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.
Julius Eastman (1940-1990) was a composer/pianist/baritone, a transgressive, a provocateur. He was a gay black man; he sang the protagonist in the original recording of Peter Maxwell Davies’s Eight Songs for a Mad King; he wrote pieces with names like Gay Guerrilla and Crazy Nigger; he worked with Boulez and Meredith Monk; he struggled with alcohol and drugs, went off the map and died alone aged 49. When he was made homeless in New York in the 1980s, his belongings — including his music — were simply dumped out on the street, so this year’s Eastman release on the Finnish label Frozen Reeds unearthed a rare and tantalising artefact. It’s an old recording of Femenine, Eastman’s loose, thrumming, 72-minute jamboree of convivial post-minimalism played by the SEM Ensemble in Albany, New York, in 1974. (That same year, Eastman performed at Aberdeen’s Mitchell Hall during a tour of Britain.) Femenine is a buoyant marvel. There are mechanised sleigh bells and vibraphone, strings and synthesiser. Eastman plays piano and apparently also served up soup during the concert. He said he wanted the ending to “sound like the angels opening up heaven”.
The ecstatically crystalline, agile, airborne vocals of Barbara Hannigan provided two highlights of the year via the Winter & Winter label. She has a voice I can’t resist and good taste in repertoire, too. A collection of songs by Erik Satie features the Canadian soprano whispering and cooing with delectable soft edges and enigmatic understatement while Reinbert de Leeuw adds breathy, sweet-melancholy piano commentary. The recital includes Satie’s early songs and his weird Dadaist cantata Socrate. And back in January we got the first recording of Hans Abrahamsen’s Let Me Tell You featuring Hannigan with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Andris Nelsons. It’s a gallingly wintry and revealing setting of Paul Griffiths’s novella that uses only words spoken by Shakespeare’s Ophelia, and it’s a stunning vehicle for Hannigan’s floating high notes and unblinkingly pure, intense expressiveness. Her Ophelia is fragile, sensuous, febrile.
Abrahamsen’s spare music also features on the ECM debut from the Danish String Quartet, who shifted tack from 2014’s winsome collection of Nordic folk tunes to make a classy recital of early works by Thomas Ades (Arcadiana), Per Norgard (Quartetto Breve) and Abrahamsen (10 Preludes). The playing is terrific: lithe and glassy in the Abrahamsen, richer in the Norgard, all watery shimmer in the Ades with a hint of murk below the surface. Keep an ear out for this Nordic foursome; they are doing good things.
As a young chap Michael Tippett quite fancied the notion of following in TS Eliot’s footsteps and writing four quartets, but he ended up overshooting and writing five. The yearning first dates from 1935, the sorrowful last from 1992. All are tangled up with rigorous, muscly, striving lines and tended to be declared unplayable in their day. Not now, though, at least not by the Heath Quartet, who played the full set at London’s Wigmore Hall in 2013 and whose live recording captures the guts and commitment, the self-questioning struggle, the valiance.
Two releases on Linn from John Butt’s Dunedin Consort, both evidence of the Scottish period-instrument ensemble in stellar form. One is a sinewy, animated rendition of Bach’s sprawling Christmas Cantata; the other features the ensemble’s brilliantly charismatic Dutch-Italian leader Cecilia Bernardini in Bach’s violin concertos. There are so many reasons to keep coming back to the latter: Bernardini’s husky-warm tone, her earthy way with rhythms, how she tugs the top of phrase and darts in and around ensemble textures. It sounds like a disc of chamber music, and Bernardini is joined by her father, renowned baroque oboist Alfredo Bernardini, in the Concerto for Violin and Oboe. You can hear where she gets her musicality but both are their own players and it’s a joy to eavesdrop.
Two discs this year, too, from Scottish pianist Steven Osborne. Music by Morton Feldman and George Crumb: robust lines, kaleidoscopic gradations. And, for his 25th recording on the Hyperion label, Osborne gave us tender, dauntless performances of late-period Beethoven sonatas including a searing account of the Hammerklavier. High-definition élan makes this wildest of Beethoven sonatas sound even wilder. Osborne’s playing is steely and emotional, unguardedly personal but never about him.
“I’m involved with all the 88 notes,” Morton Feldman once said of his approach to writing piano music; “I have a big, big world there.” Something of that wondrous sense of microfocused detail and wide possibility permeates the technicolour shocks of Carlo Gesualdo. The latest recording from Philippe Herreweghe, an elder statesmen of the early music world, turns an elegant hand to the hairpin harmonic bends of Gesualdo’s sixth book of madrigals. The pristine voices of Collegium Vocale Gent treat the music calmly, unhistrionically. They tell the madness straight and the sound is sublime.
Pauline Oliveros was one of the great losses of 2016. Accordionist and improviser, in the 80s she invented a “deep listening” practice that taught us to “listen in every possible way to everything possible to hear no matter what one is doing”. She herself kept listening right up to the end, and her final release, Botanikk, was a collaboration with youngish-generation improvisers on a small Norwegian label called Atterklang. The album is all about plants, with seven tracks named after seven northerly flowers. There’s a delicate Saxifraga Cotyledon (filmy, tentative), a creepy devil’s-bit scabious (barbed, nasal), a stoic little arctic starflower primrose. Keep listening.
Here are five more I loved.
Mahan Esfahani playing Bach’s Goldberg Variations (Deutsche Grammophon). Esfahani provokes and prods, crafts an image of being extravagantly clever and a bit of a badass harpsichordist — all the while delivering ferociously intelligent, accomplished and sensitive performances like this one.
Daniil Trifonov playing Liszt’s Transcendental Studies and Paganini Studies (Deutsche Grammophon). Now an ancient 25, Trifonov seems to be increasingly channelling his outrageous technical prowess into making softer rather than louder sounds, more subtle rather than more showy gestures. And so he has recorded Franz Liszt’s most fiendish scores, and he makes them silky, oleaginous, sophisticated.
Christian Tetzlaff and Lars Vogt playing Brahms’s Violin Sonatas (Ondine). Two of Germany’s top soloists, both capable of unflinching brawn but more interested in nuance and clear-eyed communication, make intimate, lucid work of these most generous pieces. There is a lot of very intense quiet playing and introspective atmosphere; there is risk, there is astounding command.
John Wilson conducting lesser-known Copland with the BBC Philharmonic (Chandos). When most people think of Copland (if they think of Copland at all) they imagine wholesome American pastoralism — those wide-open-spaces of Appalachian Spring and Rodeo. And while John Wilson, associate guest conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, is best associated with MGM musicals, here he strides headlong at the jagged edges and sharp punches of Copland’s Second Symphony, Organ Symphony and Symphonic Ode. The players of the BBC Philharmonic embrace the tussle and make a no-prisoners, exuberant orchestral sound.
Hen Ogledd (Alt. Vinyl). Experimental folk balladeer Richard Dawson and harp deconstructionalist Rhodri Davies are joined by singer/electronics operator Dawn Bothwell and other guests. This is music that roams and croaks, glows, glowers, scrapes, soothes.
And five non-classical marvels:
Modern Studies: Swell to Great (Song By Toad)
Skadedyr: Culturen (Hubro)
Jenny Hval: Blood Bitch (Sacred Bones Records)
Shirley Collins: Lodestar (Domino)
Leveret: In the Round (Rootbeat Records)