This section focuses on great music, providing:
A selection of ESSENTIAL TRACKS chosen to give your system a workout, some of which are seminal recorded performances.
DOWNLOADS of superlative quality recordings in a range of high resolution formats.
Our ALBUM OF THE MONTH and some words on why we chose it.
Invited COMMENT from dCS and leading members of the hi-fi world – although in most cases we offer these anonymously!
New Order was one of the select few bands that made the musical weather in the nineteen eighties. It – like The Smiths, The Cure and Simple Minds – laid down a powerful template for others to copy or rework. As Joy Division, guitarist Bernard Sumner, bass player Peter Hook and drummer Stephen Morris dominated Britain’s independent music scene of the late seventies, but their success was tragically curtailed when lead singer Ian Curtis committed suicide in May 1980.
They swiftly reinvented themselves as New Order, and went on to shape the pop music scene of the new decade. Whereas Joy Division had given the world intense, angst-ridden, guitar-dominated indie rock, the new band embraced the fast emerging world of electronics. New Order was clearly influenced by German avant-garde electro pioneers Kraftwerk, yet still fashioned a distinctly British – Northern English, if truth be told – sound, with Sumner’s dour vocals and Hook’s throbbing bass guitar playing. These were set against the pristine synthesiser work of Gillian Gilbert, stripped bare by producer Martin Hannett and then gilded by Peter Saville’s striking cover art.
By the time that Technique was released on the 30th January, 1989, the band had been on a roller-coaster ride. It had experienced huge chart success with Blue Monday five and a half years earlier, setting a template for electro dance music that still sounds fresh today. Limited album success followed, with each one getting more polished to the point that singles like 1987’s True Faith were perfect mainstream pop songs. The big question was where would the band go next? The answer was back to dance music, to a sound that had changed dramatically in just a few years. Recorded at Mediterranean Studios, Ibiza – and also Peter Gabriel’s Real World Studios in Wiltshire – Technique was an interesting fusion of Balearic house music and New Order’s traditional sound.
The band’s fifth studio album feels upbeat, propulsive and catchy – but is still dominated by Hook’s rock-style basslines, together with Sumner’s thoughtful lyrics delivered in his trademark deadpan way. Technique lacks the glib cheeriness of many chart-topping dance acts of that time, instead having a brooding intensity that gives the album great poignancy. Hook later joked that that the recording session became, ”an epic power struggle between the sequencers and me. I was resisting it valiantly, because I still wanted us to be a rock band.” Three singles were released, Fine Time, Round & Round and Run, although arguably these aren’t the strongest tracks – Vanishing Point and Dream Attack are better still.
Technique turned out to be the end of an era, the band’s final release on the legendary Factory Records label. New Order had effectively bankrolled Tony Wilson’s company for much of the eighties, but the commercial failure of a new Happy Mondays album cleaned him out, and the band was forced to leave. Fortunately, this was New Order’s most successful long player, and the band’s first to reach number one in the British charts. This great piece of electronic dance music – fused with an indie rock sensibility – is well worth seeking out. The first Japanese CD release [Factory – 25CY-3083] is arguably the best pressing to have, but all versions sound punchy and fun.
To listen to the album on TIDAL click https://tidal.com/browse/album/51462429
For all of our 2019 AOTM choices please visit https://tidal.com/browse/playlist/05aa8463-bc28-4a26-a1d1-c8fad7c3c32b
Every so often with this column I kick myself over “the ones that got away”, i.e. the new releases I didn’t manage to cover when they were newly out, but which I’ve since discovered and fallen for. The latest one of these is French countertenor Philippe Jaroussky’s March 2019 release, Ombra mai fù, but happily it’s also one whose title track is just begging to be juxtaposed with an old recording, meaning that I can still feature it at the top of this month’s playlist without breaking the “old recording first” template (or at least that’s the line I’m sticking to). The reason for this is that Jaroussky’s album title is a cheekily misleading one, because whilst Ombra mai fù will instantly have opera and Baroque music fans dreamily humming Handel’s much-loved aria of that name, here it’s referring instead to a setting of the text by an Italian composer and pupil of Monteverdi who had died before Handel was even born: Francesco Cavalli. This Cavalli aria has been a new discovery for me, and it couldn’t have finer champions than Jaroussky and his band Artaserse. So that’s what I’ve given you here, preceded by a heavenly-sounding 1999 recording of the Handel version from Andreas Scholl with the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin. Do then look up the remainder of Jaroussky’s and Antaserse’s Cavalli programme, because it’s all wonderful.
On to this month’s new releases, and these begin with a brand new period instrument recording of the first version of Mahler’s Symphony No 1 from Francois Xavier-Roth and Les Siecles. Next it’s early music vocal ensemble Vox luminis, with cantatas written by members of the Bach family. We then close with the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin once again, this time with their latest Handel release, of six of the Opus 6 Concerti grossi.
Mahler Symphony No 1 “Titan”, Les Siècles/François-Xavier Roth
Mahler’s Symphony No 1 had a rather painful and protracted birth, because whilst the final 1894 version we play today has the standard symphonic four movements, there were two previous versions. The first, premiered in Budapest in 1889, was a five-movement work split into two parts, the extra movement being its second, “Blumine”, which is now played as a stand-alone work. “Blumine” is still there in the second version Mahler came up with between 1893 and 1894 in Hamburg, where he’d moved to be Kapellmeister. However he now also gave the symphony a loosely programmatic element by nicknaming it “Titan” (after a book by a favourite author of his, John Paul), to convey the idea of a hero struggling through the battles of life; and it’s this second “Hamburg” version of the symphony which period performance specialist François-Xavier Roth with his orchestra Les Siècles has recorded for the very first time (live), after working with the original manuscripts and with Mahler scholars. Les Siècles are also on the types of instruments it would originally have been played on, which makes for a particularly noticeable difference in the brass and woodwind sections, with a wonderfully more tactile, less polished edge to their sound. I’ve given you the first movement, whose opening thoroughly places the spotlight on those two sections as they utter a mix of distant fanfares, and sounds of the countryside.
