Favourites of 2015: Classical music

December 30, 2015

Today the theme is classical music. Quite a few good records came my way, and I’d like to share a few words about my favourites.

levit-variationsI had occasion last year to praise Igor Levit’s recording of Bach’s Partitas, and this year he was back with another outstanding piano recital. I have a special affection for “theme and variations” compositions, and Levit tackles three of the most important: from the 18th-century, Bach’s Goldberg Variations, from the 19th-century, Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations, and, from the 20th-century, Frederic Rzewski’s The People United Will Never Be Defeated!.

Obviously it’s the last of these that is the least well-known. The theme of the work, and its title too, are taken from a rather catchy revolutionary Chilean song, and Rzewski puts it through a series of 36 virtuosic variations — from what I understand, this is much the most technically challenging of the pieces on this recording. I have heard only one other recording (of the mere handful available), by Marc-Andre Hamelin, and I’m not sure I’d want to choose between him and Levit. Nor, to be honest, will I return to Rzewski all that often.

The Diabelli Variations is an unqualified masterpiece, on the testimony of those who should know, but I confess that I’ve never been very enamoured of it. All that banging, Ludwig! Part of the problem is the theme: Beethoven was famously asked to contribute a single variation on a rather non-descript waltz, and replied instead with 32 variations of permanent musical importance, but I’ve always found them somehow too cold, too rigid, too downright Teutonic, boots high and elbows swinging, for my tastes. I’ve got a dozen or so recordings of the work in my collection, so I haven’t written it off easily, nor, to be clear, have I written it off yet. We’re still wrestling. With that in mind, I was keen to hear what Levit would do with it, and I must concede that his playing is marvellous. His careful dynamic control goes a long way to alleviating the overzealous banging that has marred other recordings for me, and there’s a certain rhythmic suppleness to his playing that is attractive.

But the principal reason why I want to praise this recording is for Levit’s Goldberg Variations. This is the summit of keyboard music for me, and Levit plays it beautifully. The contrapuntal lines are brought out with great clarity, the tempi are well-chosen, and the whole has a pristine quality, like clear water. One of the things I most appreciate about Levit is the sense of concentration he brings to his playing, a feeling that he is right inside the music: everything flows nicely, transitions are handled deftly, each note falls where it seems it should — everything just makes sense, musically. Those qualities are very much in evidence in Levit’s performance here. It doesn’t dislodge my favourite recording of this piece (by Murray Perahia), but it is undoubtedly a superb interpretation of inexhaustible music.

***

part-tallisThis year was a special year for Arvo Pärt, who celebrated his 80th birthday in September. There were a number of fine recordings of his music issued over the course of the year, but to my mind the finest of them came from an unexpected source: the Tallis Scholars! They are one of the world’s most admired choral ensembles, but over their 40 year history I believe this is the first time they have recorded music not by medieval or Renaissance composers. It’s a very pleasant surprise, and it makes sense too: Part’s music owes a great debt to the music the Tallis Scholars usually sing, so why wouldn’t they sing his music beautifully too? They’ve chosen a nice program: the seven Magnificat antiphons, the Magnificat itself, the jaunty Which Was The Son Of…, then Nunc Dimittis, two of Part’s gospel narrations (The Woman With the Alabaster Box and Tribute to Caesar), his beautiful setting of I Am The True Vine, and they close with the inward-looking Triodion. The voices throughout are crystal clear, tuning impeccable, pacing well-judged, and, most importantly with Pärt’s music but hard to articulate and harder to achieve, they let the sound of the music be in a kind of dialogue with the silence that surrounds it. Not every choir can pull that off.

