Compared to so much overproduced, auto-tuned modern pop, it is stirring stuff – and of course gives any serious hi-fi system a real work-out. Arguably the best way to listen is via the 2008 Mute CD remaster [CDXSTUMM7].
Back in January I promised an above-average proportion of Beethoven on my 2020 playlists, in honour of this 250th anniversary year of his birth. This month I’m keeping to that promise by opening with his “Emperor” Piano Concerto No 5, recorded live in concert in 1979 by Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, in Vienna’s Musikverein with the Vienna Symphoniker under Carlo Maria Giulini. This is the album I’ve contributed to Deutsche Grammophon’s Cult Classics Beethoven series of film shorts, in which 25 music journalists from around the world champion a favourite DG Beethoven classic recording, so if you want to hear everything I have to say about it then you can find that film either via the record label’s Beethoven2020 website beethoven-playon.com/videos or via YouTube. However, in a nutshell, what makes this recording stand out for me is the freshness of the actual readings, Michelangeli’s personal combination of rhythmic precision and clarity of tone, and the fact that the piano itself is both brimming with its own distinctive character, and a perfect match for Michelangeli’s playing. Plus, it sounds absolutely glorious through the dCS Bartok.
Moving on to this month’s new releases, these are a stringy but very contrasting trio: rising British viola player Timothy Ridout’s concerto recording debut; the latest installment in Giovanni Antonini’s ongoing Haydn 2032 project with Alpha Classics; then violinist Isabelle Faust and pianist Alexander Melnikov’s second volume of Mozart Sonatas for Fortepiano and Violin.
Music for Viola & Chamber Orchestra: Vaughan Williams, Martinu, Hindemith & Britten – Timothy Ridout, Orchestre de Chambre de Lausanne/Phillips (Claves)
It’s quite an opening gambit to proclaim that rising British viola player Timothy Ridout has a sound of a knock-out clarity, richness and overall quality that only comes around every couple of generations in the viola world. However that’s what I think, and you’ll hear what I mean once you’ve heard even the opening seconds of this first concerto recording from him – his prize for winning the 2019 young artists’ competition at Swiss festival, Sommets Musical de Gstaad. Featuring twentieth century works for viola and chamber orchestra by Vaughan Williams, Martinů, Hindemith and Britten, this is fairly certain to become one of my top recordings of the entire year. Ridout himself shines with that aforementioned gorgeous tone, and a musical maturity far beyond his early-twenties age. Then there’s the rapturous support from Jamie Phillips and the Orchestre de Chambre de Lausanne, Philips deftly bringing out all the scores’ beautiful chamber moments. Plus, all of this is brought out to an achingly lovely degree by the vibrant and polished engineering. I’ve given you the three-strong Group I from Vaughan William’s Suite for Viola and Orchestra.
Haydn 2032 – No 8 – Roxolana, Il Giardino Armonico/Antonini (Alpha)
Haydn 2032 is the project between the Josef Haydn Foundation of Basel, Alpha Classics and conductor Giovanni Antonini which aims to have recorded all Haydn’s 107 symphonies before the 300th anniversary of his birth in 2032. I’ve featured the series before on Only the Music, but I’m especially enthusiastic about this eighth installment, for which Antonini leads period ensemble Il Giardino Armonico. Celebrating Haydn’s love for and contact with the folk music of the Habsburg Empire in which he lived, it leads with Symphony No 63 in C major, titled “La Roxolana” after the famous sixteenth-century sultana who was the wife of Suleiman the Magnificent after having been his slave, and also features the “Mercury” Symphony No 43 and Symphony No 28. All three zing with life, but for me the album’s magic ingredient is Antonini’s having chosen to complement the symphonies with two works showing how other composers of the region were also inspired by its folk music: Bartók’s Romanian Folk Dances of 1917, and an anonymous late 17th century sonata for two violins, three violas and basso continuo imitatingthe traditional Hanák music of the Haná region in what is now Moravia. The result is unusually original and exotic-sounding for a Haydn programme, and its various ingredients play superbly and enlighteningly off each other. To demonstrate the success of the juxtapositioning, I’ve given all of Bartók’s Romanian Dances (which absolutely fizz), preceded by the final movement of Symphony No 43, which sits just before them in the actual running order.