Bach Kantaten: Vox luminis, Lionel Meunier on Ricercar
Johann Michael Bach: Ach bleib bei uns, Herr Jesu Christ (track 1)
If you hear the name Bach, then it’s Johann Sebastian who instantly pops every head. Perhaps followed, if you’re relatively knowledgable, by his sons, most notably CPE Bach. However the Bach musical lineage didn’t by any means begin with the Great JS. Au contraire, he came from a long line of musical talents, and one with multiple branches. Vox Luminis and Lionel Meunier have already recorded the complete motets composed by Johann Sebastian’s ancestors, and now this gorgeously rendered album sees them turn their attentions to his ancestors’ complete spiritual concerts and sacred cantatas: works in which you’ll hear that instruments, and particularly strings, play an important role. I’ve chosen “Ach bleib bei uns, Herr Jesu Christ” (“Oh abide with us, our Lord Jesus Christ”) for you here, which is by Bach’s second cousin Johann Michael Bach. This particular relative was just that little bit older than him – 1648-1694 against Johann Sebastian’s 1685-1750 – and you can hear that in its slightly more ancient language. In fact to my ears there are shades of Heinrich Schütz (1615-1672), who incidentally is viewed by many as Germany’s greatest composer before Johann Sebastien Bach. Enjoy the beautiful blending and smooth agility of Vox Luminis’s voices and their sympathetic reading of the texts. Also though, make sure you soak up the gorgeous strings introduction with the timbrally bristling, intonational consonance of its chords, and the delicious little curves you hear in their sound across the phrasings, bowings and ornamentations.
Handel Concerti grossi – Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin (Pentatone)
Handel’s Concerti grossi were late-career works written in London to serve as interludes to his English oratorio performances. This recording of the first six of the twelve-strong Opus 6 set marks the beginning of a Handel trilogy from the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin, led by their first violinist Bernhard Forck, and based on these performances it promises to be a very fine trilogy indeed. Speeds are sprightly but dignified, with bags of dancing charm and elegance, and an overall polish of attack which sits on the smoother end of the Baroque band spectrum. Textures and balance are all hugely enjoyable too, both in the tutti and solo sections: wonderfully stringy-sounding (but still soft) strings, oboes just that little bit further back, complemented by a nice amount of theorbo, and with harpsichord softly ringing in the background. I’ve given you No 2 in warm F major.
Veronica Crawford grew up in Macon, Georgia, then changed her name to Randy and went on to be one of the United States’ finest soul singers. By the age of twenty six she was topping the charts around the world, but never really enjoyed commercial success in her home country – indeed one of her largest fan bases is in Japan. She put herself on the global music map in March 1981, with the release of Secret Combination – a sweet, silky sounding album full of jazz-infused soul songs with exemplary musicianship from some legendary session men.
Crawford began her career singing in clubs from Cincinnati to Saint-Tropez, then hooked up with jazz legends George Benson and Cannonball Adderley. By 1978, with several LPs under her belt, she was beginning to get noticed. Surprisingly perhaps, British guitarist and former Genesis luminary Steve Hackett asked her to perform vocals on his second solo album, and then LA-based jazz combo The Crusaders gave her the perfect showcase as guest singer on their seminal Street Life, which went on to become an international hit. This in turn took her to the 1980 Tokyo Music Festival, where she was named ‘Most Outstanding Performer’.
Randy Crawford was on a roll. Later that year came the beautiful jazz/soul ballad One Day I’ll Fly Away, and the scene was set to record what was surely her best and most iconic album, at Sound Labs and Capitol Recording studios in Hollywood, Los Angeles. A high budget Warner Bros. production, her record company hired up-and-coming studio whiz Tommy LiPuma as producer – famous for his work with George Benson and Barbara Streisand, among many others. Other luminaries present included Leon Pendarvis on keyboards, Jeff Porcaro on drums and Neil Larsen on organ. The result was a hugely sophisticated and finessed sound for its day, with brilliant playing and an immaculately polished production.
The album contains the singles You Might Need Somebody, Rainy Night in Georgia and Secret Combination; these are beautifully crafted songs that show off Randy Crawford’s voice especially well. Her unique vocal style is soulful yet syncopated, but most special is her great emotive power tied to a sense of venerability and fragility. The album’s songs come from a variety of writers, but sit very comfortably together on the ten-track disc, and are of a quality that makes it most enjoyable from beginning to end. They’re very much personal and not political, yet are contemplative and intelligent all the same.
Secret Combination is not an album that went on change the world – but it did change Randy Crawford’s career by becoming a major international hit for her; it reached No. 2 in the UK album charts, and stayed in for sixty weeks. It’s an unassuming yet enjoyable album that is delivered with real élan – indeed its sophistication showed the shape of musical things to come, being something of a blueprint for jazz acts from Al Jarreau to Fourplay. The best silver disc imprint is the recent 2015 Japanese reissue [WPCR-28100], which – via a dCS digital front end – sounds wonderfully powerful, expansive and emotional.
If you go to the odd classical concert, or keep abreast of classical discussion, then you’ll no doubt be aware of the decades-old debate as to whether or not it’s acceptable to clap between movements: whether to do so breaks the magic, or whether to prohibit such spontaneous shows of appreciation turns concerts into intimidating places for all but the initiated “experts”. My own take on things is that on the whole I’m in favour of it. In fact I think that sometimes it’s criminal not to, it’s so clearly what is being demanded by the music and the performance. However what does drive me absolutely crackers is the small handful of those aforementioned initiated experts who think that the best way to show how well they know such-and-such piece of music is by beginning to clap before the final chord has even died away, no matter how much the music itself is asking for a few seconds of stillness and reflection (in fact, if you want a witty but ultimately gentle spoof of these listeners then you’ll enjoy this https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LsWuH0-Q8UU). So I’m not sure I’ll ever forget the concert I attended last month in the Swiss alpine resort of Andermatt: the inaugural concert of the resort’s brand new concert hall, played by the Berlin Philharmonic under Constantinos Carydis, and most particularly their performance of Shostakovich’s Chamber Symphony in C minor: a work which began life as his String Quartet No 8, and was then orchestrated with his approval by the Russian conductor Rudolph Barshai. He wrote it in 1960, in response to walking around the post-war ruins of Dresden, and possibly also as a personal epitaph for himself, because he’s woven his famous DSCH monogram into the music (which musically transcribes into D, E flat), and quoted various previous works of his. So it’s dark and powerful stuff which, if played right, should leave you feeling emotionally punched in the stomach; and this particular performance not only did that, but by keeping his arm raised (and of course in the context of a harrowingly beautiful performance) Carydis managed to hold the hall silent after the final movement’s final chord for what was easily over ten seconds. I’ve never witnessed anything like it, and the only thing which stops me wishing I’d actually timed it is the knowledge that had I done so I would have missed out on some of the moment’s power. The recording I’ve given you here is one made by the LSO String Ensemble, and because it’s not a long work I’ve given you the whole thing. Otherwise it would lose some of its power.
