Monday, April 30, 2012

Classical Highlights

This is an experimental post! I've done a few "Classical Highlights" posts for Music is Good but I don't think they fit well with the overall blog content in terms of their style. So I figured I'd try to write them as proper overviews rather than just lists of albums accompanied by quotes. This of course would make for a lot of work and produce rather lengthy posts so a better approach might be for me to be selective. The latest issues of the three UK magazines give accolades to 24 discs, so I've halved that number to make my choice. Totally subjective, of course, but as Arthur O'Shaughnessy said, "We are the taste makers / And we are the choosers of stuff". These magazines have been out for a few weeks so it's a bit late to be putting this post up on Music is Good; instead I want to stick it here and "live with it" for a while to decide that it's an okay approach.

A selective overview of some of the top-rated albums in the latest issues of Gramophone (May), BBC Music Magazine (May), and International Record Review (April).

The main focus here must be the latest disc from RafaƂ Blechacz, a recital of Debussy and Szymanowski (DG 477 9548); it's Gramophone's Recording of the Month and a recipient of an Outstanding from International Record Review. In the latter, Nicholas Salwey says that "Blechacz is most certainly the genuine article, possessed of an immaculate technique married with musicianship of maturity and unassuming modesty". There's more piano music from Hamish Milne (Hyperion CDA67851/2), who's long been a champion of Nikolai Medtner; here he provides a two-disc selection of shorter pieces that Gramophone's Bryce Morrison says "is surely in the running for instrumental issue of the year". And we also have a couple of piano concerto discs: David Fanning in Gramophone describes as "something truly extraordinary" a recording of Shostakovich's two concertos by Alexander Melnikov (Harmonia Mundi HMC 902104), who's also joined by Isabelle Faust in the same composer's violin sonata, and in IRR Robert Matthew-Walker praises Danny Driver's performances of a pair of concertos by the rather less well-known Erik Chisholm (Hyperion CDA67880) - "one of the most important contributions to British recorded music for some considerable time".
Three Brahms discs appear this month, two of them choral. John Eliot Gardiner's recording of the German Requiem (Soli Deo Gloria SDG706) is "a minutely considered, dramatic and, in places, aptly disturbing performance", according to David Threasher in Gramophone, while the same magazine's Marc Rochester describes Philippe Herreweghe's selection of works for choir (PHI LPH003) as "a mouth-wateringly sumptuous cake of a disc". In IRR, Nigel Simeone is impressed by Andrew Manze's new set of the four Brahms symphonies (CPO 777 720-2): "one of the most fiery, original and thought-provoking sets of the symphonies to have appeared in the digital era". Another choral selection is Disc of the Month in BBC Music Magazine: Paul McCreesh's "A Song of Farewell" (Winged Lion/Signum SIGCD281) features "music of mourning and consolation" from a variety of British composers and is, Terry Blain tells us, a "beautifully planned and executed programme". In the same magazine, a recital by soprano Marlis Petersen of Goethe settings spanning two centuries (Harmonia Mundi HMC 902094) provides "revelatory musical incarnations", according to Hilary Finch, while Jonathan Harvey's opera Wagner Dream conducted by Martyn Brabbins (Cypres CYP 5624) is, Christopher Dingle says, a "compelling triumph... Harvey's sublime music does not shy away from the disturbing when necessary, yet the overwhelming impression is of beauty and integrity".
Another release of contemporary music features all four string quartets of Sofia Gubaidulina, performed by the Stamic Quartet (Supraphon SU4078-2), which Ivan Moody in IRR says is "an essential investment for any admirer" of the composer. And finally, two releases of older music. The voices of Stile Antico have combined with the viols of Fretwork to bring us "Tune thy Musicke to thy Hart" (Harmonia Mundi HMU 807554), which according to Peter Quantrill in Gramophone brings "a carefully plotted span (over 120 years) of sacred styles into our listening rooms with rare success". A somewhat obscure fretted instrument, the lirone, features on a selection of 17th-century Italian laments from the ensemble Atalante, headed by Erin Headley (Destino Classics NI6152); IRR's Andrew O'Connor notes "Without wishing to sound snobbish, this is not a programme for the casual listener. It features music written for connoisseurs. Their successors today will find this in every way an outstanding recording".

