Happy National Album Day…

Last year saw a very successful first run for National Album Day, where we were all encouraged to listen to our favourite album in full at 3.33pm. (I listened to Radiator by the Super Furry Animals in case you ask!)

The sequel is already here today – the year of Don’t Skip. This is to encourage us back to the idea of listening to a single body of work from one musical source rather than a playlist, and to lengthen our attention spans as we do so.

This return to album-playing first principals, warts and all, may well mean taking in some of those puzzling instrumental interludes or hidden tracks (especially if you like progressive rock like I do!) but equally it will offer the chance to marvel at those tracks buried in albums that were quite clearly singles in waiting.

For lovers of classical music, National Album Day should also be heartily encouraged. The classical album might be more of a movable feast than its pop counterpart, but the same principles apply, and Arcana has decided to humbly offer up a few favourites that fit the album format.

One successful way to produce a classical album is to focus in on the music of a particular country. Even better, you can follow the brief of Michael Tilson Thomas and the London Symphony Orchestra, focusing on a particular composer in exile or relocated from home. This example is a thoroughly engrossing look at Stravinsky’s time in America. With brilliantly played pieces short and long, serious and humorous, it is an album to which I return often:

English music fits perfectly into this way of thinking too. Recently the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra and Rumon Gamba have been looking at the world of British Tone Poems for Chandos – and the recently-released second volume is a gem, with works from diverse sources such as Dorothy Howell, Vaughan Williams and John Foulds:

Another point of departure is the inspiration of a particular artist. On this disc from BIS featuring works inspired by the clarinettist Benny Goodman, Martin Fröst revels in the delights of music by Copland, Hindemith and Malcolm Arnold:

Alternatively if you are a classical performer, you can go for works written for your own performance. The great cellist Mstislav Rostropovich was one of the first artists to carry this one through – and this 1975 combination of concertos for cello and orchestra by Dutilleux and Lutoslawski is a winner:

If you are a singer, you can bring the words into play. Language or poetry can form the inspiration for a record, as it does with this wonderful collection from Anne Sofie von Otter and Bengt Forsberg. La Bonne Chanson was the first record of song I bought, and it stays with me today:

It is interesting to see how newer classical artists have approached the format. Sheku Kanneh-Mason offered something for everyone on Inspiration, his first release, catering for both the newcomer to the cello or the established listener. Either will surely enjoy the Shostakovich Cello Concerto no.1, but also his arrangement of Bob Marley‘s No Woman No Cry:

Finally I offer up two of my own favourite classical albums, both from the ECM label – which celebrates its 50th anniversary next month. The first is composer-themed, an introduction to the haunting sound world of Estonian composer Arvo Pärt in definitive performances, including a magical version of Fratres for twelve cellos:

The second is led by organist Christopher Bowers-Broadbent, and includes a dazzling account of Dance IV by Philip Glass, the culmination of an album including works by Pärt and Sir Peter Maxwell Davies. Listen and be enthralled:

All that remains is for me to wish you a happy National Album Day, whatever you end up listening to – and if you do, please share them below!

Ben Hogwood

Happy new year from Arcana!

celloFirst of all, a very happy new year to you all. Hope 2017 has been good to you so far!

Here at Arcana we are dipping our toes back in the water after an extended break, gradually getting back into the swing of the day job – and planning some exciting things for the site in 2017. The idea is to use the enjoyment and power of music to bring some much-needed sunshine to the current climate. Not just us though – if there is anything you want to see after reading this, please get in touch (editor@arcana.fm), so we can be as inclusive as possible!

So far, with the site almost two years old, it is fair to say the focus has been too heavily on classical music. That might seem an odd thing to say, but it’s time Arcana went back to first principles and delivered on its promise of looking at the intersection between pop and classical, and how we can make the latter much more approachable.

With that in mind, we will be looking a lot more at music from composers who work well on both sides. Philip Glass is 80 this year, John Adams 70 – and a lot of artists and composers inspired by them are expected to be busy.

We will once again be taking friends to classical concerts for the first time, an idea trialed with great success at the 2016 BBC Proms, so if you’re interested in that then please let us know! The Wigmore Hall Monday lunchtime concerts will still be covered too – the only website to offer reviews of these hour-long treats.

We plan to honour the music of Emerson, Lake & Palmer, paying tribute to last year’s sadly departed Keith Emerson and Greg Lake as we look at their treatment of classical music.

We will also celebrate the unrivalled career of cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, who would have been 90 this year, by taking an extended look at the pieces he commissioned from some of the greatest composers of the twentieth century, and celebrate his instrument, the cello.

Rostropovich singlehandedly changed the reputation of the instrument, and we’ll be looking at how he did that while also enjoying concerts such as the Kings Place cello festival.

As you’ll see then, plenty to get our teeth into as the New Year gets in to gear. Hope you enjoy the ride!

Ben Hogwood, editor, Arcana.fm

Jean-Guihen Queyras – Bach and Britten at the Wigmore Hall

Jean-Guihen Queyras plays works for solo cello by J.S. Bach and Benjamin Britten at the Wigmore Hall


Jean-Guihen Queyras (cello) – Wigmore Hall, London, live on BBC Radio 3, 6 July 2015

Listening link (opens in a new window):


on the iPlayer until 5 August


In case you cannot hear the broadcast, here is a Spotify playlist of the music in this concert, in recordings made by Queyras for Harmonia Mundi:

What’s the music?

Britten: Solo Cello Suite no.1 (1964) (20 minutes)

J.S. Bach: Solo Cello Suite no.6 (c1724) (30 minutes)

What about the music?

