These last few months have been rather busy, and in consequence there’s been relatively little time for listening to music, much less for writing about it. Yet, however much circumstances may press, music is not something that can simply slip away, not for me at any rate, and I have taken advantage of the occasional unstructured hour to turn my ears in some delightful directions.
All summer I have been exploring Italian bel canto opera, and in particular the popular works of the big three: Donizetti, Bellini, and Rossini. For reasons I won’t go into right now I have overlooked these composers in the past, and the experience of correcting that error has been very enjoyable. Even so, I feel that I haven’t been able to give them as much attention as they deserve, so I’m going to postpone any commentary until I am more prepared.
There are two other things that have snatched my musical focus these past few months. The first concerns certain happy goings-on at eMusic. eMusic, if you don’t know, is an online music store specializing in independent and import labels. Music may be downloaded in mid-to-high quality mp3 format, with no Apple-like restrictions on where and how you can play the files subsequently. They have a large catalogue of music available, but this month they really struck gold, adding an avalanche of recordings from the French label Harmonia Mundi, which just might be the best classical label in the world, especially for medieval, renaissance, and baroque repertoire. Some of the world’s finest musicians record for the label: Theatre of Voices, Ensemble Organum, Anonymous 4, Huelgas-Ensemble, Cantus Cölln, Ensemble Clément Janequin, the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, Andrew Manze, Philippe Herreweghe . . . the list goes on and on. Of course, one can buy Harmonia Mundi recordings at the local record shop, but each will typically set you back about $30. At eMusic, one pays around $0.30/track, which means the price of an album varies from just over a dollar (for a Bruckner symphony) to around five dollars (for a collection of medieval music). In either case, the savings are very considerable. There are disadvantages to buying music this way: lower sound quality than on a CD (though I have trouble hearing it), the bother of moving the music off the computer and onto a proper audio system (though at the present time my computer is the only stereo I have), and no texts nor translations (which can be a significant deterrent for vocal and choral music). But at this price, it’s hard to complain. I’m much more inclined to rejoice.
I am also inclined to rejoice at my second bit of news: my discovery of the composer Pēteris Vasks. Vasks is a Lithuanian, born just after the Second World War and still very much alive. Now, I am sympathetic to those who are wary of contemporary classical music – the long shadows of Schoenberg and Stockhausen have blackened wide swaths of the musical landscape, and it is frightening, and maybe even dangerous, to venture too far from home when such beasties are afoot – but it is too little known that outside of the circuit of those unluminaries, much fine and beautiful music has been, and is being, written. Many of my favourite composers – Debussy, Britten, Stravinsky, Messiaen, Vaughan Williams, Pärt – have been writing in the twentieth century, and their music is approachable, compelling, and very beautiful. Vasks is composing in this same tradition. Apparently in earlier times he did experiment with aleatory music (the kind that can be written by monkeys at typewriters), but in recent decades he has turned back to his Latvian musical roots, which themselves branch from the deeper musical roots of Western culture, and the results, as I have been discovering, are lovely.
I have been listening to a few of his major works, both orchestral and choral, but it is the latter to which I’d like to draw special attention today. In particular, I’ve been spinning a splendid disc (also available on eMusic, as it turns out) from the Latvian Radio Choir containing three works: a setting of the Pater noster, an ambitious piece called Dona nobis pacem, and Missa, a complete setting of the Mass ordinary. All are scored for chorus with orchestral accompaniment. Pater noster is the least characterful of the lot, though it illustrates Vasks’ clear, clean sound. At nearly 15 minutes in duration, yet consisting of only three (oft repeated) words, Dona nobis pacem is something of a tour de force. It’s a very dramatic piece with memorable melodic contours that gradually rises to an ecstatic climax before dissolving back into silence. It’s very effective, and I’ve been listening to it again and again. But the main event on the disc is the Mass. It’s a superb setting: dignified, momentous, and shot through with a cool beauty, like sunlight striking snow under a clear blue sky. The Latvian Radio Choir do their countryman proud: the singing is very capable and the recording is transparent.
A final word: I’ve praised eMusic for taking Harmonia Mundi on board, but the eMusic catalogue is enormous and there are many other fine things to discover, both in the classical and popular veins. You won’t find the latest chart toppers, but you can find legends like Johnny Cash and Ralph Stanley, not to mention lesser-known but still marvelous folks like The Innocence Mission, The Hold Steady, Gillian Welch, or Richard Buckner. It’s a great resource.