Mozart: Violin Sonata in F major, from Mozart: Sonatas from Fortepiano & Violin, Vol 2, Isabelle Faust/Alexander Melnikov (Harmonia Mundi)
You’d be hard pushed to find a violinist today with more natural Mozart bones than violinist Isabelle Faust. Her Mozart Violin Concertos for Harmonia Mundi won Gramophone Recording of the Year in 2017. Then in 2018 she released a well-received Volume 1 of the violin sonatas with her longtime duo partner, Melnikov. Now here’s Volume 2, and it’s very fine indeed. Recorded with her “Sleeping Beauty” Stradivarius strung with period gut strings, and Melnikov on fortepiano, it’s clearly one which will appeal especially to those who like that slightly more tactile period-forces sound – a stringy earthiness to the violin’s sweetness, against the jewel-like brightness and delicacy of the fortepiano, and overall the especial intimacy that these quieter-than-modern forces bring to the table. However with the gossamer delicacy of their passagework, their range of colour, attack and dynamics, and the fact that as ever they’re as one in both musical thought and technical execution, it should also be well capable of wooing those who normally prefer their Mozart on modern metal strings and concert grand. I’ve chosen their programme-opening Sonata in F major K376 for you here.
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The nineteen eighties was the golden age of what we now call “synth wave”, electronic synthesiser-based music that’s epic in scale and hypnotic in rhythm. Although its roots go back to German electronic music pioneers Kraftwerk, Britain’s Trevor Horn played a major part in turning it from conceptual music to mainstream pop. His work with The Buggles and Frankie Goes to Hollywood made the genre a near permanent fixture at the top of the UK charts, but arguably his finest hour was Propaganda’s A Secret Wish.
Because Horn was such a towering figure, many assume Propaganda to be manufactured band of his – yet it was actually the creation of Ralf Dörper. A former member of industrial band Die Krupps, he was a formidable talent with ambition to venture beyond his indie roots. After a few lineup changes, he settled with classically trained musician and composer Michael Mertens, and singers Claudia Brücken and Susanne Freytag. The band signed to ZTT Records in 1984, a record label that was largely the brainchild of Horn and former New Musical Express writer Paul Morley.
Propaganda moved to the UK, where they received powerful image shaping from Morley, and duly released their first single Dr Mabuse – a reference to a character in a Fritz Lang film. Then the album sessions began, with engineer Stephen Lipson in a production role because Horn was too busy with Frankie Goes to Hollywood. The band released Duel as a single in April 1985, then the album surfaced in July. The single p:Machinery followed in August, and the band began touring with former Simple Minds men Derek Forbes and Brian McGee on bass and drums respectively, plus Kevin Armstrong on guitar.
If you’re a fan of intelligent pop music, then A Secret Wish will charm you. A seriously strong package, it boasts a string of excellent songs – opening with Edgar Allen Poe’s A Dream Within a Dream poem set to a trancey synthesised backdrop, and with a loving cover version of Scottish indie pop legend Josef K’s Sorry For Laughing. The three singles are also included, and throughout the album you can hear the voices and/or playing of Steve Howe (Yes), David Sylvian (Japan) and Glenn Gregory (Heaven 17).
A Secret Wish is a rich tapestry of sounds, packed with period early eighties electronics such as Fairlight CMI, DMX and DSX synthesisers, Roland M5 keyboards and Linn drums. It’s a self-contained, expansive musical soundscape that pushed the limits of what was possible technologically, back in the day. It has an epic, windswept feel with multiple musical layers, catchy tunes and crashing beats. Dorper’s lyrics – ‘assisted’ by Paul Morley and delivered by Claudia Brücken’s icy voice – are suitably grandiose.
