Posts Tagged ‘Mieczyslaw Weinberg’

Favourites of 2013: Classical music

January 8, 2014

My music listening this year was anchored by a few large listening projects: I marked the anniversary years of Verdi, Wagner, and Britten by dedicating a good deal of time to hearing their major works again — or, in some cases, for the first time. Given the composers involved, much of this music was opera, and I tried when possible to watch performances of their operas on DVD. I’ve written about some of that music in the consistently unpopular “Great moments in opera” series that I’ve been running (and a few more anniversary-related instalments will trickle out over the next month or two).

I had planned a bunch of other focused listening projects for the year too — Beethoven’s symphonies, Shostakovich’s symphonies and string quartets, Schubert’s piano sonatas — but I didn’t get to them. They are bumped to 2014.

In the meantime, I’d like to share notes on a few of the best recordings I heard for the first time this year. In most cases these are new or new-ish recordings, but not in all. The predominance of vocal music reflects my interests. The ordering of this list is capricious.

weinberg-violinWeinberg: Complete Violin Sonatas
Linus Roth, Jose Gallardo
(Challenge, 2013)

For the last few years music of Mieczyslaw Weinberg has figured in my year-end accolades, and the same is true this year. This three-disc set is the first complete recorded set of Weinberg’s music for violin and piano, and what a treasure it is! Weinberg wrote six very substantial violin sonatas that exhibit the same musical intelligence and emotional heft that I have admired in his string quartets. As I said of the quartets, this music is “music all the way down”: no pedantry, no gimmicks, no self-conscious preoccupation with the music or its manner of composition — just good, smart, heart-felt music that is full of variety and endlessly interesting. I am happy to see Weinberg’s star rising higher on the strength of recordings like this one. Move over, Prokofiev.

Here is a brief video with musical excerpts and interviews with the musicians:

Elgar: The ApostlesElgar_Apostles
Halle Orchestra, Sir Mark Elder
(Halle, 2012)

This recording of Elgar’s oratorio about the life of Christ, from the calling of the apostles to the Ascension, won BBC Music Magazine’s “Recording of the Year”; there may have been some Anglo-centric prejudice informing that decision, but this is a terrific performance of a piece that hasn’t been very well served on record (and which, I suspect, might not finally be top-shelf music). The great fear with Elgar is that amateur British choral societies are going to get their hands on him, serving up bloated and sentimental renditions of his music before the potluck. It is amazing to hear this music sung as crisply and clearly as it is here, with a cool glow and as much dramatic emphasis as the music can bear without buckling. The singing is really tremendous, especially in the choral sections, and the sound is as clear and vivid as one could hope for. This recording has made me reconsider the merits of this piece, and made the reconsideration a pleasure. [Listen to excerpts]

Wagner--Kaufmann-Jonas-Runnicles-Donald-ODOBWagner
Jonas Kaufmann
Orchester der Deutschen Oper Berlin, Donald Runnicles

(Decca, 2013)

Jonas Kaufmann, who glowers from the front cover of this CD, is considered one of the leading tenors in the opera world today, and he really is prodigiously gifted: a magnificent voice that rings from top to bottom, great power, and keen dramatic instincts. It is this last that has most impressed me on this disc of Wagner extracts. For all that Wagner was undoubtedly a great composer, it has nevertheless often seemed to me that his genius was principally manifest in his orchestral writing, and that his vocal lines were largely meandering eddies floating atop the surging currents, lacking dramatic shape and melodic interest in themselves. I won’t say that this recording has changed my opinion about his melodic gifts, but it has certainly made me reconsider my assessment of the dramatic shape of his writing. Never before have I heard Wagner sung in a way that brought out the taut dramatic energy, the sheer poise and responsiveness of the part as much as Kaufmann does. He has helped me to hear Wagner with new appreciation, and that is enough to get this recording onto this list.

Libera Nos: The Cry of the Oppressedlibera-nos
Contrapunctus, Owen Rees
(Signum, 2013)

The programme on this CD is a well-conceived one, gathering together a number of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century choral works on the themes of oppression and liberation by English and Portuguese composers. English Catholics in this period suffered persecution by the authorities, and Portugal was under the domination of the Spanish monarchy. Composers turned to these (mostly) liturgical texts to express their prayers for deliverance with a degree of personal feeling that is rare in public ecclesiastical music. The music is breathtakingly beautiful, of course, and the singing on this recording is very distinguished. Contrapunctus is a British choir formed in 2010; this is their first recording. They are a small ensemble of about ten voices, men and women, and they sing with astounding clarity and beauty; I don’t hear any problems anywhere. The multi-layered harmonic and rhythmic complexity of these pieces comes across sounding effortless (which it certainly is not) and, what is more important for this particular programme, there is nothing impersonal about the singing: it has a plaintive, striving quality that suits these pieces very well. Top shelf. [Listen to excerpts]

ockeghemOckeghem: Missa Mi-Mi
Cappella Pratensis, Rebecca Stewart
(Ricercar, 1999)

It was a year or two ago that I discovered the Dutch ensemble Cappella Pratensis. I liked them well enough to go searching through their back catalogue, and in this recording of Johannes Ockeghem’s Missa Mi-Mi I found a real gem. This Mass is one of Ockeghem’s most frequently recorded, and I have heard it many times, but never with this degree of translucence and calm repose. I tend to bristle at the common view that the music of this period is “relaxing” or “peaceful”, as though these frequently very difficult, intricate, and rigourously structured compositions were merely a kind of soporific. Yet in this case there would be something to that rough characterization, for this ensemble finds in this music a spaciousness and gentleness that lifts the eyes and touches the heart in a quite special way. The music breathes in long, slow rhythms, unhurried, as though content, at each moment, simply to be an expression of praise and a profusion of beauty. I don’t know that I’ve ever heard Ockeghem sung in this way before; I don’t know that I ever will again. The Mass is presented in a quasi-liturgical context, embedded within the Propers for the Mass of Holy Thursday, and the programme ends with Ockeghem’s magnificent motet Intemerata Dei mater.

