What does an ‘album’ mean to you? As a record-related term, it dates from when a set of 78s would be presented in a protective fold-out book. Like a photo album – only with record sleeves instead of images. In time, and with the advent of the LP, it became adopted by pop and rock, coming to mean a single record, but one which contained within it multiple songs, in a themed, unified concept. Singles may have earned bands airplay, but it was their albums which became the most iconic expressions of their art. (And, furthermore, the art that adorned them often became iconic too.) But while ‘album’ became synonymous with those other genres, it became less common to refer to a classical recording of, say, an opera or a pairing of symphonies, as an album. It was still applied, perhaps, to a well-chosen collection of arias or songs – though in a way that’s the classical equivalent of a rock or pop album. But generally other words – LP, a set, CD – served instead.
But recently I’ve been hearing the term being used much more. One reason was the need to find a word to describe a release in the new digital age. If you’re buying a new release as a digital file, or for that matter streaming it, record sounds archaic, and CD not quite right. Album seems more format neutral.
Streaming, of course, poses its own challenges to the notion of an album. Symphonies would often be paired simply to fill the space of a CD – but if you’re streaming, and only looking for one work, in what sense are you listening to an album? But just as digital listening has paradoxically led to a renaissance in beautifully crafted physical releases, perhaps it could have the same impact on the notion of what an album can – and should – be? Forcing people to question, if you’re going to release a collection of works in one package, what ties it all together, and how you present it. This can take many forms – perhaps even be one work, as with Teodor Currentzis’s recording of Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique, our Recording of the Month in January. At 46 minutes, it’s shorter than most releases we cover. But it not only felt it didn’t need to be any longer, but the inclusion of anything else would have, in my mind, diminished its impact. Listening to our March issue’s Recording of the Month – Murray Perahia’s recording of Beethoven’s Moonlight and Hammerklavier sonatas – it feels as appropriate a pairing as, say Barbirolli’s pairing of Elgar’s Cello Concerto and his Sea Pictures. Another superb release reviewed this month – Kirill Gerstein’s ‘The Gershwin Moment’ – perfectly encapsulates the notion of a thought-through album, with longer works, shorter pieces and guest artists mixed together to create a richly satisfying whole, illustrated with specially commissioned art work. (You can hear Kirill Gerstein talk more about this fascinating album in a Gramophone Podcast). Meanwhile, the debut release from Decca’s new cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason – whose contents range from a core concerto to a Bob Marley transcription – is simply presented under the title ‘Inspiration’. This very much feels like a thought-out, themed album, and remarkably entered the UK album charts – of all genres – at No 20. I’m quite sure calling it Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No 1 wouldn’t have had the same impact. I’d say there’s life in the album yet.