Sunday 23 December 2012

Where's Runnicles' favourite recordings issued in 2012

2012 has been a good year for recordings, of which more in a moment. However before I get onto that, I find I must rectify two omissions from last year's list. The first is Mark Elder and the Hallé's majestic account of Vaughan Williams' London Symphony. I'm not sure how this escaped my notice on release since I'm a fan of the Hallé's label. The disc is for me the more impressive as I'm not the world's greatest Vaughan Williams fan, yet my first impulse on listening to it was to put it on again immediately.

The second omission is this BIS disc of Anders Hilborg works. This is actually a fortuitous omission since it ties in nicely to one of the themes of my music buying this year, which has shifted heavily towards digital downloads, which the independent labels do far better. I came across this via the eClassical store (which I've written about extensively here), and after staring at the intriguing cover image for a while, decided to give it a go. The four works on the disc are all performed by the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic, but with different conductors (Esa Pekka Salonen, Alan Gilbert and Sakari Oramo). King Tide, for which Oramo is on duty, is probably my favourite, fascinating because it feels both organic in the way the climaxes grow but also industrial at the same time. Hillborg creates generally energetic and intriguing sound worlds. He writes well for all sections of the orchestra and often yields a sound somewhat akin to a synthesiser, perhaps unsurprising given the liner notes mention a background in electronic music. (I mean that as a compliment, incidentally.) At times frantic, tranquil or muscular, and moving effortlessly between, it is an impressive disc and Hillborg is definitely a composer to watch.

Last year's playlist has been amended accordingly.

But enough of that; onto this year's choices. And to begin, another discovery via eClassical and BIS. Though, to be frank, it's rather shameful for me to be describing it as a discovery since Masaaki Suzuki and his Bach Collegium Japan team have been turning out exemplary Bach cantata recordings for so long that this year they reached volume 51 (having started way back in 1995).

What prompted me to finally take the leap was, as with the Hillborg mentioned above, the eClassical site, which offers new release HD downloads at a discount each week. I'm not hugely familiar with Bach's cantatas, so don't have much to compare them to, however what I have heard has impressed me greatly. For starters, there is the high calibre of the playing and singing. Suzuki also has an interpretive approach which I find highly convincing. Tempi often feel comparatively broad but always to the service of Bach's beauty. The second thing, which has become clear as I've begun to collect the series, is that this excellence is consistent throughout the many volumes (not to mention other works such as the B minor Mass) - to turn out that many recordings to that high a standard is a extraordinary achievement. The sort of thing for which the musical equivalent of a Nobel prize or a Fields medal is due.

The Erioca Quartet, with their historically informed approach, are not a million miles from Suzuki, though I came to them in a different way. Their cellist, David Watkin, is the principal of the SCO, in which capacity he routinely impresses. Their disc of Ravel and Debussy, which is their second recording for all-digital label Resonus after Mendelssohn's Octet, is not necessarily repertoire that I would go out of my way to hear. It is the sort of recording that has me questioning why on earth not. It begins with a persuasive and richly coloured account of the Ravel. There is plenty of bite too, such as in the energetic pizicatto of the second movement. I would also describe it as an unmannered performance. Now sometimes, often even, I enjoy a bit of manner and find unmannered can be dull, but to listen to this you wonder how that could ever be. Presumably it's because they have a very clear idea of what they want to say about the piece rather than having nothing to say. And there is no lack of beauty or fire, take, for example, the shimmering textures at the end of the third movement. While for me the Ravel is the standout work on the disc, the Debussy is hardly less compelling.

It is a slight shame that given Resonus is a digital label, they cannot be found on Spotify.

It has been a good year for Beethoven, with at least two cycles catching my eye. I'm not going to go through either in depth, or include the whole of each on my playlist (indeed, to show the contrast I've chosen the same pair of favourite symphonies from both - 4 and 8). The first is Daniel Barenboim's with his West-Eastern Divan Orchestra. It could be said that his approach is slightly old fashioned, yet no worse for it. Diversity is a good thing. And while his take is heavier than some, it is by no means stodgy as some such accounts can be. Furthermore, owing to the nature of the band there is no shortage of energy either.