From here, we go decidedly more upbeat for the new releases, although funnily with the Russian theme continuing. First, the new album of Saint-Saens piano concertos from Alexandre Kantorow, the young French pianist who last month carried off First Prize at the Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow. Next, Russian pianist Denis Kozhukhin playing Grieg’s Lyric Pieces. Then finally British, Russian-trained cellist Matthew Barley’s transcription of John Tavener’s Eastern Orthodox-inspired choral work, Mother and Child.
Alexandre Kantorow, Saint-Saens Piano Concertos Nos 3-5: ,
Tapiola Sinfonietta/Jean-Jacques Kantorow (Bis)
The timing of this particular new release is quite spooky, because it coincided with its young French soloist carrying off First Prize in the Tchaikovsky Competition: one of the real career-changing ones, whose high-profile former winners include Van Cliburn, Grigory Sokolov, Mikhail Pletnev, Denis Matsuev and Daniil Trifonov. Plus, even whilst Kantorow’s fellow French pianist Bertrand Chamayou released a fantastic Saint-Saens album last year, this one more than holds its own against it with the deftly crystalline definition of Kantorow’s touch and his poetic sensibility, with the Tapiola Sinfonietta with him every step of the way, and every bit as fleet-footed and sparkling. I’ve given you No 5 the “Egyptian” here, and to be enjoyed are the sense of expectant magic he brings to his first entry, the gently bubbling effervescence of his passagework, and the lilt and flow he brings to its succession of gear shifts. Also the wide palette of colours he finds over the course of the central movement’s mix of styles. In short, no wonder he won the Tchaikovsky.
Denis Kozhukhin: Grieg Lyric Pieces;
Mendelssohn Lieder ohne Worte (Pentatone)
Denis Kozhukhin – incidentally the winner of another major competition, this one the 2010 Queen Elisabeth Competition – has had his playing described as “coolly virtuosic” and “immaculate” – labels that could both be interpreted as criticism as much as praise. However, whether you love his Brahms or not (and I do), those qualities make him absolutely perfect for the music of Grieg, whose music Debussy once waspishly described as “pink bonbons stuffed with snow”. In fact it was with a much-lauded performance of Grieg’s piano concerto that he made his recording debut in 2016, and now this turning of his attention to the Lyric Pieces is every bit as successful as one might have hoped. Take the cool clarity and smooth melodic flow of the opening Arietta: a fresh simplicity which never over-eggs things, but which still allows itself gentle romantic tugs to the metre. Lyrical is certainly the word. So it’s a selection of the Grieg pieces I’ve given you here. Then as for the Mendelssohn Songs Without Words which precede them, whilst some might feel they lack a bit of weight and darkness (that they might be a bit too much like a Norwegian mountain stream, in fact!), for me they’re beautifully voices interpretations that strike an elegant balance between Mendelssohn’s early romantic surroundings and his classical and baroque musical education.
Sir John Tavener: The Protecting Veil: Matthew Barley, Sinfonietta Riga (Signum)
There are few artists on the classical scene as joyfully experimental and versatile as British cellist Matthew Barley, and his latest release centred around the music of Sir John Tavener is one of his very finest to date. For starters, Barley’s performance of the album’s title work – India and Eastern-Orthodox-inspired The Protecting Veil, for cello and orchestra – is one which can stand tall alongside the great recording by its dedicatee Steven Isserlis. However it’s the surrounding programme which then categorically lifts the album into a whole new realm of its own. First, there’s the striking addition of the spoken voice: three of Tavener’s favourite poems read by actresses Olwyn Fouere and Julie Christie. Then, the album’s other two musical works are The Song of Separation and Waiting by Indian sarangi player Sultan Khan, for which Barley is joined by tabla player Sukhvinder “Pinky” Singh, preceded by the work I’ve chosen for this playlist: Barley’s own cello and orchestral transcription of Tavener choral work, Mother and Child, which he punctuates with Indian-inflected solo cello improvisations. Points to note and enjoy are the richly polished string sound of Sinfonietta Riga, and the emotional commitment of Barley’s own lines. Plus, incredibly, Barley only finished the transcription the night before the recording session, and then it was recorded in one single take in the session’s final minutes, meaning that the cello improvisations you’re hearing were true one-offs.
Forty years ago this summer, @theclash were in London’s Wessex Sound Studios putting the finishing touches to an album that many now regard as the magnum opus of the post-punk rock era. Recorded right at the end of the nineteen seventies, it has come to symbolise the spirit of that time better than anything else of its day. It was finally released in the UK on 14th December, 1979 to rave reviews across the British music press – and was notable for being a double LP that sold for the price of a single one. This was proof, said the band, that The Clash was ‘grass roots’ outfit that stood in opposition to music industry corporatism and profiteering.
London Calling also happened to be the band’s best album to date, by far. It saw a return to form for lead vocalists, guitarists and lyricists Joe Strummer and Mick Jones. It was a major evolution of the thrashy, rough-and-ready sound of the previous two Clash albums and took in a wide variety of musical styles. Musically it wandered around all over the place, borrowing from ska, reggae, rockabilly, jazz and heavy rock – whilst still retaining a distinctive feel. It was a work of surprising eclecticism and maturity – both musically and lyrically – without cleaving off too many rough edges.
