Arcana’s best of 2020

written by Ben Hogwood

Before finishing for Christmas and New Year celebrations, I wanted to offer some thoughts on the musical year that has been 2020. And what a year. I doubt we will experience its like again, that’s for sure – and those of you reading this will no doubt have had some incredible challenges to overcome, or have been instrumental in helping other with their challenges. Everything is firmly in perspective, that is for sure.

In the year of a global pandemic, as in all times of strife, music has been there offering a consoling shoulder to lean on. Much of my listening this year has been of the ambient kind, a place of retreat when all has been too frenetic / inhuman / scary. Music has really shown us its true colours again this year, offering the required escape route along with some real inspiration.

Live music, of course, has suffered greatly, and my thoughts are with all those musicians and people working behind the scenes in the arts, their lives irrevocably affected by COVID. As listeners we thank them for their remarkable resilience and inventiveness, bringing live-streamed concerts of such quality they have been the best possible substitute for the real thing. Wigmore Hall set the scene in June, and many others have followed. The orchestras and choirs should be held in the highest regard for their efforts.

Needless to say I did not attend many concerts in 2020, but two of great note were from soprano Louise Alder (above) and pianist Joseph Middleton, showcasing their exceptional album Lines written during a sleepless night at Wigmore Hall in January, and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment under Iván Fischer performing the last three Mozart symphonies at the Royal Festival Hall in February.

I wanted to share with you my favourite music on record this year. It was of course Beethoven 250, and my aim was to listen to the composer’s entire works. That aim continues, but the deadline has been extended massively! It is proving a thoroughly enjoyable experience but circumstances mean it has taken much longer than expected. To enjoy the listening project to its full potential, I look forward to reconvening with the first Sonatas for cello and piano in 2021, and taking it over the finishing line later in the year.

This year’s new releases have been extremely fine – and I have eight to share with you here, beginning with Steven Osborne’s remarkable disc of three Prokofiev piano sonatas on Hyperion. This appeared at the same time as the Coronavirus and felt like a direct response to it. Prokofiev was writing these works during the Second World War, in part a reaction to intense world and personal strife, and what a performance they get from the Hyperion pianist. You can read about them here

On the orchestral front, John Wilson and his Sinfonia of London came out with a simply outstanding program of French music. Escales did the wonderful job of blending seasoned favourites such as Chabrier’s España with gems that benefited from a dusting off – Duruflé’s Trois Danses and Ibert’s Escales among them. My thoughts on the disc are here

One of the most striking contemporary releases this year capped a fine showing from Kenneth Woods, both with the English Symphony Orchestra and as here with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. Philip Sawyers’ Symphony no.4 and Hommage to Kandinsky are captured by Richard Whitehouse in this review of two exceptional pieces of new music, given great performances under conductor Kenneth Woods.

Of the electronica that I mentioned, there are some rather special examples. First among them is Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith’s The Mosaic Of Transformation, an enchanting journey of vividly coloured musical motifs. I attempted to describe them and their impact here

For something closer to home, Erland Cooper’s Hether Blether signed off his Orcadian trilogy with deeply emotive recollections and portraits of home. Complementing the previous instalments Solan Goose and Sule Skerry, it was a life affirming, communal piece of work uniting thoughts at just the right time. You can read Arcana’s interview with Erland here

Meanwhile Bruce Brubaker & Max Cooper took a minimalist composer as their inspiration for Glassforms, a set of electronic reworkings of the music of Philip Glass. Rather than simply dress up the originals, it is an imaginative and very well thought-out set of recastings, detailed here

Also taking inspiration from similarly minimal sources were New York’s Bing & Ruth, through the excellent Species long player. You can read about it here – and the background to the album in an emotive interview with leader David Moore here

On the other end of the scale sit Rick Wakeman and the English Rock Ensemble. After a series of stripped back piano albums this is Wakeman at his progressive best, in the company of some exceptional musicians, creating some dramatic and involving music. You can read Arcana’s review here – and an extensive interview with the keyboard wizard here

For music of great verve and positivity, drummer Tony Allen’s collaboration with trumpeter Hugh Masekela, posthumously published, took some beating. The recordings were made in 2010, but were unfinished at the time of Masekela’s death. The passing of Allen himself this year lent their completion extra poignancy. It was the closest I could find to pure musical joy in 2020, as documented here!

