Friday 30 December 2016

Off-piste CDs of 2016

Probably all the interesting ones are bound to be off-piste, and the smaller labels have all the best tunes now. The disclaimer is that my listening has been very partial, all the discs here until the Prokofiev footnote are ones that didn't make it to the BBC Music Magazine (or rather one did, but not in a review from me) and as a Martinů addict I'm bound for the second year running to choose a disc that furthered my knowledge of a score I hardly knew. In the case of Ariane, his one-act operatic swansong, it was good to hear it first live earlier this year in an intriguing staging by Rodula Gaitanu for the Guildhall School. But undoutedly Simona Šaturová and Tomáš Netopil (pictured above) have the edge in a concert performance from Essen released by Supraphon.

The structure is mysterious: a lovely, light prelude which gets repeated a couple of times suggests a commedia dell'arte treatment of the myth, like Strauss and Hofmannsthal's Ariadne auf Naxos. But Martinů's source is Georges Neveux, the author of Juliette ou La clef des songes, which of course elicited from Martinů one of the great operas of the 20th century. The action takes place entirely on Crete, and the Minotaur is the self that Theseus needs to slay, saying goodbye to the potential happiness of a marriage to Ariane.

Without the Guildhall's studio-broadcast setting and Nicola Said's convincing Maria Callas lookalike - based on the news that Martinů thought La Divina would sing the role of Ariadne - the essence of the myth became clearer to me simply in listening. And it seemed abundantly clear that with its central theme of man and woman not understanding each other it would make the perfect prelude in a double-bill to Bartok's Bluebeard's Castle (the music for the Minotaur even resembles that score's more violent passages). Šaturová is exquisite in the big but tender final monologue, and the tenor who sings in the Prologue is beguiling, too. Always a joy, or the opposite in a good sense, to hear Martinů's most acclaimed masterpiece, the Double Concerto for Two String Orchestras, Timpani and Piano, though it's one of his most light-less pieces - for catharsis, I had to go and put on the finale of the Third Symphony, one of the most transcendental endings to any symphony, with a touch of ambiguity right at the end.

Three soloists have given us outstanding discs. Emily Pailthorpe, wife of flautist Daniel and a top oboist in her own right, makes almost as good a case for a new work by Richard Blackford as she does for the adorable Strauss Oboe Concerto, and it's good to hear some of the BBC Symphony Orchestra wind players alongside here in Janáček's Mládí. Perfect programming; three cheers to Champs Hill Records.

Dunja Lavrova is a most delightful person whose acquaintance I made at the Pärnu Festival this summer where she and harpist Jana Boušková managed not to disappoint (to understate the case) with their Saint-Saëns Fantaisie after the predictable brilliance of Matt Hunt, Triin Ruubel and Sophia Rahman - a good friend of Dunja who brought her in to share the Pärnu spirit - in the best Bartok Contrasts I ever expect to hear. The premise of My Dusty Gramophone is to record violin and piano, or violin solo, miniatures in the style of the old Jascha Heifetz recordings which inspired her. In other words, with the violin very close to the microphone. And her beguiling style or styles withstand the rigorous inspection. I love her legato line in Rachmaninov, and it's good to have the Schumann Intermezzo from the FAE Sonata.

STOP PRESS: Dunja's just put up a YouTube present for her mother which is fun. Introduction included, since I love her delivery and sha'n't forget her and Sophia throwing their heads back and roaring with laughter at the big final party in Pärnu. As she says, you can zoom forward to 2'04 for the music.

Since I met him as a fellow jury-member for the Orkestival competition of school orchestras in the Concertgebouw earlier this year - a real highlight of 2016, and I'm over the moon to have been asked back - Jeroen de Groot has released a beautifully produced two-CD set of Bach's solo sonatas and partitas. I promised him I'd set aside a morning to listen properly before we met in Amsterdam, which I did on Wednesday morning, and was delighted to announce last night how impressed I was.

This is playing you can't possibly have on in the background as mellifluous, objective Bach. De Groot writes in his booklet of how much he respects the 'untouchable' phenomenon of Henryk Szeryng. His own major teacher Herman Krebbers tended to that aspect, making him learn the Bach works by heart as part of a large repertoire - 'but it was not very clear to me what to do with it'.

Then he saw a documentary on Glenn Gould and the Goldberg Variations, which showed him the way to an individual approach. With the prize money from winning at the Oscar Back Concourse de Groot went to study with the great Sandor Vegh, linking back to a tradition which included Joachim and Liszt. Vegh's words in interview which de Groot reproduces in the booklet should be carved out for every interpreter:

Music is a creative art, but so is the interpretation of it. The expression is revived in every musical phrase, and this is different every day. There are mysterious powers, vibrations and radiations that influence my feeling and that I, humble being that I am, cannot grasp at all. I can only say I have good days and bad days.

I assume that de Groot regards the day, or days, on which he recorded the sonatas and partitas, as among the good. The sound is so centred and golden, with the instrument matched to a baroque bow, that the graded forcefulness of the playing never grates. Here he is playing the most famous 'track' of all the solo violin music, the Preludium from Partita No. 3 in E.

There's immense power of expression throughout the two discs, and I love it all - though I'd be inclined to listen in four instalments as there's so much to take on board. And I'm happy to hear it over and over again - a treat to set alongside the Christmas Day 1723 assemblage of glorious Bach on the Dunedin Consort Magnificat disc which I discovered only last week.

Disc of the year hit the mat as late as this December, but I was in no doubt that it's the one, since anyone who storms the heights and conjures all the half-lights in Prokofiev's overwhelming masterpieces the Sixth and Eighth Piano Sonatas can be called a true Olympian, and Alexander Melnikov is one in a million. The sound allows for shattering force, too. More than that I can't say as this one is for the BBC Music Magazine and the review has yet to appear. As there are presumably two more instalments to come, more of this in 2017, please. I'd like to hear the entire Prokofiev piano works from grand master Melnikov.

Shouldn't really presume to make 'best of' choices in genres other than classical and opera, as I didn't see so much theatre, film and art. But I do know that the two December Saturdays devoted to great women in the theatre - the Donmar Shakespeare Trilogy and two consecutive performances of Mary Stuart with Juliet Stevenson and Lia Williams swapping roles (pictured below by Manuel Harlan) - were as exhilarating and thought-provoking as anything I've seen in the theatre.

Disappointing cinema-going earlier in the year was offset by finally catching up with Anomalisa, that astonshing animated meditation on alienated man and a woman in a million, on the telly. And William Kentridge's Deep Time at the Whitechapel Gallery was as full of wonder as any exhibition I've seen. Thought I'd written about it here, but apparently not; must go again and follow it up.

And that's my year's picks over and done with. You can read my Best of Classical 2016 on The Arts Desk here and Best of Opera here.

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