The title track was a barnstorming anthem that chronicled the decadence and decline of British life in the late seventies – a country brought to its knees by strikes and economic mismanagement, immediately after the so-called ‘Winter of Discontent’. “London is drowning… and I live by the river”, wrote Joe Strummer, summing it up pithily. Thematically, the LP touches on social alienation, unemployment, racism, drug use and corruption – yet never feels preachy and brims with charm. That’s why London Calling stayed in the UK album charts for so long after its release, going on to sell over five million copies worldwide despite never being a mainstream pop album.
Musically, drummer Topper Headon came to the fore, really pushing the band beyond formulaic new wave – aided by a rapidly maturing Mick Jones writing most of the music. At the same time, bass player Paul Simonon was let off the leash and penned the excellent Lost in the Supermarket. CBS records were unhappy with the band’s choice of Guy Stevens as producer, but he invests the album with a warm, spontaneous and slightly chaotic feel. The recording sessions themselves were intense eighteen-hour days, with many songs recorded in just one or two takes. The result is an album that supplies song-after-song of gripping rock music, with poignant and/or quirky lyrics, plenty of catchy tunes and a massive attitude. From Brand New Cadillac to Guns of Brixton, it’s packed with memorable moments, and – rather like The Beatles’ White Album – plays perfectly from beginning to end.
London Calling sounds great through a serious hi-fi system, with plenty of detail and an enjoyable musical feel. Being relatively unprocessed and largely played live, it’s like nothing around today. Collectors think that the recent Japanese remastered CD package [Sony EICP-30018/9] is the one to go for, but the stock UK silver disc [Columbia 495347 2] is still great fun.
Listen to London Calling on our 2019 AOTM TIDAL playlist
When all three of my new release choices this month feature younger generation artists performing nineteenth century repertoire, I’ve gone for maximum contrast for my first recording, in the shape of the recording of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons made in 2015 by Baroque supremos La Serenissima, under the direction of their solo violinist leader, Adrian Chandler. You don’t need me to tell you that the recordings back catalogue has for decades been verily groaning under the weight of Four Seasons recordings, many of which are very fine indeed. Yet when La Serenissima contributed own offering to the mix, something felt different. Timbrally, it had a unique fizz and zing to it. Then there was the playing itself, which had a freewheeling fluidity about it which lent it, at times, an almost improvisatory feel; and the ultimate proof that it’s a keeper is that, four years later, it’s still my go-to Four Seasons recording. Even in the context of the Queen of Baroque, Rachel Podger, having finally released her own superlative take on it last year, with her own ensemble, Brecon Baroque. I’ve given you Spring, but clearly I’m hoping that from there you’ll also explore the other three seasons, and indeed the concertos for bassoon and violin that follow.
The new releases then open with Norwegian soprano Lise Davidsen’s self-titled debut album for Decca Classics. Next comes the fourth and final installment of the Busch Trio’s edition of Dvořák’s piano trios, quartets and quintets. We then finish with another debut album, this time from the pianist who won BBC Young Musician winner in 2014, Martin James Bartlett.
Dvořák: Piano Trio Op 21
Busch Trio – Dvořák – Piano trios Op 21 & 26 (alpha)
This latest recording from the Busch Trio (cellist Omri Epstein, violinist Mathieu van Bellen and pianist Ori Epstein) of Dvořák’s first two piano trios represents the conclusion of what has been a four-year, four-album exploration of Dvorak’s piano trios, quartets and quintets. Also a critically acclaimed one, and this final installment doesn’t disappoint. To give you the swift, nutshell-sized encapsulation of this album’s pleasure then it’s the impression of sheer naturalness colouring its every aspect. Obviously there are the performances themselves – the way the trio are so very clearly at one both with Dvorak’s vernacular and with each other, knowing precisely what they can bring to this music. Then there’s the work of recording producer Aline Blondiau, because it’s exactly the same thing again, i.e. you feel as though you’re in the best seats of the Queen Elisabeth Music Chapel in Brussels where it was recorded, with the balance beautifully distributed between the instruments, and with the piano in particular having a wonderful gently ringing, jewel-like quality to it. So listen, enjoy, and then make it a set by hunting out the three previous installments.
Lise Davidsen – Vier letzte Lieder No 4 Im Abendrot (Decca)
If you don’t yet know the name Lise Davidsen then take note of it now. Last year this young Norwegian soprano became the first Scandinavian soprano to sign exclusively to Decca Classics since Birgit Nielsson, whose centenary year it also just happened to be. Then shortly afterwards she was crowned Young Artist of the Year at the 2018 Gramophone Awards. Now here’s her debut album, and it’s a thing of beauty. Amongst the works featured are Strauss’s Four Last Songs, plus arias from his opera Ariade auf Naxos, and from Wagner’s Tannhäuser. In other words, it’s big repertoire for a singer still in her early thirties. However it also happens to be repertoire which feels as though it had been tailor-made for her, fitting both her artistic sensibility, and her velvety supple voice, like a glove. The final polish then comes in the form of the sensitive supporting accompaniment from a sumptuous-sounding, lucid-textured Philharmonia Orchestra under Esa-Pekka Salonen. I’ve given you the transcendent fourth song of Strauss’s Four Last Songs, which he wrote the year before he died, in 1946. Titled “Im Abendrot” (“In the Evening Glow”), it presents an elderly couple at the end of their lives, gazing at a setting sun whilst peacefully contemplating death.
