A confession: while I’ve always enjoyed classical music, until around 12 years ago I was generally quite wary of contemporary composers, and tended to stick to a few favourites like Arvo Pärt, Michael Nyman, Terry Riley, John Adams, Giya Kancheli and – really adventurous, this! – James MacMillan. (My interest in the last came about because I’d been lucky enough to be present at the 1990 BBC Proms premiere of his marvellous ‘The Confession of Isobel Gowdie’). Even though I was perfectly happy listening to contemporary jazz (including that of the free variety), for some obscure reason I suspected that music by the likes of Harrison Birtwistle, Pierre Boulez and Luciano Berio could not possibly be for me – despite the fact that much of my favourite classical music was from the first half of the twentieth century. Then, suddenly, something happened – I think it had something to do with my buying Madhares, an ECM album of music by the Austrian composer Thomas Larcher – and a whole new world of sound opened up. For a while I focused mainly on listening to contemporary composers, which after a while led on to my investigating music by composers of the baroque, classical and romantic eras whom I’d hitherto neglected. There are so many treasures out there. Now, my only regret is that I didn’t take the plunge earlier.
That said, many – perhaps most – people feel as I used to, which is why concerts and albums which mix new music with older material can be so useful and so illuminating. After all, today’s composers are working in a long musical tradition, of which they are very aware and from which many feel happy to draw. Older music can shed light on recent compositions and vice versa. So just in case you’re as wary as I used to be of contemporary composers, but are curious enough to give a little new music a try as long as you’ve the guarantee of some good old classical stuff being included in the mix, here are five excellent albums released during the last few months, plus one from 2017 which I’ve only just discovered.
Nicolas Hodges: A Bag of Bagatelles(Wergo)
Hodges – a formidably gifted pianist – alternates three pieces by Beethoven – including his late Bagatelles, op. 126 – with three by the aforementioned Harrison Birtwistle (pictured top, in 2015 with the Arditti Quartet). At first I used to find the latter’s music a little forbidding and knotty; now I love its dramatic energy and capacity to surprise. ’Variations from the Golden Mountain’ would serve as an excellent introduction to his work, and the pairing of the two composers really works.
James Gilchrist & Anna Tilbrook: Solitude(Chandos)
The tenor and pianist open with Purcell’s ‘O’Solitude’ to embark, beautifully, on a programme that explores different experiences of being alone, moving on to Schubert and ending (on a rather lighter note) with Barber’s ‘Hermit Songs’. In between, a contemporary gem ‘Under Alter’d Skies’, a very moving song cycle by Jonathan Dove which sets poems by Tennyson.
ORA Singers, conducted by Suzi Digby: Spem in Alium / Vidi Aquam (Harmonia Mundi)
Thomas Tallis’s miraculous 40-part motet (Spem…) is the inspiration for a work for an identical ensemble by James MacMillan. Vidi aquam is an apt companion piece, beginning almost as if it too was composed in the sixteenth century but steadily proceeding into more modern harmonies and textures. Between the two motets are works by Tallis, Byrd and their contemporaries.
András Schiff & Jörg Widmann: Johannes Brahms – Clarinet Sonatas(ECM)
The pianist and the clarinettist-composer team up for predictably superb performances of Brahms’ two late gems, which bookend Schiff’s likewise lovely rendition of Widmann’s Intermezzi for piano, a suite of five movements which pays tribute to – and evokes, in an entirely fresh way, the sound world of – Brahms’ own late Intermezzos. You can listen to snippets from the album here.
Mark Simpson et al: Simpson: Geysir and Mozart: Gran Partita(Orchid Classics)
Simpson, a very fine clarinettist, is joined by an excellent line-up of 11 wind players and a double bassist to perform Mozart’s Serenade for Winds in B flat major – here’s the finale – but he also contributes, as composer, Geysir, a wonderful piece for an identical ensemble which uses Mozart’s opening chord as a starting point for a very different but no less rewarding outcome.
Guy Johnston et al: Tecchler’s Cello – From Cambridge to Rome (King’s College Cambridge)
In this release from three years ago, cellist Johnston took a geographical and musical journey to celebrate the 300th birthday of his Rome-made cello. He also took the opportunity to commission pieces by Charlotte Bray, Ola Gjeilo, Mark Simpson and David Matthews, which are interspersed among pieces by Beethoven, Barrière and Respighi. It’s an unusual but fascinating odyssey, beautifully performed by Johnston and an illustrious selection of musical partners.
The photograph of Harrison Birtwistle and the Arditti Quartet at the Wigmore Hall was taken by the author.