Welcome to our latest pick of classical recordings. This month’s selection of new releases includes an exciting Rachaminov programme from The Philadelphia Orchestra, English Restoration theatre music from French Baroque ensemble Les Surprises, and English music for strings from the London Sinfonieta, conducted by John Wilson. First up though, is our archive choice…
Ravel: Introduction and Allegro – The Melos Ensemble of London & Ossian Ellis on Decca (track 1)
This month, I’m opening with honouring the luminary harpist Ossian Ellis, who died on January 5 aged 92. Ellis was Professor of Harp at the Royal Academy of Music from 1959 to 1989 and a regular member of the London Symphony Orchestra from 1961 to 1994. He was also a member of the Melos Ensemble and the backing orchestra for BBC radio series The Goon Show.
A musician, composer and teacher, Ellis was celebrated for the bright clarity of his playing, and for his close working partnership with Benjamin Britten. It’s that bright clarity I’m highlighting via my recording choice: his 1961 recording with the Melos Ensemble of Ravel’s Introduction and Allegro.
This was one of a pile of CDs I bought twenty-ish years ago on the first pay day of my first job after graduation, when I was looking for some Ravel. (Its case still bears a sticky label with my maiden name on it.) At this point in time, I knew plenty about repertoire, but next to nothing about artists or recordings.
By complete fluke, I hit on one of the greats, recorded with bright clarity in Walthamstow Assembly Hall by some of the leading lights of UK’s mid-century music scene along with Ellis, a former pupil of harpist Gwendolen Mason, who had performed with Ravel. Twenty years, on it still stands the test of time.
Rachmaninov Symphony No 1 & Symphonic Dances – The Philadelphia Orchestra/Yannick Nézét-Seguin – DG
“This music leaves an evil impression with its broken rhythms, obscurity and vagueness of form, meaningless repetition of the same short tricks, the nasal sound of the orchestra, the strained crash of the brass, and above all its sickly perverse harmonization.” So said one of the many unenthusiastic critics at the 1897 premiere of Rachmaninov’s Symphony No 1, from which the distraught 23-year-old composer himself walked out of early.
The experience precipitated such a crisis of confidence that Rachmaninov wouldn’t compose another note for a further three years, before therapy sessions finally enabled him to compose the Piano Concerto No 2 – a work which triumphantly relaunched his career.
Conductors have since learnt how to conduct the symphony, but few with the degree of success achieved here by Yannick Nézét-Seguin with The Philadelphia Orchestra (an orchestra that Rachaminov formed an especially close bond with after his emigration from Russia). In fact, take every one of those aforementioned criticisms and convert them to their positive opposite, and you’ve got what’s going on here: rhythmic flow and propulsion, dramatically compelling forwards flow, clear architecture on both the micro and macro level, the soaring freedom of the strings, the percussion’s satisfying crisp snap and sparkle, intelligent development of the binding motifs, the dark power of the orchestra gliding through Rachmaninov’s piquant harmonic swerves…. It’s an absolute cracker, and the Symphonic Dances which follow – Rachmaninov’s final major orchestral work, completed in 1940 for the Philadelphia, and containing a bittersweet quote from the symphony – are every bit as good. It’s the symphony that I’ve given you for this month’s playlist.
Purcell – Tyrannic Love – Ensemble Les Surprises/ Louis-Noël Bestion de Camboulas on Alpha
“A hymn to love!” is how Louis-Noël Bestion de Camboulas, director of French Baroque Ensemble Les Surprises, describes this cherry-picked spread of vocal and instrumental music from Restoration-era English theatrical music, and that’s a perfect encapsulation of the joyous, multi-coloured and timbred energy they’ve brought to this programme, recorded with bristling immediacy at the Ferme de Villefavard.
Contents-wise, it’s the fizzing, fiery works written by Henry Purcell during the five massively creative final years of his life which dominate – a period when, following William (of Orange) III and Mary’s scaling back of court music, he contributed to London’s newly blossoming commercial music scene as an employee of the United Company.
While the programme includes a range of well-known pieces, including King Arthur (1961), whose jubilantly whirling hornpipe from Act II serves as the programme’s big-bang curtain raiser, de Camboulas also pushes far lesser-known gems under our noses. Take the sighing beauty of the Slow Air he’s plucked from the incidental music to Thomas d’Urfey’s c.1695 play The Virtuous Wife. Or “Hark, my Damilcar”, a vocal duet sung by two spirits in the 1694 revival of Dryden’s play Tyrannic Love – sung here with satisfyingly clean-toned and crisply spirit by soprano Eugénie Lefebvre and baritone Étienne Bazolaor.
