Monday 6 January 2014

Evviva the classical independents

It came as no surprise to find that all the CDs I'd enjoyed most last year had come from small outfits, most of them promoting unusual repertoire and helping little-known artists to spread the word. The mascot of them all ought to be Odradek, the non-profit-making promoter of pianists based in Pescara. It burst upon us with its first disc, Mei Yi Foo's ingenious programme of contemporary miniatures Musical Toys, which only just got picked up in a mini-review for the BBC Music Magazine.

All of us present at the BBCMM Awards, I fancy, fell for her engagament and her choice of pieces; and I did so further at a squeezed-in Kings Place recital. Probably my most returned to track of 2013 was another Odradek pianist, Domenico Codispoti, playing Granados's 'El Amor y la Muerte' from Goyescas, which I must investigate further.

But I've written about those discs and, in passing here as well as for the BBCMM, about the Mythos accordion duo's phenomenal transcription of Stravinsky's Petrushka - Arts Desk colleague Graham Rickson's top choice in our obligatory best-of-year selection, and mine too. This film, in the absence of the excellent Orchid Classics' more perfect trailer for the CD, has enough of 'Petrushka's Room' to give you a good idea of how the amazing orchestral score works in this arrangement.

Top image is from Andreas Cellarius's 1660 Harmonia Macocosmica reproduced in the Accent label's gorgeous presentation of Bach's B minor Mass. The set was only one of many discs which Jan Kucera, a Prague-based music enthusiast, has been showering me with  - and if I haven't worked my way through a fraction of his gifts, I can at least thank him by acknowledging that the Collegium/Collegium Vocale 1704's performance under Václav Luks is perhaps the very best I've heard of this greatest mass.

Luks seems to have an uncanny instinct for the right tempi, by which I mean breathable ones with which I happen to agree (I used to say the same about Sir Charles Mackerras's Mozart). The six soloists, including two very natural basses, are superlatively good; it says much about the plethora of fine countertenors around that I'd not encountered Terry Wey before. The choral singing is both focused and, when need be, ecstatic, and the three trumpets - or should I say clarini - as remarkable as the ones I heard in a weekend of Bach before Christmas (the B minor Mass at Kings Place and four parts of the Christmas Oratorio at St John's Smith Square). I may not be re-embarking on the cantatas pilgrimage which only got up to Easter last year, but I'll be bathing at the source whenever I can.

Beethoven wouldn't usually figure among the must-hears for me, but Bettina Schimmer sent me a captivating disc which isn't even out yet: the young Ukrainian pianist Alexej Gorlatch in three very well-known sonatas - the Pathétique, the Moonlight and the Tempest - on the Oehms Classics label.

The wonder here, and some may not like it as much as I do, is the lightness, the deftness which avoids Sturm und Drang in favour of something much more delicately spiritual. The finales are a miracle of expressive precision. I can't wait to hear Gorlatch live, but I may have to travel to the continent to catch him some time soon*.

Ditto the most unexpected discovery, for me, of three days at the Stavanger Festival. It was a late night cabaret evening in the former workers' meeting place, and after much of the day spent travelling we thought we could always slip out after one or two numbers. But we were captivated by Music for a While, chanteuse Tora Augestad and the most unexpected of quartets (coolest of jazz trumpeters Mathias Eick, tuba-player Martin Taxt, percussionist Pal Hausken and man of many instruments, but chiefly accordion, Stian Carstensen - also a much-loved stand-up comedian in Norway, but needless to say his spiel went over our heads while everyone around us fell about).

The next day, inspired above all by their Weill arrangements including the best 'Surabaya Jonny' I've heard, I bought their CD from the charming lady who owns an adored music shop down the road in Sandnes and has a stand at most concerts. I've played it a lot. And when I bumped into the charming Tora at a Stavanger Cathedral concert, she said she'd send me a copy of their latest, 'Graces that refrain'. And she was as good as her word.