***

macmillan-luke-passionJames MacMillan — or, I suppose, Sir James MacMillan — is one of the most consistently rewarding contemporary composers, and this year saw the release of the first recording of his St Luke Passion. MacMillan has written a fair amount of music for Holy Week, including a St John Passion and a scintillating Seven Last Words from the Cross. His St Luke Passion is a work for orchestra and chorus, lasting about 70 minutes in performance, and is divided into three parts: a short prelude on the Annunciation that is addressed to Our Lady, then a long central section in which he sets, word by word, chapters 23 and 24 of St Luke’s Gospel, and finally a postlude which draws on texts associated with the Resurrection and Ascension. MacMillan makes the unusual decision to set the words of Jesus in the higher registers (children’s voices) and the words of characters in the story, including Pilate, in the lower registers; this is the opposite of the usual pattern in Passion settings. The part of the Evangelist is sung by a male choir. The word setting is largely homophonic, except for the sayings of Jesus, on which he lavishes some lovely choral writing. There are a few problems on this recording with intelligibility of the texts; the words are familiar to me but even so I sometimes had trouble following if I simply listened. But the whole work is outstanding: vigorous, passionate, confident, and devout; and well worth hearing.

***

vox-silentii-memento-meiI listen to a fair bit of chant, and I have had occasion to recommend particularly good chant recordings in the past. This year is no exception, for this year I discovered the ensemble Vox Silentii, which hails from Finland. Vox Silentii is Hilkka-Liisa Vuori and Johanna Korhonen. They take an approach to chant that I think I have not encountered before: chant is, by its nature, a public music, meant to be sung during the sacred liturgy, and it is typically performed with sizable ensembles adhering to a fairly regular rhythmic plan, but Vox Silentii treat this music as a kind of personal disclosure, an intimate offering that might be arising directly from the heart in prayerful silence. That’s paradoxical, but I’m not sure how to say it more aptly. The singing is quiet and still, gently arising from silence and returning to it, the two voices wonderfully responsive to one another. The two discs which I heard, both of which I can recommend wholeheartedly, are Nox Lucis, a disc of Christmas chants, and Memento Mei, a disc of Easter chants. Mesmerizing.

***

hildegard-vox-cosmicaAn unexpected delight this year was a superb disc devoted to the music of the most recently-named Doctor of the Church: Hildegard von Bingen. Over the past few decades Hildegard’s music has become quite well known, and the catalogue now contains a substantial number of recordings, but this new disc, titled Vox Cosmica, stands out as something special. For one thing, it is sung principally by Arianna Savall (daughter of early music royals Jordi Savall and Montserrat Figueras), whose clear, radiant soprano is perfectly suited to these soaring vocal lines, lending them a gentle ecstatic quality. She is supported by an ensemble called Hirundo Maris, who play a curio-shop of unusual instruments: hardingfele, monochord, tromba marina, nyckelharpa, Roman bells, and lyra, not to mention the usual fiddles, flutes, and harps. Hildegard didn’t write musical accompaniments for her songs, so these are presumably improvised, and they provide a quietly shifting background on which the voice floats. “Inauthentic”, perhaps, but I have no objections to re-creations of old music when done as sensitively and imaginatively as this. The disc features five of Hildegard’s songs, plus a performance of Peter Abelard’s Planctus David, sung by Petter Udland Johansen. Between the medieval compositions are a set of original instrumental “meditations” by Johansen. These are not strictly in the medieval manner, for the creative exchange between past and present is part of the appeal of this project, but neither are they stylistically jarring. I thought they worked quite effectively as interludes. Taken together, this makes for a rewarding hour of listening.

***

haydn-early-londonMy favourite orchestral music of the year comes from an old recording first issued in the late 1960s: George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra’s performances of Haydn’s early London symphonies (Nos.93-98). Haydn’s symphonies are often overlooked, being overshadowed in the popular imagination by Mozart’s and Beethoven’s, but they are delightful and worth getting to know. Haydn’s musical imagination was always active, and his symphonies, though very numerous, are full of fresh ideas. In his London symphonies he’s as good as he ever was. The Cleveland Orchestra is a full-bodied modern orchestra (this recording was made before the period-instrument movement really got off the ground), and they lend Haydn’s music plenty of weight and presence, but without sacrifice of clarity. These recordings have been beloved for decades, and I understand why.

***

christian-gerhaher-2014-nachtviolen-compact-discThis Schubert recital is something of a souvenir for me this year. Back in February I was able to attend a concert in which Christian Gerhaher, accompanied from the piano by Gerold Huber, sang Schubert’s Winterreise. I had been looking for a good opportunity to hear this song-cycle in live performance for a long time, and I was not disappointed. Gerhaher has enjoyed critical plaudits across the board, with good reason. It was the best concert I went to this year. True, it was also the only concert I went to this year.