Recorded on an early Sony PCM-1610 digital recorder, it’s by no stretch of imagination a great hi-fi album – but the chilly, grey patina does suit its gothic feel. The CD release was actually a light remix of the LP, with a three month delay giving Stephen Lipson time to improve it slightly – but the 2003 SACD ZTT [ZTT183SACD] is by far the best way to experience this long, lost synth pop gem.
As I’ve been writing this month’s dCS Only the Music my mind has been full of two other large scale commissions from Gramophone and The Strad, the two magazines in which I’m most often to be found. The Gramophone piece is a Collection on Beethoven’s Violin Concerto – that’s where the critic listens to every single recording of a musical work, then picks twenty or so to discuss at length before announcing their top choices; and the first electrical recording of the Beethoven was made in 1926 by Jascha Heifetz with Toscanini. The Strad piece meanwhile is an extended opinion for the magazine’s 130th anniversary issue, assessing where we are today in terms of playing and recording trends, and making some predictions about the future. Unsurprisingly, the Gramophone piece is giving me food for thought with the one for The Strad, and it’s got me thinking afresh about the degree to which modern playing is far less varied than it was up to the first half of the 20th century, simply because in a recordings-heavy, online, global-travel world in which everyone is listening to everyone else, individuality is a tough ask. Don’t read that and think I’m depressed about where we are now – I think these are particularly exciting times for classical music, and our industry’s pulse is currently beating more healthily with each passing year – but the individuality thing is nevertheless interesting. So for my February classic recording I’ve decided to leap back more substantially in time then I’ve been doing of late, to give you Bronislaw Huberman’s almost wildly impulsive 1934 recording of the Beethoven concerto first movement with the Vienna Philharmonic under George Szell. Followed by the same movement from Christian Ferras in 1963 with Sir Malcolm Sargeant and the gloriously fulsome Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, which is equally distinctive in Ferras’s own, highly polished way.
Trumpeter Simon Höfele then opens this month’s new releases with his Standards album of classic trumpet concertos. Next there’s Bach keyboard works transcribed for viol consort by Phantasm, before we conclude with Byrd and Kesha from The King’s Singers.
Standards – Simon Höfele on (Berlin Classics)
When 25 year old German trumpeter Simon Höfele’s previous two recordings were attention-grabbing for their ambitious, non-standard programmes – avant-garde works for his Mysteries album of 2018, and a cornucopia of 20th and 21st-century works for Concertino in 2017 – I love that this current ECHO Rising Star and recent BBC New Generation Artist is now giving us an album devoted to the famous “standards” of the trumpet repertoire: Haydn’s trumpet Concerto in E flat major, preceded by the E major concerto written for the same trumpeter by Haydn’s pupil, Johann Nepomuk Hummel; then Copland’s bluesy Quiet City of 1939, followed by Armenian composer Alexander Arutjunjan’s 1950 Trumpet Concerto in A flat major. However while we’ve moved from lesser-spotted to always-spotted, what has remained constant is the fresh zing and vibrant virtuosity with which Höfele has approached every piece, and the elegance and multi-coloured versatility of his tone. Plus he’s superbly matched at every turn by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra (Hummel and Haydn) and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales (Copland and Arutjunjan) under Duncan Ward. For dCS I’ve programmed the Haydn concerto followed by the Copland.
Johann Sebastian Bach – The Well-Tempered Consort– 1 by Phantasm (Linn records)
While it was the harpsichord for which Johann Sebastian Bach wrote his many non-sacred keyboard masterpieces, the fact that its strings are plucked rather than struck – meaning it’s capable neither of sustaining notes nor of achieving dynamics (beyond increasing the number of notes being played at any one time) – means it’s also an instrument with distinct expressive limitations. So it’s interesting that although in general Bach’s music has been transcribed countless times, it’s been less common to rearrange the major keyboard works, beyond simply moving them onto a modern piano. Certainly it’s a first for them to have been transcribed as they have here: backwards in time, and geographically sideways across the English Channel, to the viol consorts beloved of the English from Tudor times until around the 1680s when Bach himself was born. Phantasm’s programme is drawn largely from the two Well-Tempered Clavier books, the Musical Offering and the Clavier-Übung III, and it’s a feast of fresh expressive tricks and psychological insights, coupled with the fascination of suddenly hearing links between these great fugal German works and the British Fantasy form. Beautifully shaped, deftly articulated and warmly captured, it’s no wonder Phantasm is already planning a second volume for 2021. I’ve given you the Prelude and Fugue No 22 from the Well-Tempered Clavier Book 1 and Kyrie, Gott heiliger Geist from Clavier-Übung III.
