Tomorrow (Saturday 12 October) is National Album Day 2019! Following the success of the inaugural event last year, this celebratory occasion aims to highlight the pleasure of listening to albums in their entirety rather than simply heading for individual tracks – an aim neatly encapsulated by this year’s ‘Don’t Skip’ theme and #DontSkip hashtag.
The day also recognises the thought and invention that goes into creating a really well-crafted album, where each track leads neatly into the next, creating a whole that adds up to much more than the sum of its parts. The Beatles’ Abbey Road, say, or Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon are classic examples from the pop world – for all the brilliant songs themselves, not listening to these masterpieces from start to finish would seem almost unthinkable.
But brilliant albums are by no means the preserve of rock and pop. In recent years in particular, the classical music world has excelled in dreaming up and producing superbly programmed albums. Some explore just one composer in intriguing and enticing different ways, others bring together works by composers who, on the face of it, might seem like unlikely bedfellows but work wonderfully in each other’s company.
You can find details of National Album Day 2019 here. But in the meantime, we in the BBC Music Magazine team have been thinking of albums that have hugely inspired us and that we’d love to recommend to others…
Now that the recording industry has produced dozens of versions of major masterpieces, the concept album seems to have made something of a comeback lately. Piano Book, Lang Lang’s collection of piano music for beginners, is a recent charming example, inspiring learners the world over that simple can still mean beautiful. Lang Lang’s performances of the Prelude No. 1 from Bach’s 48, Beethoven’s Für Elise, Chopin’s ‘Raindrop’ Prelude and more are little slices of perfection.
The album that I’ve been returning to again and again, however, celebrates the 500th birthday of Leonardo da Vinci. I Fagiolini’s Shaping the Invisible is a fascinating journey through the Italian Renaissance genius’s work: art, drawings and the like, with music to accompany each one: Tallis, Howells, Victoria, Rubbra, Bach and more make up the imaginative programme. You don’t have to refer to Leonardo’s work to appreciate the musical artistry on show, but it doesn’t half help.
Was it really 20 years ago that, as features editor Classic CD magazine, I opened my post to be greeted by the mugshot of conductor Iván Fischer staring out at me from the front of a new CD of music by Kodály? At the time, I knew very little about Fischer and his Budapest Festival Orchestra and, I confess, not a great deal either about the composer either. This superbly performed and, importantly, imaginatively programmed disc instantly changed all that.
Dotted between the Hungarian’s famous orchestral works – the Dances of Galanta, Dances of Marosszék and, finally, the Háry János Suite – were songs performed by local children’s choirs. Though Fischer’s initial intentions in doing this were, I presume, to emphasise the importance of singing to the whole of Kodály’s musical approach and output, it also gave the album itself variety, freshness and change of pace. From here, I moved onto investigate more Kodály, plus his Hungarian contemporaries Bartók and Dohnányi.
Philips 462 8242
Programming is an art form in itself: putting music into context, while allowing pieces to speak independently is easier said than done. In his 2018 album Solo, flautist Emmanuel Pahud pits Telemann’s 12 Fantasias against works spanning the last three centuries. The result is an epic survey of unaccompanied music that takes the listener through the mountains of minimalism and under an avant-garde avalanche, exploring every extended technique along the way.
Although the likes of Jörg Widmann’s Petite suite (2016) and Varèse’s Density 21.5 capture attention as standalone works, it’s the process of hearing the contemporary creations interspersed with Telemann’s trinkets that makes this album so fascinating. There are lots of flute players who can handle this type of repertoire, but no-one else has presented them in a programme like this. It’s a collection that demands to be heard from start to finish to feel the full, synaptic-tingling benefit.
Warner Classics 9029570175
Great soundtrack albums are, by their very nature, curated listening experiences. You have to listen from beginning in order to follow the aural journey of the story. One which sticks in my mind, and which opened doors into classical music for me, is the album of The Truman Show. The only artist credited on the front is German-Australian composer Burkhard Dallwitz and, in my innocence, I assumed he’d written everything I’d heard in the film. But no, someone called Philip Glass had in fact composed some of the best bits.
It’s a clever notion that the fictional show within the film would use music by Glass to accompany scenes, both pre-existing and original pieces. So, Dallwitz scored the film and Glass scored the show within the film. Suffice to say I went in search of more music by Glass, today one of my favourite composers. The album also features tracks by Chopin and Wojciech Kilar. Quite a colourful journey!
Milan Records 35850-2
An album was released this year that challenged my preconceptions of 16th-century choral music, a genre I’d never thought I’d find myself emotionally invested in. In glorious sound quality, the Armonico Consort and Choir of Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge had me transfixed with their Supersize Polyphony album, featuring Striggio’s 40- and 60-part masses and Tallis’s Spem in Alium, interspersed with chants by Hildegard von Bingen.
Those ethereal chants (which, I’ll admit, had previously left me numb with boredom) stood out with their seamless sustained notes under tumbling melodies. It was programming at its best – the Hildegard chants brought out colours in the large-scale works I’d never noticed, and the purity and depth of sound gave a new sense of space to the chants.