Here is the Kyrie of the Missa Mi-Mi:

Bach: Cantatas, Vol.55Suzuki-Bach_Cantatas_55
Bach Collegium Japan, Masaaki Suzuki
(BIS, 2013)

This disc is on this list not so much for its own merits — although it is exceptionally good — but for what it represents: the completion of Masaaki Suzuki and Bach Collegium Japan’s twenty-years-long project to record all of Bach’s surviving cantatas. Should I be ashamed to admit that I have collected all fifty-five volumes? Maybe so, but think of all the beer I didn’t buy. Japan might not be the country we think of first when we think of Bach (quite wrongly, perhaps), but the proof is in the pudding: the performances on this disc and across the whole set have been consistently excellent. Suzuki’s approach to the music is “historically informed”, which means in practice that the choir is small and lithe, the textures light, and the rhythms sprightly. It’s Bach played and sung just the way I like it. Here is the Bach Collegium Japan performing one of the cantatas on this final disc. Bravo!

sainte-chapelleWhitacre: Sainte-Chapelle
Tallis Scholars
(Gimell, 2013)

Eric Whitacre is one of the more successful young composers working today. As far as I know, he writes mostly choral music, in an accessible idiom within the reach of amateur choirs, and quite a few recordings of his music are now available. He was commissioned by the Tallis Scholars to write a piece to celebrate the 40th anniversary of their founding, and he came up with Sainte-Chapelle, a piece which imagines the stained-glass angels in that beautiful church singing the Sanctus. The piece was premiered early in 2013 and recorded shortly thereafter. It must be said that it is a gorgeous piece, growing in energy and luminosity as it goes. I had never before heard the Tallis Scholars sing anything other than Renaissance polyphony, but Whitacre’s writing respects their area of specialization, growing out a plainchant melody just as so many Renaissance pieces do. I’ve played this recording so frequently this year that I cannot but include it on this year-end list.

***

Honourable mentions:

ludfordLudford: Missa Regnum mundi
Blue Heron
(Blue Heron, 2012)
[Watch] [Listen]

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schubertSchubert: Nacht und Traume
Matthias Goerne, Alexander Schmalcz
(Harmonia Mundi, 2011)
[Listen]

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howells-requiemHowells: Requiem
Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge; Stephen Layton
(Hyperion, 2012)
[Watch] [Listen]

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yoffe-songofsongsYoffe: Song of Songs
Rosamunde Quartett, Hilliard Ensemble
(ECM New Series, 2011)
[Listen]

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philippe-herreweghe-victoria-officium-defunctorumVictoria: Officium Defunctorum
Collegium Vocale Gent, Philippe Herreweghe
(Phi, 2013)
[Listen]

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mahler2-zanderMahler: Symphony No.2 “Resurrection”
Sarah Connolly, Miah Persson
Philharmonia Orchestra, Benjamin Zander
(Linn, 2013)
[Listen]

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praetorius-adventPraetorius: Advent and Christmas Music
Bremer Barock Consort, Manfred Cordes
(CPO, 2007)

 

Favourites of 2011: Classical Music

December 29, 2011

After I had finished putting together this list of favourites, I noticed that the majority were of music for voices, with a few solo recitals and chamber music recordings thrown in, but no orchestral music. That reflects my own interests, and so is quite fitting. I didn’t make any attempt to go back and come up with something more balanced across genres.

Taverner: Votive Antiphons and Ritual Music
Alamire; David Skinner (Obsidian)

John Taverner died in 1545, which means that he lived and worked during a tumultuous period of English history. The pieces on this recording date principally from the early part of his career, when the Catholic consensus had not yet been disrupted. Consequently the music is sumptuous, complex, and glorious in the finest high medieval manner. The programme includes two large-scale works, Ave Dei patris filia and Gaude plurimum, each lasting about fifteen minutes, plus a handful of other pieces, including the well-known (or, at least, fairly well-known) motets Audivi vocem and Dum transisset sabbatum.

The interest here is not so much in the repertoire — all of this music has been recorded before — as in the performances. This is simply one of the best sounding recordings of choral music that I have ever heard; it is magnificent. The ensemble Alamire is relatively young, although its members, and in particular its director David Skinner, are veterans of the early music scene. Their experience shows: the singing is superbly balanced, the rhythms supple, and the textures clear. I love it when I can hear down through the strata, from soprano down to bass, as I can here. The recording was made at Arundel Castle, which not only has a superb acoustic, but the conditions under which the recording was made were unusual. In a BBC interview that I heard a few months ago, David Skinner described how the ensemble stayed in the castle for an extended period, rehearsing the music together, living with it, even memorizing it, until they felt they could sing it with full attention to expression and ensemble, rather than to mere technical difficulties. This approach paid off abundantly, to my ears.

I am pleased to note, as well, that this disc is an early installment in a projected 30-volume ‘Library of English Church Music’ from Alamire. If they all sound as good as this, it will be a great achievement. [listen]

Weinberg: The Passenger
Michelle Breedt, Roberto Sacca, Elena Kelessidi, Artur Rucinski
Vienna Symphony Orchestra; Teodor Currentzis (NEOS, 2011)

This is the world premiere recording of Mieczyslaw Weinberg’s opera Die Passagierin (The Passenger). Written in the Soviet Union in the 1960s, it had to wait until 2010, at the Bregenz Festival, for its first full performance, which was filmed for this DVD release. Weinberg himself died in 1996, never having seen it staged.