Complementing all this are further choices from Purcell’s court colleague John Blow, his United Company colleague John Eccles (hold onto your hats for Lefebvre’s vigorous “I burn, my brain consumes to ashes”) and his followers, Daniel Purcell and Jeremiah Clarke. All in all, these French artists have succeeded in giving the unwavering impression of being front row at the liveliest theatre in Restoration London. I’ve given you the aforementioned Hornpipe and “Hark, my Damilcar”, plus the Saraband for the Graces from John Blow’s Venus and Adonis, and the Dance for the Fairies from Purcell’s The Fairy Queen.
English Music for Strings – Sinfonia of London/John Wilson on Chandos
When John Wilson founded the John Wilson Orchestra in 1994, I’m not sure anyone could have predicted either the sheer success of that ensemble devoted to performing music from the golden age of Hollywood and Broadway, or the impact that this work would go on to have on the core classical world.
Fast forward to 2021, and Wilson is conducting symphony orchestras across the world, teasing out from them in the classical repertoire of the same era that same delicious, glossy, early 20th century strings sheen he brought to its lighter repertoire. In fact, it’s arguably Wilson’s influence that’s behind the gradual reintroduction into orchestral playing of portamento (when you leap from one note to the next via a swoop rather than a clean jump), which until recently had been out of fashion.
Returning to the present, this programme of English music for strings is Wilson’s second recording with the Sinfonia of London, following their 2019 Korngold programme, which made the 2020 Gramophone award shortlist. To say that they’ve made this rather neglected repertoire shine is an understatement. It’s both a ravishing and an invigorating listen, with the luxurious, crisply glossy luminosity of their sound, coupled with smart articulation, rhythmic pep and nimble airiness.
Indeed, when it tends to be the Russian strings school that naturally leaps to mind when thinking of gloriously polished string ensemble playing, it’s a glorious surprise to have those expectations confounded by a British ensemble performing underplayed early 20th century English strings repertoire. I’ve given you Frank Bridge’s Lament, over which you can admire some very classy portamenti and some wonderful solo spots, then Lennox Berkeley’s Serenade for String Orchestra.
Playlist available below,
Originally from Peckham but he could as easily hail from the streets of Los Angeles: his sound has the sun-dappled 70s funk and soul touches of Angelenos like Anderson .Paak, until his spoken-word interludes reveal his London accent.
The singer, whose voice reaches gorgeous gravelly lows and stunning Prince-rivalling highs, has been releasing music since 2009. At 36, he’s a lot more experienced than your usual hotly-tipped new talent, and has only recently given up his full-time job as a learning mentor for children, but you get the sense that tastemakers are only just catching up to him because his sound is streets ahead.
His performance of the song ‘Woman’ has had over 12 million views since it was posted on YouTube channel COLORS in 2017, and revealed an incredible falsetto, drawing comparisons with US artist D’Angelo. This year, he’ll release his debut album Sgt Culpepper, which features the funk-licked single ‘Poetic Justice’, produced by popular jazz-soul artist Tom Misch.
Anna B Savage
Fans of the cathartic broodiness of Phoebe Bridgers and the dramatic tension of Nadine Shah’s indie-rock will find much to love in the music of London-based singer-songwriter Anna B Savage. She has supported Father John Misty and Jenny Hval on tour but beyond the name recognition, Savage’s devastatingly intimate music stands alone.
It’s been a while since her debut EP in 2015, but following a bout of imposter syndrome, she returned with her debut album, A Common Turn, at the end of January. Produced by Mercury Prize nominee William Doyle (aka East India Youth) it sees her raw acoustic guitar and rich alto voice emboldened with intense post-rock-style arrangements and haunting atmosphere. These are torch songs for listening alone to, a flame in the dark.
The independent record label Erased Tapes has long been a home for avant-garde instrumental music, from classical to jazz, electronic and beyond. Their latest signing, however, is like nothing else on earth. Hatis Noit performs with a loop pedal, layering her voice in a phantasmagorical style that recalls NYC experimentalist Meredith Monk, Buddhist chanting (which she discovered on a teenage trip to the temples of Nepal) and out-there Tokyo group Boredoms. Broadly speaking, it’s where western classical meets Japanese folk.
Noit’s name refers to the stem of a lotus flower and her music has a similarly organic feel, its tonal brilliance in tune with the pull and flow of nature. She has released one EP, Illogical Dance, as well as collaborating with producer The Bug, and is currently working on her debut album.
When you think of jazz, the violin isn’t necessarily the instrument that springs to mind, but German violinist, singer and composer Johanna Burnheart has a rather avant-garde approach to sound. Her way of playing is inspired by the horn giants of the modal jazz genre, such as John Coltrane and Miles Davis, as well as the coruscating house and techno that pulses out of clubs she discovered in Berlin (including, to quote one song title, ‘Sisyphos’).
