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The best CDs of 2014

What would the end of a year be without favourites lists? Therefore, herewith my pick of the three best CDs/DVDs of 2014.

1. Unsuk Chin: 3 Concertos

The Korean-German Unsuk Chin counts as one of the most important composers of our time. She has been awarded many times, including the prestigious Grawemeyer Award (2004) and the no less important South Korean Ho-Am Prize (2012).

On this CD from Deutsche Grammophon, the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Myung-Whun Chung presents three concertos, for piano, cello and sheng. However different these are, there is one constant: Chung's penchant for mixing seriousness and entertainment.

In the 1997 Piano Concerto, the soloist (Sunwook Kim) at times juxtaposes infinitely fast, virtuoso parts against an equally lively agitating orchestra, at other times dreamy melody fragments against a static orchestral sound field.

Chin

That allusive atmosphere is even more pronounced in the 2009-composed Šu, for sheng and orchestra. This Chinese mouth organ is somewhat akin in sound to the western accordion, and Chin makes the most of its conjuring power. The renowned sheng player Wu Wei performs his often glissive, long-held motifs with admirable control. The orchestra gradually emerges as a kind of supersheng, supporting and complementing the soloist, but occasionally also trying to take over with noisy percussion passages.

The Cello Concerto (2009/revision 2013) composed for German cellist Alban Gerhardt hooks up with the pansori, a Korean theatre tradition in which spoken and sung passages alternate. In the opening movement, the cello begins with intensely lyrical melody lines punctuated by short exclamations from the orchestra. This is followed by a diabolical climax, in which Gerhardt produces ultra-fast runs across the entire spectrum of his instrument without getting off track for a moment. The concert ends with the same dreamy atmosphere as it began with. All pieces are performed exemplarily; the CD is a must-have for lovers of Chin

2. Fie Schouten: Ladder of Escape 11

Chin is also represented on the solo CD Ladder on Escape 11, that bass clarinetist Fie Schouten released on the label Attacca. Thanks to the mediation of yours truly, she received Chin's permission to perform an excerpt from her opera Alice in Wonderland as solo perform. This led to the eight-minute  Advice from a Caterpillar. It is a catchy piece, capturing the capriciousness of the centipede in adventurous and witty antics of the bass clarinet. Hectic, bouncy lines, deep growls and shrill outbursts evoke a magic land where animals talk and people have to listen. Schouten plays with great aptitude, switching effortlessly between lyrical and more aggressive passages.

Schouten

Beautiful is also Article 7, seven ways to climb a mountain by Rozalie Hirs, in which slower and faster melodies and trills in ever-changing registers are embedded in an electronic soundscape. This, with its long-drawn-out, gently descending and ascending howls, creates a well-nigh unsettling counterpoint to the clarinet part, especially when interferences of quarter tones occur with the overtones.

In pieces by Mauricio Kagel, Robin de Raaff and Karlheinz Stockhausen, too, Schouten proves herself a worthy successor to her teacher Harry Sparnaay. Like a true Pied Piper of Hamelin, she takes you on a fascinating journey through all imaginable timbres and emotional atmospheres a bass clarinet can evoke.

3. Hans Kox: Die Todesfrau

The composer Hans Kox was out of favour for a long time, as he refused to compose atonal and serial music. Averse to the mores of his time, he continued to develop his own style, building on the musical tradition without falling into any kind of neo-style. This also at Attacca published CD/DVD illustrates well how expressive his tonal language is.

Die Todesfrau for three solo voices, chamber choir, flute and cello is of a poignant beauty. For this, Kox was inspired by the novella Das Gericht des Meeres by Gertrud von le Fort and wrote the text herself, together with Jan van der Lugt. The dramatic legend is about guilt and forgiveness. Anne, who can bring about death with a lullaby, chooses to spare the murderous queen's child and drown herself.

Kox

Die Todesfrau evokes a sampling of emotions. Melancholy melodies from the soloists alternate with troubled exclamations from the choir. Evocative lines of flute and cello seem to depict the waves of water. Sometimes conciliatory harmonies sound, at other times the mumbling choir evokes the atmosphere of a séance, in which those present seem to want to exorcise their fears.

Because Kox inserts a lot of silence and also has the soloists often accompanied by only a single instrument, an enormous spaciousness is created. Sometimes the text is also spoken, which creates an even more intimate atmosphere. Unfortunately, baritone Kees Jan de Koning's German leaves quite a bit to be desired at such times. Otherwise, this varied, beautifully coherent work is performed exemplarily by flautist Abbie de Quant, cellist Pamela Smits and the Nederlands Kamerkoor conducted by Klaas Stok. Also Lalage's Monologues and the Gedächtnislieder are well worth watching. As a bonus, a DVD is included with an informative documentary on Hans Kox by Arjen Vlakveld and Henk van der Meulen.

Wishing you a happy Christmas holiday, packed with listening and viewing pleasure!

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Thea Derks

Thea Derks studied English and Musicology. In 1996, she completed her studies in musicology cum laude at the University of Amsterdam. She specialises in contemporary music and in 2014 published the critically acclaimed biography 'Reinbert de Leeuw: man or melody'. Four years on, she completed 'An ox on the roof: modern music in vogevlucht', aimed especially at the interested layperson. You buy it here: https://www.boekenbestellen.nl/boek/een-os-op-het-dak/9789012345675 In 2020, the 3rd edition of the Reinbertbio appeared,with 2 additional chapters describing the period 2014-2020. These also appeared separately as Final Chord.View Author posts

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