Monthly Archives: December 2016

Favourite classical recordings of 2016

First published in The Herald on 21 December, 2016

Here are ten of my favourite classical releases of 2016. I’ve taken a pretty relaxed approach to the term ‘classical’. It’s a subjective list. I’ve cheated by adding an extra five at the end. And no rankings: how to score late Beethoven sonatas against the final recording by Pauline Oliveros? Basically these are the recordings of the year that most opened my ears and that kept me coming back.

In mid-November, those confounding days after the American election, I kept coming back to Laurence Crane’s Sound of Horse (Hubro). Crane is an English composer who builds graceful, discreet music out of ordinary things. He sets musical objects spinning like points on a Calder mobile with plenty of space and time and elasticity between them. It’s about the beauty of small and immediate sounds, precise and properly done sounds. Experimental Norwegian ensemble Asamisimasa treats his ensemble pieces with exactly the right tenderness and deadpan anarchic humour. Everything appears new and not new, and in November that seemed to fit. The album has been released on vinyl as well as CD just in time for Christmas with a gloriously blissed-out bonus track called Sparling on the vinyl edition.

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CD review: Mendelssohn’s Elijah

First published in the Guardian on 16 December, 2016

Mendelssohn: Elijah
Balthasar-Neumann Choir & Ensemble/Hengelbrock (Deutsche Harmonia Mundi)

Premiered in Birmingham Town Hall in 1846, fixture of amassed British choral societies ever since, Elijah is a prime culprit of George Bernard Shaw’s quip accusing Mendelssohn of “despicable oratorio-mongering”. But get a performance as fleet-footed and intelligent as this one — conductor Thomas Hengelbrock with his excellent period instrument ensemble and choir — and all stodge and sanctimony are swept away. There is still heft when it matters, in Yet Doth the Lord and drama-charged recitatives from fulsome voiced soloists (soprano Genia Kuhmeier, alto Ann Hallenberg, tenor Lothar Odinius, bass Michael Nagy). But what’s more compelling is the nimbleness, the swift-moving parts. There are quick corners and shapely inner voices, subtle weft even in classic fat chorus numbers like Blessed are the Men who Fear Him. Raspy period strings add God-fearing menace, the choir sound rich but luminous in detail.

CD review: Martinu Cantatas

First published in the Guardian on 16 December, 2016

Martinu: Cantatas
Prague Philharmonic Choir/Vasilek (Supraphon)

In the late 1950s, Bohuslav Martinu (1890-1959) turned his mind to Moravian folk poetry — images of the Czech highlands where he grew up — and wrote four little cantatas with wistful names like ‘Romance of the Dandelions’ and ‘Legend of Smoke from Potato Tops’. The last one, ‘Mikes of the Mountains’, tells of a shepherd who saves his goats from a snowstorm. It all tastes of soil and nostalgia but these are more than simple rustic tone paintings. Martinu instructed that they shouldn’t sound sentimental and he spliced the folksy choral passages with stark harmonies and off-kilter percussive stuff. Instrumentation includes accordion and ‘drumming on a chair’ — the sounds creak, jolt, motor and soothe. The Prague choir gets the balance right: vivid character and resonant voices but never saccharine and rhythmically taught. This is the ensemble that premiered three of the cantatas (in a previous guise) and it’s hard to imagine singing of more authority in Martinu’s music.

CD review: The Tree of Life

First published in the Guardian on 16 December, 2016

The Tree of Life
The Trinity Choir/ Taylor (Sony)

“At the heart of this sequence of pieces,” writes countertenor / choir director Daniel Taylor in the notes to his second seasonal album with The Trinity Choir, “lies a stillness which makes room for the heart’s awakening.” I’m not sure I experienced the requisite awakening but Taylor’s “spiritual journey” plots an innocuous route through Britten’s Hymn to the Virgin, Jean Mouton’s 16th century Nesciens Mater, a couple of plainchants, eight short hymns by Arvo Part, two by John Tavener. As Christmas albums go it’s a classy selection and his Trinity voices sound creamy and plush recorded in the ultra-resonant St Augustine’s Church in Kilburn — a bit mushy on inner voices, and probably more concerned with making phrases glow and float than keeping things moving, but with this album there’s no risk of jagged edges or abrupt tempos to disturb your fireside hygge.

Knussen in Stockholm

First published in The Herald on 7 December, 2016

On Saturday, Bob Dylan will be not travelling to Stockholm to attend the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony. (He has acknowledged his award for Literature by jotting down a speech to be read out at the banquet — an “unusual” move, says the Nobel academy.) The venue for Dylan’s Nobel no-show is the Konserthuset, a neoclassical beauty built in 1926 as home for the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra as well as for the annual Peace Prize. Inside it is full of soft-lit orphic statues and chandeliers exhibited at the Paris 1925 exposition. Outside its facade is a smoky sky blue.

