My Favourite Music in 2016

This isn’t a best of 2016, which is kind of arbitrary, but something more indulgent: the best music I’ve happened upon this year. In other words, just an excuse for me to look back warmly on the music I’ve discovered.

Probably my most listened to recording this year would have to be Riccardo Chailly’s Beethoven cyclewhich is a brisk, exciting account of the Beethoven symphonies. I know some think it’s too fast, and I’ll concede that the funeral march in Eroica could be slowed down a tad, but the sheer force — not unrestrained energy but piercing, precise blows — plus the crisp sound quality has made me fall in love with this set. (Worth noting the inclusion also of Beethoven’s overtures.)

An equally brisk performance is L’Arpeggiata’s 1610 Vespers. I have found so much happiness in this recording, and it was the first to prompt an interest in early music. Other early music highlights include The Sixteen’s Palestrina recordings, Nigel North’s Dowland set, William Christie’s Purcell operas, a load of Julian Bream recordings, Cantica Symphonia’s Dufay recordings, and a bunch of other things I’ve surely forgotten. The Julian Bream Consort playing Can She Excuse?:

I listened to a lot of sacred music this year, actually. Very much recommended is Sofia Gubaidulina, who mystified me at first with her simple-sounding music, often laden with glissandi and almost naked harmonies, intensely spiritual and strenuous. The performance by Ann Sophie-Mutter of Gubaidulina’s In Tempus Praesens is something special, a tremendous battle between violin and orchestra. I also have been somewhat fascinated by Repentance, a work for guitars, cello and double bass, that sounds like nothing else I’ve ever heard for guitar. Not a single superfluous note is ever used — the Webern influence is obvious, in that sense.

Messiaen has been a totally new discovery. I’m working my way through Jennifer Bate’s excellent recording of his organ works, and I blogged about him briefly for the last post. Penderecki‘s music has interested me a lot (his Seventh Symphony,say) though parts of it just befuddle me. Arvo Part‘s been something of a rediscovery — believe it or not, I’d never listened to his choral works! Someone somewhere described his choral works as like a organ made up of human voices. It really is that powerful and that beautiful. Here’s The Woman with the Alabaster Box:

James Macmillan‘s work has been the most fun to explore. I’d actually known about him long before I liked his work or classical music (we ‘studied’ — I say that loosely — The Confession of Isobel Gowdie at school, can you believe it?). But it wasn’t until this year that his music grabbed me, thanks in particular to his absolutely radiant MiserereIt was a great thrill to see it performed live along the premiere of his new Stabat Mater, which is set to be released on CD in the coming months and should be a required purchase for all music lovers. His chamber work on the Resurrection, Since it was the day of preparationwhich I wrote a little review praising, is probably the one I’d most recommend, though. That work did more than anything else to convince this erstwhile atheist of the beauty of the Resurrection story. But as that’s not on YouTube, here’s the nonetheless great Seven Last Words from the Cross:

While on the topic of new music, Han’s Abrahamsen’s snowy Let Me Tell You with soprano Barbara Hannigan has been a hit all around, and with good reason. Gerald Barry’s new opera, Alice’s Adventures Underground, is a relentless, high-octane 50 minutes of totally bonkers music (to be broadcast on Radio 3 at 10pm on the 14th January for those interested). I was also quite fond of Reinbert De Leeuw’s Der n├Ąchtlige Wanderer, which had its UK premier at the Proms last year. An utterly frightening work. And it was conducted by Oliver Knussen, whose 2006 requiem for his ex-wife, Songs for Sue, was an incredible discovery for me.

Because of the death of Peter Maxwell Davies early this year I found myself exploring his work, and surprised to find that the first video that came up was his simple folk-like piano piece Farewell to Stromness (though I like the guitar version best). It wasn’t exactly what I expected from this (in)famous radical. Then of course the second video was that jubilant show-stopper of a piece An Orkney Wedding with SunriseFinally came the more meaty compositions and to my surprise again, they were colourful and fascinating and very enjoyable. First I came across his excellent Strathclyde Concerti, a series of works commissioned, unbelievably, by Strathclyde local council! Then his symphonies. Then the insane Eight Songs for a Mad King. I actually enjoy attempting to sing (or shout?) this one in the shower (particularly the rendition of Comfort Ye My People):

Outside contemporary music, it’s been great fun exploring Mitsuko Uchida’s recording of Mozart’s Piano Sonatas. I found myself quite obsessed with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra’s recording of Ives’s Third Symphony, a work I previously found lacking — a curious half-way point between the Second and Fourth Symphony. They brought this little work to life for me. The Mravinsky recordings of Tchaikovsky’s last three Symphonies are dynamic, joyous, wonderful and all that. Igor Levit has put out a load of recordings that have been widely praised. His late Beethoven sonatas are especially interesting — as was pointed over at The Music Salon (great blog, by the way), they sound almost atonal. Must add to this list the Simon Rattle recording of Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms. Oh and Korngold’s Violin Concerto — let’s end with that:

I’m sure I’ve forgotten something or other, and it’ll keep me up thinking about it. But nevertheless, if I’m just going by all the great music I’ve heard, 2016 has been bloody great.