If it’s good enough for Fiona Maddocks (link at the bottom of this post) it’s good enough for this blog.
I started the year wanting to explore what the music was that I connected with and, importantly, figure out why.
The list that follows is a summary – the highlights – of my musical year. It doesn’t profess to be a recommended list. Such lists run a high risk of appearing like virtue signalling.
Instead, see this list as evidence of the music I’ve responded to in the unusual cirucmstances we’ve all experienced.
Andrew Manze and the NDR’s Beethoven 7
I’ve long been aware of Andrew Manze but always thought of him in the context of historically-informed performance practice. That changed last year with the discovery of his poignant recording of Vaughan Williams Symphony No.5 with the RLPO.
He brings some of that historically-informed performance experience to this recording with the NDR Radiophilharmonie.
Grit, urgency, and pathos can be found in the string textures. especially in the second movement funeral march. Details abound. A glorious adventure playground for the ears.
Jonathan Biss’ Beethoven Wigmore Hall recital
The last jaw-dropping live music I heard was with Fran Wilson at Wigmore Hall at the top of the year. Tears rolled. Much discussion post-concert. Biss’ playing pinned me to the back wall of the auditorium. Remarkable intensity. Moments that were immediate, uncompromising, and unequivocal. Difficult to put into words exactly what it was like. Exhilerating stuff.
Iain Farrington’s Beethoveniana
This was an unexpected joy. A visual manifestation of the times. Storytelling through dance, backed by visual tropes we’d all become rather used to because of the lockdown. Farrington’s variations and deliciously varied orchestral textures made for a tantalising musical buffet.
Musically too, there was something about the hints at familiar Beethoven melodies that was also of the time – a musical depiction of the way live music was perceived in the mind of the listener: fractured, confined, nearly-recognisable. Some variations are almost too difficult to listen to because of the memories they recall.
Dvorak Symphony No. 8 – Mariss Jansons and the Bavaria Radio Symphony
Technically speaking the recording I heard isn’t the one I’m illustrating here. It was actually a BBC Proms repeat from 2004 featuring Jansons and the Bavarian RSO that blew me away earlier in the year. Electrifying stuff. Made me feel alive. There are beautiful details to delight in in this recording: the delicacy in the upper strings in the third movement; the triumph and celebration in the fourth; and the joyous applause at the end.
Beethoven 3 from Les Concerts des Nations
Its fast and exhilarating. Terrifying. Ravishing.
Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 from the Aurora Orchestra
The Aurora Orchestra’s outdoor performance of Beethoven’s seventh symphony was the first live orchestral music I heard (I think I’m right about that) after lockdown restrictions eased. Two concerts in one evening demonstrated what classical music concerts could turn into in the future. It was a highly-charged affair. The sound of an appreciative audience perhaps the most pleasing of all.
Holst’s Planet Suite in Parliament Square
Hearing the first few bars of Holst’s Mars the Bringer of War in Parliament Square was a moving experience. I went there to capture the protest mounted by freelance musicians calling on the Government to recognise the 30% of freelancers who weren’t able to benefit from the Self-Employed Income Support Scheme. This was old-school bread-and-butter content production as far as I was concerned. A call to arms, one others I knew in the media seemed woefully disinterested in. Perhaps that was part of my motivation – proving them wrong. I found it difficult to look at real human beings and know that they were struggling because of the pandemic. I didn’t really understand how other people couldn’t be moved by the sight of them. A few months on I find it difficult to listen to Mars.
Richard Stamp and Ottensamer’s Copland
If I had to rank this list, I’d probably put this recording joint first with the next one in this post. Richard Stamp’s recording with the late great clarinetist Ernst Ottensamer blew me away, lifting me from an intense bought of what felt like depression. The textures in this intimate recording soothe the soul. Ottensamer’s storytelling in Copland’s concerto makes sense of the work in a way I’ve never really got from other recordings.
Mark Simpson’s Geysir and Mozart’s Wind Serenade
An unexpected invitation to speak to composer and clarinettist Mark Simpson prompted me to listen to this album before it was released. Geysir was a revelation. Highly descriptive writing that celebrates the similarities and differences found in a wind section. It is a delight for the ears. If there is a 2020 subsitute for the live concert experience, then its this. Simpson’s work gave me renewed impetus for the autumn.
Paired with Simpson’s Geysir was Mozart’s Gran partita. The joyous industrious first movement in particular provided much-needed hope at a dark point in my year. The precise articulation throughout the ensemble is a joy to behold.
Both works were recorded at Saffron Hall in Cambridgeshire when lockdown restrictions had been eased.
Transit of Venus / Gillam / Joby Talbot
I’ve heard a lot of ponderous reflective music this year. Jaw-grinding eye-ripping stuff some of it. But Gillam’s much-anticipated ‘Time’, and Jody Talbot’s Transit of Venus in particular, was not only perfectly-timed but restorative too. Gillam’s playing is remarkable in this track. Talbot’s writing effortlessly conveys a sense of hope without resorting to musical cliche. Loved it. Still do.
John Rutter’s ‘Joseph’s Carol’
I include this because it was an unexpectedly moving experience to hear it recorded by the Oxford Philharmonic, Bryn Terfel and John Rutter. Aside from the necessary COVID mitigations, the few hours I spent at Oxford’s Sheldonian Theatre hearing John Rutter’s new carol and speaking to him and Terfel reminded me of the press-junket experience which will, I’m sure in due course, return.
Peace on Earth – Errollyn Wallen
Errollyn Wallen’s eery Peace on Earth was published by English National Opera in July amid the emerging Black Lives Matter movement. Performed by Idunnu Münch and Gerrard Martin, this feels in places like a homage to Benjamin Britten and his love of scales. It a carol (or song?) that gets under the skin. First heard it in Opera Holland Park’s Christmas YouTube concert. There’s a choral version on Spotify too. We had better hear it at the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols next year.
All Things Are Quite Silent – Anna Lapwood and The Choirs of Pembroke College, Cambridge
There has been a preponderance of vocal releases – video, audio, TV and film – this year. Only one album stands up at the end of 2020 as still warranting repeat listens that yield something meaningful. I love everything on the choral album, but if I had to choose one thing above all else it would be Kerensa Briggs heart-stopping Media Vita. Music that shores up my sense of hope.
For Fiona Maddocks’ selection visit the Guardian website.