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]

5 Responses to “Favourites of 2010: Classical music”

  1. Douglas Says:

    Is that a matlab plot of track duration?

  2. Douglas Says:

    Double nerd points for mixing Matlab and Latin hymnody. That’s why I read this blog.

  3. cburrell Says:

    Thanks. I’d have liked something that looks nicer — how I despise Matlab! — but the extra effort didn’t seem worth it. To be honest, I didn’t think anybody would notice. Good eyes.

    Thanks for leaving a comment, also. It’s always good to hear from folks who read the blog.

  4. KathyB Says:

    I too am giving you the nerd salute for that graph. Douglas said it perfectly.

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