Arcana’s best of 2022

by Ben Hogwood

How has 2022 been for you? It has been a difficult year for so many, and I don’t know about you, but I find music takes on an even more important part of our lives when the going gets tough. This year we have been able to rely on a consistently strong line of releases, giving us extra resolve and relief from the day-to-day.

Arcana has reviewed a lot of music this year. What we tend to do on these pages is concentrate on music and artists that we know are likely to be good – and we assemble our thoughts on them so you can then make your own investigations. Classical music is usually our starting point, but from there we travel afar to the outer reaches of electronica, dance and contemporary music.

It was another strong year for electronic music of an ambient dimension. Switched On is the area of Arcana concentrating on new music in this area, and without putting too many musical names on these albums, we really enjoyed a good deal of slower stuff. Starting with a single instrument, Vanessa Wagner’s Study of the Invisible (above) made an understated but lasting impression, particularly with Caroline Shaw’s Gustave Le Grey at its heart. Vanessa plays with poise and expression, and this wonderfully curated selection worked so well.

Meanwhile long term favourite Erland Cooper charmed with his pure, still music written to soundtrack the Superbloom installation at the Tower Of London, Music For Growing Flowers (above). Speaking of earthy sounds, Sonic Cathedral gave us twilight wonders from Pye Corner Audio and, with a little more country in the mix, Sunset Dreams from Mark Peters.

At the hottest part of summer, Arthur King’s music was extremely evocative in Changing Landscapes – as was that of Deepchord, making a return to the long player from Detroit with Functional Designs. Steve Davis, meanwhile (yes, that Steve Davis!) was busy enhancing his reputation as part of the electronic trio Utopia Strong and their excellent album International Treasure

More studied electronica gems should also be shouted from the rooftops – we are lucky to have British artists of the calibre of Bibio, Gold Panda and Plaid, each returning with excellent new albums. Meanwhile Clarice Jensen took her cello as a starting point on new album Esthesis, making music of great colour and descriptive power to counter the onset of lockdown. Also facing the elements head-on was Daniel Avery, whose new album Ultra Truth was a powerful statement indeed:

There were some very strong releases on the classical side of things, as record companies dusted themselves down and started to include orchestral recordings again on their release schedules post-pandemic. Leading the way were the Sinfonia of London under John Wilson, a throwback to the golden age of orchestral recording in their challenging schedules for Chandos. With Hollywood, British and French music all covered, one in particular stood out, with the orchestral music of John Ireland given its rightful place in the spotlight:

Speaking of French music, a charmer from the Orchestre National des Pays de la Loire and Pascal Rophé proved the ideal hot weather soundtrack as it explored orchestral versions of Debussy keyboard works. Their accounts of the Petite Suite, La boîte à joujoux and Children’s Corner were full of colour and character.

This year saw the 150th anniversary of the birth of Ralph Vaughan Williams, one of the finest British composers of the 20th century. Somm Recordings made a memorable tribute by way of the undervalued string quartets, these lovely autumnal works given vibrant performances from the Tippett Quartet.

Contemporary classical music put in some very strong appearances this year, and few more than Stuart Macrae, showing off the quality of his chamber music on an album from the Hebrides Ensemble on the excellent Delphian label. We enjoyed a number of online and in-person concerts from the English Symphony Orchestra and Kenneth Woods, which were capped by an outstanding recording of Adrian Williams’ Symphony no.1, a commendable raising of the flag for new British music

During 2022 we made a couple of visits to the outskirts of jazz, in the company of super group Flocktheir excellent self titled debut – and a triumphant and experimental return from Szun Waves.

On the dancier side of things, Heavenly Recordings excelled themselves this year with no fewer than six collections of remixes! We loved the first two instalments, which acted as a prelude to the utterly essential third and fourth volumes which brought together remixes from the much missed Andrew Weatherall.

The Haçienda celebrated 40 years since its inception with a handsome package from Cherry Red, while the best DJ mix honour goes to Cinthie – her contribution to !K7’s DJ Kicks mix series really was a thing of pure dancefloor enjoyment. So, too, was a John Morales-edited compilation devoted to the art of Teddy Pendergrass, vocalist for Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes.