The opera is a Holocaust drama: some years after the end of the war, Lisa and her husband Walter are aboard an ocean liner crossing to America when Lisa encounters another passenger whom she believes to have been a prisoner at Auschwitz where she (Lisa) had been an SS guard. There is some uncertainty as to whether the passenger is or is not the former prisoner — her name was Martha, and Lisa had thought her dead — but in any case the encounter brings back a flood of anguished memories. The staging of the opera moves back and forth between the cruise ship and Auschwitz, the relationship between the two women becoming gradually clearer. Obviously particular sensitivities surround any art about the Holocaust, and Weinberg’s opera — based on a novel by Zofia Posmysz — is especially praiseworthy for its humane spirit. It treats its characters as real people, not as symbols, and there is a good deal of tenderness and understanding in it. It is definitely a drama, not a propaganda piece. This sobriety is all the more remarkable considering Weinberg’s own history: he was a Polish-born Jew whose family was killed at Auschwitz.

The music of The Passenger is very good. Some readers will know that Weinberg is a composer whose music, since I first discovered it a few years ago, has captured my heart and earned my admiration. His music is real music, all the way down, and the music of this opera is no exception. His vocal lines are singable — not always the case in twentieth-century opera — and the orchestral music is subtle and beautiful, even when it expresses (very aptly) violence and anguish. At a particularly dramatic point in the story he incorporates the music of Bach into the score, and the effect is electrifying. Weinberg was a friend to Shostakovich, who said, on one occasion, “I shall never tire of the opera The Passenger by M. Weinberg. I have heard it three times already [presumably at the piano] and have studied the score. Besides, I understood the beauty and enormity of this music better and better on each occasion. It is a perfect masterpiece.” Whether that judgment holds up or not is open to debate, but, speaking for myself, I can say that on first listen I liked The Passenger more than I like the operas of Shostakovich himself. In any case, thanks to the Bergenz Festival and the NEOS label, we now have the opportunity to hear the work for ourselves and make up our own minds.

MacMillan: Who Are These Angels?
Cappella Nova; Alan Tavener (Linn, 2011)

I count myself an admirer of James MacMillan’s music, particularly his music for choir, and I have collected a fair number of recordings. This is the best that I have yet heard. The music on this disc was mostly written between 2007 and 2010, and consists principally of a new set of ‘Strathclyde Motets’ (supplementing an earlier set recorded by the same ensemble) as well as MacMillan’s Mass of Blessed John Henry Newman, written for the papal visit to England last year. The motets are demanding, but breathtakingly beautiful, pieces; they will be too difficult for most choirs, and we are fortunate to have them sung as passionately and expertly as they are on this recording. The Mass, on the other hand, was written for liturgical use and would be within the grasp of many church choirs. This is, as far as I know, its first recording, and it would be good if it were to become popular. It is a fine setting (of the new translation). A little surprisingly, the Kyrie quotes the ‘Tristan chord’ from Wagner; MacMillan has given an interesting explanation for this in the CD’s accompanying notes. [listen]

A Worcester Ladymass
Trio Mediaeval (ECM New Series, 2011)

The Worcester Fragments are a set of surviving manuscripts from Worcester Cathedral, mostly dating from the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries, and consisting principally of three-part sacred polyphony. They are fragmentary because the books in which they were originally written were ‘recycled': taken apart, cut up, and reused as raw material for other books. In some cases the parchment was erased and overwritten, or glued into book-bindings. Though much of the music was thereby lost, this recycling operation turned out to be a blessing in disguise, for precisely because the music was thus ‘hidden away’ it evaded the general conflagration that destroyed so much of England’s sacred music in the aftermath of the Reformation. Only in the twentieth century did musicologists piece together the music from Worcester again.

Thank God for musicologists, because this music is gorgeous. It has probably never been sung, much less recorded, as well as it is here. The three women of Trio Mediaeval have made a name for themselves on account of the purity and blend of their sound, and they give this music their pristine, ethereal best. The disc’s programme is a quasi-liturgical Ladymass (specifically for the Feast of the Assumption of the Virgin); they have therefore supplemented the polyphony with appropriate plainchant, and, because neither a Credo nor a Benedicamus Domino are found among the Worcester Fragments, they commissioned Gavin Bryars to write new ones for them. He did a good job: no-one would mistake them for genuine medieval works — spicy harmonic splashes give their provenance away — but they are clearly aware of, and respectful of, the context in which they are placed.

ECM’s sound is, as usual, immaculate. The recording was made in the celebrated acoustic of Propstei St. Gerold, and it shows. My only complaint about this CD is that, as they are too often wont to do, ECM prints only the Latin texts in the accompanying booklet, as though these pieces are mere objets d’art acoustique rather than musical settings of religious texts that have, you know, meaning. That aside, this is a wonderful recording. [listen]

This was a Liszt anniversary year — his 200th birthday — and there were quite a few Liszt records issued in consequence. Of those I heard, three stood out. Nelson Freire’s programme of moody, ruminative pieces works very well, and the playing is distinguished. This record won accolades from critics, and justly so. Marc-Andre Hamelin offered a disc that, having the mighty Fantasia and Fugue on B-A-C-H, the exquisite Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude, and the famous Sonata in B minor, fell just one Après une Lecture de Dante short of my ideal Liszt programme. As usual with this pianist, the playing is dazzling. But a late entry from Pierre-Laurent Aimard, called (rather pompously, in the manner typical of the major labels these days) The Liszt Project, was perhaps the most intriguing Liszt disc to appear this year. Over two CDs, Aimard interleaves Liszt’s music with pieces by later composers who were influenced by him. There are contributions from Wagner (writing for the piano!), Berg, Scriabin, Messiaen, and others. Sometimes the connections between the composers are not very evident, but it makes for fascinating listening nonetheless. [listen]

Chopin: Late Masterpieces
Stephen Hough (Hyperion, 2010)

There was a major Chopin anniversary in 2010, and there were quite a few recordings issued to mark the occasion. This was one of them, and I caught up with it in 2011. What a wonderful disc! Chopin is one of those composers who did not obviously evolve as he aged; he seems to have sprung from his mother’s womb with his compositional faculties fully mature. Nobody talks about “middle-period Chopin”. This is why Chopin recordings tend to focus, not on compositional period, but on genre: waltzes, nocturnes, mazurkas, ballades, and so on. That said, it is a fascinating idea to devote a recital, as Stephen Hough has, to his late works, regardless of genre. Thus we get some nocturnes, a barcarolle, a berceuse, a few mazurkas, and his Piano Sonata No.3. The music needs no superlatives from me. The playing is outstanding, as one would expect from this wonderful pianist, and the sound is above reproach. [listen]

