Sunday 31 October 2021

Recordings enjoyed over the lockdown years (part 1, piano)

Eventually, after listening to a lot of different music, my lockdown choices seemed to focus on keyboard music, including a lot of Bach.  It's all a bit of a blur now - for example there was one week where the only thing I did was play and compare 7 different recordings of the Goldberg Variations. 

J.S.Bach - Goldberg Variations (2020, Pavel Kolesnikov). Kolesnikov plays in a manner utterly faithful to the composition, so in one sense quite an intellectual rather than emotional interpretation that does not obscure the structure of the music. But somehow he manages to superimpose upon this rigour an extra dimension of a dreamlike soundscape. It's really a rather wonderful combination. I like it very much. We managed to hear him play this at the Wigmore Hall in 2021, which was a complete treat. I'd also highly recommend his other recordings too - the Chopin Mazurkas are great.

J.S.Bach - Goldberg Variations (2013, Jeremy Denk).  This would be my equal favourite with Kolesnikov.  There's a clarity and transparency to the phrasing, and an utterly considered and mature understanding of the music that permeates every variation. 

I know many people who love Glenn Gould's recordings.  I've never liked them that much I have to confess, and struggled through them without much pleasure - give me Evgeny Koroliov any day.  For the record I also listened to Gustav Leonhardt, Trevor Pinnock, András Schiff, and Igor Levit's recordings, out of which I'd return to the Leonhardt mostly out of nostalgia - having first heard it some 40 years ago.

J.S.Bach - Das Wohltemperierte Klavier Buch 2 (2021, Piotr Anderszewski).  A fascinating and transporting interpretation, reordering the preludes and fugues and therefore allowing one to hear it in a new light.  I always adore his recordings - a particular favourite is his Bach's Suite Francaise 5: (BWV816) in which the Gigue has all the momentum and rhythm of a really good pop song.  We also heard him play in the Wigmore Hall.  Odd to sit in it wearing masks, it creates a terrible distance between performer and audience.

J.S.Bach - Das Wohltemperierte Klavier Buch 1 (2014, Pierre-Laurent Aimard).  As I have observed before, there's something elemental and magisterial in Aimard's playing of Bach. I often return to him when I need to reset my aesthetic benchmark.

All the Beethoven symphonies transcribed by Liszt for Piano (2011-2015 Yury Martynov) on 5 CDs.  I found these following a BBC Radio 3 broadcast by Víkingur Ólafsson about music that had been transcribed for other instruments.  Which piqued my interest.  It's extraordinary that Liszt was able to capture the true essence and feeling of Beethoven's symphonies in a piano transcription; and equally extraordinary that Martynov is able to play them at all, let alone so convincingly.  Definitely recommend this series.

Chopin / Liszt (2019 Mariam Batsashvili) Sometimes I hear some music on the radio that stops me in my tracks and forces me to listen. And that's how in 2020 I discovered Mariam Batsashvili's playing.  This is a life-enhancing, optimistic and joyous recording.  I have since devoured her recording of early piano transcriptions and completely look forward to what she will do in the future.  I haven't seen her play as the lockdown is intruding, but certainly intend to as soon as possible.

Mozart and Contemporaries (2021, Víkingur Ólafsson).  I'd never really got on with Mozart, all a bit too showy and flowery for my taste.  So this CD is revelation, Mozart played with the considered reverence that Bach recordings get.  It's great, and has made me re-evaluate my feelings about Mozart (which having said, I did always love Christian Blackshaw's 4 CD set of the Mozart Sonatas on Wigmore Live)  

Schumann: Variationen (2020, Elisabeth Leonskaja).  This was quite hard to track down, the Berlin based label Easonus not being widely distributed as far as I can tell.  It was also very expensive!  But the recording is amazingly high quality, and there's something about the humanity and wisdom with a small undercurrent of playfulness in the way Elisabeth Leonskaja performs that I always find compelling.

