by Andy Fawcett
There’s a body of hardcore audiophiles who, given half a chance, will bore everyone else stupid by rattling on interminably about their favourite music. By way of a homage to those endearingly anti-social obsessives, that’s pretty much what I intend to do here! My tastes are pretty catholic and, I’m pleased to say, getting ever more so – a sufficiently broad range of genres is covered that there should be something to appeal to everyone. Be warned: If you imagine that an Antipodean’s musical fare should be somehow different from your own then you’ll likely be disappointed. If you’re expecting more of the peerless music writing provided by Audiophilia’s uniquely well-credentialed team of musicians and academics, then you’ll be doubly disappointed! Note that, while I retain a fondness for vinyl, all of the following selections are readily-available, standard-issue CDs … and not an ‘audiophile’ special among them! So, welcome to the artists and titles that have been getting the greatest airplay chez moi:-
White Ladder (1998) – IHT 8573829832
In 1998, having released three albums without commercial success and been fired by all three record companies, plus his publishers, a lack of funds forced the irrepressible Gray to record the next record in his London flat. The staircase was so narrow that a drum kit couldn’t be persuaded up it, forcing him into the unusual step of backing his folky, acoustic sound with electronic percussion. The result, White Ladder, is innovative and magnificent; a musical and songwriting tour de force that propelled Gray to giddy heights of critical and commercial acclaim and paved the way for a wave of British singer-songwriters that followed. While others rewarded with unexpected success have often become mired in creative quicksand, or simply continued to milk the same formula, Gray is guilty of neither. His subsequent releases (the endearingly unpolished Lost Songs ’95-‘98, A New Day at Midnight and Life in Slow Motion) are no less worthy, each a masterpiece of musical diversity and sublime songwriting. Some may not savour the unrelenting gloom in his lyrics, though I find it curiously uplifting! All offer very good recorded sound (Life in Slow Motion in particular) and none is ever far from my CD player.
Hand Built by Robots (2007) – Sony 88697113062
Though most of us must share a certain despair at the parlous state of modern music, a saviour may just have emerged in this supremely talented Brit. Despite (!) topping the charts in the UK, the young (just 22 at time of release) singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist’s debut record showcases superb songwriting, sensitive lyricism and an unusual acoustic guitar picking technique reminiscent at times of the late, great Michael Hedges. It’s also an excellent recording in the modern digital idiom (excepting some over-enthusiastic bass output of no clear origin, which presumably caters for the subwoofer set), with dynamics that will undo many systems. That Faulkner is sometimes lazily labelled “the English Jack Johnson” strikes me as nothing short of slanderous; while ploughing a similarly relaxed furrow, for the most part, his finely crafted music bears no comparison to the Hawaiian’s witless 3-chord dirges and retarded lyrics. Make it “a mellow David Gray” and we won’t have to fall out!
Caverna Magica (1984/Remastered 2005) – KinKou 17529
My passion for Vollenweider’s music has never wavered over the past quarter-century; indeed, after who-knows-how-many plays I still regularly discover new delights buried within. It is my intention to dedicate an upcoming article to the recent hi-rez remastering of his back catalogue, so I shall not go into further detail here; suffice to say, I don’t think any audiophile forgets where he was the first time he heard Caverna Magica!
Didgeridoo Spirit (2006) Indigenous Australia IA2003
As the great Bard once said; “And now for something completely different”. First, though, a confession - while determined to include something singularly Australian among this selection, the truth is that I only picked up on this disc through the advocacy of one of Stereophile’s American writers; proving, I suppose, how truly globalised an artform music is. In this case, a backdrop of the unique sounds of Australian fauna authentically navigates a journey from upland tropical rainforest down to the ocean’s shores, narrated by the primeval vocabulary of Hudson’s didgeridoo over a tasteful backing of guitar, keyboard, fiddle and drums. The result is a simple, undemanding pleasure, the like of which you’re unlikely to have heard before. Recording quality is, as can be deduced from the original source of this recommendation, excellent.
Chamber Sonatas (London Baroque/Medlam) Harmonia Mundi HMG50113 7
From the moment laser touched polycarbonate, I loved this disc! The unusual ensemble (two violins, cello, double bass and chamber organ) comes across like a string quartet on steroids, although the recording is not of the first rank – I forgive it its sins for conveying the vibrancy and sheer vivacity of the playing, but the violins will be uncomfortably strident on unforgiving systems and the deep bass loose and boomy. Composed between 1772 and 1780, these short, single-movement sonatas (ranging from two and a half to five minutes in length, each with their own catalogue number and all in Major keys) stylistically bridge the Baroque and Classical eras. Mainly up-tempo and free spirited, all are imbued with that uniquely Mozartian blend of almost childlike exuberance and joy, coupled with a guileless and affecting beauty. It comes as no small surprise, then, to learn that they were intended for performance in Salzburg’s churches! In that, I suspect, lies a lesson for anyone tasked with tackling the issue of declining congregations.
