BERLIOZ: ‘SYMPHONIE FANTASTIQUE’; RAMEAU: SUITE FROM ‘HIPPOLYTE ET ARICIE’ Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra; Daniel Harding, conductor (Harmonia Mundi). Mr. Harding’s Berlioz is extreme, caustic and rude, its narrative cast in the most vivid of colors. His poised, earthy Rameau is almost as audacious, if only because this repertoire has for far too long been seen as the province of period ensembles, and taboo for symphony orchestras. Together these works make even more enthralling listen than they do alone: the work of two French radicals, a century apart.
ELGAR: SYMPHONY NO. 1 Staatskapelle Berlin; Daniel Barenboim, conductor (Decca). Another Elgar record from Mr. Barenboim and his Berliners, and another appearance in our annual recommendations. The First Symphony suits them still better than the previously recorded Second. At every turn they achieve what is expected in Elgar — nobility, hush, pomp — and yet seem uneasily to undermine it, in a reminder that Elgar’s world was Mahler’s, too.
THOMAS ADÈS, PER NORGARD, HANS ABRAHAMSEN: QUARTETS Danish String Quartet (ECM New Series). For its debut recording on the ECM label, this formidable quartet offers a typically adventurous 20th-century program, including significant works by two Danes: the Modernist master Per Norgard’s Quartetto Breve, and Hans Abrahamsen’s arresting 10 Preludes (String Quartet No. 1). This exciting album opens with an early work, “Arcadiana,” by the inventive British composer Thomas Adès.
LISZT: ‘TRANSCENDENTAL ÉTUDES’ Daniil Trifonov, piano (Deutsche Grammophon); Kirill Gerstein, piano (Myrios Classics). Liszt’s 12 aptly titled études, works of visionary imagination, are so technically daunting that even many virtuosos take a pass. So it’s thrilling to have had new recordings this year from two astonishing pianists. Mr. Gerstein best conveys the grandeur and musical madness of these pieces; Mr. Trifonov (on “Transcendental,” a double album that also offers the rest of Liszt’s piano études) dispatches them with exhilarating ease, imagination and brio.
RACHMANINOFF: PIANO CONCERTO NO. 2, OTHER WORKS Alexandre Tharaud, piano; Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra; Alexander Vedernikov, conductor (Erato). There are numerous classic recordings of Rachmaninoff’s popular Second Piano Concerto. Yet the elegant Mr. Tharaud’s version, at once probing and impetuous, is exceptional. While playing with plenty of virtuosic flair, he brings out inner voices and harmonic subtleties that seem fresh, even startling. This rewarding album also includes a thoughtful selection of shorter Rachmaninoff pieces.
SATIE: ‘SOCRATE,’ OTHER WORKS Barbara Hannigan, soprano; Reinbert de Leeuw, piano (Winter & Winter). In 1917-18, when Paris was a hotbed of musical Modernism, Satie composed a soft-spoken piece of miraculous modesty and precision: “Socrate,” a 20-minute setting of dialogues from Plato’s “Symposium.” The vocal lines lift the words almost reverentially, accompanied by sparse chords and gentle ostinatos. This sublime recording features Ms. Hannigan, the radiant soprano, and includes other elegant Satie vocal works.
SCHOENBERG: ‘KOL NIDRE’; SHOSTAKOVICH: ‘SUITE ON VERSES OF MICHELANGELO BUONARROTI’ Ildar Abdrazakov, bass; Chicago Symphony Orchestra; Riccardo Muti, conductor (CSO Resound). At the request of a rabbi at a temple in Los Angeles, Schoenberg composed a setting of the “Kol Nidre” for a Yom Kippur service in 1938. Mr. Muti leads his Chicagoans and the stentorian narrator Alberto Mizrahi in a gripping live performance of this starkly dramatic piece, paired with a compelling performance of Shostakovich’s suite of song settings of poetry by Michelangelo.
‘DEATH AND THE MAIDEN’ Patricia Kopatchinskaja, violin; St. Paul Chamber Orchestra (Alpha Classics). This disc is yet another testament to Ms. Kopatchinskaja’s impassioned playing and exuberant creativity. Named an artistic partner with this superb Minnesota chamber ensemble, she worked with it to surround a rich new arrangement for strings of Schubert’s great “Death and the Maiden” quartet with other melancholy outpourings of mortality’s dominion, from the 16th century to Gyorgy Kurtag.