Sunday, April 29, 2012

"A History of Classical Music...": progress report

The main reason I don't post much here anymore is that I'm spending my writing-about-classical-music time on A History of Classical Music through Recordings, part 5 of which should be up soon. So I'm not even going to promise a series of witty and insightful posts about the upcoming "Maestro at the Opera" or whatever it's called. However, let me interject at this point that the 4 minutes of Young Musician of the Year that I've seen so far made me want to set fire to someone at the BBC. Not everything has to be done like X Factor, for crying out loud. You don't need dramatic underscoring and dramatic editing of the judges' deliberations, in fact you don't need to turn it into a drama at all because this is a showcase for bright and enthusiastic young people with musical talent, not the fucking Hunger Games. In a word: Gaahh!
Where was I? Oh yes. It turns out people have been composing music for literally hundreds of years and apparently it's now possible to examine individual aspects of this activity and discuss them in an average of 1,200 words so that other people can read about them. And you can also create 8tracks mixes for each one, which gives me an excuse for a blog post:

Unsurprisingly, the Gregorian Chant one has had the most listens. How will the Ars Nova fare, I wonder? That'll be Part 6, before we move on to trecento Italy, then England, then back to Burgundy... According to the current plan, Part 22 will see the beginning of the Baroque period. After that - well, I won't get to that point for another year or so. Plenty of time to struggle with how much Bach to include. In the introduction to my history I noted that chronologically based beginner's guides tend to rush through medieval and Renaissance music, one example being 1001 Classical Recordings You Must Hear Before You Die, which devoted just 26 recordings to pre-17th-century music. I'm hoping to have 110 or thereabouts. I won't stretch to 1,000 by the end - in fact I don't know how many I'll have. Maybe 300, maybe 500. In terms of number of chapters the structure I've devised so far keeps approximate pace with one of my models, the Canadian radio series Music and Western Man, which would mean that the year 1600 isn't far from the halfway mark; the Norton A History of Western Music would put it about one-third of the way along, whereas for Richard Taruskin's Oxford History of Western Music it represents only about one-fifth of the journey. Either way, by trying to offer some sort of equal-time approach across all of musical history I'll have some interesting challenges ahead as I move from a situation where I'm focusing on finding important but little-known music to include, to one where I have to decide what well-known music to ignore. Or, to put it another way, the 13th-century Carmina Burana has been included, but should I bother with Carl Orff's much more famous version?

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Halls of Fame

Oh Christ, that time of year again. But first let's check in at Gramophone, whose new Hall of Fame is much more classy than anything Classic FM can produce. Although personally I think if you're going to have a Hall of Fame, it has to be an actual hall, somewhere my in-laws can visit and send us a postcard from. Anyway, nothing too dramatic has happened in the initial phase of Gramophone's Hall, unless you feel the need to get worked up over the fact that the 50 names include Lang Lang.
You'll be glad to know, however, that teh Internets has been far more successful at ruining the latest Classic FM poll. Apparently the twenty most popular pieces of classical music among listeners of Classic FM include "Aerith's Theme" from Final Fantasy VII; Nobuo Uematsu's tinkly little weepie fits in reasonably well with the station's taste for crossover though I'm not sure what the Classic FM/Final Fantasy Venn diagram looks like. The theme from Skyrim got in as well, though only at no.238. That one's for people who think the Pirates of the Caribbean theme doesn't sound enough like Lord of the Rings, or vice versa.
So, well done nerds on your chart-spiking success, but people who like lovely choral music have beaten you in terms of number of entries, because Jaime Lannister Eric Whitacre has finally made it into the charts with three pieces, while Paul Mealor manages four, one of which, the horribly horribly mawkish "Wherever You Are" as performed by the Military Wives, is straight in at number 5. But it's a pop song, surely?
Hurrah! Western civilisation is over!