Meanwhile, returning after a long break was Charles Webster, making Decision Time – an album of very fine, futuristic soul and deep house. Much has changed since we last heard from Webster in this way, but his musical values remain the same, as reported here

It is not too much of a stylistic shift from Webster to Róisín Murphy, where we find my personal album of the year. Róisín Machine is a brilliant combination of Murphy’s effervescent, spiky personality and some really fine future disco, created with the help of Crooked Man (aka Richard Barratt). As noted here, it has the resilience and strength in the face of adversity we all needed in 2020, but crucially the sense of fun we will still need – and will surely get back – in 2021. Happy Christmas!

On record – Steven Osborne: Prokofiev: Piano Sonatas nos. 6-8

Steven Osborne (piano)

Prokofiev
Piano Sonatas: no.6 in A minor Op.82 (1940), no.7 in B flat major Op.83 (1942), no.8 in B flat major Op.84 (1944)

Hyperion CDA68298 [74’21”]

Producer Steven Johns
Engineer David Hinitt

Recorded February 2019, St Silas the Martyr, Kentish Town, London

Written by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

Steven Osborne has been an advocate of Sergei Prokofiev’s piano music for a number of years now, receiving rave reviews for his performances of the sonatas in particular. This release has therefore been keenly awaited for some time, as Osborne takes on the composer’s so-called ‘war trilogy’.

Prokofiev himself did not label the pieces in this way, but he did work on them simultaneously between 1939 and 1944, as the full horror of the Second World War became apparent. While the composer’s public facing side was preoccupied with writing music of which Stalin could not disapprove, the Piano Sonatas are more private works, the composer left with his real thoughts alone at the piano.

Prokofiev himself gave the premiere of the Sixth Sonata in 1940, after which the following two works were left in the considerable hands of Sviatoslav Richter (1943) and Emil Gilels (1944). Each premiere was given in Moscow.

What’s the music like?

While the Piano Sonata no.7 is found in concert relatively often on account of its virtuosity and dramatic impact, the two around it are lesser spotted companions. They are however two of the composer’s most substantial and meaningful works. The Seventh itself is restless, like a cat on a hot tin roof in the fast outer movements, but pausing for deep and soulful reflection in the second.

The Piano Sonata no.6 has a great depth of feeling. Its first movement presents a caustic but memorable main theme, while the second, a scherzo, is equal parts dry humour and studied, chromatic reflection. A waltz follows, its long and delicate melodies reminding us of Prokofiev as a composer for the stage, before the finale brings forward an extraordinary theme, quick and quiet initially but building to a close of formidable power.

Meanwhile the Piano Sonata no.8, while retaining the key of the seventh, is a very different beast. Prokofiev’s most substantial work for solo piano, it has much longer musical phrases and appears to portray the composer’s innermost thoughts.

Does it all work?

Wholeheartedly. Osborne has the measure of Prokofiev’s music, producing a devastating combination of virtuosity and deep-set feeling.

In the Piano Sonata no.6 there is no doubt of the force of the composer’s emotion, his despair and anger at the unfolding conflict tampered by music of a much softer touch. The abrasive start, major and minor chords clashing, tells you all you need to hear, yet perhaps even more striking are the quieter passages, which Osborne plays with pointed delicacy, the ticking sound in the first movement drawing the listener in, and the ripples of lyricism in the third presenting a compelling scene. Yet there is great resolve here, which comes to the fore in the finale, Osborne driving forward with the main theme but lowering the temperature considerably with a haunting reappearance of the main tune from the first movement.

