Are these the best classical albums of 2020?

Probably not. But out of the ones I’ve heard, I’ve enjoyed these the most:

10. The Leipzig Circle, Vol 2. (London Bridge Trio)

The Leipzig Circle record sleeve

If I were making a list of silliest sentences in CD booklets, this one would take the top spot: “[the first movement of the featured Felix Mendelssohn trio] has both firmness and determination that immediately declare it to be a strong and masculine conception.”

Luckily, the performance is a lot better than the commentary. It demonstrates that Clara Schumann’s feminine conceptions didn’t stop her from writing music that was on a par with Mendelssohn’s. And that Robert Schumann surpassed them both. In imagination, not testosterone.

9. Miroir (Alexandre Collard, Jean Daufresne and Mathilde Nguyen)

Miroir record sleeve

If I were making a list of understatements in CD booklets, this one would take the top spot: “Rarely, in the history of music, have composers written for horn, saxhorn and piano.”

In fact, only one work on this album was originally written for that combination – after a special request from the performers. In any case, it sounds amazing. Moreover, this record brings to light some unfamiliar and underrated repertoire from Belgian and French composers from the 19th through 21st centuries.

8. Debussy – Rameau (Vikingur Ólafsson)

Debussy - Rameau record sleeve

This one will feature on many ‘best of 2020’ lists. And if the Icelandic pianist releases another record in 2021, it will probably end up on that year’s lists as well. Because he’s as good as the hype that surrounds him.

This record would have ended up higher on my list if Ólafsson wouldn’t have made the misguided decision of combining Rameau with Debussy. Not because they make a bad couple. But because I don’t like Debussy’s piano music. Or the unacceptable way he wears a hat.

7. Anna Clyne: DANCE – Edward Elgar: Cello Concerto (Inbal Segev, London Philharmonic Orchestra & Marin Alsop)

Clyne-Elgar record sleeve

Now here’s someone who knows how to wear a hat:

Anna Clyne
Perfect!

No melodies moved me more last year than the sentimental, folk-influenced themes that form the basis of the four dances – excuse me, DANCES – by Anna Clyne.

The expressive style of cellist Inbal Segev serves them well. Although it steals too much of the spotlight from the orchestra. That’s especially true in the Elgar concerto. If you’re a fan of that work – and who isn’t? – the 2020 recording by Sheku Kanneh-Mason is probably a better choice.

6. Blessed Art Thou Among Women (PaTRAM Institute Singers)

Blessed Art Thou Among Women record sleeve

One of the greatest pleasures in life is listening to the sound of oktavists, the ultra-low bass singers that feature in Russian music. They’re abundantly present on this record, rumbling their way through four centuries of enchanting orthodox choral music.

If, God forbid, 2021 turns out to be another year in which we need extra comfort, this album is guaranteed to provide it. Just let the sounds of those amazing human didgeridoos gently vibrate your worries away.

5. Bohemian Tales (Augustin Hadelich)

Bohemian Tales record sleeve

Some stuff that you know, some stuff that you don’t. That remains the perfect mix for a classical concert or album. Often, the unfamiliar work that you dreaded makes more of an impression than the well-known piece that you came for.

That was certainly the case with this recording of Bohemian violin music. I was lured in by Dvořák and Janáček, but it was the Op. 17 by Josef Suk that blew me away – less ‘romantic’ than Dvořák, more ‘popular’ than Janáček and with a unique approach to musical form.

Intrigued, I decided to seek out more music by Suk, especially his orchestral works. And I quickly decided that it wasn’t worth another second of my time. But it could have been the beginning of an exciting journey of musical discovery, is what I’m saying.

4. Beethoven: Songs & Folksongs (Ian Bostridge, Antonio Pappano)

Beethoven songs and folksongs record sleeve

For obvious reasons, 2020 will not be remembered as ‘the year we celebrated the 250th birthday of Beethoven’. But it was an excellent year to explore Beethoven with a small b. Confined to my home, an album full of ‘domestic’ compositions was exactly what the doctor ordered.

Apart from the visionary An die ferne Geliebte cycle, the Beethoven songs are generally considered of little importance. And that’s even more true of his settings of Irish, British, Scottish and Welsh folk songs that he purely made – gasp! – for money. It’s to Bostridge’s credit that he applies his otherworldly talent to these supposedly mundane compositions – and reveals that they are anything but that.

