Arcana’s best of 2020

written by Ben Hogwood

Before finishing for Christmas and New Year celebrations, I wanted to offer some thoughts on the musical year that has been 2020. And what a year. I doubt we will experience its like again, that’s for sure – and those of you reading this will no doubt have had some incredible challenges to overcome, or have been instrumental in helping other with their challenges. Everything is firmly in perspective, that is for sure.

In the year of a global pandemic, as in all times of strife, music has been there offering a consoling shoulder to lean on. Much of my listening this year has been of the ambient kind, a place of retreat when all has been too frenetic / inhuman / scary. Music has really shown us its true colours again this year, offering the required escape route along with some real inspiration.

Live music, of course, has suffered greatly, and my thoughts are with all those musicians and people working behind the scenes in the arts, their lives irrevocably affected by COVID. As listeners we thank them for their remarkable resilience and inventiveness, bringing live-streamed concerts of such quality they have been the best possible substitute for the real thing. Wigmore Hall set the scene in June, and many others have followed. The orchestras and choirs should be held in the highest regard for their efforts.

Needless to say I did not attend many concerts in 2020, but two of great note were from soprano Louise Alder (above) and pianist Joseph Middleton, showcasing their exceptional album Lines written during a sleepless night at Wigmore Hall in January, and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment under Iván Fischer performing the last three Mozart symphonies at the Royal Festival Hall in February.

I wanted to share with you my favourite music on record this year. It was of course Beethoven 250, and my aim was to listen to the composer’s entire works. That aim continues, but the deadline has been extended massively! It is proving a thoroughly enjoyable experience but circumstances mean it has taken much longer than expected. To enjoy the listening project to its full potential, I look forward to reconvening with the first Sonatas for cello and piano in 2021, and taking it over the finishing line later in the year.

This year’s new releases have been extremely fine – and I have eight to share with you here, beginning with Steven Osborne’s remarkable disc of three Prokofiev piano sonatas on Hyperion. This appeared at the same time as the Coronavirus and felt like a direct response to it. Prokofiev was writing these works during the Second World War, in part a reaction to intense world and personal strife, and what a performance they get from the Hyperion pianist. You can read about them here

On the orchestral front, John Wilson and his Sinfonia of London came out with a simply outstanding program of French music. Escales did the wonderful job of blending seasoned favourites such as Chabrier’s España with gems that benefited from a dusting off – Duruflé’s Trois Danses and Ibert’s Escales among them. My thoughts on the disc are here

One of the most striking contemporary releases this year capped a fine showing from Kenneth Woods, both with the English Symphony Orchestra and as here with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. Philip Sawyers’ Symphony no.4 and Hommage to Kandinsky are captured by Richard Whitehouse in this review of two exceptional pieces of new music, given great performances under conductor Kenneth Woods.

Of the electronica that I mentioned, there are some rather special examples. First among them is Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith’s The Mosaic Of Transformation, an enchanting journey of vividly coloured musical motifs. I attempted to describe them and their impact here

For something closer to home, Erland Cooper’s Hether Blether signed off his Orcadian trilogy with deeply emotive recollections and portraits of home. Complementing the previous instalments Solan Goose and Sule Skerry, it was a life affirming, communal piece of work uniting thoughts at just the right time. You can read Arcana’s interview with Erland here

Meanwhile Bruce Brubaker & Max Cooper took a minimalist composer as their inspiration for Glassforms, a set of electronic reworkings of the music of Philip Glass. Rather than simply dress up the originals, it is an imaginative and very well thought-out set of recastings, detailed here

Also taking inspiration from similarly minimal sources were New York’s Bing & Ruth, through the excellent Species long player. You can read about it here – and the background to the album in an emotive interview with leader David Moore here

On the other end of the scale sit Rick Wakeman and the English Rock Ensemble. After a series of stripped back piano albums this is Wakeman at his progressive best, in the company of some exceptional musicians, creating some dramatic and involving music. You can read Arcana’s review here – and an extensive interview with the keyboard wizard here

For music of great verve and positivity, drummer Tony Allen’s collaboration with trumpeter Hugh Masekela, posthumously published, took some beating. The recordings were made in 2010, but were unfinished at the time of Masekela’s death. The passing of Allen himself this year lent their completion extra poignancy. It was the closest I could find to pure musical joy in 2020, as documented here!

Meanwhile, returning after a long break was Charles Webster, making Decision Time – an album of very fine, futuristic soul and deep house. Much has changed since we last heard from Webster in this way, but his musical values remain the same, as reported here

It is not too much of a stylistic shift from Webster to Róisín Murphy, where we find my personal album of the year. Róisín Machine is a brilliant combination of Murphy’s effervescent, spiky personality and some really fine future disco, created with the help of Crooked Man (aka Richard Barratt). As noted here, it has the resilience and strength in the face of adversity we all needed in 2020, but crucially the sense of fun we will still need – and will surely get back – in 2021. Happy Christmas!

Switched On – Charles Webster: Decision Time (Dimensions Recordings)

reviewed by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

Not many producers could come back with an electronic music album 19 years after the last one. Yet that is exactly what Charles Webster has done with Decision Time, ‘following up’ his widely acclaimed 2001 opus Born On The 24th July. Webster is very highly respected in dance music circles of course – he learned his trade as an engineer with Juan Atkins and Kevin Saunderson, then moved to San Francisco in the 1990s and recorded under the pseudonym Presence as well as his own name.

Decision Time, as with the previous album, is curated by Webster but features an array of vocal talent, from established dance music royalty Shara Nelson and Terra Deva to South African talent Sio, Thandi Draai and Sipho.

What’s the music like?

Classy. Very little would seem to have changed for Webster in two decades of writing, which is of course an extremely good thing. Webster writes music of real feeling but with meticulously detailed production, so he can create a smoky atmosphere through deep house or more urban soul, brought to life by the chosen vocalist.

Shara Nelson’s guest turn, This Is Real, is heat soaked and emotive, while Sio’s second track Love Lives has a wide open production with intimate vocals. This is a trick Webster manages on several occasions, including Secrets Held, an atmospheric piece of soul where vocalist Emilie Chick draws the ear in.

It is in the deep house tracks where he really plays the winning cards though, the shuffling beats of I Wonder Why twinned with evocative, spacious keyboards, and the tougher beat of Music given a lovely wide perspective before Thandi Draai’s excellent vocal comes in. Webster uses an accordion sound in the middle which works beautifully.

Closing the album are two contributions from Ingrid Chavez, The Spell and The Second Spell. Chavez wrote the spoken word element of Madonna’s Justify My Love, and she appears with Burial, who gets a rare co-production credit on the second of a pair of pieces that crackle with atmosphere. If anything, Chavez’ vocals are better here than with Madonna!

Does it all work?

Very much so. Webster is still a master of creating vivid scenes with his music, be they in smoky, street-based soul or in hot weather deep house music. His use of orchestration is sublime, as is his knack of pacing in the music.

Is it recommended?

Heartily. It has made me revisit the older releases I have from Webster in my collection – and if you’re already a convert then you will need no persuading to buy. If the name Charles Webster is new to you, though, make sure you waste no time getting acquainted with his sublime music!