Sunday, 21 January 2018
Best CDs of 2017 - BBC Music Mag Awards and me
To discover the one of these six favourite discs I reviewed or rated in 2017 which not quite enough of my fellow jurors were persuaded to shortlist, you'll have to head over to the voting page of the BBC Music Magazine Awards 2018. I'm finally free to divulge a little more about the December day at Editor Olly Condy's home in Bristol when seven of us, plied with cake and home-made membrillo plus plentiful cups of strong coffee, thrashed out our choices - and a very amiable conference it was (the others on the panel were Olly, Reviews Editor Rebecca Franks, Nicholas Anderson, Erica Jeal, Andrew McGregor and Kate Wakeling).
Suffice it to say that of the above, Sean Shibe's first complete solo disc, of British guitar music, Bychkov's recording of Schmidt's Second Symphony and the revelatory Martinů Cantatas on Supraphon won the greatest degree of unanimity among us (my reviews of the latter two should be on the BBCMM website, but the reviews index is patchy and they aren't, yet). I'm also pleased that Alec-Frank Gemmill's enterprise in going flat-out for a CD that wasn't just the usual recital disc - featuring four different period horns, and Alasdair Beatson playing four different period pianos - made the grade.
You are of course free to vote any way you wish, or not at all; these are only my opinions, but I hope a bit more background is helpful. Biggest surprise for me was the electrifying approach of Jean Rondeau - anything but a cool dude in the performances - and Dynastie Bach family harpsichord concertos; since that got its nomination, I can't be too sad that Rachel Podger and Brecon Baroque didn't make it too, though I liked her quasi-improvisatory playing just as much.
Instrumental and Chamber were the hardest categories to choose from, overwhelming us with riches; though content with the three nominations in each category, I would have been equally happy with Beatrice Rana's startling Bach Goldberg Variations, up there with Denk and Gould;
another surprise favourite, Shai Wosner's brilliant programming of 'Impromptus', one way forward in recital planning which he shares with fellow pianist Ari Porat;
violinist Daniel Rowland and pianist Natacha Kudritskaya rising to the near-impossible challenges of Enescu's supernatural Third Violin Sonata;
and several quartet discs. I got to know Grieg Quartets played with magical pianissimos where required by a group with whom I was also unfamiliar, the Meccore String Quartet, and another of those imaginatively planned programmes which seem the prerogative of the younger generation comes from the Schumann Quartet(t), linking 'Landscapes' of Haydn, Takemitsu, Bartók and Pärt .
There was an endgame battle for Instrumental because two of us hadn't received Krystian Zimerman's Schubert Sonatas by the day of judgement. Our front-runners pending that included my absolute favourite, Alexander Melnikov's first disc of Prokofiev sonatas (Melnikov was also a top contender with Andreas Staier in very live-wire Schubert piano duets).
Because it's perhaps the finest performance I've ever heard of the Sixth Sonata, and equal first with Richter in the Eighth, I'd put this above Zimerman's Schubert, since he stands alongside quite a few other greats. But still, when I finally heard it, I had to include Zimerman in my final three over Fenella Humphrys' 'Bach to the Future 2' - great playing, but for me there were a couple of duds among the new works. That probably gave Zimerman the edge in the joint final choice. Anyway, Melnikov will be back with Volume Two of his Prokofiev soon, which should give the 2018 panel something to get hold of...
Since this is also about discs which may not be new, but which I discovered in 2017, I have to give an awed salute to pianist Peter Jablonski, whose playing I haven't heard for years and whose fiancee, the vivacious Anastasia Belina, became a new friend last year when we appeared together in a pre-Proms talk.
It would have been my prerogative to simply pass over the discs she sent in silence if there had been nothing special, but they're first rate - I even think I prefer Jablonski's Grieg over Andsnes' (whose Sibelius disc, by the way, nearly reached the Instrumental category, but that was so saturated with good performances this year). Liszt, well, the repertoire isn't so much to my taste, but I can't deny the magisterial diversity of the approach. Wonderful sound from the Japan-based issues, too.
