Best recordings of 2017

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First published in The Herald on 13 December, 2017

It’s that time. Here are twenty of my favourite classical releases of 2017. Expect a loose take on the term ‘classical’, and no rankings: how to score Bartok against Beethoven against Eliane Radigue against Roland Kayn? Oops, I’ve given away the shortlist.

Certain names seem to keep cropping up in these end of year lists. I always love the way pianist Steven Osborne plays French music – forget cliches of hazy impressionism, because his latest Debussy album (Hyperion) makes the boldest aspects stand out in ultra high definition. The goldfish in Poissons d’or move in jerks and sudden flashes. The water droplets in Reflets dans l’Eau are super crisp, like pointillism writ large. At the end of Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum, the tune rings out like a defiant shout. It’s not pretty, but it is exhilarating.

Another regular: the Chiaroscuro Quartet, who this year turned their collective hand to Haydn’s ‘Sun’ Quartets Nos. 4-6 (BIS), music of huge daring and rogue vision. The Chiaroscuros do big contrast with exquisite taste; Alina Ibragimova leads with grace and ferocity but this is real chamber music and the attack comes from all four corners.

“The experiment is always about whether something will hold,” says Toronto-based composer Linda Catlin Smith, who deals in subtler contrasts. She tests how sounds can be longer or shorter, thicker or thinner, higher or lower, more distant, more intimate. The results are mesmerising on her double album of chamber music, Drifter, with poised performances from Apartment House and the Bozzini Quartet (Another Timbre). Music of lilting, lonely beauty.

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CD review: Elias play Beethoven, vol 4

First published in the Guardian on 10 December, 2017

Beethoven: Quartets, vol 4
Elias String Quartet (Wigmore Hall Live)

The world doesn’t need yet another recording of Beethoven’s string quartets, you might well argue, but this terrific cycle from the Elias String Quartet demonstrates how fresh, probing and confrontational a new account can be. The complete set was recorded live at the Wigmore Hall four years ago and is now being released in tantalisingly slow instalments. Volume Four covers early, middle and late-period Beethoven and the Elias distils the special energy of each: Opus 18 No 2 is assertive and coltish, a dance of bright, volatile exchanges; Opus 59 No 1, first of the ‘Razumovsky’ quartets, is confident, glowing, exploratory, while the mighty opening chords of Opus 127, first of the late quartets, are a statement of intent for an interpretation of huge emotion, thoughtfulness and vulnerability. It’s exciting playing, and a reminder of how the Elias players put every bit of themselves into their performances.

CD review: Martinu’s Bouquet of Flowers

First published in the Guardian on 10 December, 2017

Martinu: Bouquet of Flowers
Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra/Prague Philharmonic Choir/Netopil (Supraphon)

Bohuslav Martinu lived in Paris through the 1920s and got swept up in the city’s jazz and avant-garde scenes. Then in the early 1930s he turned his attention back to his native Moravian folk culture and wrote earthy, angular music that fused the lot — including his 1937 cantata Bouquet of Flowers. It’s for children’s chorus, soloists and orchestra and there’s no danger of missing the smell of the soil in these pungent tunes, but between the carols and cowherds come moments of impressively stark modernism which this account really illuminates. The voices of Katerina Knezikova and Michaela Kapustova are particularly rich together and Tomas Netopil conducts with a grand sweep. At the end of the disc we get the bruisingly nostalgic Philharmonic Dances by Martinu’s student Jan Novak — music from 1956 that swaggers and rambles. Unfortunately Jan wasn’t a patch on his teacher.

CD review: Thomas Demenga plays Bach’s cello suites

First published in the Guardian on 10 December, 2017

Bach: Cello Suites
Thomas Demenga (ECM)

“If I don’t feel too good,” divulges Swiss cellist Thomas Demenga, “I go to my studio and play one or two suites — it’s a mental cleansing process.” Plenty of musicians turn to Bach for solace or recalibration; the question is who can translate that personal connection into something usefully meaningful to other people. Demenga’s second recording of the cello suites (his launched his first more than 30 years ago) is extrovert, assured and very much about him. He’s not shy of decorating Bach’s lines and tugging them about; he pushes and circles and skits so that even the profound Sarabandes trot along at a wilful clip. The cello sound is beautiful for its grit, grain and sinew, and the fact this recording was done live in concert means we get exciting squalls, adrenalin and spontaneity. It’s an impressive performance, no doubt, but I had a creeping feeling it was more about the singer than the song.

“All that genius crap.” On porn soundtracks, and why contemporary music could be the new feminism

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First published in the Guardian on 6 December, 2017

In the early 1990s, the visionary accordionist/improvisor Pauline Oliveros wrote the soundtrack for an instructional feminist porn film called The Sluts and Goddesses Video Workshop. The film is presented and co-directed by Annie Sprinkle, a prostitute-turned-academic whose kooky lecture covers everything from deep breathing and vaginal bling to STD prevention and multi-minute ‘mega orgasms’. Meanwhile we get a spectacular sonic counterpart of drones, glitches, bleeps, twangs and pulsations. Conventional porn music this is not: no sultry saxophones, no oily bass guitars. Instead Oliveros made sounds that are fun, tactile and inquisitive in themselves. If Sprinkle’s mission was to confront industry standards of what erotic looks and acts like, thus empowering viewers to define their own tastes and experiences, Oliveros likewise reminded us that the agency to decide what music means should ultimately belong to the listener.