Nachtviolen is a collection of Schubert’s songs, none of which are taken from Winterreise, but all of which are worth hearing in Gerhaher’s hands. They range from the early An die Nachtigall, written when Schubert was a teenager, to the late Herbst, written sometime during the last year of his life. The singing throughout is immune to criticism, and the sound quality is excellent. There was another Schubert recital I greatly enjoyed this year, a live recording of Ian Bostridge and Julius Drake, and I went back and forth about which of them to prefer for this list. In the end I chose Nachtviolen on the strength of its superior recorded sound.

***

aquilonisThe title of this disc, Aquilonis, means “north wind”, and it is a fitting title for this collection of cool and crisp music from the Scandinavian women of Trio Mediaeval. Glancing over the program, it would seem unlikely to cohere: we have Italian sacred songs from the 12th century, English carols of the 15th century, a handful of pieces by contemporary composers, Norwegian folk songs, and self-composed instrumental interludes, all structured around the 14th-century Icelandic Office of St Thorlak, the patron of Iceland. The miracle is that it does sound like a unified program, and a gorgeous one too. Those who know Trio Mediaeval’s earlier recordings know that they sing with perfect precision and a slightly chilly tone, making the music sounds as though carved from ice. It’s very appealing. Perhaps the most interesting music on this disc are the new compositions, written specifically for Trio Mediaeval by Anders Jormin, Andrew Smith, and William Brooks. Smith, especially, is a composer who impresses me: he writes modest but superbly well-crafted miniatures, and seems (based on there and other pieces I have in my collection) to be drawn to sacred texts. (On this recording he sets Ave maris stella, Ave regina caelorum, and Ioseph fili David). I’d like to know more about him. If I have one complaint about Aquilonis it is that while it coheres musically, it is hard to see the thematic connections between Christmas songs, St Thorlak, fragments of Virgil, Marian hymns, and Norwegian folk. It feels like a jumble. As was the case with their mentors, The Hilliard Ensemble, Trio Mediaeval often seems to treat the pieces they sing as objet d’art, without reference to what the songs are about. That detracts a little from my enjoyment, but I’m willing to forgive such defects when they sing like this. [Hear excerpts]

***

sokolov-fugueThis year I discovered the Russian pianist Grigory Sokolov. (Hat-tip: Bryan Townsend) Sokolov has made only a few recordings over the course of his long career, all of them live recordings, I believe, and so he has not been well-known to record collectors, including myself. But he is a magnificent pianist. He cites both Rubinstein and Gould as important influences, and I think that helps to convey the qualities of his playing: rhythms are sprightly, counterpoint is clear, but the tone remains warm. This year he had his first major-label release, The Salzburg Recital, with a nice program principally of Mozart and Chopin. I enjoyed it, but I also acquired a few of his earlier recordings, and it has been hard for me to decide between his Chopin, his Schubert sonatas, or his Art of Fugue as my favourite. I’m going to go with Art of Fugue. In any case, I’m so pleased to have discovered him.

***

cantigasThe Cantigas de Santa Maria are a collection of vernacular songs compiled in the thirteenth century under the Castilian king Alfonso X el Sabio. It is the largest such collection in existence, consisting of over 400 songs, most of them narrating miracles of the Blessed Virgin. Selections from the collection have been recorded by many different ensembles over the years. I have 8 or 10 such in my collection, but I have never enjoyed one as much as I have enjoyed this one from Hana Blazikova and companions. The early music ‘movement’ is now several generations old, and the best of the young musicians evince a suppleness and gracefulness in their performances borne of familiarity with the musical idiom that was largely absent in the playing of the early music pioneers. This ensemble has that sense of familiarity and comfort in spades. This sounds like natural music-making, not a self-conscious revival of old music. They use authentic instruments of course — gothic and renaissance harps, percussion, and something called a dulcis melos — but they play them as if to the manner born. I can’t resist noting that the recording was made in the wonderfully-named Church of Our Lady under Chain at the End of the Bridge, in Prague. I’m sure they didn’t choose that venue for the name, but for the sound, which is excellent. This is an outstanding disc on every count, and worth hearing.