The Seventh Sonata is terrific, played right on the edge of the cliff but again with keen dramatic instinct. The first movement dances around its central key of B flat major with edgy impatience. Osborne’s dynamic range is hugely impressive, ranging from intimate asides to the clanging percussive passages Prokofiev loves to use. Turning inwards for the slow movement, he goes deep into some of Prokofiev’s most moving music for piano, the lilting contour of the left hand at the start building to a powerful apex in the middle. The third movement Toccata is gone in a flash, driving incessantly forward, grimly determined as though looking to escape its pursuers but trampling on them by the end!

Despite these impressive achievements Osborne’s Eighth Sonata is the crowning glory of this set. He allows the ruminative first movement plenty of time to air its thoughts, Prokofiev in contemplative mood for an unusually concentrated stretch, before the more abrasive thoughts of the previous sonatas bubble to the surface.

The second movement offers a chance for repose, its relatively gentle demeanour helped by a triple time lilt that Osborne paces attractively. The finale brings renewed energy, a valedictory air around both its first theme and the commanding central section, which the pianist takes by the scruff of the neck, leading to a barnstorming closing page.

Hyperion’s sound is ideal, Osborne placed in excellent digital perspective but with plenty of room for Prokofiev’s very biggest sound. There is a huge dynamic range in this music and thankfully we get the best of all worlds.

Is it recommended?

Absolutely. These sonatas have had some fine recordings over the years, and Osborne’s join those right at the top of the digital list. An outstanding achievement from all involved.

Listen and Buy

You can listen to clips from this disc and purchase a copy at the Hyperion website here

Pictures at an Exhibition – Steven Osborne

Pictures at an Exhibition – Musorgsky’s much loved collection for piano played by Steven Osborne

steven-osborneSteven Osborne (piano) – Wigmore Hall, live on BBC Radio 3, 2 February 2015

Listening link (opens in a new window):

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b04wmjx6

on the iPlayer until 3 March

For non-UK listeners, this Spotify playlist is available:

Please note that recordings of these works by Steven Osborne are not available on Spotify – the Musorgsky however is available to hear on the Hyperion website. I have therefore chosen suitable alternatives and will change the time references below when the BBC iPlayer link expires.

What’s the music?

Rachmaninov – a selection of 4 Etudes-Tableaux (1916-17) (13 minutes)

Musorgsky – Pictures at an Exhibition (1874) (36 minutes)

What about the music?

Musorgsky‘s Pictures at an Exhibition is a much-loved group of pieces, capturing the imagination of performers and arrangers alike. Although written originally for piano it has enjoyed life in several guises, most famously in a tremendous orchestration by Ravel but also through arrangements for all sorts of instrumental combinations, including brass band and even pop group – which Emerson, Lake and Palmer released as a live album in 1971.

The composer wrote it so the listener takes the part of the viewer at an art exhibition – in this case a series of paintings by the Russian artist Viktor Hartmann. Some of the pictures are separated by Promenades, where Musorgsky takes a breather to portray the viewer moving between paintings, reacting to what they have just seen. The pictures often refer to Russian legend, and some of them are grotesque – Gnomus, for instance, a gnome with crooked legs, or The Hut on Fowl’s Legs, a depiction of the terrifying Russian witch Baba-Yagá. There are social interactions – children playing (Tuileries), a rich man meeting a poor man (Samuel Goldberg and Schmüyle) and a violent quarrel (The Market at Limoges) – as well as two striking depictions of buildings in The Old Castle and an imposing Great Gate of Kiev, with which the exhibition ends.

Complementing Pictures are four of Rachmaninov’s Etudes-Tableaux, part of a set of pictorial studies published in 1917. In this case the objects of Rachmaninov’s characterisation were hardly if ever revealed, but the four chosen invite the listener to create an image. They are a brisk march, a contemplation, a scene at a fair (as described by the composer) and a restless mood.