Martin James Bartlett – Love and Death (Warner)
Martin James Bartlett was seventeen when he won BBC Young Musician of the Year in 2014. Since then there have been further impressive competition appearances, most notably getting through to the final rounds of the major Van Cliburn Competition in Texas in 2017, and then last year walking off with both the second and audience prizes at the Bad Kissingen Klavier Olympiad. As for notable debuts within his burgeoning concert career, last season saw him debut with the Tokyo Symphony Orchestra, and also be Sir Bernard Haitink’s soloist with the Royal College of Music Symphony Orchestra in a performance of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No 24 (which incidentally you can still watch on Medici TV on catch-up). This past January, the 22-year-old then signed to Warner Classics, and the resultant debut disc displays a degree of versatility and maturity which honours his decision to wait before leaping down the record labels route, whilst also thoroughly belying his still-tender age. The piece I’ve chosen for you here is the one which stands as both the programme’s philosophical starting point and its physical centre point, Liszt’s transcription of Schumann’s song “Widmung” (Dedication). This sets a poem by Friedrich Rückert which speaks of love, but also of death, and then at its conclusion slips in the further idea of heavenly love, through a quotation from Schubert’s Ave Maria. What Bartlett has done with this gem is exquisite: technically speaking, there are the long, lyrical lines of his phrasing, and the beautifully judged part voicing and overall architecture. Beyond that, though, the interpretation just rings emotionally true. It’s a heartfelt reading you can believe in. The surrounding programme then explores these themes by way of further Liszt – nuggets extracted from his Liebesträume and Années de Pèlerinage (and personally it’s Bartlett’s Liszt that I’ve enjoyed most of all here) – along with Bach, Granados, Wagner and Prokofiev.
Listen to the full playlist on TIDAL https://tidal.com/browse/playlist/dd6f664d-61bd-4f52-98f8-4770213f75d7
Released ten months after Chic’s magnificent C’est Chic, Michael Jackson’s fifth long-player signed and sealed the nineteen seventies disco era. Off the Wall was such a great record that it felt like everything that followed was just a bonus. Packed with epic, dance floor-filling tunes, it showcased Jackson’s fragile but soaring voice at its purest, and the brilliant production skills of veteran jazz musician and producer Quincy Jones. And it all came together right at the end of the decade that gave the world some of the most beautiful soul, funk and dance music, ever.
Released on August 10, 1979, Off the Wall was Jackson’s first album to be released in the USA on Epic Records, the label that he stayed with until his death. Having been the frontman of a boy band until then, there were no great expectations for this new record – which is why it came as such a shock. For the first time, we heard him as a man and not a boy, singing a selection of immaculately orchestrated and beautifully produced dance tunes and ballads, some of which were even self-penned. His previous release – 1975’s Forever, Michael – suddenly felt like it was from another era. At the same time, the new album laid the groundwork for 1982’s massive-selling Thriller – and set the precedent for Michael Jackson albums to contain a string of hit singles; in this case Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough, Rock with You, Off the Wall, She’s Out of My Life and Girlfriend.
A major departure from the previous Motown work, Off the Wall received great critical acclaim, with songwriting from Jackson himself, plus Heatwave’s Rod Temperton, Stevie Wonder and Paul McCartney. Quincy Jones laid down a complex musical tapestry, with an array of session players including horns and strings; Patti Austin supplied some vocals, Larry Carlton some guitar, and Greg Phillinganes did much of the piano and Fender Rhodes playing. Jones later commented that Jackson’s vocals had a combination of a “strong signature sound” and “that open wound that pushed them to greatness.”
This was the first time the world got to hear Michael Jackson as he really was; his work with The Jacksons had been tightly controlled by his father, but here he was calling the shots. The idea was to make a special and distinctive record, and Quincy Jones obliged with a production that is both of excellent technical quality and inspired creatively. There’s a rich diversity of textures, bolstered by that distinctive late-seventies warm, analogue period feel. It’s a slick, smooth and creamy sounding recording, yet one with enormous energy and drive that bubbles out through a top quality digital source. The first pressing of the Japanese CD [Epic 35 8P-2] is the one for collectors.
Off the Wall went on to sell over twenty million copies worldwide, making it one of the best selling albums of all time. Yet the incredible success of Thriller overshadowed it, helped partly by that album’s iconic eighties promotional videos and the rise of MTV. For many aficionados however, Michael Jackson’s first solo album will always be the most special thing he ever did.
To listen to all of our 2019 AOTM choices visit our TIDAL playlist
When Notre Dame de Paris suffered its catastrophic fire only shortly after I wrote last month’s column, there was only one theme I could have taken here this month. Partly, because you didn’t have to be French to feel sick to the pit of your stomach as the raging inferno claimed that beautiful, majestic monument which has managed to withstand the French Revolution and two world wars, and seen so much of the best and worst of history, both the grand and the ordinary. Also, though, because Notre Dame was the scene of one of my own most precious musical memories. This took place one summer’s day in the late 1990s as I rehearsed evensong there with my on-tour university chapel choir. That rehearsal was taking place during the hour the cathedral closed for lunch, and aware of how rare it was to have the place all to ourselves, we took turns to go stand in the nave whilst the others continued singing. My turn came during Durufle’s Ubi Caritas, and I’ll never forget hearing that most perfect of French motets float around that extraordinary building’s deepest listening silence. I don’t believe there exists a recording of Ubi Caritas from Notre Dame, so this month’s playlist begins instead with the next best thing. First, Ubi Caritas sung by the mixed-voice choir of Trinity College Cambridge under Steven Marlow. Then – so you can at least be reminded of or introduced to Notre Dame’s jaw-droppingly magnificent acoustic – Bach’s Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor BWV 582, on the brand new Bach album recorded in Notre Dame by its organist Olivier Latry (and incidentally, the cathedral’s grand organ miraculously survived the fire, protected by its position underneath the two towers, so this isn’t the last we’ll hear of it).
Moving on to this month’s three (other) new recordings, these begin with a beautiful first Schubert Lieder album from the young German soprano Anna Lucia Richter. Next we have an emotionally penetrating Shostakovich programme from the Artemis Quartet and pianist Elizabeth Leonskaja. We then conclude with some obscure but delicious eighteenth century Czech fare, in the form of pianist Clare Hammond performing Josef Mysliveček’s complete keyboard works with the Swedish Chamber Orchestra under Nicolas McGegan. Enjoy.