Her debut album Burnheart, which she released last October, is a marvel, and has seen her likened to a jazz Tune-Yards, as her polymorphous, diaphanous music slinks in complex but never jarring swirls, pulling together avant-garde classical, electronic atmosphere and organic jazz textures. Burnheart is part of the much-feted UK jazz scene, but her futuristic and experimental style stands apart in an experimental league of its own.
Jamael Dean comes from illustrious jazz stock – his grandfather is jazz drummer Donald Dean – and, a prodigal pianist and producer himself, he has played with the toast of the LA instrumental scene, from Kamasi Washington to Thundercat. He’s now signed to cult hip-hop label Stone’s Throw (alongside another 2021 one-to-watch, John Carroll Kirby) – not bad considering he’s still in his early 20s.
Already, he is showing early signs of Herbie Hancock-level prolificness: in 2019, Jamael released the album ‘Black Space Tapes’, drawing on spiritual jazz and Afro-futurist influences like Sun Ra and Alice Coltrane, followed by the Oblivion EP and solo jazz piano album Ished Tree in 2020. His forthcoming album, Primordial Waves, is due out later this year, and could well propel him into the same league as his aforementioned jazz peers.
The idiosyncratic scene surrounding south London live music venues The Windmill and The Bunker has given rise to one of the most exciting rag-tag movements of guitar-wielding, DIY-minded groups to emerge in recent years.
Local bands like Black Midi, Squid, Goat Girl and HMLTD have all found acclaim and/or record deals, with many of them putting out releases at lightning speed with the help of producer, writer, mixer and Speedy Wunderground label co-founder, Dan Carey.
Carey has also collaborated with London trio PVA, who signed to Big Dada – a respected UK imprint home to cult UK acts Kate Tempest, Young Fathers and Roots Manuva – last year. The group’s music sounds like electro-pop past and present: a bit Gary Numan and Depeche Mode, with shades of 90s Leftfield and acid house, as well as mid-2000s Metronomy and Soulwax (think ghostly synths, distortion and brooding vocals). Their debut EP Toner came out late last year; fingers crossed we’ll see an album in 2021.
Playlist available below,
Jan Berry and Dean Torrence are one of the 1960s’ best kept pop secrets. Eclipsed by the stellar success of the Beach Boys – a band with which they were good friends and musical collaborators – Jan and Dean ended up as a footnote to the decade’s California sound. It’s all the more sad because they helped pioneer it, and were one of its greatest exponents. Along with their subsequent album Drag City, Ride the Wild Surf is the best way to experience the duo’s sunny, hedonistic sound.
Beach Boys fans will be interested to know that Brian Wilson co-wrote four of this album’s songs, including the title track – which could have stood on its own as one of his band’s finest early efforts. It was a powerful songwriting partnership, which also delivered Surf City for the Beach Boys. Jan Berry’s girlfriend Jill Gibson joined in too, as well as his old high school friend Don Altfeld and a number of other associates. The songs are simple and direct, with catchy Chuck Berry-influenced guitar riffs and a touching naivety to the lyrics. Most people alive today were never suntanned Californian teens in the 60s, but these songs sure give you a taste of how it must have felt to be one.
At a time when US record labels called the shots, one of the joys of Ride the Wild Surf is that Jan Berry got to produce this album in his own way. Commissioned to soundtrack the movie of the same name, you could call it an early concept album as the songs are closely themed around beach life – summer, surfing, skateboarding and girls. The playing is jaunty, the rhythms infectious and the close-knit vocal harmonies are Beach Boys quality. Factor in the pithy and often funny lyrics and the result is an uplifting album that’s as charming as it is quaint. It’s also beautifully done, and surprisingly fine sounding considering it was designed to be throwaway pop.
The title track Ride the Wild Surf was released as a single, and peaked at number 16 in the US Billboard charts in 1963, doing worse than expected. This was a portent of things to come, as the surf pop scene was already on the wane and the Beach Boys quickly moved on to car songs – then of course, the beautiful psychedelia of Pet Sounds. Indeed, this epic was arguably the last ever surf hit if you exclude The Tradewinds’ belated New York’s a Lonely Town from early 1965. The genre was pretty much over, and Jan and Dean’s career with it, soon after.
As is so often the case, for many years Ride the Wild Surf was no longer available new. Long deleted on LP, it took the enterprising hand of EMI Japan to put it out on Compact Disc in 2012 [TOCP-71306], along with the rest of the Jan and Dean Liberty record label era output. Now though, it’s available on a number of streaming services, from Amazon Music to Qobuz, in its original stereo mix. (A number of later ‘Greatest Hits’ CD packages feature an inferior modern mix, which lacks the charm of the original.) The aural equivalent of a vitamin D shot, this album makes great winter listening.