The idea of a cello playing on its own was only fully cultivated in the twentieth century – when Pablo Casals recorded the six Bach suites in the 1930s and they became part of the repertoire once again. Until then, unbelievably, they had lain dormant – but now they stand as arguably the most-played body of works for cello in existence. They are wonderfully flexible pieces, because the easiest parts of the suites can be played by budding amateurs. Generally, the higher the number of the suite, the more technically demanding they are.

Hence the Sixth and last suite in the set is extremely virtuosic. It is thought to have been written for a five-string instrument known as the violoncello piccolo, like the one in the picture below:


The Sixth is the longest of the suites, and often features multiple stopping – i.e. more than one note played at once. Because the fifth string of the violoncello piccolo would have been a higher one (an ‘E’ above the highest cello string of ‘A’) the suite is unusual for its treble-rich sound.

Britten stole into the world of the solo cello by way of his dear friend Mstislav Rostropovich, who threw down the gauntlet to him to write a number of compositions for the instrument. In taking on writing for the solo cello he was one of the first since Bach to take it on in a solo capacity – Zoltán Kodály and Max Reger being the others.

Britten made an explicit homage to Bach’s works in the use of different dance forms, and like the elder composer he often wrote out multiple stopping, using the confines of the instrument to somehow write independent parts for it. These can be heard especially as the second movement Fuga takes shape.

Britten was to write another two suites for solo cello, for it was clearly an instrument that pricked his compositional interest.

Performance verdict

If ever proof were needed that Bach can make you happy, Jean-Guihen Queyras supplied it handsomely in this wonderful hour of music. Each of the six movements making up the Sixth Cello Suite danced persuasively, although in the slower Allemande and Sarabande dances Queyras achieved a wonderful, all-encompassing peace. Technically he was superb – this is far from easy music to play in public – with rock solid intonation and an easy way that endeared him to his audience.

The Britten made a good contrast, for this is a very serious piece, with inner strife that Queyras built perceptibly as the final flurry of notes grew closer. Here he was careful to bring out Britten’s part writing for the instrument, so that on occasion it felt as though there were many more instruments than just one in the room. The cello’s probing tone still brought each melody to the front, while the technical effects Britten uses to enhance the impact of the piece were brilliantly executed.

What should I listen out for?


1:41 – the Canto primo, where the cello proclaims the theme majestically. Immediately you can hear Britten’s use of multiple stopping, which is where the cello plays chords from several strings at once. This moves into…

3:39 – the Fuga begins. It seems very unlikely that a fugue could work on a cello but it somehow does – when at 3:52 the next entry of the tune comes in, meaning several parts can exist simultaneously. The ear is led this way and that, as though two or even three cellos are playing. From hear the mood darkens to…

7:42 – the Lamento, which starts with a broad intonation, like a solo singer. Britten wrote so many of his instrumental pieces as though they are vocal.

10:07 – the Canto Secondo. In response to the Lamento the cello gives a subdued account of the Canto theme, appearing lost in thought.

11:07 – Serenata. Marked Allegretto pizzicato (quite fast but with the strings plucked) this is a more playful homage to the second movement of Debussy’s Cello Sonata, which Britten and Rostropovich recorded together in 1961.

13:33 – a movement marked as Marcia – where Britten achieves ghostly sounds firstly through the use of harmonics, where the left hand rests very lightly on the string, and then through the wood of the bow banging on the string (14:14). The mood is now agitated.

16:40 – from the murky depths of the cello we hear the solemn Canto terzo, another variant of the tune from the start. The music becomes gradually more forceful, moving into…

18:29 – the Bordone begins – an unusually titled movement that features a drone on the note ‘D’ – mostly from the open string. Around it a cluster of notes can be heard, while the left hand plucks the string absently. Again it sounds like there are two or three instruments playing, such is the density of Britten’s music.

21:39 – the final section, marked Moto perpetuo – and now the cello sounds like a group of excited insects, the melody fluttering around restlessly. At 23:02 the main tune returns but sounds breathless in this company, as it does until the end – which is deliberately distorted and angry.

J.S. Bach

27:08 – the expansive Prelude, rooted in D major by frequent sounding of the open ‘D’ string, before gradually opening out. Bach’s main tune returns at a lower pitch (‘G’) at 29:33 – but then the music climbs to a peak at 30:28.

32:16 – the slow Allemande dance begins. This is the longest single movement in all of Bach’s music for solo cello, and it resembles a religious contemplation. Time really does seem to stand still as the cello’s music unwinds with a great inevitability. When he repeats the first section (from 33:57) Queyras plays much quieter.

40:34 – the triple-time Courante dance, a lively affair that finds the cello jumping around its range.

44:31 – the slow, serene Sarabande – which inhabits a similar world to the earlier Allemande. It requires clarity on the part of the cellist, who is playing high chords for much of the sequence, but when played well it is very beautiful, as here.

49:46 – a lightness of touch runs through the two Gavottes. The first of these uses a lot of multiple stopping, while the second (beginning at 51:25) is more purposeful and works its way into a bit of a frenzy over a drone. The first Gavotte is repeated at 52:34.

53:25 – the last of the dances, a Gigue – again in triple time. This has a rustic feel and keeps the wide open sound Bach has used throughout the suite, which reaches a thoroughly uplifting finish at 57:33.

Further listening

If the sound of the cello on its own appeals, the rest of the Bach and Britten suites are wholeheartedly recommended. In the Britten, one of many fine recordings comes from Norwegian cellist Truls Mørk, made for Virgin Classics. It can be heard on Spotify here:

In the Bach works interpretations are many and varied, so it is advisable to try a number of different sources. One of the earlier classic recordings that is always rewarding comes from the French cellist Pierre Fournier, made for Deutsche Grammophon’s side label Archiv Produktion in 1960. Here it is on Spotify:

For more concerts click here