An den Mond from Heimweh: Schubert Lieder, Anna Lucia Richter & Gerold Huber, tracks 1 & 13 (Pentatone)
For her first Schubert disc the young German soprano Anna Lucia Richter has chosen to explore some of his Lieder’s youthful heroines, focussing particularly on his Mignon songs which set Goethe’s depictions of a mysterious, vulnerable waif, and the Ellen songs from Scott’s The Lady of the Lake. The resultant album, themed around homesickness and nostalgia, is rather magical: floating, pure-toned simplicity from Richter herself, and immensely sensitive partnering from pianist Gerold Huber. I’ve chosen the programme-opener, which is a gently wistful setting of Goethe’s poem, An den Mond, inspired by the lovesick daughter of an army officer who committed suicide in the icy river near Goethe’s own Weimar cottage (although its innocent tenderness places it in an entirely different emotional world to the weary, bleak snowscape of the Winterreise settings). I’ve then also thrown in one of the Ellen songs, Ave Maria: ridiculously famous to be sure, but the freshness which Richter and Huber have brought to it should nevertheless have you listening to it with entirely new ears.
Shostakovich Piano Quintet, Artemis Quartet & Elisabeth Leonskaja, Erato
Shostakovich wrote his famous piano quintet in 1940 at the behest of his friends in the Beethoven Quartet, for whom he’d written his First String Quartet of 1938. Unsurprisingly given the timing – Western Europe already at war, and the USSR shortly to be invaded by the Nazi Germany – an atmosphere of darkening clouds hangs over its pared-down, Bach-inspired sound world. However it also contains immense strength, beauty and light, and all the more so here under the fingertips of the Artemis Quartet and pianist Elisabeth Leonskaja. In fact this is the most exquisite and moving recording I’ve yet heard of it: one in which gentleness, vulnerability and sincerity are more the order of the day than the sharp cynicism and searing pain with which it’s often painted. Take their Scherzo, which far from being spikily ironic sounds more like a delicate and genuine attempt to dance in the face of darkness. Preceding that, there’s the barely-there way in which their limpid-textured fugal Adagio lament begins, each line singing eloquently, and with absolutely consummate chamber musicianship everywhere in the balancing of parts. Sitting either side of the quintet on the Artemis’s programme are equally laudable performances of the fifth and seventh string quartets, but unsurprisingly it’s the quintet I’ve chosen for this playlist.
Mysliveček Complete Music for Keyboard, Clare Hammond, Swedish Chamber Orchestra, Nicholas McGegan (Bis)
Czech composer Josef Mysliveček (1737-81) spent the majority of his professional life based in Italy, punctuated by three temporary residencies in his native Prague, Vienna and Munich; and whilst these days he’s not a name that regularly trips off the tongue of even most seasoned classical listeners, in his time he was both respected and prolific, especially as a composer of operas, symphonies, concertos and chamber music. As for his keyboard music, this is a much smaller body of work. However it’s all still thoroughly enjoyable, if not of the technical complexity of what his younger friend Mozart was writing. This album presents, solo-repertoire-wise, the six sonatas and a set of divertimenti. It also features his two miniature-length keyboard concertos, both of which probably date from the 1776-1778 period he spent in Munich, and it’s the second of these which sits on this month’s playlist. Mozart made a trip of his own to Munich in 1777, premiering his opera La finta giardiniera, and in a letter to his father he describes Mysliveček’s character as “full of fire, spirit and life”. The second concerto mirrors that personal assessment too, helped in this particular performance by neatly crisp and perky orchestral playing, a lovely soft tone and lyrical phrasing from Clare Hammond on a modern concert grand, and overall a palpably chamber-esque closeness between soloist and orchestra.
“In one of his headmaster’s reports, it said that none of us seemed to know him very well. All the way through with Nick. People didn’t know him very much.” So said Nicholas Rodney Drake’s father, about his son who died tragically early at the age of twenty six, on the 25th November, 1974. The brother of successful seventies screen actress Gabrielle, he was old beyond his years, having a precocious talent that he found hard to handle. He recorded three studio albums, the most complete of which is surely Bryter Layter.
His death was down to an overdose of anti-depressants, Drake having struggled with his mental health for several years. Yet music was his release; at an early age he learned to play piano, compose songs and record them on the family’s open reel tape recorder. Then he bought a guitar, took up busking and then went to university. At Cambridge in 1967 he met his closest future collaborator, music student Robert Kirby, then hooked up with American music producer Joe Boyd. As the jigsaw pieces slotted together, a record contract followed and he duly dropped out of Cambridge to record his debut album, Five Leaves Left.
The essential components of his sound were in place; Boyd insisted on “no shiny pop reverb” on the vocals, and Kirby’s string arrangements were deliberately sparse. Still, his debut long-player was a patchy affair and Drake showed few signs of being proud of it. Then in August 1969, he went into BBC’s Maida Vale studio to record five songs for John Peel; Cello Song, Three Hours, River Man, Time of No Reply and Bryter Layter. These formed the centrepiece of his second and best album, which went on to be released on 6th March, 1971. Recorded the previous year at Sound Techniques studio in London, it featured collaborations with several Fairport Convention members and The Velvet Underground’s John Cale, plus Beach Boys Mike Kowalski and Ed Carter. This was fitting because Robert Kirby had said that Drake wanted to channel Pet Sounds.
Although Bryter Layter was technically a nineteen seventies album, in mood, style and production it harked back three years to the psychedelic era – to the likes of Love’s Forever Changes and The Beach Boys’ Surf’s Up. Admittedly it’s a little darker and more pensive, but is still packed with beautiful and contemplative songs with delightful instrumental texture. Producer Joe Boyd expected it to be a smash hit, yet it initially sold under 3,000 copies; Melody Maker grudgingly described it as, “an awkward mix of folk and cocktail jazz”.
Boyd moved back to the United States, leaving Drake to record the follow-up Pink Moon alone, and the result was a gloomier and more introspective work that reflected his declining mental health. After his death, his work soon began to be re-evaluated however, and is now credited as influencing many luminaries, from The Cure’s Robert Smith to REM’s Peter Buck. Bryter Later is now widely regarded as a folk/rock masterpiece, and has propelled Nick Drake posthumously to the status of genius. On silver disc, the Japanese remaster [Island Records UICY-3038] is the one to have.
