Wednesday, 28 October 2020

My favourite CDs of 2020

This has been a distinctly different year in many ways, including the kind of CD recordings that have come my way. But, as perhaps a selection that could provide stocking-fillers for Christmas and won’t be too difficult to send by post even when you can’t see people, here are the ones that most caught my interest.


Debussy: Sonata for cello and piano; Sonata for flute, viola and harp; Sonata for violin and piano; Debussy-Orledge: Toomai des Eléphants, Petite Valse, A Night in the House of Usher.

Pixels Ensemble (Jonathan Aasgaard, cello, Ian Buckle, piano, Fiona Fulton, flute, Vicci Wardman viola, Hugh Webb, harp, Sophie Rosa, violin. Rubicon Classics D 1063.

This was the pick of the bunch and came quite late in the year – by personal bike delivery from Ian Buckle! It was well worth the wait. All three sonatas were written during the First World War (Debussy died in 1918) when it must have seemed that civilisation was falling apart and no one knew what the future held – a parallel with our own situation now, perhaps. The ageing, and, by the time of the Violin Sonata, dying Debussy injected an ethereal combination of sorrow and joy into them, and in the case of the Sonata for flute, viola and piano, he engenders a mellow, melancholic and valedictory feeling. All three are very virtuosic, subtle and demanding, and these performances are superb, capturing their fleeting beauties, nostalgia and hope. The Violin Sonata comes across as full of life – quite something from a dying man. As ‘bonus tracks’, as I suppose they would be called in another context, Ian Buckle plays three pieces realised by Robert Orledge from Debussy fragments – the last one a kind of fantasy based on his spooky one-act opera The Fall of the House of Usher, which is a premiere recording.


Various composers: Songs for Sir John – a Tribute to Sir John Manduell. Lesley-Jane Rogers, soprano, John Turner, recorder, Richard Simpson, oboe, Benedict Holland, violin, Susie Mészáros, viola, Nicholas Trygstad, cello, Richard Baker, narrator, Laura Robinson, recorder, Keith Swallow, piano. Divine Art DDA 25210.

John Turner curated this collection of new compositions in memory of Sir John Manduell, the founding principal (among many other distinctions) of the Royal Northern College of Music. The initial brief, I guess, was to write a setting of something by Yeats, a favourite poet of Sir John, and to employ one or more of recorder, oboe, violin, viola and cello as well as the voice; and in the event some of the contributors modified it to admit of instrumental-only contributions, a setting of Joyce, a new combination of Three Duets for two recorders (by Lennox Berkeley, collated by Michael Berkeley) and Four Nursery Rhymes by Thomas Pitfield, set for narrator, recorder and piano by Robin Walker. My favourites are Sonnet, a lovely, Purcellian-ground-like setting of ‘When you are old and grey …’ by Elis Pehkonen, Sally Beamish’s Yeats Interlude (seven-and-a-half minutes of interesting motifs, fascinatingly developed), David Matthews’ clearly articulated and contrasting Two Yeats Songs (‘Lullaby’ and ‘Sweet Dancer’), Kevin Malone’s melodic and thoughtful Zuzu’s Petals, Gary Carpenter’s mellow harmonies in This Great Purple Butterfly, and the concise and charming setting of The Cat and the Moon by Jeremy Pike.


Debussy: Piano suites (Images, book 1; Children’s Corner; Suite Bergamasque; Images, book 2; Six épigraphes antiques). Olga Stezhko, piano. Palermo Classica 019180.

Olga Stezhko’s recital for Manchester Mid-day Concerts Society was the last performance I reviewed before lockdown set in. It’s remained vividly in my mind: the subtlety, sensitivity and imagination of her playing mark her out as a supremely communicative and important pianist of today’s younger generation. This is her second CD (after her debut album of Scriabin and Busoni won rave reviews), and it demonstrates all those qualities in a lovely all-Debussy programme. Yes, more Debussy, but from an earlier time than the collection mentioned above and in many ways full of the serenity we often associate with his piano music (and of course Clair de Lune is there, in the Suite bergamasque). But in her hands there’s much more than that: every piece has such vividness in it that you are constantly surprised and delighted. Olga has written some insightful sleeve notes herself, in which she points out (among other things) that Debussy’s titles are meant to be evocative, rather than picture-descriptive … and that sense comes out in her playing, too, especially in Et la lune descend sur le temple qui fut, in the second book of Images (which is employed to give a title to the album as a whole), and in the superb rendering of Poissons d’or, which follows it. There’s no technical information about the piano or recording equipment used, but the sound that’s been captured (mostly in Palermo, Italy) is amazing and beautiful.


There’s also a two-CD set of short pieces for wind instruments by Robin Stevens, called Prevailing Winds, which features Sarah Miller, flutes, John Bradbury, clarinet, Richard Simpson, oboe, Helen Peller, bassoon, Lindsey Stoker, horn, John Turner, recorders, David Jones and Janet Simpson, piano, and the composer variously as cellist, guitarist and pianist (Divine Art DDA 25194, I most enjoyed his pieces in Scottish folk style (Reflections on a Scottish Theme for solo oboe, Jig for descant recorder and guitar, and Berceuse for flute and guitar).