***

togni-responsioI would also like to praise two very interesting new records that engage with the music of the great medieval composer Guillaume de Machaut. The first is Responsio, by the Canadian composer Peter Togni, in which he has entered into a kind of dialogue with Machaut’s Messe de Nostre Dame. The foundation for Togni’s music is Machaut’s own four-part polyphony, into which Togni has woven a musical line for a bass clarinet (played on this recording by Jeff Reilly). The clarinet part, which is at least partly improvised, disrupts the smooth course that the voices would otherwise follow: modern dissonances and rhythmic aberrations crop up, diverting Machaut’s music into unexpected eddies and alternate courses before it finds its way again. Togni has also written original music for the Introit and a series of “responses” between the movements of the Mass. It’s a fascinating exercise, ably executed by a cast of four wonderful singers, and recommended to listeners who know Machaut’s Messe well. If I were ever to venture into composition (which, for lack of talent, I shall never do) a project like this is what I would want to try.

machaut-holligerThe second recording presents a selection of Machaut’s music alongside “transcriptions” by Heinz Holliger. I have to use the scare quotes because these are far from straightforward transcriptions. The distance between Machaut’s originals and Holliger’s reinventions is sometimes so great as to be inaudible, at least to this listener. Yet, even so, there is again something fascinating about the exercise, which one feels has been a labour of love; and anyone who loves Machaut is a friend of mine. The disc pairs performances of Machaut, ravishingly sung by the Hilliard Ensemble, with Holliger’s creative interpretations, scored for voices and violas. Spiky dissonances and all, this is a treat.

***

Other outstanding recordings:

Schnittke_PsalmsSchnittke: Penitential Psalms
SWR Vokalensemble Stuttgart
Marcus Creed
(Hanssler)

I have long treasured an old ECM recording of these choral pieces sung by the intrepid Swedish Radio Choir; its only real flaw is that the recorded sound is somewhat distant. On this new record the SWR Vokalensemble Stuttgart grapples manfully with the serious technical challenges of this music, and though I don’t think they quite match the fluency and ease of the Swedes, they do have the benefit of superior sound. I listened side by side to the two recordings to try to choose a favourite, and I couldn’t quite decide. Both are very good indeed.

weinberg-symphony10Weinberg: Symphony No.10
Amadeus Chamber Orchestra of Polish Radio
Ewelina Nowicka
(CPO)

Over the past few years I’ve fallen in love with the music of Mieczyslaw Weinberg. This year saw the release of a number of discs of his music — including a first recording of his opera The Idiot — but I kept returning to this fine collection of orchestral music, which includes his Symphony No.10, the very engaging Concertino for violin and string orchestra, and the winsome Rhapsody on Moldavian Themes. It’s a nice collection that shows off Weinberg’s orchestral writing to good effect.

puccini-kaufmannPuccini: Nessun Dorma
Jonas Kaufmann
Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia
Antonio Pappano
(Sony)

A couple of years ago in my year-end review I praised Jonas Kaufmann’s Wagner recital; this year he returned with a fantastic collection of arias by Puccini. The programming is interesting: rather than focus just on the big hits, Kaufmann sings at least one aria from each of Puccini’s operas, so that while we do get the big numbers from Turandot and La boheme, we also get to hear some rarely heard arias from Edgar andLa Rondine. Kaufmann is in wonderful voice. Antonio Pappano directs the orchestra, so you know this is top shelf from start to finish.

contrapunctus-midstIn the Midst of Life
Contrapunctus
Owen Rees
(Signum)

It was also two years ago that I praised a previous recording by the choral ensemble Contrapunctus. On this new disc they sing music from the Baldwin Partbooks, one of the relatively few surviving sources for English (though Latin-texted) polyphony of the sixteenth century. All of the pieces selected for this disc are on the theme of mortality in one way or another, concluding with John Sheppard’s massive Media vita. This music is mostly quite familiar to enthusiasts, but Contrapunctus sing it so beautifully, with a clear, clean blend, that it seems new again. Gorgeous.

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