I wasn't quite so sold on the Dowland arrangements live, but there are treasures here too, most surprisingly a cool version of Desdemona's 'Ave Maria' from Verdi's Otello which, to my amazement, works brilliantly on its own terms. I'm campaigning to bring the group to the UK, so if there's any help or interest out there, let me know. In the meantime, here's 'Surabaya Jonny' on film.

Another Norwegian group I have yet to experience live - but will do so in Oslo later this month - is baroque violinist Bjarte Eike's Barokksolistene. This time not exactly my milieu, but I was genuinely captivated by their BIS collection The Image of Melancholy which, like Gorlatch's Beethoven, has yet to be released here. Like Music for a While's discs, it's eloquently annotated by the artist(s). There's a new concert-programming creativity in the air - I've just witnessed the best use of it in the Aurora Orchestra's 'Road Trip' at Kings Place on Saturday - and this bears witness to it.

More Dowland, this time with Byrd and Holborne, but interspersed with Norwegian traditional numbers ( a wedding march is - and again I find myself using the word - captivating). Not sure about the Slovakian interpolation or the pure but to me bland soprano of Berit Norbakken Solset, but otherwise it's a wonderful sequence, and not all melancholy (though I'm told it's very much tied up with the death of Eike's father, and he thinks it's the most important thing he's ever done).  Niel Gow's lament for the death of his second wife makes for a transcendental conclusion.

I've been much more restrained in my CD choice than I was in what turned out to be not so much a pick of the classical/opera live scene for TAD as a survey of it. Where was I to stop? How could I have forgotten the magic of Irish tenor Robin Tritschler's Finzi Dies Natalis and Britten Serenade with the Britten Sinfonia in Gresham School's woods, capped by the horn sounding somewhere from within the high beeches surrounding the platform? Here he is as one of the BBC Radio 3 New Generation Artists in a sublime Christmas song by Cornelius. Over the hols I'd been listening to all of Cornelius's little Weihnachtslieder, a sequence most famous for the 'Three Kings' setting, in Fischer-Dieskau's performance with Gerald Moore, and this compares well, to say the least. Shame the pianist isn't credited.

If Tritschler is definitely one young artist of the year, there are others among the singers I've heard, not least  Andrew Staples, Marcus Farnsworth and Kitty Whately doing the new generation proud in the Barbican Albert Herring - and that reminds me about another discovery on disc, mezzo Karen Cargill in Berlioz's Les nuits d'été and, best of all, La mort de Cleopâtre with fab Robin Ticciati and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. Where does it come from, this intuition for greatness? Oor Karen seems an ordinary enough Glasgow girl in 'normal' life, but here she's a queen.

Ir was a shame there was no ballet choice of the year on TAD. I'm only reminded because I've been listening to so much dancy-dancy music in the early days of 2014, and reliving the splendours of English National Ballet's homage-to-Nureyev Raymonda Act Three (photographed below by Dave Morgan) in going through Alexander Anissimov's amazingly good complete recording of the fantastical Glazunov score.

Maybe Neeme Järvi can carry on the winning streak of his Tchaikovsky ballets with the Bergen Philharmonic, once The Nutcracker is in the can, with this. Though Anissimov's recording, to be honest, is fine enough, and I hope NJ will act on my pleas for him to follow in Ansermet's footsteps with his Suisse Romande Orchestra in a complete Delibes Coppelia and Sylvia.

I realize (7/1) I can also indulge a Best of Theatre 2013 slot, too, though I hardly ran the gamut. Even if I had, hopefully Best Actor and Actress would be the same. Among actors, Chiwetel Ejiofor excelled by a long way as a rangy, charismatic Patrice Lumumba in Joe Wright's joky-scary Young Vic staging of A Season in the Congo (photo by Johan Persson).

Wright's work would win him Best Production too, though equal contender was Richard Jones's characteristically unpredictable take on Ibsen's An Enemy of the People (as Public Enemy) in the same theatre (how I love the Young Vic, and what treasures it has in store this year). This time the play, a complex masterpiece, was as compelling as its treatment. Here's another risk-taking actor, Nick Fletcher, as Stockmann, photographed by Keith Pattison.