Shostakovich Preludes and Fugues; Stevenson Passacaglia on DSCH (2021 Igor Levit).  I'm still processing this one, I think it's the best so far of all of Levit's many and mighty recordings.  Not completely convinced by the cover artwork, but it's better than some of the other ones Sony have designed for him.  There's definitely a semiotics to classical album covers that the Sony design department seems wilfully to be ignoring in Igor's case.

Monday 25 May 2020

Recordings that influenced my musical taste (part 3)

Here as the final part are some more recent recordings that have guided my listening:

J.S.Bach - Die Kunst der Fuge (2008, Pierre-Laurent Aimard). There's a wonderful austerity and rigour to Pierre-Laurent Aimard's playing.  I've occasionally been to concerts where a musician has rather "over-interpreted" Bach's keyboard music and had to rush home and put on this CD to clear my palate, as it were.  Anyway, hearing this CD in 2008 pushed me down a whole route of finding other interpretations.  The Keller Quartet's transcription of Die Kunst der Fuge for string quartet is well worth listening to.

Éliane Radigue - L’île re-sonante (composed 2000, released 2005).  The cellist and composer Ollie Coates programmed a concert at London's Southbank Centre in 2014 at which he played this piece by Éliane Radigue on a reel to reel tape recorder.  It's a single piece of electronic music that lasts for about an hour - and was my entry to a whole new sound world.  It kind or resets your understanding of what music is - and helps you hear music where you would not expect it, such as the noise of machinery.  I've since devoured all of Radigue's music, and then discovered her influences such as La Monte Young, and her peers such as Pauline Oliveros. L’île re-sonante remains one of my most listened to pieces of music - iTunes tells me I have heard it 81 times. 

Justin Adams & Juldeh Camara - In Trance (2011).  I heard Justin's music on Radio 3's Late Junction, I think it was one of the shows hosted by Verity Sharp with her distinctive musical choices and appealing intonation. I'd not really heard much World Music before then.  A whole new vista opened up - including the work of Tinariwen and Tamikrest, and Robert Plant's post-Led Zep work, much of which is done with Justin Adams.  Juju's "In Trance" is great driving music, and almost impossible to sit still to!

Jóhann Jóhannsson - Englabörn (2002).  If I had to choose my favourite record by Jóhann it would be Orphée, which we discussed often as he was writing and recording it,  or the Miners Hymns.  But Englabörn is the one that started things off. On the strength of hearing this album, recommended  by my friend Thilo, in 2014 I made contact with Jóhann - who was living in Copenhagen at the time - and invited him to tea.  Out of that developed over the years a deep friendship, and a commission I gave him to write a string quartet, since recorded by the Echo Collective and released by Deutsche Grammophon. In the time I knew him, Jóhann introduced me to many other musicians and their music - Hildur Gudnadottir, Dustin O'Halloran, Stephen O'Malley & Colin Stetson to name but a few.

Caterina Barbieri - Patterns of Consciousness (2017).  I was rather randomly browsing the Quietus on the internet in May 2019 and came across an interesting review of one of Caterina's later albums - Ecstatic Computation.  Intrigued I found her on Bandcamp and ended up buying everything she has recorded.  The first track on this record - This causes consciousness to fracture - has the intellectual satisfaction of a Bach fugue; at the same time there's an ecstatic emotional undercurrent that sneaks up on you and then takes you over. And then it hits a sort of singularity point and gets mashed up in the second part, TCCTF - like entering another universe. Really just amazing.  I started to find out a bit about where she had learned music, who else she worked with etc, and ended up with the next recording by one of her friends and collaborators, Kali.

Kali Malone - The Sacrificial Code (2019) - when I first heard this I had the happy realisation that my very personal journey through music was continuing to progress, and that there is still so much more to discover and learn. I won't go on about how much I like this record - possibly at mid 2020 my current favourite record - but rather how hearing it has introduced me to the work of so many other composers working in a similar or related vein - Ellen Arkbro, Sarah Davachi, Kara-Lis Coverdale etc.

So, that gets me up to date for the moment with albums that influenced my listening. I'll revisit this theme in a year or two.

