Recordings of the Year aren’t just about being good or amazing. Everything I play on the show is brilliant. Plus I’ve showcased over 40 new releases on the show this year, all fantastic. Recordings of the Year have to be really special. We’re talking new trailblazing recordings, long lost marginalised music finally recorded, innovative and socially conscious pieces, recordings with a great story behind them. In short, they have to be remarkable in every way.
Of course it’s always difficult to pick just 10. I spent a long time thinking about which recordings to choose, My perfectionism and indecision threatened to blow the whole operation halfway through but I persevered and I’m thrilled to announce the 10 Recordings of the Year 2019! Not specific rankings, just 10 of the best.
First on the list is the long overdue world premiere recording of The Ballad of the Brown King, Margaret Bonds’ extraordinary crowning glory. The stunning Christmas cantata details the story of the 3rd king, Balthazar. Margaret Bonds was a major figure in the Chicago Renaissance and one of the 1st black composers and performers to gain notoriety. The Ballad of the Brown King was premiered in 1954 and combines jazz, blues and calypso music into traditional European classical music. The result is one of the most stunning works in existence and needs to be in every choir Christmas repertoire. The album was spearheaded by conductor Malcolm J Merriweather and harpist Ashley Jackson, the leading authority on Margaret Bonds. The recording features The Dessoff Choirs and Orchestra along with soloists Laquita Mitchell, Noah Stewart and Lucia Bradford, all amazing international stars. Along with The Ballad of the Brown King the album is rounded off wonderfully by several songs by Margaret Bonds.
As well as the long overdue world premiere, the stunning orchestration and amazing story in this album, the recording is also a fantastic showcase of black people in classical music. This album was composed and directed entirely by black people which is really cool. Margaret Bonds set the cantata to words by her good friend Langston Hughes, leader of the Harlem Renaissance. In addition the conductor, harpist and soloists all happen to be black.
This stunning album received almost no press attention and searching for information about it on Google is a nightmare, despite it being one of the most groundbreaking albums ever made. The Lost Women of Music is the first ever album to feature a completely all-female team. Everyone front and back of house: conductor, performers, engineers, producers, all women. It’s truly remarkable.
Everything about this album is trailblazing. The Lost Women of Music, released on International Women’s Day, is a celebration of women’s suffrage, featuring instrumental music and songs by some of the radical and revolutionary suffragettes.The album was directed by the brilliant Alice Farnham who conducted the appropriately named Suffrage Sinfonia in this landmark recording. Along with the more well known Ethel Smyth, the album features music from Alicia Needham, 1st woman to conduct at the Royal Albert Hall, Susan Spain Dunk and many more brilliant and brave women who fought discrimination head on. Interestingly the album also showcases several pieces of spoken word poetry, brought to life by some of the most extraordinary women today including broadcaster Clare Balding and actress Dame Penelope Keith.
Much of this music was indeed ‘lost’, kept in dusty archives around the UK. This music, now found, needs to stay this way. In this day when women are still tackling discrimination and sexism in the classical music industry and elsewhere, it’s comforting to know we stand on the shoulders of all these phenomenal women.
This extraordinary 10 album collection is actually a re-release from the 1970s. CBS Masterworks released a 9 album set on vinyl, it’s finally been remastered from the original analogue and released by Sony Classical in stunning digital quality for the 21st century along with a bonus tenth disc.
The collection features a wide range of black male composers: historical composers like 18th century Chevalier de Saint-Georges and Jose Garcia, turn of the century Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, 20th century Fela Sowande and several contemporary composers including Adolphus Hailstork (best composer name ever right), George Walker and David Baker. The composers don’t just span the centuries, they almost span the globe with music from the US, Panama, Nigeria, France, Brazil, Britain and more. As well as featuring black composers all original nine LP’s featured the trailblazing black conductor Paul Freeman.
Just to warn you, this is a gateway to a serious internet music rabbit hole, you could spend hours discovering all the other music written by these guys, although that’s the whole point, right? My only issue with this collection is the complete lack of black female composers, not even Florence Price or Margaret Bonds. That being said it’s a phenomenal achievement and 40 odd years on all of these composers are still marginalised because of their skin colour and should be performed way more than they currently are.
This incredible album is a compilation of some of the 1st recordings ever made by black classical music performers, dating from 1917 -1922. An extraordinary labour of love by producer Leslie Gerber of Parnassus Records, Gerber tracked down all these recordings, transferred them from 78 rpm records, sound engineer Steve Smolian conducted digital cleanup on the audio, spending several hours on each piece. Most of the recordings on this album have never been re-issued before and haven’t been heard in a century.
This album is a reminder that black people have actually always been performing classical music. As we work to create a more inclusive present we need to give the performers on this album their proper place in music history as well.