In another hangover from a previous year, having been mesmerised by young Pavel Kolesnikov's selection of Chopin Mazurkas at a lunchtime Prom, I caught up with this disc, which goes right to the top of my Chopin list (or equal first with several, at any rate).
But back to the Awards. Quite a few might-have-beens bit the dust in Orchestral - Paavo Järvi's lithe and clear-lined Strauss Ein Heldenleben and Don Juan just missed the final three by one vote, and Vaughan Williams gave rise to three front-runners - though the fresh kick applied by Andrew Davis to the more Satanic moments of the ballet Job as well as the eerie solos in the Ninth Symphony clinched the chosen one for me. Terje Tønnesen's string-orchestra versions of the Janáček String Quartets may have missed out by being rather hard to categorise, not least because of the excellent adaptation of Tolstoy's The Kreutzer Sonata (inspiration for the First Quartet) so well read - in English AND Norwegian - by Teodor Janson.
Sadly my personal favourite Opera/Vocal disc, Daniel Behle's Schubert Arias, wasn't to a couple of reviewers' taste repertoire-wise, and the period-instrument orchestra is not so highly rated
but I'm delighted Ann Hallenberg's delicious programme of Venetian carnival arias made the list. I'm also glad to have made the acquaintance of Louis Andriessen's Theatre of the World. Those who saw the world premiere production say this audio recording leaves more to the imagination, though I'd love to see a director like Richard Jones tackle its black-comedy apocalypse.
I also fought hard for both Louise Alder's and Nicky Spence's Strauss songs (the last a real surprise, conclusion to the excellent Hyperion series) in the Vocal category, but mezzo Jamie Barton's debut disc was a unanimous choice. There's a vocal personality that just leaps out at you; and that's a necessary virtue when you have over 200 discs to listen to and you can't sit there riveted with a score for every one. The special ones always make you stop what you're doing and listen properly.
Very happy with the Choral choices - as well as the Martinů, they included the best Estonian choir of all, Vox Clamantis, whose acquaintance I made at Tallinn's 2017 Estonian Music Days, in a peerless Pärt programme.
Champion oddity of the year for me, one that actually works, was the Japanese percussionist Kuniko giving a whole new, lugubrious and hypnotic meaning to Bach on the marimba. Don't think that even got reviewed in the BBC Music Mag last year, but if it did, it wasn't on the list.
Is Bach the only composer who can be transferred to just about any instrument? It seems so: another Awards nomination I was sorry not to see reach the final three was the unusual trio of cellist Yo-Yo Ma, mandolinist Chris Thile and bass player Edgar Meyer in trio sonatas and other transcriptions; there's some magically deft playing in the more virtuosic passages there.
Needless to say my most serendipitous discovery of 2017, which I've already chronicled here and here, was the wonder of Helmuth Rilling's Bach cantatas.
It was an easy step from charity-shop purchases to the complete set, which will be keeping me company every Sunday and holy day in 2018.
Today's Cantata for the Third Sunday after Epiphany was BWV 111, 'Was mein Gott will, das g'scheh Allzeit', another gem from January 1725. The adoring, adorning pair of winds this two are oboes, dialoguing with violins in thirds around lively choral counterpoint and a terrific busy bass. This opening chorus may be in the minor, but it's all spritely. The cantus firmus hymn is one from 1547 by Albrecht von Brandenburg, who brought Lutherism to his state. Either his was a lopsided face or Cranach the Elder hasn't quite got it right here.
The cantata bursts with a muscular Christianity in the bass aria and a pounding duet for alto and tenor driven by dotted rhythms - not quite charming, and it might be one of the few places in the Rilling set where the voices (Helen Watts and Lutz-Michael Herder) aren't perfectly matched, but the impression remains one of forceful vivacity to fit the 'confident steps' ('behertzten Schritten'). The surprise for me was the twist in the short but expressive soprano recitative before the final chorale, reminding us unexpectedly of that final struggle where death tears the spirit from the body, the deathbed a 'battleground' ('Kampftplatz'). The oboes are back at hand to guide the soloist through this final dark night. Lesson for the day: never take the essence of any cantata for granted until it's all over.
Now, on with that voting.