Frans Bruggen's approach with the Orchestra of the 18th Century could hardly be more different. We are in period territory here with smaller forces and overall a lighter approach. There are many highlights to pick out, but in particular the calibre of the winds is a treat. Then there is the sheer energy of the performances and the way they make these works feel so fresh and thrilling. That said, the set isn't perfect and it is a pity both that the recorded sound is not idea and, more critically, the ninth is an underpowered damp squib with some poor solo performances (though I think it's very hard to bring off a period ninth). Despite this drawback, there's more than enough on the other four discs for the set to earn its place here.

News of a new Regina Spektor album is always welcome and there is certainly a lot to love here, from the quirky mix of styles to the vocal acrobatics. My favourite track is Oh Marcello, mainly for the wonderful gear change that takes place as she transitions into "I'm just a soul whose intentions are good" from Nina Simone's Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood. Having said that, I don't think the album on a par with Begin to Hope or Far, in large part as the lyrics don't stand on their own as poetry in the same way as many of the tracks from those albums. Nonetheless, it is eminently listenable and most enjoyable.

The Apostles is not the greatest of Elgar's choral epics but Mark Elder (arguably the greatest living exponent of them) makes the most persuasive case possible as he rounds off his cycle. His way with an Elgarian climax is second to none and he is equally at home in the quieter moments of beauty. Particular highlights include the Sermon on the Mount and the intensity of the ending. From orchestra, to chorus, to the impressive team of soloists (which includes Rebecca Evans, Alice Coote, Paul Groves, and Jacques Imbrailo), there really isn't a weak link. Except, that is, for Elgar himself. This simply isn't a composition that matches either Gerontius or The Kingdom, whatever its most ardent fans may say. All the same, there's more than enough to argue that a few more performances and recordings of this and a few less of Gerontius would be no bad thing; this absolutely isn't one of those neglected works that deserves to be neglected. Aside from Adrian Boult, I'm not aware of another conductor who has taped all three (Oramo did with the CBSO but sadly The Kingdom and The Apostles languish in the vaults of the BBC, commercial release having been prevented by licencing). This further highlights Elder and the Hallé's achievement on their own label with these works, and much of the rest of Elgar's catalogue too: it is commendable and one of which they can be proud.

We were lucky enough to be in Berlin in April and, thanks to having got up very early one Sunday morning (take note the Royal Opera House, booking periods opening on weekends are much more sensible for those of us who work), even luckier to have attended the concert performance of Carmen from which this recording derives. It was superb - the review is here. The highlights for me were threefold. The calibre of the orchestral playing was of the highest order, something underscored by the often tricky (and rapid) tempi which Rattle requested and to which the orchestra always rose. Then there was Kaufmann's magnificent Don José. So far, so uncontroversial. Where this recording seems to particularly divide is with Kozena's Carmen, with some people thinking she is wrong for the role. I admit I am not a huge fan of this opera, nor especially a connoisseur of Carmens, but on stage, not least by dint of her acting (right down to flirting with the wind players at appropriate moments), she totally convinced me. As such, the recording brings back many fond memories, and it must be acknowledged that had I not attended the performance it's always possible I might find fault, yet I don't feel like I'm making allowances when I listen.

When this disc was released it was a pleasant surprise. If I had known it was coming, I would have been on the edge of my seat. For the 2008 Aldeburgh festival, Thomas Ades's last as artistic director, he was commissioned to write a cello sonata which was to be performed by himself and Steven Isserlis. I was lucky enough to be at that concert (review here). Less fortunately, especially given one of the supporters had helped commission it as a birthday present for his wife, it was not ready in time. However, this had the happy result that Ades and Isserlis had to come back again in 2009 to play it (review here). Everything on this disc was performed at one of those concerts (with the possible exception of one small Liszt piece and the Kurtag in whose case I don't have a note of exactly what pieces were played at the concert) and it is every bit as superb, from the rich, almost orchestra textures of Janacek's Pohadka to the intensity of Faure's second sonata. Lieux retrouves (rediscovered places), the Ades sonata, is an impressive set of pictures, including waters, mountains, fields and the city, and no easy work to perform, though they seem to take the challenges in their stride. The only weakness is the presence of a few short pieces by Kurtag, a composer by whom I have never heard anything that I have cared for. Still, since it's an HD download from Hyperion (which in a nice touch come with the liner notes embedded into the files), this can easily be edited out of the playlist and still leave amply filled disc. If I had to pick just one disc of the year, it would be this.