Vivaldi - ‘La Stravaganza’ (Arte Dei Suonatori/Podger) Channel Classics CCS19598
Handel – Organ Concertos Op. 4 (Halls/Sonnerie) Avie AV2055
Recognisably of the genre that I affectionately term “Heavy Metal Vivaldi”, this wonderful release exemplifies the close recorded perspective, exaggerated tempii, thunderous bass and wildly dynamic, period instrument sound that renders this music so compelling. What the 12 concerti of the rarely performed/recorded Opus 4 also demonstrate is just how much variety and invention Vivaldi is able to conjure within the constraints of the 3-movement, fast-slow-fast concerto structure. Rachel Podger’s playing is superb – the fluidity with which she springs from, and melts back into the tutti is quite mesmerising – and the tone of the small Polish orchestra (a mere sixteen members, though its sound is huge) very rich and burnished. And if you thought that a Baroque Guitar was just for plucking, check out what those lutenists get up to; I think I just witnessed the birth of the power chord! Be warned, though, that this disc presents a stern test and I’ve heard fine systems struggle vainly to do it any justice – if it doesn’t sound good on yours, don’t try to blame the recording. Also available on SACD and as a Hi-rez download on Linn’s website, from where I belatedly learn that it won Gramophone’s “Best Baroque Recording 2003” … and those guys are way smarter than me!
The Handel disc hasn’t won anything, to my knowledge, though it certainly deserves to. Electing to perform these popular works in a stripped-down, chamber ensemble format (just 11 musicians) has given them a wonderfully fresh, intimate feel, while the small chamber organ employed emits a surprising range of tonal colours. The playing of Matthew Halls, backed by the period instrument A-listers of Monica Huggett’s Sonnerie, is predictably flawless, highlighted by an exquisite recording - one of the best I’ve heard. Supremely recommendable.
I had never encountered the name of Charles-Valentin Alkan prior to stumbling across this disc – yet learned opinion would have it that he is one of the greatest composer-pianists ever, with a technique that held even his contemporary Franz Liszt (another worthy nominee for that title) in its thrall. Alkan’s thoroughgoing reclusiveness saw him achieve almost total obscurity even during his own lifetime, and his main claim to notoriety could be the bizarre manner of his passing – crushed to death when a bookcase fell on him. He has found a modern-day champion in French-Canadian pianist Marc-André Hamelin, who has recorded several discs of his works.
The Concerto for Solo Piano is comprised of three of Alkan’s twelve Op 39 Etudes, yet runs for 50 minutes. Recognisably of the era of Chopin and Liszt, the CD’s booklet describes it as “some of the most uncompromising writing in the entire literature of the piano” and it must indeed be so. Hamelin’s technique is beyond reproach – as it is on other of his recordings that I own, though none is so stern a test as this – but I must admit to finding his style a touch “vanilla”, less notably individualistic than some.
Which is where the young British pianist, Freddy Kempf, comes in with his compilation of treacherously demanding piano works, clearly intended to showcase his technique. The precise articulation and ringing clarity in his sound is apparent despite a somewhat distant and diffuse recorded perspective (I can only play the CD layer of this SACD), and I find his playing tremendously engaging. The Russian public that has taken Kempf to heart is here rewarded with the original version of Mussorgsky’s Pictures From An Exhibition for solo piano (an eye-opener for those familiar with the later orchestrated version … or even that by Emerson, Lake and Palmer!) plus Balakirev’s Islamey, which its composer intended to be the most difficult piano piece ever composed. That provides the thematic link to Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit, with which its creator duly (and by his own admission) attempted to surpass even Islamey’s technical challenge. Frightening!
J Ockeghem – Missa Cuiusvis Toni (Ensemble Musica Nova) Aeon AECD 0753
Another entirely unfamiliar name and, on the face of it, a release of interest primarily to musicologists. This Fifteenth Century Mass ‘sung in all the keys’ was revered as an unsurpassable achievement in its day, demonstrating its composer’s mastery by being capable of performance in all four permissible church modes; as it is here, for the first time on disc. A full musicological background is provided in the admirably detailed but inevitably rather academic notes, along with a similarly dry examination of considerations of performance and interpretation … almost all of which went far over my head. The music, on the other hand, is sublimely gorgeous even to the untrained ear, being free of the stylised dissonance that composers like Gombert introduced early in the following century. I’ll admit to being a sucker for the allure of obscure European classical record labels, but this disc is wonderfully well sung and recorded, which earns it the dubious honour of inclusion here!
Haydn – “The Creation” (Gabrielli Consort & Players/McCreesh) Archiv 4777361
Until recently, oratorio was a musical genre that I deliberately avoided – partly, it must be said, because my system previously struggled to handle the demands of large-scale choral performances well. That this work was instrumental in overturning such a long-held prejudice explains my enthusiasm for it, though most will doubtless be familiar with its hallowed reputation. For this 2008 recording, the original force of 200 singers and musicians employed by Haydn at its premiere has been replicated, using a newly-revised version (by Paul McCreesh himself) of the English libretto; the officially-sanctioned copy having long borne the scars of an inexpert translation into German and back again during the work’s composition. Served by an excellent recording with vivid spatial perspectives, from the thunderous opening drum roll (a remarkably prescient “Big Bang”) to the closing chorus the result is truly epic – a vast and glorious noise!
Saint-Saëns – Complete Works for Piano & Orchestra (Hough/CBSO/Oramo) Hyperion CDA67331/2
The works on this disc span some 40 years of the composer’s life, over which time he gradually changed in the public opinion from a progressive radical to an arch-conservative and reactionary. In fact, this collection shows that Saint-Saëns stayed very much true to the same principles throughout and, if these works are never quite blessed with the overt genius of the very first rank of history’s greats, they are consistently entertaining. The composer’s intention was that the piano and orchestra engage each other as equals; a wish that is achieved in the wonderful performances, and apparent also in the unusual balance of the fabulous recording – a check of the credits reveals the name of legendary engineer Tony Faulkner. This release was awarded Gramophone’s 2002 Record of the Year, so for once I’m not talking out of my hat!