Playlist available below,
Happy New Year! This month’s pick of classical recordings – our first of 2021 – includes an ambitious collection of miniatures from Uzbek pianist Behzod Abduraimov, an impressive recording debut from Norwegian violist Eivind Ringstad and a joyous combination of string quartets and Scottish folk. First up, though, is a catalogue recording which happens to be one of my favourite music discoveries of 2020…
Vaughan Williams A London Symphony (Symphony No 2) on Chandos
This month’s catalogue choice was put on my radar thanks to Classical Top 5 – a weekly podcast set up by Tommy Pearson in Spring 2020, which I’ve been a permanent guest on since last summer.
Each week, Tommy, my fellow Gramophone critic Richard Bratby and myself choose a topic and, often with the help of a special guest, talk, enthuse and occasionally argue our way through our personal top five choices. We’ve covered cello concertos with Steven Isserlis, piano concertos with Stephen Hough and song cycles with Simon Callow, as well as significant moments in musical history with Barbican director Nicolas Kenyon. Appearing on the podcast has been a voyage of discovery for all three of us because inevitably, not every topic set is one that each of us is already able to talk the hind legs off a donkey about. As a result, we’ve done a lot of learning along the way, and been introduced to some fantastic suggestions.
Some of these have come from the listeners themselves, who nominate music for each week’s show via our Twitter and Facebook accounts. Vaughan Williams’s “London” Symphony No 2 was one such recommendation, pegged to a week on Solos in Orchestral Works because its slow second movement abounds in them. To my shame, this was a symphony I’d never previously taken time to get to know, but to say I’ve been making up for lost time ever since is a bit of an understatement. The recording I’ve chosen for you here is the London Symphony Orchestra under Richard Hickox, released in 2001.
Correspondances – Eivind Ringstad and David Meier on Rubicon
A recent graduate of the BBC New Generation Artist scheme (2016-2018), Norwegian violist Eivind Ringstad’s debut on the Rubicon label has been made possible through the support of another prestigious body supporting young artists, the Borletti Buitoni Trust. His programme is a stylistically wide-ranging one, covering the Romantic, Neo-classical and modern periods by way of some distinctly non-run-of-the-mill choices. Take the opening Viola Sonata, written in 1942 by the Australian composer Arthur Benjamin. While a powerful recording of this wartime work was made by its dedicatee, the great British violist William Primrose, there’s been a paucity of subsequent efforts, so this new reading – with Ringstad hooking us in from his first soft, dark-voiced, poetic notes – is a thoroughly worthwhile addition to the catalogue.
The rest of the programme is no less engrossing. In fact, although I’ve mentioned his soft, dark poeticism, one of Ringstad’s aims has been to showcase his instrument’s potential as a virtuosic instrument. This is evident in Benjamin’s final Toccata and even more so in the album’s title track by Peder Barratt-Due, written for Ringstad in 2018. Meanwhile, although Elégie by 18th century violin virtuoso Henri Vieuxtemps certainly has its virtuosic figurations, the case Ringstad makes most fascinatingly of all with it is the viola’s capacity for upper register lyricism. Add superb partnering from pianist David Meier and it’s a strong recital debut. I’ve given you the Benjamin and the Vieuxtemps for this month’s playlist.
Behzod Abduraimov – Debussy, Chopin, Mussorgsky on Alpha
Fast-rising Uzbek pianist Behzod Abduraimov has chosen an ambitious programme of miniatures for his first album with Alpha, beginning with Debussy’s Children’s Corner, then on to Chopin’s 24 Préludes op.28, before culminating with Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition – which arguably counts as bringing us full circle, as Children’s Corner was inspired by Mussorgsky’s song cycle, The Nursery.
Abduraimov’s Debussy strikes for its clean-toned freshness and fluidity. The Chopin Préludes sound equally fresh, natural and flowing, their colouristic and dynamic gear-shifts happening with a nice organicism. With the Mussorgsky, he likewise offers up a constantly changing tonal palette. Tempi-wise, he doesn’t hang around, but neither does anything feel rushed: it all feels just right and is abounding in flow. Another feature is the lack of perceptible rubato – something you notice especially with his Chopin. All in all, it’s a satisfying listen that explains to anyone new to his name why his concert diary is filled with appearances with the likes of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and San Francisco Symphony, as well as festivals including Verbier. I’ve given you Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum and The Little Shepherd from Children’s Corner, Chopin Préludes numbers 1 and 15, and from Pictures at an Exhibition Promenade I and Limoges, le marché.
I don’t usually include albums here that I’ve reviewed elsewhere, but I’m afraid I’ve been powerless to resist the temptation to give another shout to the Maxwell Quartet’s latest release, having reviewed it for The Strad. It’s just too good, and also exactly the sort of life-affirming stuff we all need right now.
