Favorite Albums of 2018


This is a deeply absorbing album, not to mention an unusual one. If you hear this music by the elder Louis Couperin at all it's bound to be on a harpsichord, but here we have it on a modern piano where it decidedly doesn't belong... or does it? Pianist Pavel Kolesnikov treats these "Dances from the Bauyn Manuscript" as pure music, and the result is hard to pull your ears away from once you sink into it. It doesn't survive background listening, however — you have to show up for this one. For some reason I have taken to playing this in the car when I'm driving alone, finding time suspended. This music from the 1600's often sounds decidedly modern, and more than once during its extended contemplations it wanders into extreme harmonic territory. And then there are all the many ornaments, which in less expert hands might grate but here always feel right. If you choose one album this year to stretch your ears, let it be this one.

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I've never felt especially drawn to the music of Lutoslawski, despite having heard him described as one of the best composers of the 20th century. I remember listening to albums on which a bunch of stuff happened that apparently didn't register much. Here however is a new release that has opened my ears more than a little. It helps that the recording is so vivid, revealing the colors and inner workings of these very detailed, supercharged scores. Even streaming on headphones it sounds great, and in surround you are there, in the hall standing next to the conductor Hannu Lintu, who has the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra playing at maximum finesse. The first symphony (1947) inhabits a busy post-Bartok world, starting out at full tilt. It risks being too much, but it's growing on me despite not being as emotionally deep as it is densely entertaining. However the fourth symphony (from 1992), ending this disc, is on another level, and Lutoslawski's endlessly inventive orchestration helps the music go to much darker places. One particularly memorable section is like a face-smearing grief that feels sadder each time I hear it. It's an absorbing work. In between the first and last symphonies is "Jeux vénitiens" from 1961, which passes by at first glance like a series of abstract paintings, brief movements in a terse modern mode that didn't do much for me at first but grow more colorful and interesting on each listen. Hearing these three major pieces gives a sense of the places Lutoslawski went as a composer: the beginning, the middle and the end. But I might be assuming. Hopefully there will be another disc with the second and third symphonies, because I'm starting to get Lutoslawski's music now, or at the very least enjoy it.

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Here's an album that represents the opposite of my complaints in another review: not a bland moment here, but emotionally raw, committed and perceptive playing that more than justifies recording this music again. Dvorak's trio no. 3 in F-minor is less well-known and less-frequently played due to the later "Dumky Trio" being so popular, but the F-minor is every bit as good. Here it is placed first to help you notice. If you don't, well that's on you, because this is glorious. Each of the musicians is a soloist, coming together as a trio between other projects, so they don't bring any any received habits to this music. Such is the case with pianist Lars Vogt, who uncovers much textural interest and variety, but also Christian and Tania Tetzlaff who do so much to characterize their parts.

As if the F-minor wasn't enough, the performance of the trio no. 4 (nicknamed the "Dumky" because of its use of the Slavic "Dumka" slow-fast pattern), is both magical and a revelation. This trio is one of those first classical pieces that I knew way back when, but I've grown sick of it to be honest, or I had before this. It had begun to feel like shtick — the swoopy slow intros then hyper rushing, after too many listens like a caricature of itself. And the supposed 'gold standard' recording of the Dumky by the Beaux Arts Trio always seemed too... reverent, or laquered, or something. This one, though, throws all that off. No old habits here, no painting it all with the same brush, instead there's an attention to the actual music, revealing much detail and color I don't remember hearing before. One reason is they don't rush for the sake of it. The first movement is a good example: when the mood changes, it isn't very fast, just snappy, but then again they aren't timid where the music hits hard. Another reason is the string playing is never sappy, more wiry in the case of the violin especially. Overall this music starts to sound like... Dvorak. I love Dvorak, and I could listen to this again.

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Unless you're already one yourself, you need a classical-obsessed person in your life to find things like this. Here I am, your very own music-miner, and boy do I have a gem for you! Never mind the other things on this album — it's the sixth symphony by Rued Langgaard that's more than worth the price of admission. From 1920 but revised ten years later, it's a stunning head-trip with a blazing ending, all the more so for being played so well and vividly recorded here (in surround). I had heard this music before, actually, but for some reason that earlier recording didn't communicate. On this one, conductor Sakari Oramo manages to put across a clear sense of the structure of the piece, which adds to the listener's sense of having a mystical and sometimes violent vision. It appears like a perfect thing to me, this symphony, despite being rather bonkers. I want to hear it live!

The other music is not at all the same: the earlier, late-romantic second symphony, a dreamy excerpt from a later symphony, and, inexplicably, the "Tango Jalousie" by Jacob Gade. You can listen to all that, if you want, but don't miss the sixth symphony — and play it loud.

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This album is full of life and interest, and you're going to want to get up and dance to some of these tracks. Jordi Savall and his people came across Peruvian manuscripts called the "Codex Trujillo", ca. 1780 around fifteen years ago, so some of these songs have shown up in quite different versions mixed in among other music on their previous albums. Here we have only songs from the codex, arranged by Savall and his musicians and recorded in vivid surround sound. In their own words:

"In our imaginary symbolic celebrations featuring this wonderful collection of music dating from ca. 1780, we bring together all shades of the various racial and social groups who lived side by side in the amazingly rich and highly stratified society of the Viceroyalty of Peru. These included the Spaniards and Creoles (mainly White, but also some Africans born in America) at the top of the social ladder, as well as the different native Indian communities, the mestizos (of mixed Indian and white European descent, or vice versa), and the African blacks (who had arrived as slaves) and the mulattos (of mixed white and black parentage)."

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Medtner-itis is something you catch from other Medtner nerds. Patient zero was Medtner himself, apparently criticised for writing works titled "Fairy Tale" during the first world war. That kind of myopia did pay dividends, though. While sticking stubbornly both to tonality and to a late-romantic idiom, he also developed his own style to many high points. Other times he out-Medtnered himself, as with the third violin sonata here: chock full of thrilling ideas but soooo long and over-developed, as if he got carried away with its perfect construction and forgot about the listener. "Not a note out of place!" I imagine he might have said, it's just that there's just so many of them... But never mind, the first and second sonatas are gobsmacking, played here with incredible finesse and verve. You get more than you paid for with this music, long and virtuosic for both instruments, which means it risks bogging down, but these two players wring every last drop of juice out of the scores: you hear all the details but with a definite sense of the big picture, and where the music is aggressive there's no padding at all — certain parts even come off with an almost sexual sense of danger like in a tango, something I've never felt in other performances of this otherwise lushly-colored music.

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This is a miraculous album, and in many places revelatory. Hough achieves the impossible: hiding and revealing at the same time, allowing lines to sound together in balance without ending up in the murk. Debussy's radical harmony and chewy chords and clusters are all there, but naturally, breathing. Hough lets the music expand out in vivid color from the underlying rhythm, never getting into awkward corners like so many pianists do when they rush a section. This lets you hear many details that are otherwise muffed, even when they go by quietly, and it lends a physicality (or "physics-ness") to the musical shapes. Hough certainly makes interpretive choices, and I don't always agree, but overall what strikes me is a sense of honest music-making, that a deep and deeply-skilled musician is putting himself behind the music to characterize it as best he can. And just wait till you hear the last track: The Isle Of Joy. I've heard this piece ruined too many times (usually by rushing though it) and I've always imagined it played like it is here — except I could never have imagined it this good.

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