Every year since 1986 the Konserthuset has hosted a November festival dedicated to the music of a composer of our time. Past portraits have featured Lutoslawski, Schnittke, Penderecki, Part, Duttileux, Reich, Adams. In 2000 Sofia Gubaidulina became the first woman to be given a solo edition; last year’s festival was all about the music of the Boulanger sisters, Nadia and Lili. And until this year there had been just two British composers in the festival’s history — Tippett and Thomas Ades — then last month came a third. A sizeable banner was hung between the Greek pillars of the Konserthuset adorned with a single name: KNUSSEN.

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CD review: Monteverdi’s Mirror

First published in the Guardian on 2 December, 2016

The Mirror of Monteverdi
Huelgas Ensemble/Van Nevel (Deutsche Harmonia Mundi)

What’s the term for when parody surpasses the material it parodies? Musicologists have described Monteverdi’s Missa in illo tempero as a ‘parody mass’ because it’s built around archaic material and techniques, but when he wrote it at the dawn of the 1600s Monteverdi was already looking back from some distance at the previous century — already inventing a kind of neo-Renaissance gloss that simultaneous confirmed him as a master of the old polyphony and blazed into new baroque sounds and styles. This robust, bold-sculpted recording from Paul van Nevel and his Belgian early music group Huelgas splits up the mass movements with four earlier madrigal, so the Kyrie segues into the  chromatic thicket of Nicola Vicentino’s Laura che’l verde lauro, then the stately, pliant Credo sinks into Giaches de Wert’s Mia benigna fortuna, and so on. As if Monteverdi’s meta-mass wasn’t enough for anachronisms, the extra chronological disjunct here is enjoyably disorientating. And the performance is excellent — vibrant, shapely, sensitive singing.

CD review: Elias’s Beethoven vol 3

First published in the Guardian on 1 December, 2016

Beethoven: Quartets, volume 3
Elias Quartet (Wigmore Hall Live)

In 2015 the Elias Quartet (sisters Sara and Marie Bitlloch plus violinist Donald Grant and violist Martin Saving) ended several years of intense Beethoven immersion by recording the complete quartet cycle live at the Wigmore Hall; this third instalment groups Opus 18 no 3, Opus 95 and Opus 130. Qualities that always strike me about the Elias are their diligence and candour, their unguarded, searching commitment, but this performance adds new daring and flair, too. Opus 130’s first movement is spiced with suggestive slides; the second movement skits and scurries; the fourth is playfully elastic. Even the sacred Cavatina is milked for slow melodrama and big swoops, possibly too much in music of such profoundly simple beauty but in general I enjoyed the personality and élan tremendously. Given the technical composure and focus of the playing it’s doubly impressive this is recorded live. Applause is left in, and it surprised me on every listen.

CD review: Gavin Bryars – The Fifth Century

First published in the Guardian on 1 December, 2016

Gavin Bryars: The Fifth Century
PRISM Quartet / The Crossing (ECM)

“In an ideal world,” says Gavin Bryars, “I would choose to write vocal music.” And although the Yorkshire minimalist only came to voices relatively late, his house style is an easy fit: those spacious progressions unfolding at what he describes as “a human rate”; that formula for evoking meaningful timelessness out of scrunchy new harmonies and tropes of old spirituality. The Fifth Century (2014) is a big piece for saxophone quartet and choir with words taken from the 17th century English mystic Thomas Traherne. It’s sullen, cloying and rather aimless; the saxes weave around like extra voices — think Garbarek and the Hilliards but more of everything — and the blended sound of The Crossing and PRISM is creamy and pliable. This all-Bryars release also includes his Two Love Songs (2010), airy settings of Petrarch sonnets for a cappella female choir, sung with chilly grace.

Thoughts on a new concert hall for the Scottish Chamber Orchestra: what kind of venue does Edinburgh really need?

First published in The Herald on 30 November, 2016

A fortnight ago the Scottish Chamber Orchestra announced a plan that’s been hatching backstage for years. It will get its new concert hall in Edinburgh. The statement comes now, the orchestra’s Chief Executive Gavin Reid told me, because next step is to launch an architecture competition and he’d be hard put to do that in secret.

Major details are yet to be finalised but here’s what we do know. The venue will be located behind the Royal Bank of Scotland at 36 St Andrew Square. (A 1960s RBS office block will be flattened to make way) The land will be leased long-term from the RBS to a charitable trust set up by the new hall’s major donor Carol Grigor and by Ewan Brown, former deputy chairman of the Edinburgh International Festival. This trust is called IMPACT Scotland and it will own and run the hall; the SCO will effectively be a tenant.

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