Favourites of 2012: Classical music

December 7, 2012

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.

Filia Sion
Vox Clamantis
ECM New Series (2012)

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.


Weinberg: String Quartets, Vol.6
Quatuor Danel
CPO (2012)

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
BIS (2012)

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:


Josquin: Missa Ave Maris Stella
Weser-Renaissance; Manfred Cordes
CPO (2012)

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:


Schubert: Die Winterreise
Nataša Mirkovic-De Ro; Matthias Loibner
Raumklang (2011)

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:


Extreme Singing: Low Masterpieces of the Renaissance
Vox Early Music Ensemble
Ancient Voice (2011)

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-schiffBach: The Well-Tempered Clavier
Andras Schiff
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.)


ockeghem-sorensenSørensen & Ockeghem: Requiem
Ars Nova Copenhagen, Paul Hillier
Dacapo (2012)

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.

11 Responses to “Favourites of 2012: Classical music”

  1. I have, for a change, actually sat and listened to all of your samples, which I’m usually too hurried and distracted to do. I’m most taken with the “Extreme Singing” album (horrid title, I agree), the Winterreise, and the Weinberg quartet. Although I’m not a connoisseur of Winterreise recordings, I really think I might get this. I’m afraid I have a limited appetite for early (i.e. pre-Baroque) choral music, which I recognize as a defect in my taste, but the…I almost hate to type this…”extreme” album is interestingly off the beaten path.

    Do the Russians say “wineberg” or “vineberg,” I wonder?

    Did you get Vox Clamantis from eMusic? I’m asking because, as you probably know, there was quite an outcry when eMusic first got the ECM titles, because the mp3 encoding was not of the generally acknowledged first quality. Personally I can’t tell any difference, and I went to some trouble to compare an ECM track from eMusic with the same track from the cd and with the track encoded using software which uses the algorithms (LAME) the complainers all said was better than that used by eMu (Fraunhofer). I couldn’t honestly say I could tell one from another, but my ears are not that great.

    Apart from that, though, frequently when I consider getting an ECM title from eMusic, I hold off because I want the frequently interesting and useful liner notes, especially when there are texts involved. Oh wait, i guess I answered my question, since you were quoting the notes.

  2. cburrell Says:

    Listening to all of the clips takes quite a while, so thanks for taking an interest. I know that early music is not everyone’s cup of tea, but it is music that I love and for which I seem to have an ear — or at least about which I have opinions! But much of this music is pretty obscure; I had to create the YouTube videos myself for almost all of them.

    Weinberg goes under quite a few different spellings in CD catalogues: Weinberg, Vaynberg, Vainberg. . . That probably gives you a good idea about how it pronounce it.

    I got the Vox Clamantis CD from iTunes, not from eMusic. ECM is not available through eMusic in Canada. I didn’t get liner notes through iTunes either; the quote was from a liner-note excerpt on the ECM website.

    Thanks again for listening!

  3. Christina A. Says:


    I would also say that I rarely listen through all the clips in your longer music posts, but tonight I did listen to all of these.

    My favorites are:

    1. Die Winterreise
    2. Weinberg
    3. Filia Sion

    All are good choices on your list, but I really can’t stomach the renaissance polyphony stuff – after a minute or so, I’m just bored and tune out. The Bach was also good, but I find Bach so “prim” – it’s masterful, but it’s also a bit like a french boxwood topiary garden, too proper. (http://pinterest.com/josiecouch/topiary-gardens/)
    I liked the wildness of the three I chose above as my favorites of your favorites.

    Thanks for providing a guiding light to those of us who are generally tonally-challenged! (I’m the perfect wife if you’d like to be a saint…I can see every detail from an eagle’s distance, so I know everything that’s amiss visually, but I don’t hear very well, so there’s no use in making excuses, they don’t register!)


  4. cburrell Says:


    Thanks for your comment too — and for listening to all that music! It takes time, I know.

    I know that to many people Renaissance polyphony all sounds the same — not just from composer to composer, or piece to piece, but even within one piece: once you’ve heard a bit, you’ve heard it all. To some extent, of course, this is true, for there are strong sylistic features that all of this music adheres to. For whatever reason, however, I myself never tire of hearing it, and I find it endlessly fascinating. If I were a competent singer, it is the music I would want to sing.

    All of which is to say: I understand why you say what you say, and I am still your friend.

    As for Bach, I find I like the topiary gardens too, so that is consistent.

    I’m glad you found a few things to like, anyway. Just wait until you see my hit parade of popular music in a week or so! Then it will be your turn to say that you are still my friend.

  5. I wouldn’t put it as strongly as “all sounds the same,” but..well, compared to what came later, it does lack variety. I guess I feel like it (Renaissance polyphony) is a language I don’t understand.

  6. cburrell Says:

    I attribute my love for polyphony — and whatever limited understanding I have of it — to having sung it. When one sings it, and rehearses it, one is able to really get inside the music and examine it in detail. From that point of view, polyphony is, on average, much more intricate and interesting than much of what came later.

