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]
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.
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]
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]
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]
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]
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]
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]
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]
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]
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]
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]
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]