This programme punctuates the three op.74 quartets written off the back of Haydn’s 1793 London visit with three Scottish folk song sets. It’s an inspired idea, given the amount of Hungarian folk flavour in Haydn’s quartets, and the Maxwell Quartet’s readings brilliantly bring both folk vim to the salon and classical elegance to the barn dance through some luminously stringy-toned and technically superlative playing. I should also say that this is a follow-up to an earlier album, which pairs Haydn’s op.71 set (written at the same time as op.74) with more Scottish tunes, and I recommend equally that you make a date with that one. On the playlist here you’ll find Haydn’s Quartet No 1 in C major, followed by Coilsfield House – Drunk at Night, Dry in the Morning.
Playlist available below,
Note: Behzod Abduraimov – Debussy, Chopin, Mussorgsky (Linn) is unavailable on Qobuz and therefore does not appear on the playlist
The 1970s was a great decade for rock music, on both sides of the Atlantic. In the first half, the USA and UK seemed to be in sync with one another stylistically but by 1976, they were diverging fast. Britain was witnessing the beginnings of the punk explosion, while America was drifting ever further into the ‘LA sound’. This was sophisticated, beautifully crafted, adult-oriented rock personified by Steely Dan, The Eagles and Fleetwood Mac. Of course the latter was originally a British band, but Rumours came to personify those slick, laid back productions that dominated FM radio play across America at the time.
Yet at one point in late 1976, it looked like Boz Scaggs’ Silk Degrees could become the greater commercial success. Recorded in September and October of the previous year in Hollywood, California, it radiated blue skies, sandy beaches, shot bars and cocktails – and the louche lives of those who lived it. Released on February 18th, 1976, Silk Degrees ended up spending an epic 115 weeks in the Billboard 200 album charts, and was certified five times platinum by the RIAA. The amazing patience of Columbia Records paid off, as Scaggs’s seventh album of blues-tinged soft rock – so-called blue-eyed soul – finally caught America’s imagination.
Scaggs once explained that the name Silk Degrees didn’t mean anything in particular – and arguably nor did its collection of songs. Rather than trying to make any sort of dramatic statement, lyrically he chose to document the goings on of people around him. There’s some sardonic humour, a certain world-weariness but also tenderness too. Yet this album’s real strength is arguably its music, made possible by Scaggs’s decision to collaborate with some of the finest up-and-coming US talent – namely David Paich, Jeff Porcaro and David Hungate of soon-to-be Toto fame, plus Fred Tackett who went on to join Little Feat.
Silk Degrees was both Scaggs’s commercial and creative zenith. He’d left the Steve Miller Band some years earlier needing to prove himself, and with this album he finally did. Collaborating closely with Paich on songwriting duties, he delivered a jazz influenced soft rock classic that oozes sophistication thanks to Joe Wissert’s state-of-the-art mid 70s production – one that sounds great even today. It’s a quintessential seventies analogue sound, slightly soft around the edges but very clean and with a warm sepia tint. Tracks like Lido Shuffle, Lowdown, Georgia and Harbor Lights – plus We’re All Alone, which became a hit for Rita Coolidge – make it an album you can play from beginning to end. And if the catchy tunes don’t get you, the great musicianship will.
There have been hundreds of releases of this classic album, on formats as diverse as 8-track cartridge, Compact Cassette, MiniDisc and Blu-ray Audio. The 2007 remastered CD [Columbia, Legacy 82876 86715-2] is as good a place to start as any, but the long-deleted Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab version [MFSL UDCD 535] is the collector’s choice. Even the former sounds pretty spectacular on a high resolution dCS digital source, but the latter is more special still.
Playlist available below,
Dvorak: Cello Concerto in B minor 3rd movement, Pablo Casals, Czech Phil Orchestra, George Szell from George Szell The Warner Recordings 1934-1970 on Warner Classics
A boxset of reissues grabs the classic recording spot here this month: 12.5 hours (or 14 discs, if you buy the physical article) drawn from the 1934-1970 Warner recordings of the great Hungarian conductor George Szell, who led the Cleveland Orchestra from 1946 until his death in 1973.
Szell was known for the lucidity, precision, sternness and detail he drew form his orchestras – musical qualities that tallied somewhat with his real-life persona as a tyrant on the podium, and a meticulous and measured interviewee when faced with a journalist. This new collection offers a well-chosen spread of repertoire, orchestras and soloists via which to appreciate his sound.
While there’s a wealth of great material to choose from, I’ve gone for the remastered mono recording of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto for this month’s playlist, which Szell recorded in 1934 with violinist Bronislaw Huberman and the Vienna Philharmonic in the Vienna Konzerthaus. This is not only one of Szell’s own greatest recordings, but also one of the greatest recordings of this concerto ever made. In it, you’ll find the aforementioned clarity and precision from the orchestra, along with Huberman himself on brilliant form. His rhythmic precision is peppered with sudden accelerations and fiery dynamics and some deliciously coloured portamento slides and flicks.