Thursday 21 May 2020

Recordings that influenced my musical taste (part 2)

Again, in not a particularly chronological order, here's the second group of recordings:

Monique Haas (piano) - Debussy & Ravel (recorded 1968-72 ).   I mentioned above (in part 1) that my two introductions to classical music recordings were Steve Reich and J.S.Bach.  I naturally became aware that there were many centuries of music between the two that needed filling in.  These recordings by Monique Haas of the complete piano music of Debussy and Ravel were part of my introduction.  I've heard many recordings since that I prefer - for example Jean-Efflam Bavouzet's superlative five disc recordings of Debussy's piano music, and Alice Sara Ott's Ravel.  But at the time Monique Haas opened my ears to a new direction for listening.

Purcell - Dido & Aeneas, Dido performed by Janet Baker (1961).  I used to think I could not relate to opera very well - I think principally because of the idiotic narratives of the Verdi and Mozart operas that are so popular, and what always seemed like the self-conscious pomposity that accompanies their performances.  This recording was part of what made me change my mind - it's hard to imagine singing more heart-wrenching than mezzo-soprano Janet Baker Dido's Lament in this recording from 1961.

Led Zeppelin - Remasters (1990).  It was only when this retrospective remastering was released that I began to appreciate Led Zeppelin were not just another guitar based Heavy Rock band that so blighted my teenage years (see previous post). The music has so much R&B and soul in it. A friend asked me recently if I could go back in history to see one pop concert which would it be?  He chose Jimi Hendrix - a perfectly reasonable choice - but I would choose Led Zep from around 1971.  I also love the fact that Robert Plant did not get stuck in his own past, but has continued to progress his musical journey - in particular I like very much the various albums he has made in the last 10 years with Justin Adams.

Mahler's 5th Symphony, conducted by Klaus Tennstedt (1988, released 1990).   My grandfather often went to the Royal Festival Hall, and I was in the audience for this concert as his guest.  He was friends with Klaus Tennstedt, who we met after the concert.  Around this time was the beginning of my appreciation of orchestral music, and I listened widely to Mahler, Beethoven, Brahms usw.  I can never fail to be impressed by hearing orchestras play well, and in awe of the composer's ability to conceive of and write an orchestral score.  But I think in the end my preference remains chamber music.

Madonna - Ray of Light (1998).  It's hard to explain the impact of this album if you weren't there at the time - it's had so much influence on what came afterwards that it sounds very familiar to our ears. 20 years ago it was an extremely innovate mixing of electronica, dance, techno and dub.  All that aside, the title track - Ray of Light - is the most transcendent, ecstatic piece of music that never fails to grab me when I hear it.  A piece of musical perfection.

Alina Ibragimova playing Bach's Violin Sonatas & Partitas (2009) I didn't used to like violin music so much, I found it scratchy.  And then somehow listening to this record changed that.   I have since heard other great violinists play the sonatas and partitas.  They are all doing what classical musicians do best, communicating the work of the composer to us the audience.  Somehow Alina playing these works is something else.  I have been there more than once, watching her perform the sonatas and partitas, standing on the stage, closing her eyes and starting to play, and opening her eyes only once she has finished. She is inviting us to share her own intimate pleasure of playing the music for herself,  somehow brilliantly captured in this recording.   If I could take only one record to my desert island I would take this.

Wednesday 20 May 2020

Recordings that influenced my musical taste (part 1)

Prompted by one of those Facebook memes going around while we are all trapped in Coronavirus lockdown, I have started thinking about the records that most influenced the evolution of my musical taste.  Here's the first instalment, in a not completely chronological order:

Misty in Roots - Live at the Counter Eurovision 79  I could have chosen any number of reggae records to start this list off - I'd been listening to reggae pretty much exclusively since 1976 (at the age of 15) with a bit of punk beginning to intrude as time went by.  I've included Misty in Roots Live at the Counter Eurovision not only because it is one of my favourite roots reggae records, but also because it's one of the best live concert recordings of any genre.  Famously when it was first released the DJ John Peel devoted an entire radio show to the record, simply playing the whole LP twice over because he liked it so much.   It starts with the immortal words "When we trod this land, we walk for one reason. The reason is to try to help another man to think for himself. The music of our hearts is roots music: music which recalls history, because without the knowledge of your history, you cannot determine your destiny; the music about the present, because if you are not conscious of the present, you are like a cabbage in this society; music which tells about the future and the judgement which is to come."