Cultured music for the discerning dancefloor came our way from Au Suisse, a welcome reunion for Morgan Geist and Kelley Polar, and also from Hot Chip, who further explored their emotions with an excellent and heartfelt eighth album. Moderat, returning after a long absence, went more for the jugular with the thrilling More D4ta

With all that said and done, what would an Arcana album of the year look like? Something like this…the most listened to long player of the year in these parts, Fleeting Future – a vibrant offering from Akusmi which channelled all sorts of intriguing influences into something wonderfully original:

We will have a few more reviews to come over this week – but for now, we thank all our readers for your visits and wish you a happy, peaceful and regenerative Christmas holiday season. Oh, and a Happy New Year for 2023!

On Record – BBC Concert Orchestra / Bramwell Tovey – Poulenc: Les Animaux modèles, Sinfonietta (Chandos)

Sinfonietta (1947-48)
Two movements from ‘Les Mariés de la Tour Eiffel’ (1921, revised 1957)
Pastourelle from L’Éventail de Jeanne (1927)
Les Animaux modèles (complete ballet) (1940-42)

BBC Concert Orchestra / Bramwell Tovey

Chandos CHSA5260 [74’22″’]
Producer Brian Pidgeon Engineers Ralph Couzens, Alexander James
Recorded 10-12 March 2022 at Watford Colosseum

Reviewed by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

This collection of colourful works for orchestra by Francis Poulenc has as its main work the ballet Les Animaux modèles, based on The Fables of Jean de la Fontaine. A vibrant work, it clearly had huge significance for the composer, who started on its composition after the Nazi occupation of Paris in 1940, his aim ‘to find a reason to hope for the future of my country’. It received its first performance at the Paris Opera in 1942.

The ballet is symbolic, summarised in Nigel Simeone’s excellent booklet note about ‘a celebration of France’s past at its most lustrous’ than a collection of charming animal stories. It does however bring the story to life from the outset, with a vivid description of the dawn cutting to sharply characteristic portrayals of The Bear and The Two Companions, the former portrayed through an excellent horn solo, The Grasshopper and the Ant, The Amorous Lion, The Middle-aged Man and His Two Mistresses, Death and the Woodcutter, The Two Cockerels and finally The Midday Meal.

Complementing the ballet is the Sinfonietta, written for the BBC Third Programme and first heard in 1948. Initially the main themes of the work were to be part of a String Quartet that Poulenc was working on in 1945, but after its abandonment his friend and fellow-composer Georges Auric recognised the potential of the musical material. The work is dedicated to him in acknowledgement.

Completing the disc are two movements from Les Mariés de la Tour Eiffel, a collaborative single act ballet with Auric and the other members of composer collective Les Six, of which Poulenc was a leading member. There is also a soft-centred Pastourelle from another such collaborative piece, L’Éventail de Jeanne.

Very sadly this is the final recording made by the BBC Concert Orchestra’s principal conductor, Bramwell Tovey – completed just four months before his sad death from cancer at the age of 69.

What’s the music like?

In a word, colourful. Les animaux modèles is unquestionably the star turn, brilliantly played and characterised in this recording. Poulenc’s music is richly tuneful and beautifully orchestrated, often showing the influence of Stravinsky but realised with his own flair and mischievous humour. The central section of The Grasshopper and The Ant is a case in point, where a thrillingly brisk section cuts to an enchanting violin cadenza, the music briefly held in a spell until its release by shrill trumpets.

The Amorous Lion is a scene of great contrasts, with orchestral outbursts and volleys of percussion cutting to tender asides from string and woodwind choirs. The most substantial section – and arguably music – can be found in The Two Cockerels, where Poulenc realises music of great power and depth to portray the combat of the two birds. The surging climactic point, halfway through, is music of particularly strong feeling and resolve, Poulenc’s sentiments against the war reaching their heartfelt climax – before powerful exchanges between brass and the final toll on low piano. With passions largely spent, The Midday Meal provides a regal epilogue.

The slighter movements are no less fun, and The Middle-aged Man and his Two Mistresses scurries along furtively. Following Poulenc’s synopsis is enormously helpful, signposting the composer’s pictorial responses to the storyline as well as emphasising his wit.

In spite of its name, the Sinfonietta is one of Poulenc’s most substantial compositions. Far from being a slight, frothy work, it has a big-boned structure easily outdoing those dimensions, lasting nearly half an hour. Its convincing melodic arguments are led by the assertive first theme, drawing parallels with the Organ Concerto for its bite and resolve, while the second theme, beautifully realised here, brings mellow woodwind colouring. The second movement is a lively scherzo, balanced with tender asides that are fully realised in the slow third movement, a lyrical and colourful Andante cantabile. The brisk finale signs off with a flourish.

The two movements from Les Mariés de la Tour Eiffel are short but mischievous and entertaining, with humourous trombone interventions, while the Pastourelle is a charming addition.

Does it all work?

Yes. These are fresh, vibrant performances given with evident affection by the BBC Concert Orchestra. Bramwell Tovey brings out the colourful orchestrations, allows the lyrical melodies a bit of heart-on-sleeve approach where appropriate, and brings rhythmically sharp responses too. Poulenc’s colourful writing is brought to the fore, along with the melancholic undertones his music often carries.

Is it recommended?

Yes, on many levels. The quality of the music, the excellent Chandos recordings from Watford Colosseum and some very fine performances from which Bramwell Tovey takes his lead. The icing on the cake is the choice of Henri Rousseau’s Monkeys and Parrot in Virgin Forest as cover art. It is the ideal complement for a wonderful album.



For more information and purchasing options on this release, visit the Chandos website

Music for today – Tchaikovsky’s Symphony no.1 ‘Winter Daydreams’

by Ben Hogwood

With the weather taking a sharp turn for the colder in the UK today, thoughts turn to wintry music. An underrated gem in this area is the first symphony of Tchaikovsky, which the composer subtitled Winter Daydreams.

This is a tuneful and highly appealing work from 1866, showing the influence of Mendelssohn but also revealing Tchaikovsky’s own individual grasp of symphonic form, and his aptitude for writing programme music.

The full subtitle of the first movement is Dreams of a Winter Journey, while the second movement, Land of Desolation, Land of Mists, is the emotional heart of the symphony with a yearning slow theme. The cool, slight melancholy of the untitled third movement Scherzo is swept away by a jubilant Finale, bringing Tchaikovsky’s first symphonic structure to a satisfying end.

There was much more to come, of course! You can enjoy the symphony in a performance from the Berlin Philharmoniker and Herbert von Karajan below:

On Record: Los Angeles Philharmonic / Susanna Mälkki – Steve Reich: Runner / Music for Ensemble and Orchestra (Nonesuch)

Steve Reich
Runner (2016)
Music for Ensemble and Orchestra (2018)

Los Angeles Philharmonic / Susanna Mälkki

Nonesuch 7559791018 [35’25”]

Producer Dmitriy Lipay, Engineer Alexander Lipay

Recorded 1-4 November 2018 (Music for Ensemble and Orchestra), 6-7 November 2021 (Runner), Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles, CA

reviewed by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

It is best to let Steve Reich himself tell the story of these two closely related orchestral pieces. Runner, he says, is ‘for a large ensemble of winds, percussion, pianos, and strings.  While the tempo remains more or less constant, there are five movements, played without pause, that are based on different note durations.  First, even sixteenths, then irregularly accented eighths, then a very slowed-down version of the standard bell pattern from Ghana in quarters, fourth a return to the irregularly accented eighths, and finally a return to the sixteenths but now played as pulses by the winds for as long as a breath will comfortably sustain them.  The title was suggested by the rapid opening and my awareness that, like a runner, I would have to pace the piece to reach a successful conclusion.’

Meanwhile its companion, the Music for Ensemble and Orchestra, is in effect Runner 2. It is described by Reich as ‘an extension of the Baroque concerto grosso where there is more than one soloist. Here there are twenty soloists – all regular members of the orchestra, including the first stand strings and winds, as well as two vibraphones and two pianos.  The piece is in five movements, though the tempo never changes, only the note value of the constant pulse in the pianos.  Thus, an arch form: sixteenths, eighths, quarters, eighths, sixteenths.  Music for Ensemble and Orchestra is modelled on my Runner, which has the same five movement form’.

The recording marks the first foray of both the Los Angeles Philharmonic and conductor Susanna Mälkki into the music of Reich in recorded form.

What’s the music like?