Hamelin: Etudes
Marc-Andre Hamelin (Hyperion, 2010)

Marc-Andre Hamelin carved out a niche for himself playing the fiercely difficult music of composer-pianists like Alkan, Godowsky, Medtner, and Scriabin. On this 2010 recording he shows that he is a composer-pianist himself; the entire disc is devoted to his own music for piano. Included are a set of twelve etudes in all the minor keys, a suite, and a set of variations written for his wife. I had heard several of the etudes before (he sometimes plays them in concert), but the rest of the music was new to me. It is quite good music, written with wit and feeling, and of course it is brilliantly played. But this disc is most remarkable simply for the way it crosses the artificial divide between composers and performers that has come to dominate classical music in the twentieth century. Bravo! [listen] [video]

Bach: Goldberg Variations
Catrin Finch (Deutsche Grammophon, 2009)

The Goldberg Variations are almost indestructible: they have been arranged for organ, string trio, string quartet, orchestra, carillon, jazz band, accordion, saxophone, handbells, guitar, choir, and more, and they always come out sounding pretty good. Catrin Finch plays them on the harp, and they sound really good. This disc took me a little by surprise, insofar as I liked it more than I thought I would. There is something so pleasant about the sound of a harp, and, being, like the harpsichord, a plucked instrument, it makes a lot of sense to play this music on one. Catrin Finch is not one of those ‘New Age’ harpists (harpies?) either, who soak the music in reverb and dreamy languor. She’s a real virtuoso who plays with fleet fingers and a solid understanding of the music. This disc is delightful. [listen] [video]

Weinberg: Sonatas for Solo Viola
Julia Rebekka Adler (NEOS, 2010)

Another Weinberg recording, and a good one. Julia Rebekka Adler gives world premiere recordings of Weinberg’s four Sonatas for Solo Viola, which are all late works (the earliest being Op.107). A composer has to think twice about writing such exposed music, music that leaves him nowhere to hide if he doesn’t have good ideas, especially since the imposing figure of Bach will be watching over his shoulder as he writes. I listened to these sonatas many times this year, and they are fascinating, engaging, and moving. They deserve to be better known. The two discs are filled out with an arrangement for viola and piano of Weinberg’s early Sonata for Clarinet and Piano and with a Sonata for Solo Viola by another Russian composer, Fyodor Druzhinin (1932-2007). [listen][video]

Hildegard von Bingen: Sponsa Regis
La Reverdie (Arcana, 2009)

La Reverdie is an Italian early music ensemble that has been around for a long time now. Their recordings, which tend to focus on less traveled byways of the high medieval musical landscape, do not always appeal to me, but this one certainly does. Dedicated to Hildegard von Bingen’s music written for the Blessed Virgin, this disc, to my great surprise, has displaced my long-standing favourite to assume top spot on my Hildegard hit parade. La Reverdie strikes a fine balance between the ethereal (where most recordings of this music lean) and the earthy, and the result is something quite special. This music was actually recorded back in 1999, but reissued in 2009. Pity I didn’t hear it earlier. (It is perhaps also worth noting the late-in-the-year news that Pope Benedict apparently intends to name Hildegard von Bingen a Doctor of the Church in 2012. I do not know enough about her to know what the grounds for such an honour will be, but I am certainly interested to find out.) [listen]

Brahms: Handel Variations
Murray Perahia (Sony, 2010)

Almost everything Murray Perahia touches turns to gold for me, and this wonderful disc of Brahms’ piano music is no exception. He plays the relatively early (Op.24) Variations on a theme of Handel, the mid-career (Op.79) Rhapsodies, and the celebrated late (Op.118, 119) pieces. It’s a programme that works very well, and the playing is richly endowed with that whatever-it-is that appeals so much to me in Perahia’s art. Superb. [listen]

Dvorak – String Quartets
Pavel Haas Quartet (Supraphon, 2010)

This disc, which includes Dvorak’s string quartets No.12 (“The American”) and No.13, won the Gramophone Record of the Year honours for 2010, which accolade prompted me to hear it. I do not know Dvorak’s quartets well, and was pleasantly surprised by these ones. The “American”, in particular, with its allusions to American music, is wonderful. The recording quality doesn’t strike me as particularly noteworthy, but it is clear enough, and the playing of this young quartet has been justly lauded. [listen]

Machaut: In Memoriam
Ensemble Musica Nova (Aeon, 2010)

I praised another recording by this ensemble a few years ago; this one is excellent as well. The focus here is on late fourteenth-century ars nova composers, including famous names like Guillaume de Machaut and Philippe de Vitry as well as more obscure figures such as Johannes de Porta and Francois Andrieu, of whom I had not heard before. The music is fantastic: intricate, subtle, beautiful, and wonderfully expressive. The principal reason to hear this CD, however, is for the performance of Machaut’s Messe de Nostre Dame. This is one of the great masterpieces of sacred music, and many, many recordings have been made, but I am ready — well, almost ready — to give the palm to this version. I maintain a strong affection for Ensemble Organum’s eccentric vision of the piece, but for a “straight” reading Ensemble Musica Nova is marvellous. There is a spaciousness about their performance that draws the listener in, and their singing is beautiful without being “pretty”, which suits this robust music very well. [listen]

Combattimenti! Music of Monteverdi and Marazzoli
Le Poème Harmonique (Alpha, 2011)