This isn't the orchestra own label Sibelius I was really looking forward to this year (that was Salonen and the Philharmonia's Kullervo, from this concert in September 2011 - come on Philharmonia, get a move on!). However, this disc from Paavo Berglund and the London Philharmonic is no less welcome, not least as we lost Berglund at the start of this year. It contains the 5th and 6th symphonies, which make a good pairing. Both are paced well and vividly textured, the 5th has an especially nice jagged quality to it. There is not quite the sweep that Davis might bring but a good sense of momentum nonetheless. The structure and pacing of the 6th is especially well judged. It is pretty obviously live and unpatched though, by which I mean there are fluffs and blemishes, but I would personally always take a real live performance (assuming it's good, as this one is) over a cobbled together one masquerading as live.

This is my first proper exposure to Alan Gilbert's tenure at the New York Philharmonic and it leaves me most impressed (it is a slight shame that most of the orchestra's concert recordings only seem to be available through low quality services such as iTunes). For all the endless Bruckners and Mahlers we come across in concert programmes and on CD, it strikes me that we could happily do with more Nielsen instead. True, when they last did any at the Edinburgh festival the Usher Hall was nearly deserted, but I think if people got to know these works they would be popular. On the plus side, it is nice to see two emerging cycles just now, both drawn from live concerts (even if I do not get on especially well with Colin Davis and the LSO's). Gilbert has chosen not to start with the best known (i.e. the Inextinguishable and, to a lesser extent, the 5th), instead opting for the second and third. There is a powerful energy to these performances, indeed they are electric, played both extremely well and with great intensity. The brass have a wonderfully brash quality to them that one often finds in American orchestras and which suits the music very well. Add to that the HD recording and it is hard to complain. That these are not Nielsen's greatest works only makes the prospect of the 4th and 5th more exciting.

The eponymous maestro has been performing with the BBC SSO for over a decade and is now into his fourth season as chief conductor. Indeed, he is now in Scotland so often he has robbed our name of its original meaning as a request to see more of him up here. As such, it is rather astonishing that this disc is the first recording they have made together (aside from radio broadcasts and BBC Music Magazine cover discs taken from broadcasts). Still, they have chosen fairly well. Runnicles has a persuasive way with Bruckner, as he has shown over the years with performances of the 6th, 7th and 8th in concert, the latter being one of the great concerts of my life. This recording isn't that fine, but it is thoroughly recommendable nonetheless. Runnicles shows a mastery of the music's structure in an interpretation that is both measured and varied. He builds his climaxes well, yet never comes near the trap of making it feel like an endlessly repeating series of the same or similar climaxes. All in all, it is an excellent start. We hope for many more, an 8th would be high on the list. So too would be some Elgar, with which he has proved most adept.

I'm a sucker for a good bit of multitracking and overdubbing. I come by this honestly, and probably genetically (the great Thomas Dolby is my uncle) and enjoy it in a variety of places from Bill Evans' Conversations with Myself, to the Kronos Quartet in so many things, to Peter Gregson's superb Terminal. While we (well, I, certainly) keenly await Terminal II, his collaboration with composer Gabriel Prokofiev more than tides us over. The album consists of just four tracks, but is filled out with a variety of remixes (which, it must be noted, do not feel like padding). There is a nice variety of textures achieved, especially given at heart it is just one instrument. There is generally a strong rhythmic drive, especially in Outta Pulsor. Tuff Strum, which as the name implies has plenty of strumming, is probably my favourite but all are enjoyable. If I had to pick one word to describe it, it might well be funky, not necessarily a word you would expect to associate with the cello. The remixes really do add value (not something I always find). Home Loner's Float Dance and Waves on Canvas's Tuff Strum are probably the ones that work best for me. If there's a criticism it's probably that there is a little too much of a good thing. At just shy of 70 minutes there's more than I want in one sitting (which is why for my playlist I've only included my highlights).

Stephane Deneve left the music directorship of the RSNO this summer. There are two particular achievements of his tenure that I would point to and both are evident on this recording. He left a stronger band than he found in terms of the quality of playing they are capable of. He also made them a formidable force in French repertoire. Here he collects Debussy's orchestral work in a set that is strong and consistently so. Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune is broadly paced but exquisitely and seductively played. Another highlight, for which the ladies of the RSNO Chorus are on hand to lure the unsuspecting traveller to their doom, is Sirènes, from his three nocturnes. The disc is a fitting testament to his tenure.

