Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Happy new year to all my readers


Unsurprisingly, I listened to more Bach than anything else in 2008. Raphaël Imbert's Bach/Coltrane CD for the Zig-Zag Territoires label captivated me, and judging by the emails it generated, it captivated many readers as well. Linn Records' one-to-a-part eight voice recording of the 1742 final performing edition of Bach's Matthew Passion was a new release, and it was, for me, one of the best new recordings of the year. An article about it waits in the upload queue, delayed by the sheer volume of wonderful music I have heard in the year.

Also missing from my posts was the extraordinary Alpha Productions CD of parodies and transcriptions of music by Bach for organ and violin, played by Raphaël Oleg and Vincent Dubois. An endlessly fascinating disc that is also a wonderful example of the art of the balance engineer. A very welcome female interloper in a predominantly male profession, engineer Aline Blondiau achieves the impossible and produces a demonstration quality balance between the organ and violin recorded in l'église Saint-Pierre de Guignicourt, France.

For me, the outstanding live music event of the year was Glyndebourne's new production of Humperdinck's Hänsel und Gretel. During the year I listened with much pleasure to Karajan's 1953 EMI recording of the opera with Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and Elisabeth Grümmer in Naxos' EU-royalty-free version, which is not available in the USA. A chance encouter with Pablo Casals' choral music in a small church in rural France in the summer sent me down a rewarding path and I returned repeatedly to Casals' recordings of the Bach Cello Suites from the 1930s, again a Naxos EU-only version of an EMI recording.

I wrote in praise of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra in August, and their recording of Jonathan Harvey's Body Mandala conducted by Ilan Volkov was one of the outstanding new contemporary music CDs of the year. It also fuelled my increasing interest in Buddhism, a philosophy that has attracted many figures in the music world including Jonathan Harvey, Philip Glass and John Cage. Belgian pianist Daan Vandewalle delighted me with his live performances of Cage and Stockhausen in Belgium and London, and also introduced me on disc to the solo piano music of Gordon Mumma. Staying with the piano Ellen Ugelvik's CD for Sigma Classics of George Crumb's Makrokosmos was yet another delight.

Comments from readers are crucial in deciding the directions that the path takes. I knew the orchestral music of Valentin Silvestrov, but perceptive comments from two regular readers led me to his Stille Lieder on ECM, sung by baritone Sergei Jakowenko. This sublime song cycle, in a recording which dates from 1986, was one of my great musical discoveries of the year. That Silvestrov path ended in an unusual destination, the New York Times. Another reader put me on the path to the neglected music of Maurice Ohana following my visit to Morocco early in the year. And returning to the baritone voice Chad Runyon's recording of John Jacob Niles' settings of Thomas Merton's poetry was another priceless discovery.

World music produced many riches in the year. These included the music of Moorish Spain from L'Ensemble Aromates, oud music from the Palestinian Trio Joubran, and ambient Turkish music from the Taksim Trio. One of the great finds was the traditional gnawa trance ritual from Marrakech which I webcast complete, and without interruption on Future Radio.

Among the wonderful sounds there was also great sadness, particularly at the loss of Richard Hickox, Vernon Handley and Esbjörn Svensson. The recordings of the symphonies of Edmund Rubbra (and Leo Black's fine book on him) in interpretations by Richard Hickox and others brought much reward in the year. Elgar's early oratorio The Light of Life recorded by Richard Hickox for Chandos brought much needed consolation. Contemporary and world music are now fashionable. But the sacred choral music of Elgar remains deeply unfashionable. Dualism is one of the many enemies in the 21st century. Why can we not be moved by The Kingdom, The Apostles and the Dream of Gerontius as well as Crumb's Makrokosmos?

My Christmas presents from my long-suffering family included the cycle of complete Haydn symphonies originally recorded for Nimbus by Adam Fischer and the Austro-Hungarian Orchestra, and now re-issued at super budget price (around £2 a disc for 33CDs) by the Dutch low price licensing specialist, Brilliant Classics. The 'complete works' box is an excellent way of filling gaps in a CD collection, and Brilliant's Bach and Mozart complete editions have also filled many hours of listening in the year.

I was fortunate to see Jordi Savall perform in concert twice in 2008. His fiercely independent brand of early music making has gone from strength to strength, and his blockbuster celebration of Jerusalem was one of the truly great artistic and humanitarian achievements of the year. But when will they ever learn? Jordi Savall's Alia Vox label is not afraid to swim against the tide and take risks, and the first solo album by his son Ferran, Mireu el nostre mar, returned to my CD player many times.

Alia Vox means 'alternative voice', and the success of Jordi Savall's independent and innovative record label carries an important message for 2009. All around there is economic gloom. But, despite this, I am immensely optimistic about the future. Yes, 2009 will bring more pain, triggered by the greed and stupidity of those managing the large corporations. But there is a growing awareness that the corporate system is not working, and, more importantly, there is an increasing willingness to listen to alternative voices.

Working outside the mainstream, daring to be different, and replacing individual greed by shared values can provide a viable alternative to our present broken structures. Looking back over what I have written, not one of the CDs featured in this post comes from a major record label (OK, two were originally recorded by EMI more than fifty years ago), and not one is performed by a 'top ten' orchestra (except the 1953 Hänsel). Yet, I challenge anyone to argue that the music I have written about is not outstanding in every respect. Time and time again the same names appeared on the path in 2008, and they appeared because they are important alternative voices - the Britten Sinfonia, Zig-Zag Territoires, Jonathan Reakie and his team at Aldeburgh Music, Glossa Music, Alpha Productions, Concertzender, Alia Vox, and many more.

2009 will see increasing problems and further decline for those who still believe that global is beautiful. That includes the major record labels, the big-name orchestras, the jet-set music directors, the international music festivals and the major media groups such as the BBC. As corporate structures buckle alternative voices will follow the path blazed in the theatre by Bertolt Brecht's Berliner Ensemble and Peter Brook's Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord. These musical voices will ignore established categories, work outside the celebrity system, explore new repertoire and make dwindling funding go further by rejecting top-heavy management structures. They will connect locally rather than globally, dispense with intermediaries, put activism before corporate schmoozing and create their own networks to bypass the corporate 'gate keepers' that currently control the recording, broadcasting, venue and talent industries.

2009 is going to be very exciting. Alternative voices will become increasingly important. As a leading critic wrote 'This is the future of classical music'.

With many thanks to Christopher Bishop, whose 2008 Christmas card provides my header graphic. All reviewed items bought at retail price except for the Niles/Merton Songs, the Gordon Mumma piano music,the gnawa Black Album and Leo Black's book on Rubbra. The latter items were supplied at no cost at my request, my thanks go to the suppliers. Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

1 comment:

sfmike said...

Thanks for the great roundup. I'm two-thirds of the way through the Brilliant Classics set of Everything J.S. Bach Ever Wrote, and I've been enjoying just about every minute of it, especially the cantatas which were essentially new music for me.

Thanks to your recommendations, I'm also running out to buy "the music of Moorish Spain" for my history loving Spanish mother, and the Brilliant Classics Haydn Symphony set for myself. Happy New Year, dude, from California.