    To sing the bass part in a Brahms (or Mozart, or Haydn, etc.) piece is comparatively dull: one is just providing a piece of the harmony for a melody sung (typically) by the sopranos. But in polyphony the musical texture is much more democratically conceived; every part has its own interest. This is also, I think, what makes it difficult for some people to listen to, for there is no obvious feature on which to focus, as there typically is in, say, a Romantic choral piece. (That is, there is no melody.)

    Listening to polyphony is in many respects like listening to a fugue (which is why Christina’s demurring at both does not surprise me). But what is really wonderful about polyphony, in my opinion, is that it is able to be both intellectually fascinating and incredibly beautiful. What could be better?

  7. Osbert Parsley Says:

    Considering that Osbert Parsley was a composer of Renaissance polyphony, it will not be surprising that I come down in favour of this repertoire: the great masterpieces of the 16th century are as musically absorbing as anything from later periods. But, as Craig says, it’s hard to hear this music as anything other than a wash of vaguely pleasant sounds unless you’ve actually sung it, because the musical interest comes from the interaction between independent lines and we moderns are not used to listening in this way. Even then, it takes long experience with this repertoire to pick up on its expressive gestures – after years of choral singing and a couple of doctoral seminars in Renaissance polyphony, I still feel like I’m able to hear only a tiny fraction of the music’s potential. Learning to appreciate this repertoire is like learning a new language, but the rewards are enormous – I am singing Josquin’s “Praeter rerum seriem” on a Christmas concert this weekend, and it’s probably one of the most wonderful pieces I’ve ever had a chance to perform.

    Many thanks for this list of recommendations – I haven’t had a chance to hear any of these CDs, so I enjoyed the chance to listen to some excerpts. The “Extreme Singing” disc has been on my radar for a while because one of my professors was involved in the production: the question of pitch is one of the great contested issues of Renaissance music performance, and it’s exciting to be able to hear this music at its (extremely low) notated pitch rather than in a modernized, transposed version. In this respect, it’s interesting to compare the recordings of “Absalom, fili mi” at low pitch on the “Extreme Singing” disc and at normal pitch on the New York Polyphony recording – it’s the same music, but one would never know it from the performances, whose characters could not be more different. (The authorship of this piece has been in dispute since the late 1980s, which is why the the “Extreme Singing” recording attributes it to La Rue.)

    Finally: I can fill you in a bit on the Weser-Renaissance group, having had the opportunity to sing with them once on a concert of music by Heinrich Schutz. This is an ensemble of variable composition directed by Manfred Cordes, who selects musicians based on the needs of the particular project he’s working on. (So, for the concert I sang in, the Weser-Renaissance ensemble consisted of a group of about a dozen vocal soloists and instrumentalists, with a local schola singing the choral parts.) The level at which the group performs is all the more impressive when you consider the fact that any given incarnation of the ensemble has only a relatively short time to work together! I’ve bought their Josquin CD and look forward to hearing the whole thing.

  8. cburrell Says:

    Thanks for all of that, Osbert. You are much more a musician than I, and it is good to have your input. Nice, too, to have some company in the polyphony-loving corner. I wish I had opportunity these days to sing, but unfortunately my other commitments — namely, fatherhood — do not permit it right now. (Also, I need lots of rehearsal time to get it right.)

    Thanks for pointing out that I selected the same piece twice, and attributed it to two different composers! I put this post together in bits and pieces over the course of a few weeks, and I hadn’t noticed the conjunction. I must really like that piece, whoever wrote it.

    I hope you enjoy the Josquin disc from Weser-Renaissance. Late in the year they actually released another recording of psalm settings by Josquin. I really like that one too, but still not as much as the one above.

  9. “That is, there is no melody.” yes, alas, that’s my problem in a nutshell. Nor no beat neither. This is not an objection on principle–I mean, it’s not that I made a decision against this music. It’s not even that I dislike it–I do enjoy hearing it, but I think it’s on a superficial level, and it’s not something I want to hear all that frequently. It’s just that I don’t respond very deeply to it. Years ago a friend gave me an LP of the Tallis Scholars singing Josquin’s Missa Pange Lingua, saying it was the best performance of anything ever. I enjoyed it but not with anything remotely approaching his level of enthusiasm. Perhaps I’ll get it out this weekend and give it another try..

  10. Moreover, when you get down to it, I just don’t have that good an ear. I certainly could never sing the stuff, and perhaps never develop the ability to hear what’s going on.

    And by the way I love Bach, and would probably pick him as my only composer if I could only have one. But I admit my mind does wander during the fugues; at some point I feel that I’ve lost the thread.

  11. cburrell Says:

    Oh, I lose the thread too, all the time — but I enjoy trying to get it back. Maybe that’s the difference.

    Bach would be my choice too, were I forced to choose just one. But the world is not that cruel.

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