Kudos to the Barbican, too, for showcasing French classics I'd never seen on stage before from French companies, Rhinocéros and Ubu Roi, and linking them to the superb Duchamp et al exhibition. Standing out from what looked like a sea of middle-of-the-road stuff at the National Theatre were Joe Hill-Gibbins' disorienting production of Marlowe's Edward II, hopefully a sign of more experimental things to come under Rufus Norris, and the melting/zesty child's eye take on Emil and the Detectives accompanied by breathtaking designs/video projections

Best Actress award, again no question from my limited experience: Hilde Kronje as a spoilt young Afrikaaner of infinite variety in Mies Julie at the Riverside Studios (which need saving now from the greedy property developers). How she and Bongile Mantsai (the two pictured below by William Burdett-Coutts) kept up the intensity night after night is one of the mysteries of live theatre.

But now it's time to leave the self-indulgence and froth behind, get down to work and - sigh- sort out the tax return.

*Bettina tells me he's playing Beethoven and Chopin concerts with the Royal Northern Sinfonia in April, but I'm waiting on a recital.


David Damant said...

Yes - focussed choruses.....I gave up on Passions and many Masses from Cambridge onwards as I could not stand the "blah blah blah blah blah blah blah". I appreciate that many of the choruses have a large proportion of amateurs who obtain the greatest pleasure and fulfilment from taking part, and so fine, but not for me. And even then "focus" was just what I was looking for.

How does the mind remember all the notes when playing an instrument ( see the accordions? I suppose it is a bit like learning a language

Susan Scheid said...

Interesting to see Beethoven piano sonatas on your list. I wonder how Gorlatch compares with Jonathan Biss—though I hasten to add that my ears would not be experienced enough to judge. I do like your point, though, about the sturm and drang or lack thereof. I think I might rather the latter myself, as well. I’m glad to know about your Berlioz choice, too. I have had this on my wish list after you introduced me to it, but will now replace the choice I’d flagged for the version you note here. Last not least, I hadn’t spotted that TAD didn’t indicate a ballet favorite for the year. While, once again, I don’t have a basis for comparison, I’m enjoying Järvi’s Swan Lake very much and feel confident I’ve got the best in it. Thank you for so many musical gifts in 2013, and I look forward to more in 2014!

David said...

Well, I did get to know the B minor Mass singing in a chorus of 200 (the Edinburgh Royal Choral Union: does it still exist, I wonder?) The tenors' fugal line in 'cum sanctu spiritu' was such a fright that I tense up when I hear it now.

Note/muscle memory is an extraordinary thing. How is it that we don't witness singers going wrong more often, in Wagner for instance(those of us that go to Wagner performances, that is).

Time I heard Jonathan Biss again, Sue - I have a treasured Schumann CD of his. I imagine the approach would be rather similar to Gorlatch's - poetic, spacious when needed, winged.

Hope you're not snowed in, but if so you have a treasury around you, at least. Today was so bleak outside, with a back-to-school feel even though I wasn't going anywhere until supper - more endless rain, it really felt like the fag end of the year (which usually comes in mid-December). Heigh ho. I've planted some bulbs rather late and hope for the best.

Catriona said...

Was that a challenge, David? Of course the Choral Union still exists - and stll does the Messiah at the New Year.
I hasten to add that I am not a member.
And thanks for pointing me in the direction of Barokksolistene and Music for a While.
Happy New Year!

David said...

I remember singing in a New Year Messiah back in the early 1980s, Catriona (seasonal greetings warmly reciprocated, of course, with an eye on Goettingen in fairer weather). And in a wonderful VW Sea Symphony conducted (I think) by Roderick Brydon with the lovely Margaret Marshall (forget who was the baritone). I wonder if a certain very rotund member who used to shoot his false teeth in and out is still with us. I imagine not.

Glad you like the idea of Eike's lot and the sound of the fabulous Music for a While.