3. Proving Up (Missy Mazzoli)

Proving Up record sleeve

2020 was also the year in which we witnessed how the American democracy nearly drove itself off a cliff.

There are a lot of reasons for what happened during the last four years. One of them is the destructive idea behind the American dream. Missy Mazzoli and her librettist Royce Vavrek turned that into a wonderful opera. And I’m not going to repeat what I already wrote about it.

2. Not Our First Goat Rodeo (Yo-Yo Ma, Stuart Duncan, Edgar Meyer & Chris Thile)

Not Our First Goat Rodeo record sleeve

Wait, is this a classical album?

Well, on the one hand, it’s labelled by the record company as such. It includes Yo-Yo Ma and Edgar Meyer. And in what other category would you put a track like Not For Lack of Trying?

On the other hand, who cares? I don’t trust jazz or bluegrass fans enough to feel confident that they will include this record in their end-of-year lists. And this joyous display of musicianship and collaboration cannot get enough praise from every corner.

1. Adès Conducts Adès (Boston Symphony Orchestra)

Adès conducts Adès record sleeve

Of the contemporary composers on this list, Thomas Adès is probably the most ‘difficult’ one. And yet, if you listen to some connoisseurs, you’d think he’s one cowbell removed from becoming André Rieu.

That’s probably because Adès’ music packs an emotional punch that resonates with a lot of people. Which makes it suspect in the ears of some.

Yet you only need to listen to the second movement of his piano concerto to realize that this guy is something special. There are echoes from many traditions, but the language is unique. And underneath is a musical progression that you don’t need to fully understand to be overwhelmed by it. That’s something that only comes around, well, every 250 years or so.

Did I just imply that Adès is the new Beethoven? Must be the champagne talking. All I wanted to say is: some things that came out of 2020, are worth remembering. Happy New Year!

My Visit to the Handel and Hendrix Museum

Last summer, I paid a short visit to London. In my backpack: a few biographies of – and a lot of music by – George Frideric Handel. My mission? To re-acquaint myself with Britain’s greatest composer. And to write a few articles about it, of course. First stop: Handel’s house in London.

On the first floor of the Handel and Hendrix museum, you can watch a movie starring two passionate and eloquent musicians:

  • a harpsichord player who sings the praises of George Frideric Handel (1685-1759)
  • an electric guitar player who raves about Jimi Hendrix (1942-1970)

But when the movie ends with these two jamming together, it’s a bit of an anti-climax. And that’s typical for the relationship between pop (or rock) and classical music: they have more in common than they think, but when they end up in bed together, it seldom leads to fireworks. The result is usually kitschy, pretentious or both. (Except when it’s awesome.)

So why would they force Handel and Hendrix to share a museum? Because fate brought them together.

Handel and Hendrix museum stars

Fate … and a timeless fashion sense

The story behind the Handel and Hendrix museum

You see, Jimi Hendrix lived in the attic of Handel’s house! Well, in the attic of Handel’s neighbour, to be precise. So they were divided by two centuries and a supporting wall. But that’s still a remarkable coincidence, right? (If you happen to be a statistician: I don’t really want to know.)

George and Jimi shared more than their rubbish collection day. They were both foreigners who made their fortune in London. They were both addicts – Jimi to heroin, George to food and wine. They were both musicians of course, and … that’s about it.

So I was curious to see how the Handel and Hendrix museum would fit these two musical giants together.

“I would have enjoyed rummaging through Handel’s opera score collection or finding a half-eaten bratwurst on his nightstand.”

The Hendrix flat

Surprisingly, the Hendrix part of the museum made the biggest impression on me. His bedroom is decorated exactly as it was when he lived there from 1968 to 1969. Right down to the packet of Benson & Hedges and box of Quality Street next to his bed.

Handel and Hendrix museum piece

Rock and roll!

It was here that Jimi woke up one night to find Handel’s ghost walking in: “an old guy in a nightshirt and a grey pigtail”. Did I mention drugs were involved?