Creation Rebel & New Age Steppers - Threat to Creation By late 1979 an interesting strand of music had emerged in the UK - the meeting of reggae and punk, championed by eg: the Clash, but also by producer Adrian Sherwood and his ON-U Sound label.  Adrian was making heavy heavy dub music, getting even more psychedelic than the Jamaican producers.  I was at university at the time,  living my life to a permanent backdrop of far out dub, the bass shaking my bones, and the tunes twisting my mind.  Possibly the heaviest of all the records, and one of those I listened to most, was this 1981 ON-U Sound release Threat to Creation by Creation Rebel and New Age Steppers.  Have a listen to the track "Chemical Specialist" and you will see what I mean. 

The Pop Group - Y In early 1980 I went to Bristol to hear Creation Rebel play.  At the same concert was the Pop Group, who had released their record "Y" the year before.  I'd never heard music like it - I'm not sure many other people had either - it's an extraordinary combination of funk, punk and chaos, produced by the reggae dub master Dennis Bovell.  The Pop Group were touring southern England - so I skipped a few weeks of university and just followed them around going to all their gigs and buying them drinks afterwards.   Listening to "Y" in 2020 is still amazing, it's as though the record had been made this year.  This is music that does not age - a strong candidate for the best pop record of all time.

Public Image Limited - Metal Box After the Sex Pistols split up, John Lydon (Johnny Rotten as was) formed Public Image Limited, or PiL for short.  Metal Box (1979) was their second release - three 12 inch singles in a film canister stamped with the logo PiL.   With Keith Levene's scratching metal guitar on top and the momentum of Jah Wobble's thunderous baselines below, this record reinvented (for me at least, but I think for many others too) dance music as something dark and dubby.  The years have not aged it.  Listening to it now is still like listening to music from the future. 

Killing Joke - Killing Joke released in 1980, the first broadly Rock genre LP that I ever owned or liked. I had spent the second half of the seventies at a British boys' boarding school being forced to overhear the musical manifestation of everyone else's teenage angst - which was somehow entirely guitar based white rock music (Genesis, Yes, Deep Purple, King Crimson, Black Sabbath, Led Zep etc) while all I wanted to hear was reggae and soul, although I guess we began to find more common ground in punk music. Fortunately I had headphones. Anyway, hearing Killing Joke was a bit of a revelation.  And possibly one of the best ever record covers.  

Steve Reich - Music for 18 Musicians The German label ECM released Steve Reich's Music for 18 Musicians in 1978.  I bought a copy in 1979 because I liked the cover, but didn't actually listen to it until 1983, when I was first living in Germany.  Contemporary classical music hadn't grabbed me as a concept before, but when I did listen to it what I heard in the music was the same as what I heard in dub reggae, the concepts of repetition and change playing together to make beautiful shapes in my mind.  I grew also to love the contemplative aspect of the long form piece - it's a single piece 56 minutes long.   Many years later I had the pleasure of meeting Steve Reich a few times.  He told me when he wrote Music for 18 Musicians he thought he was creating something new and radical, but with the perspective of age he's realised it has more in common with Bach's fugues.  It may or may not be true that there were more performers than people in the audience for the 1976 world premiere in New York, but since then it has become one of the most popular pieces of contemporary classical music, and one that people want to talk to him about the most.  Which is rather to ignore the amazing music Steve Reich has gone on to compose in the 40 years since then.

J.S.Bach - Brandenburg Concerto My other entry into the world of classical music was this recording of Bach's Brandenburg Concerto from maybe 1970.   I had a copy in my car via my mother.  For lack of anything else to listen to on a motorway journey in 1981 I put this cassette on. After about 20 minutes I had to stop the car and just listen, so strong was my response.  It's played at a fast tempo, and has all the consequent joy of upbeat pop music.  Interestingly this particular recording has only ever been released on cassette- there's not digital version anywhere (I have looked quite hard). I've also often wondered if concertos 2, 3 and 5 were recorded at the same time!

