How music can always offer us something new
Monday, July 17, 2017
Recently I used this space to praise those who support contemporary music, who ensure that music written today is an integral part of our listening life. The occasion then was that James MacMillan’s Stabat mater was our Recording of the Month. Well, three issues on, and this month we bestow that accolade on another contemporary disc, this time of music by Jonathan Dove.
The disc, released by Signum, features his Piano Quintet, a string quartet and a powerful and poignant setting of poetry about the Syrian conflict. All three works are performed by the Sacconi Quartet, who also commissioned the third work, In Damascus, and are thus another group to add to our list of contemporary-music advocates deserving praise.
But I raise this again because, among this month’s Editor’s Choices, Dove’s disc ploughs a far from lonely furrow. There’s music by Luca Francesconi and Brett Dean from BIS, György Kurtág works for ensemble and choir explored by ECM, and, on ‘First Drop’, a chance to share the journey taken by Paul Hillier and his Ars Nova Copenhagen choir through an impressive range of current composers. Even where you might not expect modern music, on ‘Late Night Lute’, Matthew Wadsworth places centre stage a wonderful new suite by Stephen Goss for that most historic of instruments, the theorbo.
‘It’s all very well’, you may say, ‘for you to praise the selection as forward-thinking, but then you’ve chosen them.’ People often ask me how I select our Editor’s Choices, and in fact they emerge from a multilayered process. Critics may express to me, after an initial hearing, particular advocacy for a recording’s brilliance or importance; then there are the actual words they write of course. Meanwhile, the Gramophone editorial team comprises committed listeners whose knowledge, passion and curiosity range over many genres, the catalyst for much conversation. Finally, faced with a longlist of deserving discs, a difficult decision has to be made. But I’m convinced that any reader who spends time exploring an Editor’s Choice selection will be richly rewarded. I would merely add the caveat that this is art, not science, and I’d dearly encourage readers to stray off-piste and go wherever else our critics – across our many pages – take you.
Elgar was new once. Though surprisingly, for many, he’s new still. In our cover story, we’re reminded that at the very beginning of the 20th century, around the time of The Dream of Gerontius, Elgar was more famous in Germany than in England. A century on, things couldn’t be more inverted. It has always intrigued me as to why his music, so loved in his homeland, doesn’t seem to travel as well as that of his late-Romantic peers from elsewhere in Europe, a topic I’ve often discussed with some of today’s great Elgarians. With the success of Barenboim’s recent recordings of the symphonies – and the fact he’s performing them at this year’s Proms – now seemed the perfect time to invite our very own Elgar expert abroad, New York-based Andrew Farach-Colton, to explore this intriguing and fascinating question.
Something old, something new, then: such are classical music’s vast riches that there is always so much more to discover.