Reich clearly enjoyed writing these pieces, as he tells David Lang in the liner notes for this release. The quick tempo means that as the starting gun fires, Runner is immediately into its stride with brisk music and rich colours. When the tempo marking halves to become Eighths, and then Quarters, the slower music is beautifully managed through sustained notes, pulling out the tension. The piano and vibraphones come through beautifully here, while the harmonies continue to negotiate new corners and scenery as a runner would do. The feeling persists, though, that Reich is at his happiest in the music of Sixteenths, where the busy conversations of the woodwind and the bell tolls of the vibraphones give the music impressive stature. The piece ends quickly, with one of the composer’s trademark ‘fades’.

Music for Ensemble and Orchestra feels weightier in its own Sixteenths section starts, pianos oscillating and strings gathering in hymn-like unison before the pianos create an impressive grandeur with their sustained low notes. Reich’s command of the orchestra is immensely assured, more so than it was in earlier works such as the Variations for wind, strings and keyboards or The Four Sections, but never losing the luminosity of those works, nor their capacity to pan out into larger spaces.

The Eighths section is the most emotionally powerful music yet, with large scale harmonies that move freely between weighted dissonance and brief consonance, the latter appearing like shafts of light in the music. Quarters brings forward the choirs of woodwind, their distinctive motif alternating with the piano, before the percussive instruments drive Eighths to greater heights, pianos chiming with the vibraphones. In typical Reich fashion the acceleration from Eighths to Sixteenths is both seamless and thrilling, the clarinets pushing to the front as the music gathers itself for the finish. Then just as suddenly – and seamlessly – the bottom drops away and the figures float away like birds on the wing, all treble and no bass.

Does it all work?

It does. The performances from the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Susanna Mälkki are of a uniformly high degree, and the writing is subtly complex – meaning that Reich’s workings reward close inspection, but that the overall whole is beautifully realised and works well even in the middle foreground for the listener.

Is it recommended?

Of course. Steve Reich is a composer where nearly every move he makes is captured on record, to our advantage – and this pair of works, representing one of his most recently published chapters, are typically rewarding listening.



You can buy this new release at the Presto website. For more on Steve Reich himself, visit the composer’s website

From closed doors to a heavenly host: The completion of a Mahler symphony cycle

by John Earls pictures (c) Andy Paradise

Two years ago, in the midst of the pandemic, I wrote a piece for Arcana FM on ‘Mahler’s Eighth and coming out of COVID-19’. I concluded by saying that I wouldn’t get to see a performance of this epic ‘Symphony of a Thousand’ – and complete my personal Mahler live symphony cycle – any time soon, but that when I did it would have a very particular significance.

I certainly didn’t know that the performance would be by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Vasily Petrenko at the Royal Albert Hall on a Sunday afternoon in late October 2022, a concert that was itself rescheduled due to the pandemic.

And what a performance it was. The Royal Albert Hall could be said to be purpose built for this work, accommodating not just an expanded orchestra (including seven off-stage brass players in the gods) but three choirs, two boys’ choirs, eight soloists and a huge concert organ (the Royal Albert Hall’s was once the largest instrument in the world).

You get the full blast of the organ from the off with the tumultuous opening of Part 1’s Veni Creator Spiritus. It’s quite a ride from there on in, and Petrenko and the RPO handled it superbly all the way through to the powerful finale of Part 2’s setting of the end of Goethe’s Faust. This was not just about the big sections, the delicate moments were deftly done too.

But this work is really all about the singing, and the assembled choirs of the Philharmonia and Bournemouth Symphony Choruses and City of London Choir, as well as the Tiffin Boys’ Choir and Schola Cantorum of the Cardinal Vaughan Memorial School were magnificent.

And it wasn’t just the massed voices, as glorious as they were. The soloists – and let’s name them (above): Sarah Wegener (Magna Peccatrix), Jacquelyn Wagner (Gretchen), Regula Mühlemann (Mater Gloriosa), Jennifer Johnston (Mulier Samaritana), Claudia Huckle (Mary of Egypt), Vincent Wolfsteiner (Doctor Marianus), Benedict Nelson (Pater Ecstaticus) and James Platt (Pater Profundus) – were excellent too.

I made the point in my earlier piece that there is something about the combination of the mass assembled forces performing together and being joined by an audience in an even bigger collective. I think the standing ovation from the near sell-out crowd at the end was testimony to this.

Mahler’s Eighth is definitely one of those pieces that you need to see performed live. I’m so glad that I finally did.

John Earls is Director of Research at Unite the Union and tweets at @john_earls