R. NATHANIEL DETT: ‘THE ORDERING OF MOSES’ May Festival Chorus; Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra; James Conlon, conductor (Bridge). When NBC cut away three-quarters through its live radio broadcast of this gorgeous oratorio’s premiere in 1937, it claimed previous commitments. But it may have been responding to callers objecting to perhaps the first network broadcast of a major work by a black composer. The Cincinnati May Festival was responsible for that premiere, and its forces brought the work — since then largely forgotten — to Carnegie Hall in 2014, under the auspices of the late, lamented Spring for Music festival. In this live recording, the orchestra plays with driving energy under Mr. Conlon and the chorus, warmly hovering, is glorious. The soloists are excellent, particularly the radiant soprano Latonia Moore and Rodrick Dixon, fervent as Moses, here imagined not as a patriarchal bass but as a youthful tenor.
HAYDN, LIGETI: CONCERTOS AND CAPRICCIOS Shai Wosner, piano; Danish National Symphony Orchestra; Nicholas Collon, conductor (Onyx). To galvanizing yet ruminative effect, this disc brings together the bright, witty, unexpectedly heartfelt music of two Central European composers: Haydn (1732-1809) and Ligeti (1923-2006). The centerpieces are piano concertos: two by Haydn and Ligeti’s uproarious, rhythmically knotty contribution to the genre. Between are alternately dreamy and lively capriccios by both; all is played with style, flair and velvety touch by Mr. Wosner, given spirited support by Mr. Collon and the Danes.
MEREDITH MONK: ‘ON BEHALF OF NATURE’ Meredith Monk & Vocal Ensemble (ECM New Series). When she first performed it a few years ago, Ms. Monk’s latest work of abstract music theater — its score a mixture of droning instruments, bending vocal pitches and eruptions of yelps — came across as calmly melancholy. Now, with the peril to nature seeming more acute than ever, the crystal-clear recorded version feels more like artfully focused desperation — and, in the climactic “Water/Sky Rant,” choking rage.
‘THE STONE PEOPLE’ Lisa Moore, piano and voice (Cantaloupe Music). The occasion for this disc is an assemblage of John Luther Adams’s three works so far for solo acoustic piano, including the sweeping “Among Red Mountains.” Playing through these stark landscapes with tenderness, Ms. Moore has sensitively set Mr. Adams’s trio alongside similarly atmospheric, somber, often wintry pieces by Martin Bresnick, Julia Wolfe, Missy Mazzoli and Kate Moore.
James R. Oestreich
MOZART: VIOLIN CONCERTOS Isabelle Faust, violin; Il Giardino Armonico; Giovanni Antonini, conductor (Harmonia Mundi). Ms. Faust seems thoroughly at home in an early-music style that favors intimacy and mercuriality over monumentality. Her approach to cadenzas and other solo passages is imaginative and thoughtful, and Mr. Antonini and his band supply a freshness and verve that match hers.
PÄRT: ‘KANON POKAJANEN’ Cappella Amsterdam; Daniel Reuss, conductor (Harmonia Mundi). Arvo Pärt’s magnum opus, the “Kanon Pokajanen” (“Canon of Repentance,” 1998), retains the language of its Eastern Orthodox sources, Church Slavonic, and follows Orthodox tradition in avoiding instruments, though it is not intended for church use. It is a contemplative concert work — utterly mesmerizing, despite modern-leaning harmonies — and enchanting.
‘SONGS OF STRUGGLE AND REDEMPTION: WE SHALL OVERCOME’ Dashon Burton, bass-baritone; Nathaniel Gumbs, piano (Acis). Mr. Burton is a beloved fixture of the New York choral scene, and it is always a pleasure to hear him step out in solos. In this superb collection of songs and spirituals, he reveals his personality more fully. Mr. Gumbs provides excellent support, but it is Mr. Burton’s unaccompanied version of the crucifixion anthem “He Never Said a Mumblin’ Word” that will live with you longest.
TALLIS: ‘SPEM IN ALIUM,’ OTHER WORKS The Cardinall’s Musick; Andrew Carwood, conductor (Hyperion). Sooner or later in its excellent survey of Thomas Tallis’s a cappella choral works, the Cardinall’s Musick — as listed, 12 strong — was going to have to beef up to tackle the great 40-voice motet “Spem in Alium.” Here it is, and even amid rich and exalted company, it stands apart as something truly extraordinary.