Saturday 18 April 2020

The construction of Roskear tin and copper mine, 1924

Clearing out a box of pictures from storage I found these photographs.  They catalogue the construction in 1924 of Roskear Mine at Dolcoath, Camborne, Cornwall.  My great-great-great grandfather Charles Thomas (1794-1868) was one of the first Captains of Dolcoath copper and tin mine, followed by his son Josiah Thomas (1833-1901) and his son Arthur Thomas (1867-1949).

Saturday 28 December 2019

Reviving the blog.

It's been a busy and rather traumatic 3 years since I last posted, both in terms of the external world, and in more personal ways too.  I shan't go into details, but I will start occasional blogs again in 2020.

Tuesday 24 May 2016

Learning to love classical music (if you like pop music)

Two years ago a pair of clever, aesthetically sophisticated artists asked me to help them begin to like classical music.  It wasn’t so much that the desire was not there, but rather that with contemporary culture’s focus on the immediate and the new it’s easy to avoid exposure to classical music altogether, and therefore not quite know where to find the way in.   

I asked for advice from various composers and music professionals – saying to them that the one thing I was not looking for was a chronological introduction – more important was music you could relate to if you knew all about pop music.  I was thinking in part back to how my love of classical music started, which was in about 1984 with Steve Reich’s “Music for 18 Musicians” – which seemed to me at the time to share much with the dub reggae I was then listening to – and from which I worked my way backwards over the years to Bach, only to find then great similarities between Bach and Reich in terms of compositional structures.  

I've spent the last 15 years on my own journey, with great delight filling in the gaps for everything between the Baroque and the Contemporary, discovering the pleasures of Shostakovich one year, and Chopin the next.

This is the order of the music to which I introduced my artist friends to start them on their own journey:

1. Purcell - Dido and Aeneas (if possible the version with Janet Baker singing).
2. Jóhann Jóhannson – Englabörn.
3. Beethoven's 5th symphony
4. Arvo Pärt – Litany 
5. Steve Reich – music for 18 musicians (original version)
6. Satie – Gymnopédies
7. Debussy – La Mer
8. Stravinsky – the Rite of Spring
9. Louis Andriessen – De Staat
10. Anything by Hans Abrahamsen
11. Iannis Xenakis – Jonchaies
12. Morton Feldman - Piano and string quartet   and/or Piano, violin, viola, cello
13. John Cage - Sonatas and interludes
14. Bach Cello Suites – Fournier version
15. Varese  - Ameriques
16. Turnage - Drowned Out
17. Mahler – 2nd and 5th symphonies
18. Strauss - Alpine Symphony 
19. Ades - America
20. Britten - Four Sea Interludes
21. Ades - Tevot (Berlin phil/rattle)
22. Charles Ives - songs (Aimard/Susan Graham)
23. Schubert's string quintet

I felt that once they had experienced the music above they would be pretty much ready for anything classical music can offer.  As they listen to music in their studio via Spotify, I could see what they were playing ... and I knew they arrived when one of them became addicted to Vivaldi's "Four Seasons".  

If you are on a similar quest, happy listening!

Sunday 24 April 2016

RTF London concerts - Jóhannsson and Guðnadóttir

Still basking in the memory of two concerts held on 15th and 16th April in London to premiere new RTF commissions by Hildur Guðnadóttir and Jóhann Jóhannsson, details of both of which are on the RTF website.

We had 70 people to a supper and recital at Sir Vernon Ellis's house on 15th, and about 250 people bought tickets for the concert the next day at Conway Hall.   Both pieces of music far exceeded my expectations, and I am looking forward very much to helping them receive further performances and evolution. More on this in due course, in the meantime here's some photos:

The poster - 2 of which were "liberated" about 10 minutes after I put them up outside the Conway Hall!

Hildur rehearsing before concert on 16th

Moody photos by Guy Woodgush

The quartet playing

Me telling everyone to go and get a drink