This, however, is just a sliver of what this vast box set has to offer. If you’re keen to explore more by yourselves, then I’d recommend moving onto his 1970 Schubert Symphony No 9 with the Cleveland, before hopping back to the 1938 recording of the Dvorak Cello Concerto with the great Pablo Casals and the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, a performance which Szell himself described as “memorable” in a 1969 interview with Gramophone.
From there, it’s on to this month’s pick of new releases, which begins with a programme of Italian Baroque oratorio arias for countertenor from Philippe Jaroussky, followed by a highly imaginative concept album from Baroque violinist Théotime Langlois and lutenist Thomas Dunford, and a collection of Advent carols from the Choir of St John’s College, Cambridge. And finally, because it’s Christmas, I’ve snuck in a bonus track from one of my favourite albums by The King’s Singers to round things off.
La Vanità del Mondo – Philippe Jaroussky & Artaserse on Erato
When French countertenor Philippe Jaroussky releases a new album, you know that it’s likely to be both wonderful and treading at least some previously untrodden ground. This programme of Italian Baroque ortario delivers on both of these fronts, with ravishing performances and five world premiere recordings, all wrapped up in some immediate yet natural engineering.
“It’s my belief that composers from this period often gave the best of themselves when called upon to set the great sacred histories of the Old Testament to music,” says Jaroussky in his sleeve notes.
“Embodying in music a saint, or even sometimes God himself, calls for a stronger spiritual sense than do the amorous passions of some prince or queen.”
To that idea of artistic riches and spiritual potency, we can also add a sense of miracle. The album was initially scheduled to be recorded in April, but sessions were delayed until June 2020 due to Covid restrictions, and it doesn’t feel completely fanciful to say that you can feel the sense of relief, release and musical passion that the musicians must have been feeling when they were finally reunited and allowed to complete the project.
Take their programme-opening “Perche piu franco” from Pietro Torri’s Abramo. This aria actually depicts one of the Bible’s most disturbing scenes, when Abraham prepares to obey God’s command to sacrifice his only son Isaac. Torri, however, turns it into a transcendental, major-keyed aria in which Isaac tells Abraham that in order to make this sacrifice, he must forget that he is his son. Here, Jaroussky’s voice is both wonderfully light and delicate, luminous-toned and glowing. Artaserse, meanwhile, are equally giving everything. For one of their best moments, hop to Antonio Maria Bononcini’s minor-keyed “Bacio l’ombre e le catene”, where their sighing accompaniment alternates between ravishingly blended tutti passages and deftly shaped chamber-forces weavings around Jaroussky’s voice, followed by a Sinfonia all for themselves. It’s these two arias which I’ve included in the playlist, but there are other lesser-known names to be enjoyed on the programme, including Nicola Fago and Fortunato Chelleri, alongside the likes of Handel and Vivaldi.
The Mad Lover – Théotime Langlois de Swarte, Thomas Dunford on Harmonia Mundi
What is it about concept albums all of a sudden? Not only are they arriving at a rate of knots – but they also seem to be largely clever, creative and beautiful things, dropping us into new worlds we didn’t even know we wanted.
And so it is with young French Baroque violinist Théotime Langlois de Swarte’s The Mad Lover, for which he’s partnered with lutenist Thomas Dunford. A surprising exploration of the notion of 17th century English melancholy, it uses a three-minute ground plucked from English composer John Eccles’s incidental music to the 1616 comedy of the same name by the English dramatist John Fletcher as a springboard from which to imagine the music that might have been played by an itinerant violinist from the composer’s own time, as he roamed the streets with just a lute player to accompany him, hooking the interests of passers by with small-forces versions of popular grounds and preludes, along with some of the more sophisticated music that would have been heard at court and in the private homes of the affluent.
The musical result is an exquisite, intimate-voiced programme with the power to properly get under your skin. Langlois de Swarte draws a breathtaking array of colours from the soft-toned original 1665 Stainer violin he’s on. Equally mesmerising is his singing quality, and linked to that, his ability to unfurl a perfectly smooth legato line, no matter how wide the leaps between a melody’s notes. Dunford provides a perfect accompaniment, matching him colour for colour. The engineering, meanwhile, offers closeness and bloom, but subtly so – just enough to accentuate the intimacy, but miles away from ever feeling overproduced. Really, this is a recording which rewards listening from end to end, but for the playlist, I’ve selected the Sonata in G minor by Sonata sesta for violino solo by Daniel Purcell (believed to be a cousin of the great Henry Purcell), the Fantasia in A Minor “Alia Fantasia” by Nicola Matteis Jr and finally, A New Division Upon the Ground Bass of “John Come and Kiss Me” by Clancy Eccles.
Advent Live, Vol 2 – Choir of St John’s College, Cambridge & Andrew Nethsingha on Signum
The Choir of St John’s College, Cambridge, has been broadcasting its Advent Carol Services on BBC Radio 3 since 1981, and its Director Andrew Nethsingha has been commissioning an annual new work for the service since 2008. This latest collection of recordings follows on from the choir’s first Advent Live album, released in two years ago, and features moments from their 2008, 2018 and 2019 services. In addition to repertoire staples such as Otto Goldschmitt’s A tender shoot (heard each year at the start of their Advent services), it also features four of Nethsingha’s original commissions: Gabriel Jackson’s Vox clara ecce intonat from 2013, Cecilia McDowell’s A Prayer to St John the Baptist (2018), Judith Bingham’s An Introduction to Hark, the glad sound (2019), and the first in the annual commissions series, John McCabe’s The last and greatest Herald (2008).
As for how it sounds, beyond the interest and variety of the repertoire itself, for a strange year in which we’ve been denied the usual joys of carol services, the combination of the choir’s distinctive colouristic and emotional warmth, and the beautifully captured acoustic of the college’s chapel, makes this musical escapism at its finest. I’ve given you the Goldschmitt, Hark the Glad Sound with Judith Bingham’s highly effective introduction for choir and saxophone (it’s a wonderful moment when the organ finally kicks in) and a traditional carol, The Linden Tree.
Playlist available below
Pop music is full of surprises – and never more so than when artists thought to have passed their creative peak come back with a seminal release such as this. Imagine is the second solo album from an artist about whom questions were being asked at the time of its release on September 9, 1971. Of course, no excuses were ever needed for John Lennon’s Beatles material, but his debut solo release – 1970’s John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band – was widely regarded as sub-par. Yet he returned one year later, confounding his critics with what is arguably the best solo album by any of the former Fab Four.
Recorded during the first half of 1971 at Ascot Sound Studios in Berkshire, Abbey Road in London and New York City’s The Record Plant, Imagine featured Lennon himself on lead vocals and guitar, plus his friend George Harrison on guitar, Nicky Hopkins on keyboards, Klaus Voormann on bass and drummers Alan White and Jim Keltner. Co-produced by Lennon, Yoko Ono and Phil Spector, the result is a dreamy and sometimes ethereal sounding album, yet one that’s very much of its time, with an early multitrack, analogue feel reminiscent of The Beatles’ Let It Be.
Imagine begins with the title track, a song that many regard as Lennon’s finest ever. Delivered two years after leaving his former band, its release was a clear sign that he wasn’t going to live off past glories. The album contained a further three-world class songs – Jealous Guy, Gimme Some Truth and How Do You Sleep? – providing a defiant response to all those who suggested Lennon had lost his edge. The latter two tracks were excoriating attacks on the media and his former collaborator Paul McCartney, while the former two showed Lennon’s tender, sensitive side like never before.
Musically, there were strong overtones of the rock’n’roll that Lennon grew up playing, yet Jealous Guy is closer to something that Burt Bacharach might have wished he’d written. Nine years later, Bryan Ferry’s respectful cover took the song to the top of the charts, following Lennon’s tragic and untimely death on December 8, 1980. Unsurprisingly, EMI re-released Imagine as a single at this time too and it became a posthumous hit worldwide. The album was then reissued, along with seven others, in 1981.
Despite being the object of Lennon’s ire on one of its songs, Paul McCartney praised Imagine both for being a musically beautiful thing – and for being less political than Lennon’s debut solo release. Lennon allegedly later retorted that it was political, but that he had “sugar coated” it for commercial consumption. Either way, Imagine – both the song and the album – went on to become Lennon’s musical calling card and his most iconic creation.
Whatever your thoughts on politics in music, it’s hard to deny the stellar quality of the songwriting and playing from an album that captures the mood of the times it was made in. It’s like a softly faded, patinated Polaroid picture of the early 1970s. Various CD releases have preserved Imagine for posterity, but 2003’s Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab is the best [UDCD 759].
Tsfasman: Suite for Piano and Orchestra – from Verbier Festival 25 Years of Excellence, Mikhail Pletnev, Verbier Festival Orchestra/Nagano on DG, tracks 22-25
Without intending to, I’ve managed to pick three relatively slow-tempo albums for November’s Classical Choices, which makes this month’s playlist an especially good choice for evenings hunkering down in the warm as we get through another round of lockdown. This also means, however, that this month’s archive opener needs to be both seriously upbeat and indisputably merry. Alexander Tsfasman’s Suite for Piano and Orchestra of 1945 meets both of these requirements, while also offering the joy of discovering some decidedly niche repertoire.
