The open-mindedness of the finest artists
Tuesday, November 6, 2018
If anyone doubts the astonishing range and quality of classical music recordings being made today – and, I hope, regular readers of these pages would harbour no such perception – then they should really take heed of this month’s releases. There’s always a slight seasonality to release schedules, summers are traditionally more quiet, and labels often gear up for the pre-Christmas period with headline projects. But even so, take a look through our pages – this month really stands out. Choosing the Editor’s Choices is always a difficult task, but this month it was doubly so given just how many recordings had drawn such heart-felt plaudits from our critics.
That two major labels should produce extraordinary piano records from leading young artists as different in approach as Igor Levit’s deeply thought-out meditation on life, featuring music from Bach to Busoni, and Víkingur Ólafsson’s beautifully coloured exploration of, again, Bach, is a powerful reflection of the industry’s continuing commitment to not just nurturing the next generation, but to giving them the platforms their music-making deserves. Both artists share an aversion to allowing either themselves or their repertoire to be pigeonholed. At a Deutsche Grammophon event this month Ólafsson reflected on this, citing his upbringing in Iceland as a part of shaping this mindset. In a small country, he said, you simply can’t isolate yourself by style, and many musicians happily genre-hop, even from day to day (including, apparently, players stepping between orchestra and heavy metal bands), enriching themselves, their audiences and their art form as they do so. It’s a mindset we see more and more among the younger generation of musicians as streaming continues to break down barriers. Levit’s album, meanwhile, movingly closes with a work by the jazz pianist and composer Bill Evans.
Speaking of championing young artists, 21 years ago Sony Classical backed a 17-year-old violinist and brought the world her remarkable performances of three of Bach’s six sonatas and partitas. Now, courtesy this time of Decca, Hilary Hahn completes the set for us. The result is Bach-playing of breathtaking accomplishment. (And, again, Bach: what is it about this composer that inspires artists to such heights and, indeed, depths?). A superb Recording of the Month.
But as we continue to celebrate the extraordinary legacy being laid down month by month, by the most inspirational artists of today, let us also pause to remember the passing of one the greats from the ‘Golden era’ of opera recording. Montserrat Caballé, who has died aged 85, had a voice of both thrilling beauty and drama (surely that’s what lay behind the New York Times headline from 1965: ‘Callas + Tebaldi = Caballé’), and one that excelled in repertoire from bel canto to Wagner. But late in her career she acquired fame far beyond opera goers when she duetted with Freddie Mercury in the hit single ‘Barcelona’. Here, indeed, was an artist not afraid to throw herself into another genre, and to do so with considerable style. Perhaps an openness to genre-hopping is not a new phenomenon after all: today’s young artists are simply following in the footsteps trod by one of opera’s true, and much-missed, icons.
The November issue of Gramophone is available now - find out more