Listen to all of our 2019 AOTM picks on TIDAL https://tidal.com/playlist/05aa8463-bc28-4a26-a1d1-c8fad7c3c32b
Having begun March’s Only the Music with a major living conductor’s ninetieth birthday, I’m going to devote this month’s classic recording to the great cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, who would have turned ninety two last month had he not died in 2007. Born in Baku, Azerbaijhan, in 1927, Rostropovich had a profound impact on the musical world over the second half of the twentieth century. Cellists can thank him for being the person for whom Shostakovich wrote both his cello concertos, as for whom Benjamin Britten wrote cello masterpieces including the three solo cello Suites. His teaching legacy has also been profound, and is still within touching distance today through major pupils of his such as Mischa Maisky and Frans Helmerson. So whilst ninety two may not be a notable anniversary, his birthday nevertheless saw social media awash with tributes to him. Plus, he holds a special corner in my own heart for being the musician who first woke me up to the riches to be found amongst the “classic” recordings of the past, via his 1975 Abbey Road recording for EMI of Haydn’s Cello Concerto No 1 in C major, directing the Academy of St Martin in the Fields from his cello. I was 21 at the time, the disc was a spare one which had been slipped onto my desk at Radio 3, and I’ll never forget the moment, sitting there with my headphones on, when Rostropovich made his first entry. That shining, singing tone… I was transfixed, and almost twenty years later I still instantly melt when I hear it.
Moving onto this month’s new releases, cellist BBC New Generation Artist Anastasia Kobekina’s first orchestral recording; then more Haydn but this time Easter-themed, with The Seven Last Words of Christ on the Cross from Ensemble Resonanz under Riccardo Minasi.
Cello and Orchestra: Shostakovich, Weinberg and Kobekin – Anastasia Kobekina, Berner Symphonieorchester/Kevin John Edusei
The Russian cellist Anastasia Kobekina isn’t yet a well-known name in the UK, but that’s set to change fast. Firstly because last autumn she joined the BBC New Generation Artist scheme, meaning that increasingly she’ll be popping up on BBC Radio 3 airwaves and upon stages around the country. Secondly because this first major release and first orchestral recording of hers is already turning heads. Gifted to her by the Swiss festival Sommets Musicaux de Gstaad for winning their annual young artists competition, the album is a beguiling and powerful celebration of three generations of the Soviet-Russian school of composition, featuring Dimitri Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No 1, Mieczyslaw Weinberg’s Fantasy for Cello and Orchestra, and the Bacchants for Cello and Orchestra by Kobekina’s own father, Vladimir Kobekin. Kobekina has made each and every one of these works her own; in fact never have I heard a more lyrical and ravishing-toned reading of the Shostakovich. However it’s Weinberg’s more pastoral 1956 work on this playlist, and I defy anyone not to be instantly seduced.
Haydn: The Seven Last Words of Christ, Ensemble Resonanz/Riccardo Minasi
Commissioned in 1786 for the Good Friday service at the Oratorio de la Santa Cueva in Cadiz, Haydn’s Seven Last Words of the Cross of Christ is an orchestral work composed to a very unique brief: seven contemplative slow movements to be played as the bishop prostrated himself at the alter in between seven mini-sermons on the seven last words uttered by Jesus on the cross. To these Haydn also added an introduction and a short climactic movement depicting the earthquake following the crucifixion, and when you factor in that this was all played out with black cloth covering the church’s windows, walls and pillars, the premiere must have been powerful stuff. On to this recording of it from Hamburg-based chamber orchestra Ensemble Resonanz under Riccardo Minasi, and this is the latest installment of an exploration of Eighteenth Century orchestral music which last year won them a Diapason d’Or for their cello concertos and symphonies of CPE Bach. Plus, interestingly, what sets these period-aware performances apart is the fact that, whilst the ensemble can and do use period-appropriate gut strings, for this series they’ve instead taken up the challenge of performing on modern metal strings, and the highly-charged results are proof that there’s more to sounding “period” than going authentic with your instruments. This playlist features the movement depicting the third words, “Behold your son, behold your mother”, when Jesus entrusts his mother Mary to the protection of the disciple he loved: one of the more serene moments, which beautifully showcases the rhetorical skills at play across the album. We then zip ahead to the climactic final earthquake, where the group’s virtuosity is on full display.
Listen to the full playlist on TIDAL https://tidal.com/playlist/d55e6baf-2cfc-4d5c-b506-d8f9a89cbf85
Any self-respecting nineteen eighties indie rock fan regarded Manchester as his or her mecca. From Joy Division and New Order to The Smiths, Stone Roses and Happy Mondays, the city turned out a torrent of great British bands that went on to indelibly stamp pop music in their own image. Some remained in splendid isolation with limited chart success, whilst others made it big right across the Western world and Japan.
Behind the famous names, there was a lower tier of Manchester acts that also showed flashes of brilliance, from The Bodines and The Charlatans to James and 808 State. One of the least well known – yet highly influential to other, far more commercial bands – was The Chameleons. Some critics regard their debut album Script of the Bridge as one of the best post-punk albums ever. What’s indisputable is that the band’s sound influenced a number of more successful groups across the decades, from The Cult and The Mission to The Killers, Elbow and Editors.
At the time of its release on the 8th August, 1983, Script of the Bridge sounded strikingly different to what had come before. Contemporary music journalists spoke about it as being a “sonic cathedral” no less, as it blended a massive Phil Spector-like wall of sound with hard, crunchy guitars set against a spacious, atmospheric backdrop. Recorded in Cargo Studios in Rochdale, England, and produced by the band and Colin Richardson – who later worked with Slipknot – it was hardly mainstream stuff. Yet if you’re a fan of dark, dour, brooding guitar rock then you’ll find this album still sounds very special, thirty five years on. Although the term wasn’t in common usage in 1983, many people would now call it ‘Goth’.