King’s Singers from Finding Harmony (Signum)
All-male a cappella group The King’s Singers celebrated their fiftieth anniversary season in 2018. Yet even with that sort of longevity it’s doubtful whether any of their previous album titles are quite so weighted in meaning as In Harmony is, referring as it does not just to their actual musical craft of harmonising with each other, and to their reputation for multi-national, multi-style and multi-genre programmes, but also to music’s ability to give people of different or even warring nationalities and opinions a common language with which to connect. The programme itself then explores particular songs from throughout history which have either brought communities together behind a common cause, or have helped to give identity to people whose culture or language has been threatened in some way. For instance the American civil rights movement is represented by This little light of mine. Or there’s Mu ismaa on minu arm from Estonia, which which came to represent the country’s largely peaceful “Singing Revolution” of the late 1980s, which helped to eject the occupying Soviet forces. For this playlist I’ve chosen Ne irascaris, Domine, a motet depicting the Israelites’ captivity in Babylon written by William Byrd, a secret Catholic at the court of Protestant Elizabeth I. Then the album’s following track, Praying, written in 2017 by singer-songwriter Kesha, whose name and experiences became synonymous with the #MeToo movement; and while on the one hand this pair represents quite the leap in time, faith and emotion, they’re ultimately both songs about spiritual redemption. Add the King’s Singers’ trademark smooth beauty and warmth, and the segue is one of the most effective across the whole album.
Note: Johann Sebastian Bach – The Well-Tempered Consort– 1 by Phantasm (Linn records) is unavailable on TIDAL or Qobuz and therefore does not appear on the playlist
By the tender age of twenty five, Paul Simon was one of America’s most commercially successful recording artists. His partnership with Art Garfunkel started in 1956, and by the time Sounds of Silence was released in 1966 they were both household names. But after a stream of chart hits and the seminal Bookends album, the duo split in 1970, citing “artistic differences”. The nineteen seventies saw several unspectacular albums, with 1975’s Still Crazy After All These Years arguably the strongest. By the eighties his star was really beginning to dim, but in 1986 Simon came back with Graceland, an album so special that it didn’t just mark a complete return to form, but hit the cultural zeitgeist.
Recorded mostly in South Africa and New York, Graceland was released on August 25th, 1986 to rapturous critical acclaim. Two years earlier, Simon had become enamoured with South African township music, and visited Johannesburg to record with local musicians. The result was an album that mixed rock, pop and a cappella with traditional African music, creating a fascinating hybrid. It went on to sell a staggering sixteen million copies around the world, won a Grammy for ‘Album of the Year’ in 1987. It was hailed as “culturally, historically, or aesthetically important” by the United States National Recording Registry in 2007.
Despite introducing African music to a new Western audience, many critics frowned on Graceland for breaking the cultural embargo on apartheid South Africa, and for a while it became something of a political football. Yet Simon didn’t just use these musicians once and discard them, he went on tour with them and brought local styles like isicathamiya and mbaqanga to vast new audiences. He later reflected that, “I first thought, too bad it’s not from Zimbabwe, Zaire, or Nigeria. Life would have been more simple.”
Writing it was highly improvisational. Simon sat down in the studio and jammed with his fellow artists to see where he ended up. As such, many got writing credits. Joseph Shabalala contributed to Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes for example, with Ladysmith Black Mambazo and singer-percussionist Youssou N’Dour. The Boy in the Bubble came from working with Tao Ea Matsekha and Graceland used bassist Bakithi Kumalo and guitarist Ray Phiri. The infectious penny whistle playing on You Can Call Me Al was by Morris Goldberg, and Homeless was written jointly by Simon and Shabalala, based on a Zulu song. Other guest musicians feature too, like Los Lobos and Linda Ronstadt.