TCHAIKOVSKY: VIOLIN CONCERTO; STRAVINSKY: ‘LES NOCES’ Patricia Kopatchinskaja, violin; MusicAeterna; Teodor Currentzis, conductor (Sony Classical). Here is an album seemingly tailored for a year that epitomized disruption. Ms. Kopatchinskaja wholeheartedly joins Mr. Currentzis in bringing the untamed spirit of the primitivist “Les Noces” (“The Wedding”) into their fascinating deconstruction of Tchaikovsky’s war horse concerto, virtuosic in its own willful way.Continue reading the main story
by Ally-Jane Grossan
Ally-Jane Grossan, co-editor of How to Write About Music, shares advice on the art of writing an album review – including tips from the experts and an exercise to help you construct your own.
Music writing is something that cannot be taught, so in a sense editing a book called How to Write About Music is a pointless exercise. Still, while you can’t instruct someone how to write beautiful prose about this melodious art form, you can inspire, shape and structure lessons to prompt the reader to write something about music.
As Rick Moody states in his timely foreword to the book: “Among the many differences between the music writing of the seventies, let’s say, and the music writing of our own time, is the lack of a prevailing format.” He’s right! In the twenty-first century there are hundreds of magazines, thousands of music blogs, YouTube channels, newspapers, etc. all clamoring for well-written reviews, think pieces and musings on popular and not-so-popular music. There are no longer strict word count restrictions when writing for a website; the possibilities are endless and that’s daunting. Yet while so much has changed in the way we listen to and consume music, the basic concept of an album remains the same. Thus, the exercise of describing and critiquing an album is still a very valid and sought after form of music writing.
It’s not an easy task, reviewing an album. The task at hand is to provide others with an informed impression of a piece of art. Marc Woodworth, in his introduction to the chapter on the album, reminds a writer of album reviews to write on their own terms. “The critic both uses and is sometimes blind to his prejudices and ideals – the more you know about yourself and how you process what you’re writing and given that self-knowledge, the better … Don’t write as someone who doesn’t care about what you care about.”
Here’s what the experts have to say about writing an album review:
Try listening ‘in the wild’
“I listen to music as I would ‘in the wild’ before I approach it critically. That means listening to it regularly on headphones to and from work usually.” Matt LeMay, senior contributor, Pitchfork
“One thing I try to do consistently is listen to an album I’m reviewing in a variety of contexts. A lot of people might think of a music critic pensively listening to a record alone in a silent room and through huge, state-of- the-art headphones . . . and true, sometimes I do that. But that’s not the only way people listen to music, and I try to remember that when I’m writing about a record. I want to take it out for a test-drive— to try it out in real life. I try to listen on speakers and on headphones. I try to give it a few spins (pen and notebook in hand, usually) focused specifically on the music and when I’m playing it in the background of doing something else. Sometimes I’ll listen alone and sometimes with other people. Music filters into our lives in a variety of ways, and I try to keep this in mind when I’m evaluating it.” - Lindsay Zoladz, Associate Editor, Pitchfork
Listen often – but don’t overthink!
