I kick off my annual review this year with a look at the finest music that I encountered in 2012. Some of these recordings are new in 2012; all are of recent vintage.
My favourite record of the year is this collection of mostly Gregorian chant, but don’t give up on me yet. I have many chant recordings in my collection, and they do not come better than this. As is suggested by the title, the programme consists principally of music related to Our Lady, Daughter of Zion. Naturally the music is largely monophonic and anonymously composed, but Vox Clamantis varies the texture by including several pieces by the likes of Hildegard von Bingen and Perotin, and the results are dazzling, in a quietly peaceful way. What sets this record apart from the scores of similarly programmed collections of chant is not the quality of the singing, exactly (though the singing is terrific) nor the technical excellence of the sound engineering (though it could not be better), but the quiet, even contemplative, spirit that presides over the whole. There is a wonderful, restful poise to this music; to hear it is like entering a haven. It is hard to say just how or why that is so; I can only say that, for me, the experience is rare, and so I regard this record as a treasure. The liner notes are worth pondering too: “The Gospels do not reveal all of Mary’s feelings to us; the mystery of the Incarnation is only briefly presented. Relying on a few phrases and returning endlessly to the sacred words and setting them in different contexts, the musical tradition shows their inexhaustible richness. Medieval compositions meditate on the mystery of the Incarnation in all its aspects. They display different shades of joy: explosive, superabundant joy which wells up like a source, as well as the shimmer of peaceful, meditative wonder before ‘the miracle never seen, the joy never known’.” To describe this music, and these performances of it, as “joy which wells up like a source” and a “shimmer of peaceful, meditative wonder” is as good and fitting a description as any. Highly recommended.
I have written before (Exhibits A and B) about the music of Mieczyslaw Weinberg, who lived most of his life in the Soviet Union and was a friend to Shostakovich. I want to praise this recording of his string quartets Nos.2, 12, and 17 not only for its own merits (which are immense) but for what it represents: namely, the completion of the first cycle of recordings of all Weinberg’s seventeen string quartets. I have been collecting the recordings from Quatuor Danel since the first volume was issued in 2007, and I have been enthralled all the way through. If you love the string quartets of Shostakovich, you will love what you hear from Weinberg: indeed, this may be the best music you’ve never heard. Weinberg’s neglect is hard to understand on musical grounds, and I am persuaded that it is mostly due to historical factors: a Polish Jew did not fit the image of the Soviet artist that his government wanted to project, and so while he was fairly well-known within the Soviet Union (and many recordings of his music were made on the Soviet label Melodiya) he had little exposure in the West. That is now starting to change, with numerous labels (CPO, Chandos, Grand Piano, NEOS, and Naxos, among others) undertaking major recording projects to give his symphonies, piano music, opera, and chamber music a hearing. All of it is welcome, and much of it is superb, but from what I have heard these string quartets are the finest of what he has to offer. Here is the final movement of his String Quartet No.2:
New York Polyphony is a young, four man vocal ensemble hailing from the Big Apple. They had made a few impressive recordings prior to this one, distinguishing themselves for the smooth blend of their voices and their nuanced interpretations. All of that is again evident on endBeginning, and, together with BIS’s usual superb engineering, would be enough to recommend this disc. It almost comes as a bonus, therefore, to realize just how very interesting is the collection of music they have chosen to record. Most of it is Franco-Flemish polyphony from the sixteenth century, but much of it is rare: I had never before heard Antoine Brumel’s Missa pro defunctis, which includes the first known polyphonic setting of the Dies Irae, and I don’t believe Thomas Crecquillon’s Lamentations for Holy Week had ever been recorded before. The programme is rounded out by Gregorian chant from the Requiem Mass and several more famous motets on similar themes, such as Josquin’s Absalon fili mi, a setting of David’s lament on the death of his son, and Clemens non Papa’s Infelix ego, a setting of Savonarola’s meditation on Psalm 51 written as he awaited execution in Florence. It is all thematically a bit gloomy, I suppose, but gloom has rarely sounded this beautiful. The programme closes with a new piece written for New York Polyphony by Jackson Hill; Ma fin est mon commencement is described as a “fantasy” on Guillaume de Machaut’s motet of the same name, and it is an interesting piece, even if it doesn’t rise to the same level of inspiration as Machaut’s witty (because palindromic) original. Its inclusion here might have made more sense if Machaut’s piece has also been included, but placed last in the context of a programme meditating on death, it does make for a surprisingly hopeful conclusion. And it provides a sleek title for the disc too, which is surely convenient. Let’s listen to Josquin’s Absalon fili mi:
Despite their fairly extensive discography I had never heard Weser-Renaissance before I happened upon this disc. I was missing out. This is a luminous recording of Josquin Desprez’s Missa Ave Maris Stella, coupled with a handful of his Marian motets, including the justly famous Ave Maria … Virgo serena which is here given a glorious outing. I don’t know anything about the choir apart from what my ears tell me: it is an all-male ensemble that sings with impeccable tuning and impressive attention to detail. I particularly enjoy the way they sculpt the musical lines to give them shape and shading. The sound is of burnished gold; the glow of the album cover is a good visual analogue. The choir sounds a little larger than I consider ideal in this repertoire — I am guessing there are twenty or so singers? — but when the results are this beautiful those reservations are swept away. I have a couple of dozen recordings of Josquin’s music in my collection, and this ranks with the elite few. Here is the famous four-voice setting of Ave Maria:
There must be hundreds of recordings of this, the most famous of Schubert’s song cycles, and it is hard to know why one should take an interest in a new one, especially one issued on a fairly obscure label and sung by an unknown soprano. The remedy for this wariness is simply to listen: this is an extraordinary re-imagining of this well-worn masterpiece that not only casts fresh light on it, but seems even to find new depths. The most immediate oddity one notices is that Matthias Loibner, the accompanist, is playing a hurdy-gurdy! This is justified — or at least arguably justified — on artistic grounds because the whole trajectory of the song cycle arcs toward the closing song, “Die Leiermann” (“The Hurdy-Gurdy Player”). Surely to play that haunting melody on an actual hurdy-gurdy is defensible, and, if that song, why not the others as well? In fact the sound of the hurdy-gurdy, with its bleak drones and rough-hewn rusticity, serves these songs extremely well, both musically and interpretively. Naturally this would be little more than a curiosity if the singing was not also excellent, but it is! Nataša Mirkovic-De Ro’s voice is not the sort one characteristically hears in this repertoire: it is not a polite, conservatory voice. She has to my ears a quality I associate with cabaret music: impeccable, even exaggerated, diction, bold clarity, earthy frankness, and seductive beauty. She sings as though she is whispering this sad tale directly into one’s ear. This manner suits the stark, somewhat coarse, accompaniment perfectly. All in all, this is a brilliant performance. I don’t recommend it for those coming to Die Winterreise for the first time, but if you already know these songs I think you’d find it quite illuminating. The final song of the cycle:
When first I saw this album on eMusic I passed over it on account of the cute title and awful artwork. I decided to return for a listen, however, after reading a glowing review (which I cannot now find, alas!). On the strength of this experience, I am in a position to coin a proverb: Never judge a record by its cover. (Well, almost never.)
Not only is the singing marvellously good, but the music and performance decisions are fascinating: they have undertaken to sing a selection of polyphonic pieces written in an unusually low register, and to sing them at the notated pitch (rather than transposing them up, as is apparently usually done). One of the pieces, a setting of Absalon fili mi attributed by scholars to Pierre de la Rue, includes the lowest note written for any known work from the Renaissance — a B-flat below the staff! Thus throughout this programme the basses are given a real workout, and the results are excellent: the choir rumbles magnificently. It is more than a gimmick: the low register gives the music, all of which is music of mourning in one way or another, an impressive gravitas.
In addition to the aforementioned Absalon fili mi, the recording includes a little known Stabat mater by Gaspar van Weerbeke, a few funeral motets, and the centerpiece is Pierre de la Rue’s Requiem. Yes, more singing about death. The chances of your funeral or mine sounding this good are nil. Here is Pierre de la Rue’s Absalon fili mi:
Bach: The Well-Tempered Clavier
ECM New Series (2012)
Andras Schiff is one of my favourite pianists, and I am particularly fond of his Bach. He recorded The Well-Tempered Clavier once before, in the 1980s, and I have long loved those recordings. What a pleasure it has been, therefore, to revisit this great work with him again.
To listen to the whole of “the 48” takes over four hours, and I confess that I have not gone back to do a close comparison of this recording to his earlier one, nor have I taken the trouble to compare it to any of the many other recordings available. I have been content to simply enjoy this for what it is: superb Bach playing. Schiff’s manner at the keyboard is consistent with his reputation: thoughtful, calm, sensitive, and self-effacing. He is there wholly to serve the music. Nodding to the kinds of instruments for which Bach originally wrote he plays throughout without pedaling, which gives the music a crisp quality that I like very much.
The sonics, as one has grown to expect from ECM, are above reproach. The piano is warm and present, not overly resonant, and I did not notice any extraneous sounds. A wonderful record.
Here is the Fugue in G minor (BWV 885) from Book II. I have a special fondness for this fugue because it contains the only bar in all of Bach’s music that I can play myself. (The fourth bar, to be precise. See page 3 of this score.)
Sørensen & Ockeghem: Requiem
Ars Nova Copenhagen, Paul Hillier
What?! How many Requiems can I recommend in one sitting? (Pall-)bear with me, because this is really interesting. We have here a recording of Johannes Ockeghem’s famous Requiem, now over five hundred years old and still going strong. It has been recorded many times before, and admirably; it is a stupendous work, the earliest known polyphonic Requiem, and a marvel of intricate splendour. It is also missing some parts. Enter Paul Hillier and Ars Nova Copenhagen, who commissioned from the Danish composer Bent Sørensen a number of movements to complete the Requiem. Sørensen’s Fragments of Requiem is here integrated into Ockeghem’s original to produce a (largely?) complete setting. The blend is not seamless, nor is it meant to be, for Sørensen writes in a distinctly modern manner, but the contrasts are not jarring either. One hears a certain distant kinship between the two. The result is perhaps a little odd, but very much worth hearing. The singing is spectacular, as one expects from any choir with Paul Hillier at the helm, and their performance of the Ockeghem sections, in particular, have a wonderful spaciousness about them that I really enjoy. Here is a brief promotional video for the disc (mostly featuring the music of Sørensen):
I see in retrospect that most of my favourites were choral/vocal music. I didn’t plan it that way, but neither does it surprise me. Anything great that I missed? The comments are open.