All the trimmings – more musical releases of 2019 that are worth your time

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!

Ben Hogwood

Wigmore Mondays – Joanna MacGregor: Birds, Grounds, Chaconnes

Joanna MacGregor (above)

Wigmore Hall, Monday 11 November 2019 (lunchtime)

You can listen to this concert on the BBC Sounds app here (opens in a new window)

Review and guide by Ben Hogwood

Joanna MacGregor is a remarkably versatile pianist – and from this evidence at the Wigmore Hall, she is an artist who enjoys her music making as much as ever.

It would seem she was given free rein for this hour of music – and was certainly free as a bird in the opening selection of wing-themed pieces. Returning to earth for ‘Grounds’ – pieces of music with set, short structures in the bass – she was equally effusive, as well as ‘Chaconnes’, which are similar to ‘Grounds’ but based more on chord sequences than explicit basslines.

The 400 years or so of music started with a flourish. Rameau had a great ability to portray nature in music, and his Le rappel des oiseaux (The call of the birds) was a delight in its interaction between the hands. His contemporary, François Couperin, was represented by a strongly characterised Les fauvétes plaintives (The plaintive warblers), where MacGregor enjoyed the ornamentation of the right hand. That led to an arrangement of fellow countryman Messiaen’s Le merle noir (The black robin), originally for flute and piano but responding well here to its reduction, with quick fire block chords. Rameau’s portrait of La poule (The Hen) was brilliant, the clucking and strutting of the bird all too enjoyably evident.

Janáček’s piano music has an otherworldly quality of stark intimacy, and it does not get anywhere near the amount of recognition it deserves in the concert hall these days. Joanna MacGregor started her next segment of bird-themed pieces with the evocative piece The barn owl has not flown away. Taken from the first book of the Czech composer’s collection On an Overgrown Path, its haunting motifs fixed the listener in a gaze rather like the owl itself.

Birtwistle’s brief Oockooing Bird was next, a slightly mysterious creature in this performance, before a piano arrangement of Hossein Alizadeh’s Call of the Birds, normally heard in its original version for the duduk (an Armenian woodwind instrument) and the shurangiz (an Iranian member of the lute family). MacGregor is so good at inhabiting the authentic language of these pieces, and she did so here in concentrated fasion.

For the ‘Grounds’ section, who better to start with than Purcell? He was a natural with supposedly constricted forms like this, and the Ground in C minor teemed with activity in MacGregor’s hands, the right hand figures dancing attractively, The piece prepared the way nicely for Philip Glass’s repetitive but meditative Prophecies, arranged from his music to Koyaanisqatsi. This film soundtrack contains some of the composer’s finest music, and MacGregor showed how well it transcribes for piano, building to a bold and emphatic finish.

For the final section we moved onto ‘Chaconnes’, and looked back to the 16th century for the earliest piece in the program. Yet Byrd’s First Pavane still sounds modern in piano guise – Glenn Gould certainly thought so – and Joanna MacGregor gave an extremely spirited and buoyant account. Glass appeared once more – this time the interlude Knee Play no.4 from his opera Einstein on the Beach – before the substantial Chaconne in F minor from Pachelbel, heard here on the piano instead of its ‘home’ instrument, the organ.

How refreshing not to hear the composer’s Canon, much-loved as it is – for Pachelbel is much more than merely a composer of that particular piece. MacGregor found the profound emotional centre, darkly coloured in the minor key – and with that came an impressive inner resolve.

For an encore we were introduced to the eleventh composer of the day through a spirited account of the Passacaglia from Handel’s Harpsichord Suite no.7 in G minor. It contained all the enthusiasm and melodic definition that made this hour in the company of Joanna MacGregor such a joy.

Repertoire

This concert contained the following music (with timings on the BBC Sounds broadcast in brackets):

Rameau Le rappel des osieaux (pub. 1724) (2:21)
François Couperin Les fauvétes plaintives (pub. 1722) (5:27)
Messiaen Le merle noir (1951/1985) (9:05)
Rameau La poule (pub. 1729) (11:02)
Janáček The barn owl has not flown away (from On an Overgrown Path, Book 1) (1900-11) (15:36)
Birtwistle Oockooing Bird (2000) (19:39)
Hossein Alizadeh Call of the Birds (2003) (22:08)
Purcell (1659-1695) Ground in C minor Z221 (unknown) (27:31)
Glass Prophecies (from Koyaanisqatsi) (1982) (30:34)
Byrd First Pavane (from My Ladye Nevells Booke) (pub. 1591) (36:25)
Glass arr. Paul Barnes Knee Play No 4 (from Einstein on the Beach, from Trilogy Sonata) (1976) (40:44)
Pachelbel (1653-1706) Chaconne in F minor (unknown) (44:19)
Encore
Handel Passacaglia from Harpsichord Suite no.7 in G minor (52:33)

Further listening

Joanna MacGregor has yet to record most of the music in this concert, but the following playlist contains most of the music listed above:

Portrayals of birds in classical music are far reaching, but few managed them better than Haydn in the 18th century. His Symphony no.83 in G minor, La Poule (The Hen) begins this playlist containing 100 minutes of bird-themed music. It includes Respighi’s exotic suite The Birds, Stravinsky’s The Nightingale and – perhaps inevitably – Vaughan Williams’ timeless The Lark Ascending:

For the most recommendable version of Janáček’s complete piano music, here is Rudolf Firkušný in both books of the evocative pieces On An Overgrown Path, ideal listening for this time of year:

For a good onward example of Joanna MacGregor’s art on the solo piano, her 2003 album Play is highly recommended, taking an open approach similar to this concert:

Wigmore Mondays: Florilegium visit Paris and Germany

Florilegium (Ashley Solomon (flute, director), Bojan Čičić (violin), Reiko Ichise (viola da gamba), Stephen Devine (harpsichord)

Telemann Paris Quartet No.4 in B minor, TWV43:h2 (1738)
J.S. Bach Trio Sonata in G major, BWV1038 (1732-35)
Rameau Pièces de clavecin en concerts – Suite No.5 in D minor (1741)
Rebel Les caractères de la danse (1715)

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 30 October 2017

Written by Ben Hogwood

The broadcast can be heard on the BBC iPlayer by clicking here

This year marks the 250th anniversary of the death of Georg Philipp Telemann. If that name doesn’t mean anything to you, then perhaps it should – especially if you are a follower of the music of Bach or Handel. Telemann, so the concert note for this recital informed us, wrote more than the two composers combined – an extraordinary feat when you think that he wrote a number of large scale stage and sacred works.

Some of his most admired works are on a smaller scale however, such as the collection of Paris Quartets he published in two parts, in 1730 and 1738. They are intimate works for flute, violin, viola da gamba and continuo (usually harpsichord) that allow a great deal of flexibility for the performers, subtly pushing the boundaries Baroque chamber music was exploring at the time.

Complementing the Telemann in this concert are works by J.S. Bach – a Trio Sonata co-written with son Carl Philipp Emanuel – and works by the Frenchmen Rameau and Rebel, each bringing the spirit of the dance to an intimate grouping of musicians.

Follow the music

Telemann Paris Quartet No.4 in B minor, TWV43:h2 (from 1:41) (19 minutes)

A bright and brisk Prelude gives a good illustration of how Telemann writes so well for strings and wind, but the performers often have difficult lines to play, as in the passage from 5:09 where the tempo quickens. After the Prelude the quartet moves into a series of dances, with an elegant Coulant led by the flute (7:26), then movements entitled Gai, Vite (11:18), Triste (a sombre, melancholy dance from 13:19) and finally a Menuet (15:55) that proves to be much lighter on its feet, especially in its quick middle section.

J.S. Bach Trio Sonata in G major, BWV1038 (from 23:32, 7 minutes)

Bach was always aware of musical developments in his age, and with this particular Trio Sonata it appears he only wrote one part of the three, delegating the other two for son Carl Philippe Emmanuel to complete. Although there are three parts, typically with Baroque instrumental pieces there are actually four instruments taking part – the harpsichord and viola da gamba (an early form of cello without a spike, and in this case with five strings) share the bass / harmony roles.

This piece starts with an attractive, languid line on the flute that the violin shadows. The mood is – perhaps for Bach – surprisingly relaxed. A quick movement, marked Vivace (lively) follows from 26:42, but it’s gone in a flash – and a much slower Adagio movement begins at 27:38, with thoughtful interplay between flute and violin. Then at 29:40 a more substantial quicker movement, marked Presto, features typical Bach figures passed between each of the four instruments.

Rameau Pièces de clavecin en concerts – Suite No.5 in D minor (from 32:31, 13 minutes)

Rameau named the three movements of this suite after his fellow composers, although it doesn’t suggest in the concert note if he was painting a character portrait of each. If he was, then Forqueray, the first subject, would be a genial sort with a memorable hook – in this case introduced by the harpsichord from 32:31. Cupis (from 37:10) would be a thoughtful, deep kind of person, prone to a few bouts of melancholy, while Marais (42:34) would be a bright, energetic figure, again with a catchy tune with frequent and highly enjoyable repeats!

Rebel Les caractères de la danse (from 46:00, 8 minutes)

An early medley, if you like – a collection of short dances all rolled up into one. In the course of a fun-packed eight minutes, Rebel fills the music with eleven different dance forms, both slow and fast, giving his ensemble plenty to do. The harpsichord provides the crisp rhythmic emphasis, along with the viola da gamba, but is also given the tune at times, and invited to show off. The piece ends with a rapid dance with which only the quickest of feet could keep up!

Encore

A Bolivian dance from one of Florilegium’s three albums of Bolivian Baroque music (55:10), with some lively lines for violin and flute – and Reiko Ichise ditching the viola da gamba for shakers!

Thoughts on the concert

This was a very stylish and enjoyable concert. Florilegium have been together since 1991, and their performing style shows them totally at ease with the music of the Baroque period. Here they flourished especially in the Rameau and Rebel dance-based works, where harpsichordist Stephen Devine prompted and probed with tasteful, rhythmic playing.

The Telemann was a charming performance, the seriousness of its home key of B minor given a lift in the dance movements, while the Bach was unusually lyrical for the trio sonata form. A concert played with good humour and considerable panache, topped off by the exoticism of the Bolivian encore.

Further listening and reading

You can hear Florilegium’s recordings of the complete Telemann Paris Quartets in three volumes on Spotify. The third volume includes the quartet heard in this concert:

Meanwhile their explorations of the Bolivian Baroque can also be heard here, a first disc of three:

Telemann’s Water Music is one of his best loved works, and makes an excellent companion piece to the Handel. From experience I can say it is a thrilling work to be part of, as this performance from the Musica Antiqua Köln and Reinhard Goebel illustrates!