Formed in Middleton, Greater Manchester, England in 1981, the original lineup was Mark Burgess on bass guitar and vocals, Reg Smithies and Dave Fielding on guitars, and John Lever on drums. Steve Lillywhite produced their first single In Shreds in March 1982 on Epic Records, but they soon moved to Statik Records, a subsidiary of Virgin Records, due to artistic differences. Technically they were not an independent record label, which meant they didn’t qualify for their key target market, followers of the New Musical Express’s Independent Charts, and this made it hard for them to get exposure. The album’s four singles – Up the Down Escalator, Don’t Fall, As High as You Can Go, and A Person Isn’t Safe Anywhere These Days – all made little imprint on the British pop charts. Two years later, The Cult’s She Sells Sanctuary was a global hit – despite being close in style, sound and quality to everything on Script of the Bridge.
This sultry yet poignant sounding classic album has remained in obscurity for over a generation; original vinyl pressings are now expensive collectors’ items for those in the know, but the first Compact Disc [Statik Records CDST 17] from 1985 is still affordable and sounds good via a serious digital front end. Just over a decade ago, a remaster was issued with an extra live CD [Blue Apple Music BAMCD01]; this is worth having but lacks the original release’s sonic purity. Either way – providing that you like atmospheric guitar rock – it is hard not to be impressed by the sheer power, breadth and depth of Script of the Bridge.
To listen to all of our 2019 AOTM picks visit https://tidal.com/playlist/05aa8463-bc28-4a26-a1d1-c8fad7c3c32b
It’s a major birthday that gets the spotlight for Only the Music’s March classic recording: that of the Dutch conductor Bernard Haitink, who celebrates his 90th this month. Haitink’s career has been an illustrious one, past roles including Amsterdam Concertgebouw Chief Conductor (1961-1988), London Philharmonic Orchestra Principal Conductor (1967-1979), Glyndebourne Music Director (1978-1988), and Royal Opera House Covent Garden Music Director (1987-2002). Plus, his concert diary is still a busy one, much as he’s planning a well-deserved sabbatical for next season. January’s Only the Music featured his recent recording with Gautier Capuçon and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe of Schumann’s Cello Concerto. For this birthday shout, I’ve chosen to celebrate his relationship with the London Philharmonic with their 1999 recording of Ralph Vaughan Williams’s In the Fen Country.
Moving on to the month’s new releases, these begin with French harpist Anaïs Gaudemard’s impressive debut recital for Harmonia Mundi, continue with two-violin French Baroque music from Johannes Pramsohler and Roldán Bernabé, before fortepianist Kristian Bezuidenhout plays us out with Haydn.
Anaïs Gaudemard: Solo
Henriette Renié – Légende in F minor 1HR.10
French harpist Anaïs Gaudemard’s career has been on a fast upwards trajectory since her 2016 debut album on the Swiss record label Claves, which was a concerto recording gifted to her as winner of the Sommets Musicaux de Gstaad festival’s young artist competition. Since then she’s been nominated by the Philharmonie de Paris and the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation in Lisbon for the prestigious ECHO (European Concert Hall Organisation) Rising Stars scheme, and now comes this first album for Harmonia Mundi through its young artist Harmonia Nova series: a solo harp recital designed to show off the instrument’s stylistic and colouristic range through repertoire ranging from Scarlatti and CPE Bach through to Hindemith. It’s an immensely beguiling listen from start to finish, and for dCS I’ve chosen the programme’s curtain-raiser, the other-worldly Légende in F minor first published in 1904 by the French harpist-composer Henriette Renié.
Sonatas for Two Violins Without Bass – Johannes Pramsohler/Roldán Bernabé
Louis-Gabriel Guilleman – Sonata in D minor, Op.4 no.2
Baroque violinist Johannes Pramsohler combines a busy touring and teaching schedule with a penchant for sight-reading stacks of completely unknown music from libraries around the world, on the look-out for gems worth bringing back to life. These musical hunts have yielded some intriguing and unfailingly superb recordings over the years, with his Ensemble Diderot on his own CD label Audax. This latest, for which he’s joined by his fellow Ensemble Diderot violinist Roldán Bernabé, celebrates the largely forgotten genre of “sonata for two solo violins without bass”, which enjoyed a short vogue in eighteenth century France as the country basked in a golden period of violin virtuosi. On the menu are works from violinist-composers Louise-Gabriel Guillemain (1705-1770), Jean-Marie Leclair (1697-1764), Jean-Pierre Guignon (1702-1774) and Étienne Mangean (c1710-c1756), with world premieres by Guignon and Mangean. It’s Guilleman’s Sonata in D minor I’ve chosen here though, rather than one of the premieres, simply because from a musical perspective it’s represents the programme’s crown jewels. Add a reading from Pramsohler and Bernabé that’ll have you hanging off its every note, and superb engineering which has the two violins’ respective personalities bristling out in glorious technicolour, and this is the one that’ll really have you appreciating what your sound systems can do.
Haydn Piano Sonatas Hob.XV1:6, 20 & 18
Variations on the theme “Gott erhalte Franz, den Kaiser” in G major
In the history of the keyboard, the instrument sitting between the harpsichord and the modern piano – and therefore the instrument sitting under the fingers of Haydn and Mozart – is the fortepiano: basically a piano, in that its keys were hit with hammers rather than plucked as with the harpsichord, but one that was smaller and lighter of frame and sound than today’s models. For the pianist-composer it offered a highly responsive action that made it capable of beautiful definition, and whilst its colouristic range was narrower to that of the modern piano, it was still an entirely superior palette of possibilities to that of the harpsichord. Kristian Bezuidenhout himself is a colourist and sculptor extraordinaire with this instrument, and from this Haydn programme I’ve chosen the piece you’re most likely to recognise, i.e. the Variations on the theme “Gott erhalte Franz, den Kaiser” in G major, because it’s the melody now used for the German national anthem. It appears here in a loving, singing, delicate reading full of gorgeous filigree detail and beautifully judged part-voicing.