A bit of a curiosity here, perhaps, but a delightful one. Le Poème Harmonique is a wonderful French group that has made something of a specialty of producing fascinating programmes of little-known early music. This disc is more in the mainstream than is typical for them, consisting mostly of music by Monteverdi. Two madrigals from his Il Ottavo Libro of 1638 lead off the programme, and are followed by the famous Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda, a dramatic cantata on an episode from Tasso’s Gerusalemme liberata. But for me the chief pleasure on this recording, and undoubtedly the chief surprise, is a half-hour long dramatic piece by an obscure figure named Marco Marazzoli, sometime member of the papal choir in Rome and evidently a bit of a humorist. His La Fiera di Farfa is a dramatic piece, with sung and spoken parts, that is hard to describe. There is a hilarious section portraying a town fair, complete with cow and chicken noises, and the whole thing plays out like a deranged improvisation. It’s a real treat. Most impressive are the spontaneity and subtlety of the performances: if early music specialists were once a little stilted and four-square in their interpretations of unfamiliar music, the finest of the current performers seem completely comfortable with the idiom, and I can think of no better example of that facility that what one hears on this disc. [listen]

Favourites of 2010: Classical music

December 20, 2010

Weinberg: String Quartets Nos. 5, 9, and 14 (Quatuor Danel) [CPO]
Put simply, this music rocks my world. Over the past few years Quatuor Danel has been recording the string quartets of Mieczysław Weinberg (1919-1996). With this, the fourth volume in that series, they have now recorded 12 of the 17 that he wrote. In many cases these have been first recordings, Weinberg being quite an out-of-the-way figure, but the quality of the music in no way justifies such neglect. Weinberg, a Pole living in Soviet Russia for most of his life, was a good friend to Shostakovich, and there are obvious comparisons to be made between their music. (It is not evident that the influence between the two flowed only in one direction.) Like Shostakovich, Weinberg wrote music that is fundamentally musical – no gimmicks, no ‘schools’, no ‘theories’, just a keen musical intelligence at work and play. The general idiom of his quartet writing is also similar to Shostakovich’s, and especially to Shostakovich’s late quartets: serious, often inward-looking, and sometimes spare in texture. It must be said, however, that the music is not so bleak as what Shostakovich gave us. This is great, gripping, moving music that I cannot but recommend to all and sundry. [Listen to samples]

Sheppard: Media Vita (Stile Antico) [Harmonia Mundi]
John Sheppard (c.1515-1558) is one of the Tudor composers who tends to get overlooked, but the brilliant young British choir Stile Antico have done him proud with this disc devoted to his music. He was a gentleman of the Chapel Royal during the turbelent reigns of Edward VI and Mary I, and the music on this recording reflects this. On the one hand, we have relatively simple pieces sung in English, and, on the other, gorgeously ornate pieces in Latin. As usual with this choir, the programme has been carefully put together. Consider the following visual aid:


The vertical axis is the length, in minutes, of each piece on the record. The green shows English language music, and the blue shows Latin. Is it not beautiful? The centerpiece of the disc — right there in the middle — is Media vita, an enormously long setting of Compline antiphons for Holy Week, on themes of death. It is Sheppard’s masterpiece, and has only been recorded a few times before (notably by the Tallis Scholars). Stile Antico’s version goes to the top of the short list. Throughout they sing with sensitivity, balance, and beauty. A superb disc. [Listen to samples]

Garden Scene (Joel Quarrington) [Analekta]
Records devoted to music for the violin or the cello are legion; one need not search far for discs focused on the flute or the clarinet; occasionally one comes across music written to celebrate the viola or even the bassoon; but Garden Scene is the only record I know of that focuses on that behemoth of the strings, the double-bass. My initial scepticism was, I trust, understandable, for the instrument seemed capable of little more than grunts and groans. Well, I was wrong about that. In the hands of Joel Quarrington, the double-bass sounds like a bigger, perhaps slightly badder, but still warm and appealing brother to the cello. I would never have imagined that it could be as agile and expressive as it is here. If you love cello music, as I do, I think you would find this very much to your liking as well. The music, all unfamiliar to me apart from this disc, is by Korngold, Gliere, Bottesini, and J.C. Bach (in a transcription of a viola concerto). The programme closes with the first recording of another superb composition by Mieczysław Weinberg, the Sonata for Solo Contrabass, and this is the highlight for me; it’s a terrific piece. Garden Scene won a Juno Award (a ‘Canadian Grammy’) in 2009. It’s a surprisingly endearing record. [Listen to samples]

Silvestrov: Sacred Works (Kiev Chamber Choir) [ECM]
Nothing I had heard before from the Ukrainian composer Valentin Silvestrov prepared me for what I found on this disc. ECM has been championing his music for years, and I had heard several recordings of his orchestral music, all of which I found shapeless and tedious. On the strength of a positive review, however, I took a chance on this collection of sacred choral music, and I am very glad that I did. From the first, I was fascinated by the sound world that Silvestrov conjures up: luminous, hushed, reverent, like the interior of a great Orthodox church, with corners shrouded in darkness, candles burning, and shafts of light illuminating patches of gold mosaic far overhead. A wide variety of texts are set: several Ave Marias, a Gloria and Credo, the Beatitudes, a psalm, a litany. It is true that there is a certain musical homogeneity to the collection; a typical piece has the choir setting up a mesmerizing, hazy aural backdrop out of which solo voices emerge to intone the text; this might dissuade one from listening to the entire disc in one sitting, but who has time for that anyway? There is a delicate beauty about the music, a tenderness of expression, even, that is very attractive. I believe that most, if not all, of the music was written for Kiev’s Cathedral of the Dormition, and specifically for the choir recorded here. Straight from the horse’s mouth, then, and a very welcome surprise. [Listen to samples]

Honourable mention:
Martin: Golgotha (RIAS Kammerchor, Daniel Reuss) [Harmonia Mundi] — Frank Martin’s luscious setting of the Passion, mixing texts from the Gospels with excerpts from the writings of St. Augustine. I returned to it frequently, and found that it lingered long in my memory. [More] [Listen to samples]

