Are you sitting comfortably? Ready to put your feet up for Christmas (or at least some of it?!) Arcana definitely is, but before we go we wanted to share with you some more musical discoveries that have happened across the year. These are the new releases we have not had time to cover properly until now, but which we think deserve a word or 100.
Think of it like the snacks you get out at Christmas once work has finished. So here, in one very varied block of music, are our extra recommendations from the musical year:
Our first classical port of call is Semyon Bychkov’s Tchaikovsky Project with the Czech Philharmonic. This is a cycle of Tchaikovsky’s seven symphonies (counting Manfred) and the Piano Concertos, with Kirill Gerstein. It is a very attractive set, providing the timely reminder that the early symphonies, while different from the blood and thunder 4-6, carry plenty of musical substance and charm.
In the first, Winter Daydreams, Bychkov gets to the essence of the scherzo by performing it slightly slower than most, but it has a really attractive and graceful lilt. The Second, Little Russian, is a beauty, while the much underrated Polish Symphony (no.3) is a treat, the first movement with a spring in its step as it makes the most of Tchaikovsky’s catchy theme. While repeated a good deal, the freshness of Bychkov’s phrasing helps enormously.
The Fourth is not as high voltage as some performances in the catalogue, but the Fifth Symphony gets a really good performance, from the clarinet solo at the start to the soaring violins at the climax of the slow movement. The Pathétique is excellent too, superbly paced and phrased if perhaps lacking the ultimate tragedy of the final movement.
Manfred, however, is next level, strings as one in the swooning phrase of the first movement, setting up a highly dramatic reading. The closing climax of the first movement is feverish, with a string tone to die for – and this approach encapsulates the whole account of a symphony that now ranks among Tchaikovsky’s finest works.
On a very different plain is a box of Frans Brüggen’s complete recordings of Rameau Suites, made with the Orchestra of the 18th Century on Glossa. These are almost self-recommending, eight beautifully constructed bodies of work from the composer’s stage works that are full of incident and character – and not just local. Rameau, as well as being a keen melodist, was keen on expanding his horizons and the likes of Les Indes Galantes look far afield to Native America for their inspiration. Listen to Air pour les Sauvages towards the end of the suite for an idea of how Brüggen puts a spring in the step of this music, or any of the thrilling overtures, often littered with bracing percussion:
A couple of Khachaturian releases from the enterprising CPO label have caught my eye over the last couple of weeks. They are numbers two and three in a series cataloguing the Armenian composer’s works for solo instrument and orchestra. Last year Stepan Simonian fronted a recording of the Piano Concerto, but this year’s releases see Torleif Thedéen giving the Cello Concerto a terrific reading, and an expansive account of the Concerto Rhapsody.
The Staatsorchester Rheinische Philharmonie are conducted by Daniel Raiskin – as they are on a disc of the Violin Concerto and Concerto Rhapsody, where the soloist is the superb Antje Weithaas. The second movement of the concerto is particularly winsome, a gently rocking triple time movement that becomes the tender heart of the piece.
Another recording of Romantic music from the East comes from Ondine, with a really valuable second disc of the orchestral works of Hans Eller. Eller is one of the founding fathers of Estonian classical music, recognised for his huge influence by no less a composer than Arvo Pärt, who he taught. Pärt noted his ‘fine and masterful orchestration, and a highly-defined personal manner. These characteristics place him on the level with the great Nordic composers’. The quartet of symphonic poems on show here is led by strongly characterised portrayals of Twilight and Dawn from the Estonian National Symphony Orchestra under Olari Elts, with the substantial White Night Suite and Night Calls for company.
Finally Saint-Saëns, surely one of the most Christmassy of composers. This year the Utah Symphony and Thierry Fischer have been on a voyage through the French composer’s five symphonies for Hyperion, which means welcome airings for the Urbs Roma and excellent First and Second Symphonies, as well as the ubiquitous Organ Symphony. They also find space for the Carnival of the Animals and Danse macabre in superb performances that benefit from Hyperion’s customarily excellent recordings. If you have never heard it before, I highly recommend the disc with the first two symphonies, influenced by Mendelssohn but already showing the French composer’s mastery of melody – or the Carnival of the Animals, for a freshly-minted account:
A couple more electronic recommendations for you now, beginning with a remarkable trilogy of albums from Swedish producer Mr. Tophat. Dusk To Dawn Parts I-III, released on Twilight Enterprise, may be something of a sprawling epic, but within it you will find brilliant collaborations rooted in disco-house, featuring the likes of Robyn, Axel Boman and Kleerup. There is some extraordinary music here, none more so than the quarter-hour epic Tears Of Illuminations. This is the music we wanted Lindstrøm to come out with later in the year!
Meanwhile one of the albums of the year is surely Barker’s Utility, where producer Sam Barker has come up with something really special for Ostgut Ton. All too often electronic albums sound exactly the sum of their parts, processed within an inch of their lives and allowing very little room for the human in them to express itself. Barker is different, and from the opening pulses of this album it is clear something rather special is afoot. Paradise Engineering celebrates the processed nature of this music with warm sounds and syncopated rhythms, the mind actually forgetting the almost complete absence of a kick drum. There is enough movement here for the feet to be sorely tempted. Such treatment continues through to the expansive closing track Die-Hards Of The Darwinian Order.
To say Underworld are in a rich creative streak would be like saying that Manchester City score a lot of goals. We know that it happens, but explaining just how it’s done is not quite as easy.
DRIFT, released on their own Smith Hyde Productions via Universal, is the result of a year-long challenge, where Karl Hyde and Rick Smith vowed to write new music every week. Yet as you listen to each offering it is quite clear that rather than being a hindrance this task brought out the best in both of them. There is nigh on six hours’ music here, and having started off with relatively small units the duo find they are churning out half-hour electronic symphonies like Appleshine Continuum, a remarkable piece of work with The Necks that dips on and off the beat with warm improvisation.
The sheer variety on DRIFT is inspiring, and helps it work as a continuous listen for however you want it to last. Dune, at the start of the third disc, is one of the most relaxed tracks they’ve ever done, soft and ruminative, Hyde in a contented place. Custard Speedtalk feels like it takes place on the great plains, with taillights stretching out as far as the eye can see. Contrast that with Another Silent Way, which has a hammering kick drum over which it progresses to a euphoric piece of layered dance music.
Of the many highlights it is worth picking out Brilliant Yes That Would Be, a really good beatless interlude that has its shredded guitar calmed by cool chords, before switching to stationary piano. The triumvirate of Another Silent Way / Drift Poem / Better Than Diamonds is really strong, Hyde instinctively finding descriptive vignettes over another pounding beat and long, held chord combination that has served Underworld so well, shifting shapes in the way that Pearls Girl did so well.
Molehill is an attractive number that shows if proof were needed that Underworld don’t need beats to create an atmosphere. This is more like a Bibio offcut, drifting through the consciousness like a light meditation. Threat Of Rain gets back on the quick horse though, chugging along at a good pace.
The Underworld horse is one that rewards consistent backing, here more than ever. There is a huge amount of listening on DRIFT, but such is their form that pretty much everything here is a surefire winner.
With all that said, I hope there is something here for you to enjoy if you haven’t already encountered it. Here at Arcana we look forward to bringing you a lot more cross-genre musical talk next year, and hope you will take something from it. Happy Christmas, have a brilliant 2020 and see you for more discoveries!