Recorded on analogue tape then heavily digitally edited – with lots of tape delay, echo and other effects added – Graceland does sounds heavily processed by modern standards. Yet still its inner beauty shines through – especially when played on high quality digital sources. Even today, it’s musically fresh and fun with a sunny and life-affirming feel. “Harmonically, African music consists essentially of three major chords — that’s why it sounds so happy”, said Paul Simon later. This didn’t go unnoticed, and subsequently influenced a number of other eighties artists. The 2012 CD remaster [Sony Music 88691984122] is a great place to start the fun.
Welcome to the first Classical Only the Music of 2020, a whoppingly significant year in the classical music world for being the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s death. This of course means that Beethoven’s music is going to be everywhere you turn over these next twelve months, and while some have argued that there’s enough Beethoven around already without being served up even more of it, I for one am thrilled. Beethoven represents a bottomless box of delights. Firstly in terms of the amount of repertoire to explore, not all of which is well known. Secondly in terms of the size and age of the recordings catalogue; for instance the Violin Concerto was recorded for the first time all the way back in 1916, by the largely forgotten violinist Juan Manen. No doubt I’ll be feeding you some truly old Beethoven recordings over the coming months, but I’m going to begin with one from more recent history: Sir John Eliot Gardiner and his period instrument Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique performing Symphonies 5 and 7 live at Carnegie Hall in 2012. This is easily my favourite recording of these works, both because of the earthy punch the period woodwind and brass bring to the timbral table, and because these are edge-of-the-seat interpretations brimming with fervour and understanding. I’ve given you the whole of Symphony No 7 (the one with the famous second movement funeral march).
This month’s new releases then start with Morgen, rising soprano Elsa Dreisig’s exquisite second album for Erato, after which comes a recording debut from the Kitgut Quartet, followed by the Franck and Chopin cello sonatas from two of the world’s most in-demand soloists, cellist Gautier Capuçon and pianist Yuja Wang.
Morgen – Elsa Dreisig & Jonathan Ware
The young French-Danish soprano Elsa Dreisig has been notching up a veritable string of awards and accolades over recent years, including First Prize at Plácido Domingo’s 2016 Operalia vocal competition, and Copenhagen Opera Festival’s 2017 Young Opera Artist of the Year. Her 2018 debut album of opera arias with Erato, Miroirs, garnered her further praise, and now this follow-up recital disc with pianist Jonathan Ware promises to continue her upwards trajectory. Titled Morgen, it interweaves songs by Strauss with thematically linked works by Sergey Rachmaninov and Henri Duparc, and it’s a pair of songs by those latter two composers I’ve chosen for this playlist: Duparc’s L’invitation au voyage and Rachmaninov’s Margaritki (or “Daisies”) from Romances Op 38. Wih steely, slender-toned purity up top, and a lovely rounded warmth in her lower registers, it’s a voice I could listen to all day, and the partnering from Ware is equally perfectly pitched.
‘Tis Too Late to be Wise – Kitgut Quartet
‘Tis Too Late to be Wise may be the Kitgut Quartet’s debut album, but its four musicians – violinists Amandine Beyer and Naaman Sluchin, viola player Josèphe Cottet and cellist Frédéric Baldassare – are no strangers to the recording studio, being acclaimed soloists linked with some of Europe’s leading period-instrument ensembles; and if you’re wondering about the name, this refers to the period “kitgut” or catgut strings with which they’ve strung their instruments. On to the programme itself, and this is an exploration of the origins of the string quartet taken from the fascinating and highly original angle of presenting “Father of the Quartet” Haydn’s Opus 71 Quartet No 2, composed in Vienna in 1793 between his two London visits, alongside four-part English compositions dating from the second half of the sixteenth century – pieces known as “curtain music” or “act tunes” because they were composed to be played in front of the lowered curtain during set changes in the theatre, to stop the audience from getting bored and leaving their seats. I’ve given you Locke’s “Curtain Tune” from The Tempest, the first movement of the Haydn, then Purcell’s “Fairest Isle” from King Arthur. Recorded in the large stone-walled, wooden-roofed Ferme de Villefavard in Limousin, the surrounding acoustic is full of character and warmth, and the same is true tenfold for the actual playing – subtle drama, bags of heart and joy, and the beautiful bristle of those period “kitgut” strings.
