Sitting at home the other evening, contemplating the dismal antics of our wretched government, I found myself taking consolation from the melancholy beauty of Lawrence Power’s viola in his performance of James Macmillan’s marvellous concerto for that instrument. And, generous fellow that I am – not to mention someone who often dithers endless over what presents to buy people – I decided that it might be an idea to share some musical and cinematic recommendations with anyone out there who might be in a last-minute quandary about Christmas gifts. So here – all released this trying year – are ten classical CDs (ranging from orchestral through chamber ensembles to a solo recital), five jazz albums, and three BluRay boxed sets that have given me a lot of pleasure in these trying times. I hope that you and/or anyone you may be buying for gets as much enjoyment as I have.
Kirill Gerstein, Mark Stone, Christianne Stotijn, Boston Symphony Orchestra, Thomas Adès: Thomas Adès Conducts Adès (Deutsche Grammophon) The composer conducts dazzlings performances of his most recent piano concerto and his extraordinary song-cycle Totentanz.
Lawrence Power, BBC Philharmonic, Martyn Brabbins: James MacMillan Symphony No 4 & Viola Concerto (Hyperion) Of several fine releases devoted to Macmillan’s music this year, this for me was the best, with two major works.
Alina Ibragimova, State Academic Symphony Orchestra of Russia, Vladimir Jurowski: Shostakovich Violin Concertos (Hyperion) Ibragimova contributes searing renditions of two dark but sublimely beautiful concertos.
Chamber Orchestra of Europe, Nikolaus Harnoncourt: Schubert – The Symphonies (ICA) A feast of live performances from 1988.
Gringolts Quartet & Meta4: Mendelssohn & Enescu Octets (Bis) Two highlights of the form played with energy and expertise by two impressive ensembles.
Signum Quartet, Harry Traksmann, Leho Karin, Marrit Gerretz-Traksmann, Tanja Tetzlaff: Erkki-Sven Tüür – Lost Prayers (ECM) Estonian composer Tüür is probably best known here for his monumental symphonies, concertos and choral pieces, but the four chamber works here shed a new clear light on his distinctive sound world.
Nash Ensemble: Clara Schumann & Fanny Mendelssohn Piano Trios (Hyperion) Characteristically excellent performances, that also include Fanny Mendelssohn’s lovely string quartet.
András Schiff, Jörg Widmann: Johannes Brahms Clarinet Sonatas (ECM) Brahms’ late masterworks are accompanied by Schiff’s performance of Widmann’s own Intermezzi, a mesmerising and evocative tribute to Brahms.
James Gilchrist, Anna Tilbrook: Solitude (Chandos) The tenor and pianist perfectly paired in a marvellous themed programme which follows Purcell’s O! Solitude with song cycles by Schubert, Jonathan Dove and Barber.
Marc-André Hamelin: Samuel Feinberg Sonatas 1-6 (Hyperion) I’ll confess I’d never heard of composer and virtuoso pianist Feinberg until I caught one of these sonatas on Radio 3’s Record Review. But Hamelin makes him well worth checking out.
Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra: Live 1993 (Equinox)
Mike Westbrook: Love and Understanding & Citadel/Room 315 – Sweden ’74 (My Only Desire)
Oded Tzur: Here Be Dragons (ECM) Israeli-born saxophonist Tzur has a highly distinctive sound and most of his compositions for the quartet here were apparently inspired by Indian classical music. That said, their cover of ‘Can’t Help Falling in Love’ is also pretty special.
Carla Bley, Andy Sheppard, Steve Swallow: Life Goes On (ECM)
Maria Schneider: Data Lords (Artistshare) American composer and bandleader Schneider was an assistant to Gil Evans, and it shows, gloriously, in her orchestral writing. The fact that this album was partly inspired by political ideas does it no harm whatsoever.
Eric Rohmer’s Six Moral Tales (Criterion) Typically witty, psychologically perceptive and philosophically profound, Rohmer’s first series of films focus on men dithering and deluding themselves in their relationships with women. They include the masterpiece My Night at Maud’s (pictured above).
Buster Keaton: Three Films, Volume 2 (Our Hospitality, College, Go West) (Eureka) Three gems from arguably the greatest screen comedian of all time (and one of the greatest filmmakers), including the extraordinary Our Hospitality (pictured top).
Takeshi Kitano Collection (Violent Cop, Boiling Point, Sonatine) (BFI) And now for something completely different… or maybe not. Kitano’s impassive performances and, particularly in Sonatine (below), visual gags surely owe something to Keaton.