Best recordings of 2018


First published in The Herald on 26 December, 2018

Brahms: Symphonies (Linn). The culmination of their nine years together: Robin Ticciati conducting all four Brahms symphonies at the 2018 Edinburgh International Festival. They were performances of clarity, intensity, discovery – the same energy and devotion captured on this brilliant valedictory recording. I love the sound the Scottish Chamber Orchestra makes here, the nut-warm 19th century horns and the sweet, super-alert period-ish strings. I love the transparency and the resulting detail. I love the intimacy in music that can sound bloated. Most orchestras use bigger forces for Brahms. I never once missed the bulk.

Monteverdi: Vespers (PHI). Claudio Monteverdi knew passions were complicated. He knew the messy emotions involved in faith, lust, sorrow, divinity – and he felt music should bring all that to life. Any performance of his 1610 Vespers that sounds chaste and stately misses the point. Philippe Herreweghe first recorded the score in the 1980s and fell into that trap. Now, though, he’s moved with the times and rerecorded the Vespers with his tremendous Collegium Vocale Gent. The two accounts are worlds apart: this new one is lithe, alive, conversational, conspiratorial and intimate.

Cassandra Miller: Just So (Another Timbre). The Canadian music series on Another Timbre is a thing of multifarious wonders. Ten portrait CDs championing music by Linda Catlin Smith, Martin Arnold, Isaiah Ceccarelli, Christopher Mayo and several others. The scope, the focus – it’s all compelling. No blunt conclusions are drawn about what Canadianness might mean in music, but I’m intrigued by Martin Arnold’s suggestion that it might have something to do with “slack” – by which he means a loose relationship to tradition, an open space upon which to make things new. Many of the discs in the series deserve mention here but Cassandra Miller’s music has knocked me sideways. Bold, kind-hearted, wistful, brave, simple, sophisticated… her string quartet About Bach is miraculously beautiful, with a bright, lonely violin drifting resolutely above the most gorgeous shapeshifting chorales.

Luigi Nono: La Fabbrica Illuminata (All That Dust). Speaking of contemporary music labels, we got a new one this year: a small and highly specialist UK outfit called All That Dust, run by three artists and dedicated to releasing new works and classics of the repertoire. One of its first crop of CDs features music by Luigi Nono called La fabbrica illuminata – a prescient piece from 1964 intended as a new form of ‘virtual sonic theatre’ that would reveal ‘lives in danger of fetishisation by technology’. It’s for voice and four-channel surround sound; Nono weaves in factory noises and the voices of workers with pre-recorded and live soprano, performed here by the astonishingly agile and expressive Lore Lixenberg.

Messiaen: Catalogue d’oiseaux (Pentatone). Epic, kaleidoscopic, brutal, mysterious, this performance is a life’s work. Pierre-Laurent Aimard studied with Olivier Messiaen and with his pianist wife Yvonne Loriod, but he waited until he turned 60 to recorded Messiaen’s vast catalogue of birdsong-inspired music. And he brings to it unparalleled gravitas. The score is divided into 13 avian portraits which Aimard paints with absolute clarity, from the Alpine chough (fierce, canny, tough) to the tawny owl (dark, hefty) to the tiny, mighty reed warbler (insistent, nimble, plucky) and the curlew (lonely, noble).

Stravinsky: Persephone (Pentatone). Not opera, not ballet, not cantata – who really cares, except that Stravinsky’s bizarre neoclassical masque falls between the cracks and we miss out as a result. He called it a ‘melodrama’, with bits of declamatory narration spoken over chorus and orchestra. We hear the story of the Greek goddess Persephone, daughter of Zeus and Demeter; in this piece she becomes queen of the underworld out of choice (not abduction, as in other versions of the myth) because she feels compassion for the souls of the damned. The performance from Finnish National Opera is gripping, poised, statuesque, Esa-Pekka Salonen sculpting each chord progression like a frieze. Pauline Cheviller narrates with  wonderfully old-fashioned, breathy intensity.

Ellen Fullman and Okkyung Lee: The Air Around Her (Other Music). This one is just transfixing. It’s a collaboration between the cellist Okkyung Lee and Ellen Fullman – composer and instrument inventor, best known for what’s called her Long String Instrument which, true to name, is very long (21 meters) and which she plays with her fingers coated in rosin. The Air Around Her was recorded in a 17th century bakery (former bakery to the Swedish royals, no less) which now houses Stockholm’s Performing Arts Museum. The result is a slow beauty: dreamy, thoughtful, virtuosic in control and detail.

Handel: Ode for St Cecilia’s Day (Linn). The power of music to make harmony out of chaos: maybe what’s needed to shift the Brexit stalemate is a copy of the new Dunedin album (ha). For Easter, 2018, the Dunedin Consort decamped from Edinburgh to Krakow to take up residency at the Misteria Paschalia Festival and record Handel’s great ode to the patron saint of music. Bolstered by the Polish Radio Choir, tenor Ian Bostridge (pungent, punchy) and soprano Carolyn Sampson (dazzlingly good), everyone gets a moment to shine: Jonathan Manson’s breathtaking cello playing, John Butt at the organ summoning St Cecilia herself.

Lucy Railton: Paradise 94 (Modern Love). She takes all kinds of guises – producer, collaborator, improvisor, curator – but as a performer/composer this is Lucy Railton’s debut solo album. It’s called Paradise 94 and it’s music of extremes, from explosive elation to cavernous desperation. It’s a meld of techno and corrosion and industrial noise and epic glissandos but it’s also fleetingly whimsical and very tactile. My favourite is a track called For JR which melds “reversed cello” with field recordings of nocturnal walks and a Bach organ chorale played by Kit Downes in a church in Reykjavik. Dank, thick, intense, gleaming.

Danish String Quartet: Prism 1 (ECM). The Danish String Quartet have lineage on the mind. Spacious, stylish, their latest album launches a five-part series teasing out the influence of Bach on composers who came next. Each disc will include a Beethoven late quartet alongside music by Bach and a major 20th century piece. It’s the long view: it’s classy programming. Prism 1 starts with a Bach fugue (BWV876) played with warmth and grace before we get plummeted into the cold expanses of Shostakovich’s 15th string quartet (six Adagio movements, each one bleaker than the last). Beethoven’s Opus 127 then sounds raw and radical, glowingly new.