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.
The Elias String Quartet have been drip-feeding us their Beethoven quartet cycle (Wigmore Hall Live) and the latest volume is a tonic. Opus 18 No 2 sounds assertive, coltish, a dance of bright, volatile exchanges; Opus 59 No 1, first of the ‘Razumovsky’ quartets, is confident and exploratory, while the mighty opening chords of Opus 127 are a confrontational statement of intent.
Cédric Tiberghien wrapped up his Bartok series (Hyperion) with sharp-witted performances of the blithe Sonatina, the Three Hungarian Folksongs and more. There’s thornier stuff, too — the motoring Sonata, the Sonata for two pianos and percussion from 1926 – and in all of it, the angular as well as the earthy, Tiberghien has a way of making Bartok’s writing feel precise and personal.
Ockeghem Octets comes from a series of soft-grained ensemble pieces by Dutch composer Antoine Beuger. The reedy warble of a concertina mixes with accordion and harmonium plus cello, melodica, e-bowed zither and a pair of low flutes — a warmer ensemble sound I can’t imagine, and the playing on Another Timbre is heroically controlled. The art of approximation.
On which note, Eliane Radigue is queen of the in-between. She spent most of her career taming synthesiser feedback into exquisite astral sounds; now she’s into her 80s and working on a roaming series of solo and ensemble pieces called Occam. She’s fussy about which musicians she’ll trust to take her ethos seriously, but an album on the shiiin label — occam ocean 1 — features the very best: harpist Rhodri Davies, violist Julia Eckhardt and clarinettist Carol Robinson.
A taste of the gold dust Simon Rattle brings to the London Symphony Orchestra with Debussy’s febrile, shape-shifting opera Pelleas and Melisande, released on the LSO’s own label. The orchestral playing is intense and full of finesse, plus there’s luxury casting with Christian Gerhaher as Pelleas, Magdalena Kozena as Mélisande and Gerald Finley as a disturbingly cool Golaud.
More mysterious opera. Piazzolla’s Maria de Buenos Aires has a trippy text and a deft musical mashup of tango, fugue, milonga, cabaret, even 1960s psychedelia. Edinburgh ensemble Mr McFall’s Chamber have been championing tango for decades the sultry exchanges between violin and bandoneon on their Delphian recording are irresistible, not to mention huge-hearted chansons from tenor Nicholas Mulroy.
The most epic arrival of the year was a mammoth set from Finnish label Frozen Reeds: 16 CDs of ‘self-sufficient cybernetic music’ by Roland Kayn, who worked in the electronic studios of Germany and the Netherlands through the mid-20th century and set machines to generate their own music. Sounds like some dark post-human dystopia but dip into his monumental work, A Little Electronic Milky Way of Sound, and you’ll find a vast catalogue of very human wonder.
Much was made of Monteverdi’s anniversary (450 years since his birth, a bit arbitrarily) but who’s complaining? We got all three sublime operas at the Edinburgh International Festival, and we got the glorious 1610 Vespers as given the Dunedin Consort treatment for Linn: stripped-back performances under John Butt that are fresh and luminous, lithe and alive.
From Norway came a terrific recording of orchestral works by Ligeti. Baldur Brönnimann conducts the Norwegian group BIT20 (BIS) in the concertos for cello and piano, the Chamber Concerto and the beautiful throng that is Melodien. The performances show this music for what it is: elegant, melancholy, ravishing.
Also from Norway, a couple of long, low-key tracks that loop and shimmy around a single simple hook. You|Me by composer/guitarist Kim Myhr (Hubro) has something of the roving, blissed-out thrum of early Steve Reich or Terry Riley’s In C or Julius Eastman’s joyous Femenine. Three drummers add spangling commentary and sombre eddies. Music to bolster the spirits and ground the nerves; travelling music for big-sky vistas.
A reminder of how much we owe to Europe and the free movement of musicians via Giovanni Stefano Carbonelli, one of umpteen violinists imported by Italophile rich Brits in the 18th century. His music is taut and stately in the hands of UK-based Croatian violinist Bojan Čičić and his excellent Illyria Consort on Delphian.
Scotland wasn’t exempt from all that musical exchange. Keen amateurs of the Edinburgh Musical Society brought string players from Italy to up their own game. One was composer Francesco Barsanti, and the superstar castrato Tenducci also wound up singing Society gigs while hiding from scandal abroad. With great style and charisma, Peter Whelan and his excellent Ensemble Marsyas reconstructed a typical Society concert in Edinburgh 1742 (Linn).
“I’d much rather be dealing with crotchets and quavers than people,” composer Imogen Holst once told Benjamin Britten, and although her music can be introverted, the superb performances of her String chamber music by Court Lane Music (NMC) make the warmth and courage win out.
The Heath Quartet released an astute, almost forensic reading of Bartok’s phenomenal string quartets (Harmonia Mundi); meanwhile a definitive account from the mighty Vegh Quartet — founded in Hungary in 1940, disbanded in 1980, famed for their intensity and intelligence — was rereleased on Praga Digitals, and the passion and richness of it will floor you.
Morton Feldman’s final work for solo voice is called Three Voices but it’s actually a single soprano soloist accompanying two pre-recorded versions of herself. The lines are permeated with a sense of loss and remembrance but the impact is lush and beautiful, especially as sung by Juliet Fraser on Hat Art Records.
The elusive Krystian Zimerman — who hardly ever records anything — waited to turn 60 before going into the studio with Schubert’s late piano sonatas D959 and D960 for Deutsche Grammophon. His attention to detail is overwhelming, but it’s the tenderness that got me.
And finally. There’s a fun tradition of venerable composers playing the speaking roles in Stravinsky’s Faustian fable The Soldier’s Tale. The custom was honoured this year with Oliver Knussen conducting Harrison Birtwistle as a superbly laconic Soldier and George Benjamin as a deliciously supercilious Devil (Linn). Bizarre and brilliant.