Performance verdict

Steven Osborne won a Gramophone Award for his Hyperion recording of Pictures in 2013, and it was easy to see why here – there was the odd wrong note but this was generally because he was striving for maximum expression, which he found in a compelling performance. His pacing was ideal, so that some of the really loud moments – the old cart Bydlo grinding into action, or The Great Gate of Kiev in all its splendour – built inexorably from start to climax point.

The Rachmaninov was terrific, an indication that Osborne is spending a lot of time at the moment discovering his piano music. The Etudes-Tableaux do not really feature regularly in concert, partly because they are hard to bring off, but Osborne managed it handsomely here.

After the Musorgsky we had the considerable bonus of a serene Rachmaninov Prelude in D major, which tugged at the heart strings in all the right places.

What should I listen out for?

Because they are so well-loved, I have opted to describe each of the Pictures below:

Rachmaninov

6:31 – the second Étude-tableau, a spacious reverie with a particularly beautiful floated central section, where the key changes from C minor to C major (8:44).

11:41 – the third Étude-tableau, brightly voiced with crisp rhythms.

Musorgsky

18:36 – the first Promenade. Musorgsky’s viewer has a quick stride!

19:51 – Gnomus. Dark, grotesque and unpredictable, with a heavy line for the piano’s left hand and some ominous trills (22:11). After this the viewer ambles on to….

23:40 – The Old Castle. The melody is a depiction of a troubadour singing – but the mood is grey and heavy of heart, the harmony almost completely static. A weighty Promenade moves the viewer on to…

28:43 – Tuileries. A delicate description of children’s play, over in a flash!

29:40 – Bydlo. A depiction of a Polish cart grinding into action. The heavy weight of the machinery is supplied by the piano’s left hand, and the cart recedes into the distance at the end. Osborne applies as much weight to this as possible while the vehicle lumbers past! The viewer pauses briefly to take stock, before…

34:10 – The Ballet of Unhatched Chicks in their Shells. An amazingly vivid depiction of the little birds in clipped figures for the piano right hand, played very delicately here.

35:21 – Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuÿle. An imposing dialogue with the grandeur of the rich man (Goldenberg) and the quavering speech of the poor man (Schmüyle). After this the viewer moves on with another Promenade.

38:59 – The Market at Limoges. An excitable cackle of voices from the piano here, tripping over themselves and becoming increasingly out of control as they career into…

catacombs
Catacombs

40:22. Darkness descends as we move underground, Musorgsky conveying the stillness of space. The melodic figure of the Promenade appears (from 43:16), though here it appears shrouded in mist

45:26 – The Hut on Fowl’s Legs. I often think this piece on its own inspired a lot of rock music – it has the sort of figure you would not find out of place on a King Crimson album. The hammering figure on the left hand feels like drums and bass guitar combined while the right hand is almost completely unhinged. This leads straight into…

great-gate-of-kiev

The Great Gate of Kiev

48:40. The massive outlines of the gate are clear in the big block chords Musorgsky writes for the piano, which become ever more imposing as the piece progresses. Towards the end (50:22) a huge peal of bells rings out, then there is another reference to the Promenade (52:01) ahead of an emphatic final set of chords, by which time the pianist is playing as loud as he possibly can!

Encore

56:06 – Rachmaninov – Prelude in D major. A graceful and rather moving complement to Pictures!

Want to hear more?

Excerpts from Steven Osborne’s recording for Hyperion can be heard here

For more Musorgsky, I would suggest the Songs and Dances of Death, for low male voice and orchestra – which is ironically on BBC Radio 3 this Thursday 5 February , with a listener’s guide to come here! For more Rachmaninov I would suggest an earlier work, the Five Morceaux Op.3. This group of five pieces contains the famous Prelude in C sharp minor.

For more concerts click here