Officium Novum (Hilliard Ensemble, Jan Garbarek) [ECM] — This is now the third such collaboration between the Hilliard vocal ensemble and jazz saxophonist Jan Garbarek. This time the improvisations are principally constructed atop the Armenian sacred music of Komitas Vardapet, a composer hitherto unknown to me. Also included is the premiere recording (sans Garbarek) of Arvo Pärt’s O Holy Mother of God. I’d have bought this CD just for that one piece, but the whole disc is great, if you like this sort of thing. [Listen to samples]

Beethoven: Cello Sonatas (Miklos Perenyi, Andras Schiff) [ECM] — Actually from 2004, but I did not hear it until this year. Beethoven can be played with a straight backbone and a stern demeanor, as Important German Music. Perenyi and Schiff take another tack: supple, lyrical, and comparatively gentle. It suits my temperament, and this recording opened these wonderful sonatas to me in a way that other recordings have not. [Listen to samples]

Best of the Decade: Classical Music

December 17, 2009

This week I look back at my favourite classical music recordings issued between 2000-2009.   Though I have listened to hundreds of recordings, it goes without saying that there is a lot of music, much of it no doubt excellent, that I have not heard.

I have decided to structure this post according to genre.  For each genre I have selected two outstanding recordings, with a third “runner-up” sometimes slipped in.  The exception to this rule is the choral music category; my initial short list had about twenty-five recordings on it, and it was too cruel to cut that down to just two, or even three.  I compensate for this surplus by omitting an opera category altogether.

I have also included links to more thorough reviews and to streaming samples of the music when it was possible to do so.

Without further ado:

Choral

I have chosen six discs of choral music, plus a few runners-up.   They are arranged in rough chronological order.

Paolo da Firenze: Narcisso Speculando (Mala Punica, Pedro Memelsdorff) [2002; Harmonia Mundi]: This is music of the medieval avant-garde. Paolo da Firenze, who died in 1425, belonged to the ars subtilior school of late medieval composition.  The music is incredibly intricate, and must be exceptionally difficult to sing, but it is also marvelous to hear — in that respect, the medieval avant-garde consistently bested the modern.  The ensemble Mala Punica specializes in this music, and their awe-inspiring performances must be heard to be believed.  This is one of the most ear-opening recordings I’ve ever heard.  (Reviews: ClassicsToday)

I don’t know why this video is nine minutes long; the piece ends at 3:43.

Richafort: Requiem (Huelgas Ensemble, Paul van Nevel) [2000; Harmonia Mundi]: For sheer ravishing beauty, this is my choral music pick of the decade.  Richafort (c.1480-c.1550) is a mostly forgotten composer, but on the evidence here that forgetfulness is unjust.  His Requiem, which may have been written to commemorate the death of Josquin Desprez, is a thing of glories, with wave after wave of beautiful music spilling over the listener.  Just when you think it can’t possibly get any lovelier, it does.  The disc is filled out by a selection of motets, including a gorgeous Salve regina for five voices, and even a drinking song (rendered, it must be said, a little stiffly).  The singing of the Huelgas Ensemble, which is always excellent, is here focused and luminous to an uncommon degree.  (Reviews: ClassicsToday)

Here is the Introit of the Requiem:

In Paradisum (Hilliard Ensemble) [2000; ECM New Series]: The Hilliard Ensemble sing the Gregorian setting of the Requiem Mass and interpose motets by two of the grand masters of Renaissance polyphony: Victoria and Palestrina.  As is fitting, the music is dark-toned and somber.  The singing is as good as singing gets in this vale of tears: concentrated, responsive, inward-looking, and incredibly beautiful.  The richness of the sound is astonishing.  Part of the credit obviously goes to the four voices of the Hilliard Ensemble, and part to ECM’s superb engineers, but thanks must also be rendered to the walls and vaults of St. Gerold monastery in Austria, where the recording was made. (Reviews: ClassicsToday)

Bach: Missae Breves (Pygmalion) [2008; Alpha]: Before hearing this recording I had not known of the group Pygmalion, and I expect they are new to most listeners too.  I still don’t know anything about them — except that they sing Bach to perfection.  This disc includes two of Bach’s short Masses, BWV 234 and 235.  (A Missa Brevis includes only the Kyrie and Gloria.) This music has never sounded better.  The voices are confident, clear, and precise, with none of the raggedness or wooliness that sometimes plagues choirs who try to sing Bach.  The instrumental accompaniment is lively and vivid.  This is simply terrific music-making. (Reviews: AllMusic) (Listen to samples)

Bach: St. John Passion (Philippe Herreweghe, Collegium Vocale Gent, soloists) [2001; Harmonia Mundi]: Bach’s St. John Passion is not as well-known as his St. Matthew Passion, and with some justification, for it is not as ambitious as its more famous companion.  Its comparative modesty in scale makes it a tighter and more dramatic account of the Passion story, and I find that attractive.  This performance from Bach-specialist Herreweghe, with a starry cast of soloists and his usual crack choir Collegium Vocale Gent, is uniformly excellent.  This music was a great discovery for me this decade.  (Reviews: ClassicsToday) (Listen to samples)

Here is the final section of the work, Christe, du Lamm Gottes (an adaptation of the Agnus Dei):

Grechaninov: Passion Week (Charles Bruffy, Phoenix Bach Choir, Kansas City Chorale) [2007; Chandos]: The prospect of hearing Russian sacred music sung by a choir from the American Midwest does not immediately inspire confidence, but this disc upset my expectations.  The music, written in 1911, is inspired by the Holy Week services of the Orthodox Church.  The texts are in Old Slavonic, and the music communes with the long history of Russian Orthodox music.  It bears an obvious similarity to Rachmaninov’s Vespers, and, to my surprise, it does not suffer greatly in the comparison.  It is extremely well sung — all praise to the basses! — and the recording, though perhaps a bit boxy, still allows us to hear the music clearly.  I was very pleasantly surprised by this recording. (Reviews: AllMusic) (Listen to samples)

Here is the section of the work titled “The Wise Thief”.  (Sorry about the flowers.)

