Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Widened Horizons

2007 was a great year for me as a listener. Whilst my personal life underwent considerable upheaval there was always plenty of music to keep me going. The year began with me stressed to the hilt by a job I hated, and music proved to be the crutch on which I leant for support. The summer saw me take a big step in leaving that job (its turned out to be the best thing I've done in many years) and I spent a few months relaxing, travelling, and yes listening to masses of music. The extra time on my hands meant that I caught up on the backlog of unlistened to CDs before starting a new job in October saw the "to be listened to" build right back up again. Then as the year came to an end and I enjoyed my dayjob more than I have for over a decade, I found myself fighting to find the time to listen. Oh well you can't have everything!

Anyway before I'm accused of narcissism again, there's a reason for mentioning all of this. As my personal life went through a lot of change I found myself opening my mind and ears to a wider area of music, mainly classical, but other bits and pieces slipped in too. A tendency towards the romantic, the overly emotional aspects in music appeared in my listening habits, as if from nowhere. Bearing in mind I spent most of February listening to only Radu Malfatti compositions this came as a surprise to me as much as anyone. I mainly blame the influence of others for this. Spending time in the company of knowledgeable friends directly lead me to listen to Shostakovich, Mahler, Bach and others, but I think the sense of loosened restraints I felt in my personal life played a big part in all of this also.

So here are a few of the discs that I played the most in 2007 that for one reason or another weren't suitable for my Best of 2007 list...

Gustav Mahler - Symphony No.9
Versions by Claudio Abbado and Bruno Maderna

For some reason I had been meaning to investigate Mahler for a few years. I had a good idea what to expect so I think I probably had heard one or two of the symphonies on the radio at some point and enjoyed them enough to make a subconscious mental note. My "discovery" of classical music in 2007 meant I asked around for recommendations and the first symphony I bought was No.9, and the Claudio Abbado / Berlin Philharmonic recording on Deutsche Grammophon in particular.

I have listened to more than one recording of all of Mahler's symphonies over the last twelve months and I really enjoy them all to one degree or another. The construction of his music is incredible, although so many richly detailed elements are taking place at any one time they all fit together like a fantastically beautiful jigsaw puzzle. Reading about the symphonies and Mahler's personal motivations behind them provides a further dimension, sometimes its possible to almost follow the symphonies like stories, the emotional impact of some of them at least almost overwhelming on occasion.

The Ninth is one such symphony, written as Mahler entered his last months and fighting ill health. Impending death and its fears is one central theme to this incredible work. The infidelity of his wife had also been recently revealed to him as he wrote the piece, and this no doubt infused the composition with a further, deep sense of loss. Its not a happy work, ending with what is clearly a solemn farewell as the symphony comes to a final close after a few false endings. Its also probably the most musically adventurous of Mahler's nine (ten if you count the posthumously completed one) symphonies, written as it was when the young blood of Vienna's second school were finding their feet, and looking up to Mahler as their musical forefather.

Without getting up to count I think I have six or seven versions of Mahler's Ninth now. In my opinion its a piece that can withstand being performed "badly" and still maintain a large degree of its power, but three versions of it remain my favourite. The Bruno Maderna conducted recording by the BBC Symphony Orchestra is a sharp, precise version, the construction of the piece articulated immaculately and with real power. The version by Claudio Abbado that I originally purchased remains my favourite however, a really organic, passionate realisation that feels alive and thriving as it comes from the speakers. The last version I enjoy a lot is also conducted by Abbado, but comes on a DVD. The recording is of the Mahler Youth Orchestra, and watching Abbado in full flow directing this young group of incredibly passionate players is an amazing thing to watch.

I actually have bought and watched five DVDs of Abbado conducting Mahler symphonies over the last year. Having never actually attended the live performance of a full symphony (shame on me, I know) I find watching this master conduct music he is clearly in love with a spellbinding experience, one I intend to witness for real as soon as possible.

Dmitri Shostakovich - String Quartet No.15
Performed by Borodin Quartet.

I'm not at all ashamed to admit that my interest in this stunning piece of music originates entirely with Keith Rowe. Sitting in on a workshop on improvisation Keith gave up in Scotland back in June, he played this recording very loud to the room in an attempt to portray the level of immediacy he wanted to hear from the musicians. The moment I heard that first solo violin I was taken with the music completely, the shimmering essence of the powerfully sorrowful music made me shiver in the room, and I knew I had to buy the CD. I've since listened right the way through 75% of Shostakovich's composition (and read my way through 75% of Elizabeth Wilson's massive biography) and I think I started with the very pinnacle of his music, as nothing else has come close to his late quartets (the 8th, 11th and 14th are all also very wonderful.) The 15th string Quartet was probably the one piece of music I played more than any other in 2007... and thats saying something.

Mention should also be made here to the Emerson quartet 2CD set of Bartok's string quartets, which are also a very nice listen indeed. Still some way behind the Shostakovich however.

Johann Sebastian Bach - Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin / The Cello suites
Performed by Gidon Kremer / Janos Starker

Both of these recordings were given to me initially as CDR burns by a good friend. Bach is probably not a name I would have investigated without helpful suggestions from others, and even now I'm quite content having only scratched the surface of his work. The cello suites are just so so beautiful. The uncomplicated melodies, deeply mournful and moving in places, sprightly and uplifting in others are just perfectly complete, if that makes any sense. Starker's playing is beautifully rich and filled with passionate colour, each note ringing out vibrantly before the next, the playing of a musician clearly deeply involved with the music before him. I also purchased Pablo Casals' 1930's recording of the suites, as they were cheap on the Naxos label and are widely considered to be the best ever recordings. I liked the Casals a great deal for many of the same reasons, but I think I still prefer the vibrancy of the Starker, which of course may just be because of the advances in recording quality during the thirty years between the two versions.

Gidon Kremer has recorded Bach's Sonatas and Partitas for Violin Solo at least twice as I have two separate recordings, the first, from 1980 was the first I heard and remains my favourite, despite the CD quality of the later 2000 / 2001 set, though if you asked me to identify which was which in a blind test perhaps its only that recording quality that would enable me to do so. Kremer has a very distinctive style that I like a lot, a very rough, gritty sound that brings a raw, energetic edge to the music. Bach's pieces are again just fantastic little illustrations of simple, beautiful music. I find little else to say about them beyond this. I quite often play them late at night, very quietly, when the challenges of keeping up with the modern avant garde get a little too much and I just need to wind down before bed. Damning with faint praise perhaps, but for music written over three hundred years ago to still affect me in 2007 as this music does, well thats some achievement if you ask me.


Tommy Potts - The Liffey Banks

I wrote about this music here, and I have little more to say about it that I didn't write back in July, but six months later this disc probably still gets played once a week here, often when I'm in the bath for some strange reason that I can't quite fathom. I hope to visit Ireland a couple more times this year, once for my annual pilgrimage to the great i and e festival at the end of March, and maybe again in the summer, this time to investigate the beautiful country a little further. Tracking down more about Mr Potts will be high on my agenda this year.

There were two amazing recordings released in 2007 that I did not include in my Top 10 of the year. The first, the Editions RZ two disc compilation of David Tudor's piano music, including the quite incredible 1961 recording of Cage's Variations II requires a full review in itself. As does the other release, the new recording of Luigi Nono's masterwork Prometeo directed by André Richard. It may take me a while, but I hope to do my feelings on these two releases justice somewhere all in good time.

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