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Revisiting: Montreal Symphony Orchestra & the Dutoit years

First published in The Herald in July, 2011

I arrived in Montreal in early May, the morning after a general election. Talk in the cafes was gloomy: Canada had shuffled to the right, boosting Stephen Harper’s Conservative government from minority to forcible majority and leaving the French-speaking, left-leaning province of Quebec yet again at political odds with its neighbours. Francophone voters habitually ignore their Tory candidates. This time they’d also abandoned en masse their long-standing separatist Bloc Quebecois in favour of the young National Democrats — Canada’s new opposition party.

A couple of days later, Madeleine Careau simply shrugged at the strange results. ‘C’est bien normal,’ she explained; ‘le balancier quebecois’ — the Quebecois swing. Careau would know. As general manager of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, her job is dependant on Quebec’s political climate, and for much of the past two decades has had plenty volatility of its own. Dictatorial conductors, several rounds of industrial action, quick-changing popular support… Shrugging at melodrama must become a default reaction.

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James Dillon (etc) in Huddersfield

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First published in The Herald on 29 November, 2017

News in from the heartland of British contemporary music: James Dillon has declared himself an instinctive musician. “I count on something happening that is not deliberate,” the Scottish composer told an audience in Yorkshire the day after his latest major work, Tanz/haus, opened the 40th edition of Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival.

If Dillon had spoken these words just 24 hours earlier, the statement would have come as a much wider curveball. The 67-year-old Glaswegian is known as a fantastically cerebral composer, a maker of arcane musical universes that layer up lost centuries of visual, philosophical and linguistic references. His works are impressive, unapologetic, full of complicated intrigue, but they are hardly easy access. Now here he was, revealing with quiet geniality and a new bushy beard that there is gut – gut! – behind all that erudition and obscurity. “The dialectic between the ear and the imagination is a very mixed up business,” he admitted.

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CD review: Kim Myhr’s You | Me

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First published in the Guardian on 23 November, 2017

Kim Myhr: You | Me
Myhr (Hubro)

Here’s an album that feels beautifully out of season. Norwegian composer/experimental guitarist Kim Myhr is a master of slow-morphing rhythms and sun-dappled textures that seem to glow from the inside. His electronics are mellow and inviting; his 12-string acoustic guitar has a loose, blissed-out twang. With just two long tracks (A and B on the vinyl release) that loop and shimmy around a single simple hook, You|Me has a 1960s psych-folk vibe and something of the roving thrum of early Steve Reich or Terry Riley’s In C, or indeed Julius Eastman’s joyous Femenine. Three drummers — Ingar Zach, Hans Hulbækmo and The Necks’s Tony Buck — add spangling commentary and tranquil momentum and occasionally drift into sombre eddies. It’s music to bolster the spirits and ground the nerves; it’s travelling music for big-sky vistas.

CD review: Luigi Nono’s Risonanze erranti

First published in the Guardian on 23 November, 2017

Nono: Risonanze erranti
Ensemble Prometeo / SWR Experimental Studio (shiiin)

There is nowhere to hide in Risonanze erranti, a stunningly tough and confrontational vocal work from 1986 by the late Italian composer and political agitator Luigi Nono. This is music of silence and surprise, of cloak and dagger. Scored for the low-lit combination of contralto, bass flute, tuba, percussionists and live electronics, the texts (Herman Melville, Ingeborg Bachmann, snippets of renaissance polyphony) are drenched with implication but it’s the spaces that feel most ominous: violent outbursts made all the more alarming because of the emptiness around them. The voice shrieks and whispers and sometimes sneaks between the instrument as though seeking camaraderie. This performance from 2014 by the Nono specialists Prometeo Ensemble is ultra focused and pristine, and sung with immense gravitas by contralto Katarzyna Otczyk. The disc also includes the original recording from 1987 and it’s fascinating to compare — the electronics sound dated, but Susanne Otto’s vocal gestures are as gripping as ever.

CD review: Monteverdi’s Selva morale e spirituale

First published in the Guardian on 23 November, 2017

Monteverdi: Selva morale e spirituale
Balthasar Neumann Choir & Ensemble / Heras-Casado (Harmonia Mundi)

The name of this 1640 collection means ‘moral and spiritual forest’ and it is Monteverdi in the most exploratory mood — the culmination of his three decades as maestro di cappella at St Mark’s Basilica in Venice, with its sumptuous acoustic and crack instrumental band and 40-piece choir to match. You’ll find everything from grand ensembles to intimate solo confessionals, and this recording is best suited to the latter. That’s because conductor Pablo Heras-Casado has a tendency to over-shape the bigger stuff, to traffic-control the corners and smooth out the ride. With Monteverdi we need the rough and the spontaneous. But individual musicians and singers of the Balthasar Neumann are wonderful and they shine in their nimble duos and trios — try the piercingly delivered Salve Regina from sopranos Magdalene Harer and Julia Kirchner.