Franck & Chopin: Cello Sonatas – Gautier Capuçon and Yuja Wang
It would be hard to come up with a starrier chamber pairing than Gautier Capuçon and Yuja Wang, who were recently named respectively as the world’s busiest cellist and pianist of 2019 by the international concert listings and reviews website Bachtrack in their annual retrospective numbers-crunch. So what better programme for them than the Franck and Chopin cello sonatas – two works so very equally weighted between cello and piano that it would be plain nonsensical to describe the pianist as mere accompanist; the piano writing in the Franck in particular feels almost concerto-esque in places. This in turn demands immense chamber awareness and sensitivity from both musicians, and to say that you’re hearing those qualities in abundance here is an understatement. Capuçon and Wang’s chamber partnership is now several years old, this programme was one they toured extensively across America in Spring 2019, and the superglued partnering that’s wound up on this resultant album very much reflects that. I’ve given you the Franck sonata in its entirety: a poised, subtle and spacious reading over which from Capuçon you’ll hear finely nuanced colourings at every turn, complemented by jewel-like delicacy and precision from Wang. Also on the album are Chopin’s Introduction et Polonaise and Piazzolla’s fiery showpiece, Le Grand Tango, and I urge you to also explore these and the Chopin sonata by yourselves.
Many pop music milestones are widely celebrated. Much has been written about the day The Beatles signed to Parlophone for example, or how Malcolm McLaren met John Lydon and formed the Sex Pistols. Yet there are others, such as when Kraftwerk shaped up to record Autobahn – thus launching modern electronic music – that are less well documented. The case of Sugarhill Gang is even more obscure; three young men from Englewood, New Jersey, created what was in effect the world’s first ever commercial rap record – and it went on to spawn a huge new genre of music.
Released on February 7th, 1980, The Sugarhill Gang is a forty minute-long album that contains the single Rapper’s Delight, which came out on September 16th, 1979. It got to number 3 in the UK singles charts, and 36 in the USA’s Billboard Hot 100. The album itself isn’t remarkable for anything aside from the fact that it contains the full, unalloyed 14 minute, 37 second version of the ground-breaking single – the latter was edited down to 4 minutes 55 seconds for seven inch vinyl release. The other tracks are light soul music flavoured fillers, plus one predictable disco instrumental. The reason for this is that the producer Sylvia Robinson thought that an album comprised entirely of hip hop music simply wouldn’t sell.
Sugarhill Gang comprised rappers Big Bank Hank, Master Gee, Michael ‘Wonder Mike’ Wright, with a backing band including Bernard Rowland (bass), Bryan Horton (drums) Albert Pitman (guitar) and Nate Edmonds (keyboards), with assorted extra percussionists and backing singers. In the words of Master Gee, “when I was in tenth grade in New Jersey, I went to a party and heard someone talking rhythmically through a mic. “That’s rapping,” he said. It was something we did at parties. Nobody thought of it as commercial. Then Sylvia Robinson, founder of the hip-hop label Sugar Hill, decided to make a record, and looked for talent in New Jersey. Big Bank Hank rapped and made pizzas, so she auditioned him in front of the pizza parlour. I rapped in her car, then Wonder Mike was next. “I can’t choose, so I’ll put you all together”, she said.”
Robinson chose Chic’s Good Times as the backing track for Rapper’s Delight, with the intro from Love De-Luxe’s Here Comes That Sound Again. Because there were no commercially available samplers back then, Positive Force were called in to physically play Good Times, and it was rapped over. At the time, Chic’s Nile Rogers was not happy, and legal action soon followed – but he now says that Rapper’s Delight is one of his favourite songs. “I thought we’d made the first rap record,” said Master Gee, “then I was at a party and heard the Fatback Band’s King Tim III, which featured rapping with singing. I thought someone had beat us to the punch. But they’d made it a B-side, and ours became a smash!”
