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.


Susan said...

It would have been fun to be a fly on the wall as you all deliberated. I do often wonder how you (and your compatriots) manage to listen to so much and not feel overwhelmed in trying to make a selection. Is there anything like a sherbet between courses for tired ears?

Susan said...

Just to say, further, that I have been busily queuing up selections you’ve noted for listening (including BWV 111). I’ve been searching particularly for piano music as of late, and Jablonski’s Grieg is proving just the thing to start my evening right.

Willym said...

You are making me spend money again!!! Thank you...

David said...

But on what? Do tell. I suspect it won't be on Bach...

David said...

Sue, apologies - for some reason your comments only appeared after I'd responded to Will. We were lucky to be able to spread our listening over three or so months, and I found it mostly refreshing. And the sherbet was the variety. Some, it's true, were non-starters, by which I mean to say I started listening and couldn't believe how disappointing the performance was. Chief one that springs to mind was David Fray's Chopin. It was also hard to get enthusiastic about fine performances of second-rate music (there were two good discs of Glass piano music, for instance, but you can only go so far with that stuff).

Pleased that PJ's Grieg is on Spotify, because I don't think it's easily found otherwise. As for Bach, do prioritise BWV 3 (as mentioned in previous entry) - I think I love its opening chorus the best of all I've heard so far.

David Damant said...

Albrecht von Brandenburg is an interesting figure (not to be confused with his cousin of the same name, one of the princes who spent the money from indulgences on a vast scale, a practice which of course inter alia provoked Luther). The Ansbach Albrecht dissolved the Teutonic Knights and in effect snaffled the Order's possessions ( encouraged by Luther !!!!! One has to re- access that man) - and put Prussia on the way to its future grandeur. I would guess that he embraced Protestantism in order to ride roughshod over the Catholic church and the Order and to seize what he could. A tough cookie, and now I learn that he wrote a hymn ! Gosh.

David said...

I'm tickled that you seize on the very last point in all that. Tough cookie and rum-looking cove, too. Big figure in the Lutheran world, of course.

John Gardiner said...

I adored the Schmidt when I heard it (via radio) at the Proms - so much so that in my excitement near the end I managed to knock over a full glass of red wine.(Mercifully the damned spot came out...) One of those rare things, an on-the-spot revelation. And how wonderful that Sony released it: some hope for the record industry yet! I enjoyed all of the orchestral choices here, too, but think I'd have had to go for the Schmidt in sheer gratitude. I don't know about you, David, but I think Bychkov a marvellous conductor (that series of WDR Symphony discs on Avie was very good, and I've always loved his Berlin Nutcracker). He's coming back into the spotlight these days, thank heavens.

David said...

I'd echo just about everything you say, John - on-the-spot revelation indeed (the Fourth was the symphony everyone touted before this, but that's quite lugubrious). Imagine how intoxicating it was live (especially after the so-so Brahms in the first half). The only thing I'd qualify is that I used to think Bychkov was best when works needed real weight, and that he could sometimes miss air in the music, but that seems to have changed too, and the Proms Khovanshchina was unbelievable in its text-dictated flexibility. The Czech Phil made a great choice, bearing in mind that Hrusa (finest of all the younger generation conductors, methinks) is the heir apparent (he's actually conducting more CPO concerts next season than Bychkov).

So - will it be the CD of the year? I can't remember how that's decided - whether or not we, the jury, have the final say from all the category choices.

Willym said...

Sorry not the Bach but definitely the Martinů, Reformation, Carnevale, and RVW. You are a bad man leading me into temptation.

David said...

Money well spent on keeping these deserving labels going in their pursuit of the rich and rare.

Susan Scheid said...

I had a chance today to take you up on prioritizing for a listen to BWV 3. (Generally, I must ask your ongoing forgiveness if I am unable to keep up here. I am having to reorder my priorities quite a bit—all to good ends, I hasten to add—and, as you can see from the slow pace of posts over my way, my online activities are well down and will probably stay there for quite a while.) Anyway, the BWV 3 is lovely, and I was interested in your comment about the opening chorus vis-vis Gardiner’s statement on the Soprano-alto duet. I can see why Gardiner praises the duet, but I would not put it above the opening chorus which, not least for those oboes, is a stand-out, too. (BTW, should you come over my way, I’d be interested on your thoughts on the Schubert. I am sure it’s well known to you, but it was brand new to me, and I was taken with it immediately.)

David said...

Intrigued to know whats's been keeping you from your usual high and always thoughtful online activities, especially if it's good, as you say. I assumed you were taking a break from political opposition to the Horror Clown, but maybe you're preparing something on that front.

I think that may well be my favourite opening chorus of any cantata so far. As for the Schubert Fantaisie, I shall - its opening idea is vintage last-year stuff. It launches the Melnikov-Staier duo disc I mentioned briefly above, and I last heard it played, very eloquently, at the Reform Club by Martino Tirimo and Atsuko Kawakami: