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

On record: Colin Matthews: Violin Concerto, Cortège, Cello Concerto No. 2 (NMC)

matthews

Colin Matthews: Cortège (1988)*. Cello Concerto No. 2 (1996)**. Violin Concerto (2009)***

***Leila Josefowicz (violin); **Anssi Kartunen (cello); *Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra / Riccardo Chailly; BBC Symphony Orchestra / **Rumon Gamba and ***Oliver Knussen

Summary

A welcome (and timely!) release of three major pieces by Colin Matthews, who celebrated his 70th birthday last year and whose involvement – as producer and promoter – in British contemporary music has sometimes obscured his considerable contribution as a composer.

What’s the music like?

The three works offer a viable overview of Matthews’s orchestral output over two decades. Earliest is Cortège – written for the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House and its then Music Director Bernard Haitink, and a notable instance of the Mahlerian strain in this composer’s thinking. Unfolding over an inexorable tread, this diversifies incrementally for a convulsive central section as duly brings an intensified resumption of the initial music and an explosive culmination before subsiding into nothingness. Under Riccardo Chailly, the Concertgebouw gives an impressive account of a ‘processional’ such as has featured prominently in modern British music (Birtwistle’s The Triumph of Time and John Pickard’s Channel Firing come immediately to mind), and which here sustains its monumentality with impressive purpose.

Although by no means an understated piece, the Second Cello Concerto is appreciably more varied in mood and diverse in its formal construction. Its five movements play continuously – the angular central ‘Scherzo’ framed by two ‘Song without text’ movements of an arioso-like expressiveness; these, in turn, are flanked by a ‘Declamation’ whose recitative-like austerity is transmuted in the final ‘Resolution’ towards an incisive resolve. Written for and premiered by Mstislav Rostropovich (whom memory recalls played it rather poorly), the piece finds an admirable exponent in Anssi Karttunen, who audibly appreciates the underlying subtlety of a conception more ‘concertante’ than ‘concerto’ in its emphasis. Hopefully this belated release will encourage further hearings of one of the finest such works from the past quarter-century.

The most recent piece here, the Violin Concerto (2009) was commissioned by Birmingham’s Feeney Trust, whose portfolio amounts to a fair conspectus of post-war British music – one to which this concerto is a notable addition. Its harmonic basis may stem from Mahler and Berg but its rhythmic incisiveness, notably the tensile solo writing, recalls Prokofiev and Walton. The first of two movements elides twice between slower and faster material with understated intent, so allowing its successor to open-out expressively via an acceleration from measured intensity to headlong propulsion at the close. The work is finely realised by Leila Josefowicz, her rendering of a solo part virtuosic for all its lack of display highlighted against an orchestra which features a diverse percussion section and duly yields an enticing interplay of sonorities.

Does it all work?

Yes. Matthews has long been a composer fighting shy of stylistic straitjackets, with the result that his diverse output sometimes lacks focus or consistency. Not so the three pieces featured here, demonstrating a keen handling of form and an equally well-integrated expressive range.

Is it recommended?

Indeed. The sound leaves little to be desired, while the booklet notes are informative and not unreasonably enthusiastic. A pity, even so, that it has taken so long for at least two of these recordings to be made available: musicians and listeners alike need to be aware of this music.

Richard Whitehouse

Further information at the NMC website