Runners-up:

  • La Bele Marie (Anonymous 4) [2002; Harmonia Mundi]: This is a collection of Marian songs from thirteenth-century France.  Some are in Latin, some in French.  As befits their subject, they are bright, lovely, and mostly joyful.  The four women of Anonymous 4 sing with their customary blend and luminosity.  A very heart-warming record.  (Reviews: ClassicsToday ) (Listen to samples)
  • A Scottish Lady Mass (Red Byrd) [2005; Hyperion]: This disc contains thirteenth-century music from St. Andrews, Scotland.  It includes polyphonic music (for two parts) that is not known elsewhere, and there are some real curiosities, including troped versions of the Kyrie and Gloria, as well as some unique sequences.  The record’s cover, which shows an old church at night across a foggy moor, perfectly captures the feel of this music.  The voices of Red Byrd are manly and resonant, creating a warm sonic blanket to wrap oneself in. This is my kind of singing. (Reviews: ClassicsToday) (Listen to samples) (Listen to a troped Kyrie: Rex, virginum amator)
  • Dufay: Quadrivium (Cantica Symphonia) [2005; Glossa]: Guillaume Dufay is my favourite medieval composer, and this collection of sacred motets serves his music very well.  Cantica Symphonia make the interesting decision to bring instruments, as well as voices, into the music, and although this necessarily involves some improvisation and guess-work, it sounds great.  The singing — just one voice to a part — is confident and idiomatic, and the music is dazzling.  (Reviews: AllMusic) (Listen to samples) (Listen to Anima mea liquefacta est)
  • Heavenly Harmonies (Stile Antico) [2008; Harmonia Mundi]: This disc is a superb collection of Elizabethan sacred music by William Byrd and Thomas Tallis, illustrating the parting of the ways between Catholic music (intricate polyphony, in Latin) and Protestant music (simple and strophic, in English).  As I have said before, the singing of Stile Antico is amazingly good.  (my Music Note) (Reviews: ClassicsToday, AllMusic) (Listen to samples)
  • Elgar: The Dream of Gerontius (Sir Mark Elder, Hallé Orchestra and Chorus, soloists) [2008; Hallé]: Elgar’s setting of John Henry Cardinal Newman’s poem about death and the afterlife has not really attracted me in the past.  I had heard a few recordings, but I found them stodgy and sluggish.  When this disc from the Hallé Orchestra began earning accolades in the British press, I thought it might be another case of patriotic fervour overwhelming sound judgment, but I decided to give it a try anyway.  I am glad that I did.  The sound is much clearer, with far better articulation from the choir than on previous recordings, and the soloists are tremendous.  There’s a real sense of occasion too.  (Reviews: AllMusic)   Here is the section “Praise to the Holiest”:

Solo Voice

Victoria: Et Iesum (Carlos Mena, Juan Carlos Rivera) [2004; Harmonia Mundi]: We naturally associate Victoria with the high Renaissance style of polyphony, of which he was a master.  Himself a priest, his music was intended to serve the sacred liturgy.  Yet, as this intriguing recording informs us, some of his music was adapted for performance on a more modest and intimate scale.  In such cases, one of the polyphonic vocal lines was given to a solo voice, and the other musical lines were put into the instrumental accompaniment.  The result is something like a madrigal or song, but with a sacred text.  The comparative simplicity of the music allows us to relish the beauty of the exposed vocal melody without interference.  Carlos Mena, my favourite counter-tenor (and yours?), has marvelous breath-control in the sometimes very long vocal lines, and his voice has a creamy richness that is very satisfying.  Counter-tenor singing has come a long way in the last few generations of singers, and Mena has it all.  He is tastefully accompanied by Juan Carlos Rivera on the lute and vihuela.  This is a very special recording. (Reviews: ClassicsToday, AllMusic)

Here is Carlos Mena singing Victoria’s adaptation of Salve regina.  If you enjoy this, consider clicking through to YouTube; the same person who posted this song has also posted several other tracks from this disc.

Strauss: Lieder (Soile Isokoski, Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin, Marek Janowski) [2002; Ondine]: Finnish soprano Soile Isokoski turns in an unforgettable performance of Strauss’ great Vier Letzte Lieder (Four Last Songs).  She has a full-bodied, very expressive voice, and it suits these opulent late flowerings of Strauss’ muse perfectly.  Competition in this repertoire is stiff, but Isokoski has displaced Elisabeth Schwarzkopf as my favourite.  The disc is filled out by a selection of Strauss’ other songs.  They are not among Strauss’ greatest inspirations, but they are still beautifully sung. (Reviews: ClassicsToday) (Listen to samples)

In this live performance (not taken from the recording), Isokoski sings “Fruhling”, the first of the Four Last Songs:

Solo Instrument

Messiaen: Complete Organ Works (Olivier Latry) [2002; DG]: As I think I have said before, to a first approximation there has been only one composer for the organ, and that was J.S. Bach.  But if we broaden our vision just a little, Olivier Messiaen comes into view.  His music is nothing like Bach’s, of course, but in its own way it is perfect music for the instrument: immense, deep, ecstatic, glorious, and overwhelming.  It is a major body of work.  Olivier Latry plays the mighty organ of Notre Dame de Paris, where he is house organist, and the DG engineers have caught the sonics in spectacular fashion.  This set is a cornerstone for my collection of twentieth-century music. (Reviews: ClassicsToday)

Bach: Goldberg Variations (Murray Perahia) [2000; Sony]: Starting in the 1990s Murray Perahia began at last to record the music of Bach.  He started with the English Suites, and has since moved through the keyboard concertos, the Partitas, and, in 2000, he made this excellent recording of the Goldberg Variations.  It is a superb, finely calibrated performance that positively dances, and it has become my favourite recording of this inexhaustible music.  (Reviews: ClassicsToday)

Here is Perahia playing the opening Aria and the first three variations:

