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

BBC Symphony Orchestra & Semyon Bychkov – Beloved Friend: Tchaikovsky Project

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Richard Whitehouse on the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Semyon Bychkov (above) in the second of their Tchaikovsky-themed concerts

Tchaikovsky Serenade for strings in C major, Op. 48 (1880)

Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No.3 in E flat major, Op. 75 (1893)

Taneyev Overture: The Oresteia, Op.6 (1889)

Tchaikovsky Francesca da Rimini, Op. 32 (1876)

Kirill Gerstein (piano), BBC Symphony Orchestra / Semyon Bychkov

Barbican Hall, London; Monday 24 October

The Beloved Friend series being curated by Semyon Bychkov provides a revealing overview of Tchaikovsky through some lesser performed works. Not the least of which is the Serenade for strings that, though its individual movements emerge frequently on radio, is not so often encountered in concert. Too short to occupy a second or even first half, it makes for a lengthy yet viable opening item when, as tonight, a full-sized string section is deployed with panache.

Bychkov ensured a fervent response in the first movement, its animated main sections framed by the rhetorical motto theme that ultimately returns as an apotheosis, then found suavity as well as elegance in the Waltz. Despite lack of inwardness, the Elegy yielded real clarity in its denser passages, while the Finale proceeded briskly yet characterfully to its resolute close.

kirill-gersteinNext followed a rare revival of the Third Piano Concerto, itself reworked from an abandoned symphony and what would doubtless have become a three-movement entity had Tchaikovsky completed its Andante and Finale to his satisfaction prior to his death (these latter, as realized posthumously by Taneyev, make an effective whole – as Alexander Markovich demonstrated in a Royal Festival Hall account eight years ago).

As a stand-alone piece, the Allegro brillante (best known in its ballet incarnation by George Balanchine) unfolds a quirky and characterful sonata design – its themes distinctive for their emotional restraint, with a stealthy interplay between piano and orchestra that Kirill Gerstein (above) audibly relished. Momentum faltered marginally after a scintillating cadenza, but the final pages strode onwards to a decisive if peremptory ending.

Overall, a convincing account of music which warrants greater exposure. Hopefully Gerstein will yet tackle this work’s three-movement incarnation: for now, he returned for a reading of Méditation – the fifth of Tchaikovsky’s Op. 72 collection – that oozed eloquence and poise.

More discussed than played in the West, Sergey Taneyev was as least as much a composer as pedagogue; a notable output of orchestral and chamber music capped by his ambitious opera The Oresteia. Beginning life as this latter’s introduction, the present overture expanded into an autonomous entity that surveys the opera’s dramatic content and is an eventful symphonic poem in its own right. Its complementary halves representing an archetypal ‘war and peace’ in dramatic as well as musical terms, the piece is harmonically questing and often texturally adventurous – not least in its extensive though never self-conscious writing for harps. Some 15 years after Taneyev last enjoyed a fair measure of exposure in London, Bychkov directed a fastidious performance to remind listeners that they are the poorer for this music’s neglect.

Even in an era intent on ‘concerto and symphony’ programming, Tchaikovsky’s Francesca da Rimini has never lacked for performances – this symphonic fantasia mingling drama with pathos to a heady degree even for this composer. Bychkov accordingly upped the ante in the tempestuous opening, then secured a suitably rapt response from woodwind and strings in the central section depicting Paolo and Francesca. Its balletic continuation drifted as is often the case, but the final pages portrayed the hapless lovers’ descent into hell with unerring ferocity.

Recorded by BBC Radio 3 for future broadcast in Afternoon on 3, and available for 30 days thereafter via the Radio 3 website

Under the Surface at the Proms – About Schmidt

Prom 73, 10 September 2015 – Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra / Semyon Bychkov at the Royal Albert Hall

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Semyon Bychkov conducts the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra in Schmidt at the Royal Albert Hall. Photo (c) Chris Christodoulou

Symphony no.2 in E flat major
http://www.bbc.co.uk/events/ewbfxj#b068tnhg

‘Some music has to wait before it finds its place in the sun.’

This standout quote comes from an interview in the Proms program with conductor Semyon Bychkov, who conducted the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra in this concert of two late Romantic symphonies. The work to which he referred was not BrahmsThird Symphony, which received an occasionally beautiful but ultimately rather lethargic performance in the first half, but the Second Symphony of Franz Schmidt, completed in 1913.

Schmidt’s music has only visited the Royal Albert Hall in full on two previous occasions. The Fourth Symphony, which experienced a revival when Frans Welser-Möst and the London Philharmonic Orchestra won a Gramophone Award for a recording of it in 1996, was heard at the festival in 1998. The relative success of this was followed by the massive sacred piece Das Buch mit Sieben Siegeln (The Book of the Seven Seals), which followed a similar path, recorded by Welser-Most in 1996 and performed by the same conductor in 2000.

Schmidt was a wholly suitable choice of composer for the Vienna Philharmonic, who have been revisiting important works in their history this year. Unlike the Brahms third they did not give the premiere of the Schmidt, but the connections with the composer are close. He became a member of the orchestra in 1896, where he played as a cellist – though he did not get on with Gustav Mahler, conductor at the time. Bychkov has championed the Second Symphony with other orchestras, so it made sense to finally bring it to the Vienna Philharmonic. From what I could tell this was their first season performing this or any of his symphonies. So what of the piece itself?

Written on a large scale, the Second clocks in at around 50 minutes. It is in three movements, the large second movement dominating at around half the length of the piece – and it was the centrepiece here. A colourful and richly layered set of variations on a theme, it delights in exploring a number of completely contrasting moods, drawing unusual textures from the orchestra that reveal Schmidt the organ composer. A few of the variations sound uncannily like right hand keyboard figures played at speed, with amazing clarity of colour.

There were clear influences from Bach, Beethoven, Mahler, Richard Strauss and Bruckner – yet the music was nothing like a copy of any of these composers. Instead Schmidt managed to stamp his own personality on the piece, shying away from obvious statements so that the mood was at times strangely elusive, on occasion reluctant to commit to emotion with obvious meaning.

It had operatic qualities, for sure, which could be felt in the ebb and flow of the drama and in the swell of the melodies – but the unusually luminous colours dominated, Schmidt using the orchestra in his own individual way. Here he wrote especially taxing parts for violins and violas, but the crowning glory was the massive brass chorale that appeared towards the end and was resolved without fuss.

Only the Proms could have presented this combination of orchestra and music, and should be congratulated for doing so. It was expertly performed and well received, and should go a long way to giving Schmidt’s music the chance of a revival it deserves. It will be interesting to come back in five years and see if anyone else has taken up the baton from Bychkov.

Want to hear more?

A playlist combining the Second and Fourth Symphonies can be heard here:

Meanwhile for the massive Das Buch mit Sieben Siegeln (The Book of the Seven Seals), in a recent recording made for Chandos under conductor Kristjan Jarvi, click on the link below:

This is the last Under the Surface feature of this year’s Proms. There will be more explorations of rare repertoire on Arcana in the coming months, both through recordings and concerts. Stay tuned!