This is an essential purchase for any serious hip-hop fan, simply for its full, unexpurgated version of Rapper’s Delight. The best way of hearing it is via the 30th Anniversary Edition CD [Sanctuary Records Group Ltd. 0602527427478] released in the UK in 2010.
When the Christmas season is so very dominated in musical terms by the sounds of choirs, I’ve decided to begin this month’s playlist with some festive music that’s purely orchestral: Ottorino Respighi’s Adoration of the Magi. Festive-ish anyway, because this is actually the middle movement of a trio of pieces he wrote in 1927 called Il Trittico Botticelliano, depicting Sandro Botticelli’s three most famous paintings (Spring and The Birth of Venus being the others), meaning that it wasn’t technically written as a Christmassy work. Yet it sounds thoroughly Christmassy nevertheless, because its thematic material is centred around the Advent carol, O Come, O Come Emmanuel. I’ve chosen the 1993 recording from the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, and then because it’s Christmas I’ve also given you two carols from Voces8’s 2011 Christmas album: Away in a Manger followed by I Wonder as I Wander.
On to the new releases, these begin with the first installment of Quatuor Ébène’s Beethoven quartets cycle for Erato. Sixteenth century Spanish lute music follows from Paul O’Dette, before an advance peak at 12 Ensemble’s Death and the Maiden album, out next month.
A new release from French string quartet Quatuor Ébène always feels like an event, but none more so than this one: the complete Beethoven string quartets, timed to coincide with the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s death and the twentieth anniversary of Quatuor Ebene themselves, recorded live on tour around the world with each of its seven albums recorded in a different city (everywhere from Paris and Vienna to Sao Paulo and Nairobi), and also the quartet’s first recording with its new violist, Marie Chilemme. This first installment was recorded in Vienna’s Konzerthaus and features the first two “Razumovsky” Quartets (numbers seven and eight overall in the cycle), and it’s wonderful. Think lived-in performances glowing with conviction and electricity, captured with vibrancy, and utter synchronicity of musical thought between the four. The other six albums are to be released all in one go in March, but I’m so happy they gave us this one early. I’ve given you No 7 in F major.
Albert de Rippe – Un perfaict sonneur de leut – Paul O’Dette, on Harmonia Mundi
You’ve got to be pretty specialist in your lute knowledge to have heard of the early sixteenth century Spanish composer Albert de Rippe, so Paul O’Dette’s latest recording for Harmonia Mundi first deserves brownie points simply for bringing de Rippe to a wider audience at all. It’s beautiful stuff, too – music whose textures are often wonderfully rich and chordal (de Rippe was a fan of six-note chords where his contemporaries often went for more transparent textures), melding ear-catchingly detailed multi-part writing, and even the odd cheeky dissonance, with gentle poetic expression. Paul O’Dette then brings it all to life with deftly fingered beauty and freshness, supported by classy and immediate engineering. I’ve given you Fantasie XIX and Fantasie III.
Death and the Maiden – 12 Ensemble
If they haven’t yet entered your radar, 12 Ensemble are one of the most exciting rising UK, performing without a conductor and presenting an intriguing mixture of old music (often recasting pillars of the string quartet repertoire into their very different, fuller sonorities) and groundbreaking new commissions. Death and the Maiden is therefore typical of them, its title work by Schubert representing one of the greatest quartets of all time, surrounded by striking arrangements of more recent music. It actually isn’t released until January, but I’m pointing you in the direction of its two pre-released tracks now, because conveniently for us its powerful programme-opener is a transcription of a choral work you hear particularly at this time of year: Tavener’s The Lamb, written in 1982. I’ve then also given you the album’s final work Fljótavik by a quartet of composers, Georg Holm, Jon Thor Birgisson, Kjartan Sveinsson and Orri Pall Dyrason.
Playlist also available om Qobuz https://open.qobuz.com/playlist/2640152