Chamber

Shostakovich: Complete String Quartets (Emerson String Quartet) [2000; DG]: One of the two or three greatest concert-going experiences of my life was hearing the Emerson String Quartet play Shostakovich’s devastating final quartet, No.15.  It left me reeling and exhausted, but deeply grateful.  Afterward I bought this complete cycle of Shostakovich’s quartets, on five well-filled CDs.  It is an incredibly rich collection.  Some consider his string quartets to be his greatest music, and I am among them.  I have since heard a few other cycles of these quartets, including the famous recordings by the Borodin Quartet.  I love them too, but they do not include the last two quartets, and the Emersons have the edge on precision and sound quality.  This is another cornerstone of my music collection. (Reviews: AllMusic)

Here is a short video I have posted before of the Emersons playing the third movement of String Quartet No.3.  Not one of my very favourite movements, but the only one I can find on YouTube:

Weinberg: Cello Sonatas (Alexander Chaushian, Yevgeny Sudbin) [2007; BIS]: Mieczysław Weinberg is not a well-known composer.  I had never heard of him until I heard this recording, and, now that I have heard this recording, I cannot understand why he is unknown.  His music is fantastic.  Weinberg (also sometimes called Vainberg, or Vaynberg) was born in Poland in 1919 and lived most of his life under the Soviets.  He was a close friend of Shostakovich — the two would play their new compositions to one another.  His music is in many ways quite similar to Shostakovich’s, and that is a very, very good thing!  It is tough and lyrical, full of interesting ideas and genuine feeling, and it sounds urgent and important.  These cello sonatas — two for cello and piano and one for solo cello — are almost unbelievably beautiful.  When I first heard this record I was struck speechless by it, and I hung on every note until it was over.  I have since heard several other recordings of Weinberg’s music, and I have not been disappointed.  He is a major discovery for me. (Reviews: AllMusic)  (Listen to samples)

Here is the first movement of his Cello Sonata No.2, Op.63.  I hope somebody likes this as much as I do.

Runner-up: Pärt: Alina [2000; ECM New Series]: ECM Records are known for their innovative and unusual programming, but, even so, it took a certain audacity to put this disc out.  It includes just two compositions: Für Alina for piano and Spiegel im Spiegel for piano and violin (or cello), together amounting to about 20 minutes of music.  Both pieces are devotedly minimalist, with very sparsely notated scores and absence of dramatic effects.  An uncharitable listener might say that “nothing happens” in either of them.  ECM, in their wisdom, interleaved on the disc two versions of the first piece with three versions of the second!  And, strangely enough, it works.  The record, by the very simplicity of the music, asks the listener to really pay attention to each note.  Close listening becomes a kind of meditative experience.  It’s a rather special disc. (Reviews: ClassicsToday)

Gus van Sant’s 2002 film Gerry used Speigel im Spiegel during the opening scene.  This five-minute clip includes roughly half of the piece.  The visual is perfect for this music.  (Incidentally, in the early days of our courtship I took my wife to see Gerry.  I am lucky that she was willing to see me again.)

Concerto and Orchestral

Schoenberg & Sibelius: Violin Concertos (Hilary Hahn, Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra, Esa-Pekka Salonen)  [2008; DG]: I confess with some shame that I had ignored Hilary Hahn’s recordings in the past.  I assumed that her success had more to do with her youthful attractiveness than the quality of her playing.  (Yes, sex sells even in the beleaguered marketing departments of classical music labels.)  After hearing this recording I am happy to say that this assumption was totally false: her playing stands firmly on its own merits.  She has chosen to couple the violin concerti of Sibelius and Schoenberg, which is a bit like having a meal of truffles and tacks.  To her great credit, she actually manages to find music in Schoenberg’s concerto.  She gives shape to the almost unremittingly angular musical line, and her tone is steely and firm, as though she’s taken this anarchic music in hand and shown it who is master. She makes as good a case for it as is likely to be made.  But it is in the Sibelius concerto that she really shines.  I’ve heard three or four other recordings of this wonderful concerto, but none has gripped me as hers has.  Her playing is precise, with no wavering or wooliness in her violin’s tone, and she really gets inside the music, allowing it to speak for itself.  (Reviews: ClassicsToday, AllMusic)

Here she is playing the final movement of the Sibelius concerto:

Messiaen: Des Canyons aux Étoiles… (Myung-Whun Chung, Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio-France, soloists) [2003; DG]: This massive orchestral composition was written to celebrate the bicentenary of the United States, and it was inspired by Messiaen’s visit to Utah’s Bryce Canyon.  It celebrates in sound the canyon’s rocks, cliffs, and — of course, since this is Messiaen — its birds.   Scored for a large orchestra with piano, horn, xylorimba, and glockenspiel soloists, it is a colourful and essentially joyful composition, both weird and wonderful, and animated by Messiaen’s Catholic nature-mysticism.  The recording is sonically spectacular.  (Reviews: ClassicsToday)

Symphonic

The length of these symphonies prevents my linking to whole movements.  I hope the samples will give some idea of what is in store.

Bruckner: Symphony No.9 (Günter Wand, Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart des SWR) [2006; Profil]: This is a live recording made in 1979, but this 2006 disc was (I believe) its first commercial appearance, so it qualifies for inclusion on this list.  Günter Wand apparently said of this performance that it was “one of the most memorable of [his] life”, and I believe it.  It is tremendously beautiful music that seeks, as Bruckner said, to make the transcendent perceptible, and Wand leads his orchestra about as far in that direction as it is possible to go.  When called for, they play with thunderous power, and at other times with the most delicate sensitivity.  The sound is excellent.  (Reviews:  AllMusic) (Listen to samples)

Vaughan Williams: Symphony No.2 “London” (Richard Hickox, London Symphony Orchestra) [2001; Chandos]: This splendid recording of the “London” symphony was named Record of the Year by Gramophone Magazine in 2001, and it was a richly deserved accolade.  It is a wonderful symphony, and it has never sounded better.  The music glows on this recording.  It is a great interpretation too, with drama and presence.  (Listen to samples)

***

I have not seen any “Best of Decade” lists from major critics, but a number of “Best of 2009″ lists have appeared:

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