One of the benefits of subscription services is that they prompt you to listen to things that you might not otherwise take a risk on.  Perhaps the greatest discovery I have had through hi-fi manufacturer Bowers and Wilkins' Society of Sound is Dub Colossus. The music of Dub Colossus is rather difficult to describe if you've never heard it. From Addis Ababa, wikipedia notes that "Their sound fuses traditional azmari music, ethio-jazz and dub, and reggae." The result, to these ears, is a funky, richly textured, diverse fusion. This is not the sort of music to listen to if you want to sit still or as background for something else. Dub Me Tender vol. 1+2 is their third album and is dominated by reworkings of previous tracks along with some new ones. But don't let that put you off: in no way does this feel like a retread of previous albums, on the contrary it feels new and fresh. What time is Dub, asks one track? The answer, as far as I'm concerned, is now, especially if you haven't heard them yet, and this disc is a good place to start (if not quite so fine as their debut album A Town Called Addis).

A few years ago the SCO released a disc of Mozart wind concertos which is now a firm favourite of mine, not least for the superb solo performances by the orchestra's principals. The orchestra is fortunate to have a number of exceptional players on hand. Indeed, last year when a newspaper waxed lyrical that the Berlin Philharmonic was hands down the best in the world and cited fine solos as evidence, my response (having attended the same series of concerts that prompted the piece) was that if offered the choice I wouldn't swap the SCO principals for theirs. Because of this talent, it's nice to see them given the chance to do a little bit more. This disc is in many ways the sequel, though only one of the soloists, clarinetist Maximiliano Martin, appears on both. For these Weber concertos he is joined by bassoonist Peter Whelan and horn player Alec Frank-Gemmil. All three are superb. For Whelan and Martin I have little to add to my concert review and Alec Frank-Gemmill is hardly less impressive.

Benjamin Grosvenor featured on last year's list with an impressive solo disc of Chopin, Liszt and Ravel. This year he is back with an equally excellent set of concertos, something that will come as absolutely no surprise to anyone who has heard his various Proms performances, and indeed many other concerts. These are impressively assured readings, starting with a persuasive and lyrical account of Saint-Saens' second concerto. Elsewhere there are the glittering runs of the second movement. And if you're wondering how well Saint-Saens, Ravel and Gershwin go together, the answer is, it turns out, very. I know Ravel's concerto for left hand better, but the G major concerto is gentle and magical (though with no shortage of thrills in the end). The solo tracks that bridge to the next concerto are effective and the accompaniment of James Judd and the RLPO compliments Grosvenor well.

You can find most of these discs on the Spotify playlist below, though sadly not the Chandos or Hyperion ones. Surprisingly, since much of their catalogue is there, Linn's SCO disc isn't (this may be because it's a recent release). Needless to say the playlist will be updated if the situation changes.

In addition to the discs mentioned above, there are doubtless some fine ones I've missed - do let me know via the comments below. In addition, there are some good discs that didn't quite make the cut. In his debut with the BBC SO, of which he is now chief conductor designate, Sakari Oramo was joined by his wife Anu Komsi for a stunning performance of Sibelius's Luonnotar, so this recording for BIS (with the Lahti Orchestra) is most welcome and amongst the finest available. Alas, one fabulous track doesn't an album make. In fairness, it's not that the other tracks are bad so much as it's the sort of compilation that doesn't do terribly much for me. Another Oramo disc also narrowly missed out. Together with the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra he recorded a magnificent Prokofiev 6th symphony, something that will come as no surprise to anyone who heard his Prom with the BBC SO. What a shame then that the 5th is a slightly damp squib next to it.

Robin Ticciati's debut recording with the SCO of Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique is very good indeed, if for me not quite great. The sound isn't Linn's best effort, I want more weight than a chamber orchestra can provide, and more than anything I just feel that there are better projects they could have tackled. Paul Lewis continued his survey of Schubert's sonatas, and just as was the case last year there is a lot to love, particularly the D935 impromptus. However, the disc didn't entirely sweep me away, in particular the Wanderer left me cold. Then there's the frankly weird karate cover art.

All in all, 2012 was a good year for recordings, especially with smaller labels. We look forward to 2012, and there are already some discs I'm keenly awaiting. Hopefully Salonen's Kullervo and Oramo's Elgar symphonies will finally appear and I learnt just yesterday that Erioca Quartet and SCO cellist David Watkin is recording the Bach cellos suites for Resonus.

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