Tsfasman (1906-1971) was a Soviet pianist, composer and big band leader, and the first Russian to perform Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. As for his rarely-performed Suite for Piano and Orchestra, it’s perhaps best described as, ‘Hollywood meets Looney Tunes by way of Russia’: a first movement with outer sections that meld the suave froth of a Fred Astaire musical with the madcap fun of a Tom and Jerry cartoon, separated by a lushly romantic central section which could have been plucked straight from a Rachmaninov piano concerto; a second movement Waltz with a similar haunting quality to those Shostakovich was writing in the same era; a tongue and cheek Polka, and a final Presto that’s actually titled “Career” – presumably because of the breakneck speed at which the pianist’s passagework needs to be dashed off. I’ve given you Mikhail Pletnev playing this with the Verbier Festival Orchestra under Kent Nagano, and the nonchalance and featherweight touch with which he dashes off the final movement in particular is utterly staggering.
From there, we move on to the new releases, which include British composer Alex Woolf conducting his powerful Requiem of 2018, an exquisite programme of night music from pianist Bertrand Chamayou, and a fascinating programme of culture crossings from Egyptian soprano Fatma Said.
Alex Woolf Requiem – Nicky Spence, Philip Higham, Iain Burnside, Vox Luna and Alex Woolf on Delphian
It’s hard to believe, listening to Alex Woolf’s Requiem of 2018, that this is a composer in his mid 20s. To write a requiem at all is a major statement, and this one packs a whopping emotional punch through writing that seems to sit simultaneously within the requiem, English church and concert hall music traditions, while also giving us something entirely new. In terms of shape, it’s scored for chorus, solo tenor, piano and organ, and alongside the traditional Latin texts, it incorporates three poems by Welsh writer Gillian Clarke, who served as National Poet of Wales from 2008 to 2016.
The first of these poems, The Fall, is placed where the Dies Irae would traditionally sit, and describes a very different day of wrath – September 11, 2001. A universe away from the usual doom-laden Dies Irae fortissimo tutti shout, this is an intense, silence-weighted, long-lined lament for solo tenor, cello and piano, and the performance here by tenor Nicky Spence, cellist Philip Higham and pianist Iain Burnside is one that will stop you in your tracks with its taut poise.
If all this sounds a little depressing, know that this work is in fact anything but. Its trajectory is one that takes us from despair to consolation, as In Paradisum (which provides a wonderful showcase for the clarity, warmth and emotional commitment of Woolf’s choir Vox Luna) later makes plain. For this playlist, I’ve given you the Introit, The Fall and In Paradisum.
Good Night! Bertrand Chamayou on Erato
Bertrand Chamayou has been doing some wonderful things in the recording studio of late. In 2019, he gave us Saint-Saëns Piano Concertos Nos. 4 and 5 plus solo works, which ended up scooping Gramophone’s Recording of the Year. He’s also set to release a collection of rarely recorded Saint-Saëns chamber works at the end of this month, for which he has partnered with violinist Renaud Capuçon and cellist Edgar Moreau. But before that, we have Good Night!, a solo recital honouring the lullaby (or the berceuse, to give it its French name).
This is a very different offering to the Saint-Saëns, but the berceuse is equally well-suited to Chamayou’s trademark delicacy and breadth of colour. Its overall mood is every bit as tranquilly nocturnal as you would expect, yet the collection of works is so stylistically diverse that the ear ends up being as stimulated as it is lulled. There’s a similar balancing act to the actual playing, with Chamayou slipping idiomatically into each fresh musical language, while maintaining a dreamlike atmosphere of his own creation, accentuated by the spacious chapel acoustic he’s in. For this month’s playlist, I’ve given you three pieces that sit next to each other on the programme: Liszt’s Wiegenlied or Cradle Song S198 (1881), “A Doll’s Lullaby” from Lyapunov’s 6 Easy Pieces (1914) and Chopin’s Berceuse Op 57 (1844).
El Nour – Fatma Said on Warner Classics
I had the good luck to hear Egyptian soprano Fatma Said last year at a small Berlioz-themed concert at London’s French Institute, and was struck not just by the luminous, clear warmth of her voice in classical repertoire, but also how her vocal delivery subtly and beautifully changed flavour for her encore of an Egyptian folk song, with its Arabic quartertones and embellishments.
El Nour is her debut disc, and it’s a similar story of culture crossings inspired by her homeland: Middle East-inspired art songs by French and Spanish composers, plus art songs by Egyptian composers, combined with Egyptian folk songs and popular songs from the Middle East. The three tracks I’ve chosen for this playlist highlight not just the span of repertoire on display, but the range of superb musicians she’s partnered with for El Nour: Asie from Ravel’s Shéhérazade, accompanied by Malcolm Martineau on piano; Falla’s Tus ojillos negros with guitarist Rafael Aguirre; and her programme-closer of Dawood Hosni’s Sahar Yamama Beida, with Vision String Quartet, pianist Tim Allhoff, percussionist Itamar Doari, double bassist Henning Siverts and kanun player Tamer Pinarbasi.
Playlist available below
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.