Music for wind instruments constantly gets shoved aside in favour of the vast swathes of violin and piano repertoire saturating the classical music landscape but there is hope. Hope in this case is Sean Fredenburg and Javier Rodriguez, together they are The Post Haste Reed Duo, a dream team combo of bassoon and sax that are shaking up the contemporary classical scene. Donut Robot features all new, all amazing music written for bassoon and sax, 6 pieces by 6 composers including 2 women which make up 32% of performance time, not too bad. The album brilliantly showcases the entire emotional range of the two wind instruments and the vast sound worlds available. There’s bold and bright tones, folk influences, introspective parts and experiments with microtonality. It’s really a brilliantly well conceived collection of music, also this album has the coolest classical music album artwork of all time, courtesy of Adam T Davis.
The world premiere recording of an eco-feminist salon opera holed up in a private collection for 150 years? Yes, it is as badass as it sounds, actually even more so when the opera is brought to life by the amazing Camilla Zamora who assembled some of the coolest classical music stars around including the incredible Jamie Barton, Eric Owens and world class accompanist Myra Huang. Truly an incredible work of vision to give us this stunning chamber opera by 19th century composer and singer Pauline Viardot, a completely unjustly unsung heroine of Romantic classical music. The opera is just beautiful, a complete Romantic gem.
A very exciting debut album from Pan Pacific Ensemble, a wind quintet dedicated to performing music by Asian composers and composers of Asian descent. Feng features classical music from across South East Asia including Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia and Singapore. The album has 4 pieces commissioned by the ensemble as well as the title piece written by the always extraordinary Chinese composer Chen Yi. In total there are 8 composers including 3 women, women making up nearly 40% of performance time which is pretty good going. Lots of incredible music on here and a wide range of different styles.
Erika Fox – A chance mention of her name led to one of the most exciting musical events this year: 82 year old composer gets debut album. Erika Fox was once well known in the 70’s but her music fell off the map until Kate Romano and her Goldfield Ensemble brought it back from oblivion, releasing this incredible collection of Erika Fox’s chamber music, the collection spans 25 years of composition and is nothing short of breathtaking. An extraordinary debut and hopefully the start of resurgence in popularity for the octagenarian.
The world premiere recording of the extraordinary groundbreaking opera features just two singers: Hannah before (baritone Kelly Markgraf) and Hannah after (Sasha Cooke), sharing the part of a sole transgender protagonist, they are accompanied by the Fry Street Quartet. Laura Kaminsky wrote the music, the libretto was written by Mark Campbell and Kimberley Reed, the accompanying film was also written by Kimberley Reed.
It’s not about being deliberately sensationalist, making money from the experiences of a marginalised group of people. It’s not a transgender opera or the story of every trans person. The whole concept is done with sensitivity and care, the resulting recording is a powerful portrayal of one person’s journey and the struggle with identity. The music is incredible, reflecting the protagonist’s journey and emotional struggles they encounter with a similarly vast range of sounds. Soaring and expansive lines with fraught and tortured sections.
This stunning recording is a part of this unique opera, the production needs to be mentioned here. It’s not just the content which is trailblazing, the creative team specifically encourage the hiring and training of transgender people for the roles and backstage work, they’ve also produced comprehensive marketing and production guidelines to ensure their work is interpreted correctly and handled appropriately, including costumes, gender free bathrooms and community resources. On the As One website they also provide a list of organisations that support the transgender community.
Laura Kaminsky, Mark Campbell and Kimberley Reed created a wonderfully inclusive and insightful piece of opera for the world we live in now. As One is a socially conscious opera which tackles important issues head on, supports the experiences of transgender people and encourages us all to be a little kinder.
What can be communicated in a single breath? The answer? Quite a lot. This extraordinary album is a reaction against centuries of thoughtless composers writing mean parts for wind players that appear not to require breathing. Sadly wind players do need to breathe on occasion. Flautist Kathryn Williams explores the vitality of the breath on this album, featuring 40 compositions from a huge range of contemporary composers including Chaya Czernowin, Brian Ferneyhough, Angela Slater and Oliver Coates. These compositions all span just a single breath and give us the entire musical spectrum from the most traditionally melodic to the most experimental. In addition the gender balance on the album is to be applauded – 23 female composers, 19 male composers and 1 non binary composer.
That is it, the 10 Recordings of the Year 2019 as chosen by The Daffodil Perspective.
And just to reiterate, these are not specific rankings, just 10 of the best recordings in 2019.
These 10 recordings are all truly outstanding and remarkable. Here in the UK this week and around the world we’re going through some dark times. These 10 albums are wonderful lighthouses, guiding us safely to a better, more diverse and inclusive world.
Here’s to a more gender balanced and diverse classical music industry!
If you enjoy The Daffodil Perspective, please consider supporting it with a donation to the End of Year Fundraiser so it can continue championing women, celebrating diversity and creating a more inclusive classical music industry. All funds going towards setting up The Daffodil Perspective Awards, celebrating recordings of marginalised music and musicians.
Elizabeth de Brito, Creator and Producer