You can also browse through Hendrix’ stunningly diverse record collection. And yes, there’s some Handel in there. After hearing about his illustrious downstairs neighbour, Hendrix said: “I haven’t heard much of the fella’s stuff. But I dig a bit of Bach now and then.” He later went out to buy a copy of Messiah and Belshazzar.

The Handel house

Compared to that, the Handel portion of the Handel and Hendrix museum is a lot more, well, classical. You know what I mean: harpsichords in the middle of empty rooms, portraits on the walls, manuscripts in glass cases, …

Nothing wrong with all that, of course, but after the Hendrix experience (clever pun totally intended), I would have enjoyed rummaging through Handel’s opera score collection or finding a half-eaten bratwurst on his nightstand.

Of course, that’s not the museum’s fault. We just don’t know enough about Handel’s life to recreate his private quarters with any degree of historical accuracy. But it does threaten to confirm the image of classical music as a stuffy affair. Especially when fragments of psychedelic guitar sounds keep reminding you of the cool kid living in the attic.

Handel and Hendrix museum bedrooms

Visit without prejudice

Fortunately, Jimi Hendrix wasn’t so narrow-minded. Visitors to his flat remembered him playing along to his Handel records. And during the Winterland concerts, in Francisco in 1968, he inserted a musical quote from Messiah.

I’m pretty sure Handel would have returned the compliment, since at least half of his genius was due to cleverly stealing other people’s music.

So there’s at least one excellent reason to visit the Handel and Hendrix museum. It proves that – awkward bedfellows or not – pop and classical music make excellent neighbours.

Beethoven meets metal (and they seem to get along)

In my last post about Tartini’s devil’s trill, I made a joke about crossover artist Vanessa-Mae. This amused me so much that I decided to fill a whole article with hilariously disastrous attempts to make classical music look cool.

Making classical music look cool

This stuff.

Sounds like fun? Well, too bad. I changed my mind and will now serve you a distressing insight into my sometimes weird musical taste. Do stick around, though.

“You don’t need to be cool to win an audience.”

Good, bad, brilliant

Why did I change my mind? Not because of a lack of material, that’s for sure. For hilarious examples and an intelligent argument about why classical music shouldn’t even try to be cool, read this article.

Anyway, as I was mining the internet for some more ‘good bad’ stuff, I stumbled upon this video.

That guy is Michele “Dr. Viossi” Vioni, Italian guitar virtuoso, composer and producer, playing the finale of Beethoven’s Moonlight sonata. The video went viral a couple of years ago, but I somehow missed it. And now I can’t stop watching it.

Blended to perfection

I know, I know, … ‘Beethoven meets metal’ sounds like a terribly tasteless idea. Just like ‘Schubert meets metal’. But in this case, I think it actually works. Thanks to Vioni, who not only seems an incredible virtuoso but also an intelligent musician. He strikes a balance between remaining faithful to Beethoven’s score and imposing the typical metal mannerisms upon it. In fact, to me, the backing track is even more interesting than Vioni’s finger acrobatics you see in the video.

Of course, Beethoven deserves some of the credit. Vioni tried this trick on a few other classical compositions, but the result isn’t nearly as good. It’s the amazing drive of that third movement of the Moonlight sonata that blends so well with the metal style.

Acquired metallic taste

Metal is a peculiar musical genre. People who claim to like ‘good’ pop or rock music, usually look down on it. Yet it surprisingly often touches a nerve with jazz or classical enthusiasts. Maybe not that surprising, since metal partly grew out of progressive rock.

Progressive rock meme

Anyway, I recently developed a taste for metal music – at least some of it. This earns me a lot of looks of disbelief. Understandably, since I was once a teenager who preferred Beethoven over Black Sabbath. (Yes, I did get beat up a few times, why do you ask?)

Partners in being uncool

Sure, metal is often needlessly loud and aggressive. But it can be surprisingly adventurous as well, or delightfully silly. Maybe that’s because a lot of metal musicians don’t take themselves too seriously –  despite all the tough posturing. They do whatever they want to do, even if it’s playing a Beethoven piece note by note on an electric guitar. Not cool? As 11 million YouTube views prove: you don’t need to be cool to win an audience.

And isn’t that an uplifting thought for fans of metal and classical alike?