“A lot of people ask me how many times I try and listen to an album before reviewing it, and the truth is that there is no magic number. It really depends on how far in advance I’m given a record; sometimes I’ll live with a promo copy of a record for months before I have to sit down and organize my thoughts about it, and in other cases—especially with bigger, major label releases—I’ll hear an album for the first time a day or two before I have to file the review. I prefer situations between these two extremes. If you have too long to marinate on an album, you can sometimes overthink your opinion and second-guess your gut reaction—specifically if you see a lot of people arguing about it a lot on the internet. But of course, you don’t want to feel rushed, either. A lot of my favorite albums are “growers” that didn’t immediately grab me on first listen, but I came to appreciate them over many consecutive listens, and I try to consider this when listening and writing.” - Lindsay Zoladz, Associate Editor, Pitchfork
Do your research
“In general, it’s crucial for me to immerse myself in the music first, then, depending on the artist, do as much research as possible by reading interviews and articles. This research is not only for fact-gathering purposes, but also to understand how meaning is created and reinforced throughout the media, how publicity might have affected how people are writing about the music in question, and whether or not any of it aligns with my personal beliefs.” – Martin Lin, Editor-in-Chief, Tiny Mix Tapes
Try constructing a narrative
“I’ve realized that I try to make everything I write, even reviews, into some sort of narrative—there has to be a story or I don’t know what to say. And then I just smooth it all together into a legible story.” - Michael Azerrad, author, journalist and Editor-in-Chief of the Talkhouse
Embrace the editing process
“I wrote a 1500-word review about the Slint boxset (multiple LPs, book, and DVD) in the Wire magazine. I listened to the music, watched the film several times, and started by simply thinking about exactly what struck me as most significant about the band, their reputation, their album Spiderland and the historical gap between the time of its creation and the present. Once I had a lot of sentences more or less worked out in my head, I wrote a preliminary draft. Then I revised it many times, adding and expanding and cutting back and reshuffling certain key points. Then I sent it to the editor and we had several back-and- forth edits and changes. He wanted me to add some things and I thought about how I would do that effectively. It’s not just about “your voice” or “inspiration”—to write is to work with editors, to revise, and to sometimes change your mind and your emphasis.” - Drew Daniel, Assistant Professor, Department of English, Johns Hopkins University
Beware the pressures of reviewing in a digital era…
“With album reviews, there was a time when writers got advance albums two or three months before the general public ever heard it. So you could spend some time crafting a meaningful argument that was really unaffected by the fan reception of a record, or by the promotional campaign of that record. That landscape has changed so dramatically that writers don’t have much of an advantage over anyone else. Everyone has an opinion the moment an album is leaked or released, and editors are going to (understandably) demand that their writers join that chorus as quickly as possible so their outlet’s coverage doesn’t feel stale. When you’re under that kind of deadline pressure, as a writer, I think it’s much harder to write something personal and meaningful and structurally sound, so readers often get something half-cooked or something that pretty much repeats the safe status quo opinion that’s floating around out there.” - Casey Jarman, Managing Editor, the Believer
Try this exercise to begin to formulate your review:
Album reviews should not be limited to music you know you love or know you hate. Challenge yourself to explore the unknown. Write a review of an album that you know absolutely nothing about by an artist you have never even heard of, music that has never crossed your path before. Try looking to genres you are unfamiliar with.
Write an album review of approximately 1000 words that describes your impressions of an album by an artist you are completely unfamiliar with. How to find an album you’ve never heard of? Go outside. Go to a record store, library, Goodwill or garage sale and find something that catches your eye. Maybe it’s the album artwork that draws you in. Maybe it’s a band name. If exploring in the real world isn’t an option, dig on iTunes, Spotify, Pandora or other sites.
First listen to the record from start to finish at least twice and begin to write down your first impressions. How does it feel? What does it sound like? What does it remind you of? Then write up your notes into a short paragraph that just describes the music.
Okay, now you can Google. Use the incredibly vast resources available to you to find out about this artist. Where are they located? What’s their story?
Now revisit the paragraph you wrote about the music and combine what you’ve learned about the artist with your first impressions.
Consider these questions while writing:
1. How will you succinctly introduce this record?
2. How does this record fit within its genre or, more broadly, pop or rock history?
3. Where would you want to listen to this record?
About How to Write About Music
If writing about music is like dancing about architecture, you'd do best to hone your chops and avoid clichés (like the one that begins this sentence) by learning from the prime movers. How to Write About Music offers a selection of the best writers on what is perhaps our most universally beloved art form. Selections from the critically-acclaimed 33 1/3 series appear alongside new interviews and insights from authors like Lester Bangs, Chuck Klosterman, Owen Pallet, Ann Powers and Alex Ross.
How to Write About Music includes primary sources of inspiration from a variety of go-to genres such as the album review, the personal essay, the blog post and the interview along with tips, writing prompts and advice from the writers themselves.
Music critics of the past and the present offer inspiration through their work on artists like Black Sabbath, Daft Punk, J Dilla, Joy Division, Kanye West, Neutral Milk Hotel, Radiohead, Pussy Riot and countless others. How to Write About Music is an invaluable text for all those who have ever dreamed of getting their music writing published and a pleasure for everyone who loves to read about music.
To find out more about the book then visit the store page, or the website.
Find out more about titles and buy the latest releases from Ally-Jane Grossan at Bloomsbury.com.