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Neo-Classical Gems : Past & Present

My post of Best Downtempo Electronica (2010-2020) was well received so I thought I’d carry on the tradition with some neo-classical nuggets. Well some Neo-Classical Gems in fact.

It’s hard not to like some classical musical, but after a session there is perhaps only so much Saint-Saëns, Rachmaninov, or Mozart you can take without a modern twist, or just something new and contemporary.

The Neo-Classical style is any style influenced by classical music whether it’s an update on an existing arrangement or weaving modern styles into an original genre. It’s the latter approach that is a real pull. Classical mixed with Electronic, New Age or Ambient. Or contemporary instrumental music even.

So here goes, some gems that I can recommend; (in date release order – recent first)

A Winged Victory for the Sullen – The Undivided Five – (2019)

Ok so ambience with classical – you’ve got it with this newbie from A Winged Victory for the Sullen. Slow contemplative piano chords like on Our Lord Dubussy infused with instrumental synths. This track feels like it would fit the end sequence of The Shawshank Redemption.

It’s an album to take time to get to know and to take time in general too. The music of this duo comprising Dustin O’Halloran and Adam Wiltzie is sullen but it has beauty in its wide thinking outlook. Great to read too and let this music wash over you.

Neo-Classical Gems : A Winged Victory for the Sullen

Max Richter – My Brilliant Friend TV series Soundtrack (2018)

This album has a traditional classical feel encapsulated in the way Max Richter, a German born British composer, recomposed Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons in 2012. Richter is classically trained and this work comes across in the style of, dare we say it, downtempo classical. But his music still feels modern.

There are traditional sounding piano pieces like Your Reflection but also Richter astounds with his familiar chord impressioning string arrangements like on The Days Go By. The repetitive melodic title track comes back in the xylophone driven Interior Dialogues. The MQA recording sounds great playing back through Roon on my iPad with an AudioQuest DragonFly Cobalt and some MAS Audio Science X5i headphones.

Max Richter – Neo-Classical Gems

Nils Frahm – All Melody (2018)

It’s a shame I decided to put these albums in date order as this one should probably be right at the top, or there or thereabouts. A Rolls Royce effort. Nobody could lay claim to introducing Nils Frahm perhaps, given he is so well known, but if you haven’t checked him out – well you really ought to.

Frahm, a German composer, recorded this effort in the Funkhaus complex in Berlin. It’s an opus of neoclassical rhythms, soundscapes and instrumentation, interlaced with such pleasing – well you guessed it – melody. So modern as well – tracks like A Place, made up of sythns overlain with female melody. Then slower piano efforts like My Friend The Forest, which sounds more like his Felt album. There is no bad track on this album and each track takes its place in a masterful work that this is.

One of the best Neo-Classical Gems at the moment.

Jean-Michel Blais – Dans Ma Main (2018)

When you think of a classical musician you might think of someone about 50-60 years old. But in the new neo-classical genre such a stereotype doesn’t often exist. Jean-Michel Blais is a composer / pianist from Québec, Canada, and 35 years old. Influenced by Piano musicians like Chopin and Rachmaninov, this is his most recent album, and is a piano laden affair of exquisite melodies. Over these are simple but ethereal electronic accompaniments, letting the piano speak for itself. In combination it sculptures an image of spirituality. On Blind it is faster in places and more like Nils Frahm in its approach and the use of spoken French voices adds atmosphere. The albums crescendo is the track Chanson which is terrifically well written and melodic, making this on the whole a very recommended album.

Alexis Ffrench – Evolution (2018)

As likely to be found listening to Kendrick Lamar or Chance the Rapper as Bach and Beethoven, Alexis’ combination of classical training and love for R&B and roots music has helped define his unique sound.

If you liked the simple piano of Jean-Michel Blais you will like this, especially the lovely melodies of Bluebird which is so well known.

This is not a complicated album – just well orchestrated music put to piano. But musically it works and does sound fresh, so on this score you should try it.

Late Night Tales – Agnes Obel (2018)

Maybe the tracks on this album have such wide ranging influences that there isn’t much traditional neo-‘classicalness’ to shout about.

But the feel seems to fit in with the albums I’m listing too here, particularly as many are thick with instrumentation. The Late Night Tales series of albums are terrifically put together.

There is the avant-garde Piano Quintet V of Alfred Schnittke and Henry Macini’s Evil Theme which lights up this album with some of Agnes Obel’s own work such as Glemmer Du. It just seems to work together.

Nils Frahm – Felt (2011)

An argument could be made that the album Felt is a better work than All Melody. Apparently he used felt to dampen his piano so as not to annoy neighbours that led to him becoming fascinated with the sound here. And it is fascinating. There is a wooden reediness in the music in some parts of this recording. The quietness of passages make it a very introspective work, as well as contemplative and meditative. It is also extremely relaxing a listen and probably one of the most so here.

Mike Oldfield – Music of the Spheres (2008)

You know when you buy a newer Mike Oldfield album that you are going to get a more grown up affair. But one still awash with what I’d call the pleasing segmentation in music, which has been a trait of his music ever since the original Tubular Bells. This album has a big classical orchestral feel with loads of instruments – it is a Mike Oldfield album and he knows a thing or two about a few instruments! It goes from big orchestral tracks to more acoustic guitar driven ones like Silhouette. It’s extremely well written and probably one of his best albums past new age albums like songs of distant earth. It is a better work than the retake of Ommadawn for me.

Kitaro – The Best of Ten Years (1996)

OK some of the tracks might be what you might hear waltzing along with the supermarket trolley or standing austere in a lift, but it’s the songmanship that is spellbinding with Kitaro.

Japanese contemporary instrumental with new age synthesisers thrown in, it’s the melodies that turns heads. Medley or The theme from Silk Road could equally be a track that would fit in well with the music in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill series. You’re gonna be playing it in your mind even when you flick the HiFi off switch. But songwriting is songwriting and this guy is sublime, especially how the musical layers dual with each other to a pleasing whole. I can wholeheartedly recommend this.

Vangelis – Antarctica (1983)

Antarctica is the soundtrack to Koreyoshi Kurahara’s film of the same name. If ever an album and main title theme could conjure up the desolation of the films environment, it’s this. Vangelis needs no introduction of course and in the genre of new age and neoclassical, Evángelos Odysséas Papathanassíou is your man. Even now at 76 his work makes him one of the godfathers of the genre. Using synths and electronic sounds galore, the scale and depth this track creates on a great HiFi is ‘lights in your brain’ pleasing.

Vangelis – Theme from Antarctica (1983)
And some spellbinding tracks in the Neo-Classical genre;
Arvo Pärt : Classic “Spiegel im Spiegel”

If you liked this selection of Neo-Classical Gems, please take part and let me know what I could add…….

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Written by Simon Price

I'm an audio lover who likes sharing experiences of faithfully reproduced audio in an ENGAGING way with VERY HIGH PRODUCTION VALUES. I’m interested in products; their looks, functionality and features, and most importantly how they sound! My reviews keep technicalities easy, as I believe great audio is non exclusive and to be enjoyed by all! It's all about the music!

“Bristol HiFi Show 2020, mind”

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