Favourites in 2018: Music

January 3, 2019

I had another great year of listening to music, and I’ve selected, from the many that I enjoyed, ten recordings that I found particularly excellent. I’ll review them in rough chronological order, moving from medieval to modern.

***

Boethius: Songs of Consolation
Sequentia
(Glossa, 2018)

Boethius’ The Consolation of Philosophy has for centuries been read with profit, but would it not, like most things, be even better if sung? Several dozen poems are sprinkled through the text, and there actually is manuscript evidence from the ninth to the twelfth centuries that these poems were sometimes converted into songs. A Cambridge scholar, Sam Barrett, working with the musicians of Sequentia, with their many years of experience in early medieval song, have here attempted to reconstruct those songs, or at least, as the liner notes say, “to arrive at realisations informed by both scholarly insight and practical experience,” which is an admirably modest way of putting it. There is necessarily some guesswork involved, and I am not in a position to judge the merit of the scholarly argument. All I can say is that I have greatly enjoyed listening to the results. Here is a video describing the process the scholars and musicians went through, with some performance excerpts as well; it is well worth watching, as the disc is well worth hearing, not only for the music, if I can put it that way, but also for the novelty and interest of the project. Early music is so often a blend of scholarship and musicianship, and this is early music at its best.

**

En seumeillant
Dreams and Visions of the Middle Ages
Sollazzo Ensemble
(Ambronay, 2018)

The Sollazzo Ensemble was founded in 2014, in Basel, and now has two recordings to its credit, both tremendously good. This disc, bearing a nearly unspellable title (try it!), is built around the theme of “reveries, fantasies, trances, visions, [and] nightmares”. The music is fascinating: the group reconstructs, from medieval descriptions, a “discordant litany” in which a plainchant melody is harmonized dissonantly; they sing an apocalyptic “Song of the Sibyl” that was, for centuries, sung in Catholic churches during Advent; we get a Florentine lauda, which would have been sung in procession through the streets of the city; and we hear a simply splendid performance of the oft-recorded but ne’er-tamed Fumeux fume, which, if it was not actually inspired by a hallucinogen, might serve as one. This is fantastically difficult and intricate music, often, and just as often exceptionally beautiful and alluring. The Sollazzo Ensemble seems to have absorbed the refined idiom of this music into their bones.

**

Ockeghem & La Rue: Requiems
Diabolus in Musica, Antoine Guerber
(Bayard, 2018)

About 25 years ago Ensemble Organum made a recording of Ockeghem’s Requiem that was like nothing on earth: a big, bass-heavy sound, wild dynamics, and pervasive ornamentation of the vocal lines gave the piece, which can sound polite when done in the best English choral tradition, an alien cast. It was glorious — radical, yes, but defensible, because the truth is that we don’t really know what this music sounded like at the time it was written; the notated sources only tell us so much.

This new disc of Ockeghem’s Requiem from Diabolus in Musica seems, to my ears, to have that earlier recording in mind. It is sung, as before, by an all-male choir, giving it a rich, visceral sound, and the style is craggy rather than smooth, as though great blocks of sound, like tectonic plates, are moving around. It is not as radical as Ensemble Organum’s version of the piece, but is still very much off the beaten track. I confess I love it. They give the same treatment to Pierre de la Rue’s Requiem, a piece that I do not know nearly as well, and it sounds terrific too.

**

Antoine de Févin: Masses and Motets
The Brabant Ensemble, Stephen Rice
(Hyperion, 2018)

Everyone has their short list of favourites when it comes to medieval and Renaissance polyphony; yours, like mine, probably includes Machaut’s Messe de Nostre Dame, Ockeghem’s Requiem, Byrd’s Ave verum corpus, and the entire surviving corpus of Benedictus Appenzeller, but at the top of my heap sits Josquin’s gorgeous motet Ave Maria … Virgo serena. I’ve never sung it for an audience, but I’ve frequently sung it in the privacy of my car, or late at night, muffled, into a pillow, and I know it pretty well. Imagine my delight, therefore, to discover that Antoine de Févin, a little-known French composer active around 1500, wrote an entire Mass, his Missa Ave Maria, in which the music is based on Josquin’s motet. This practice, of basing a Mass setting on pre-existing music, was common at the time; Masses were written based on chant fragments (as in Josquin’s famous Missa pange lingua, for instance) or on popular songs (as in the rash of Masses based on the song “L’homme armé'”) or on pieces written by other composers, and Févin’s Mass falls into the latter category. What is special about it is simply that it is based on a piece that I particularly love. It is wonderful to hear Josquin’s original music adapted to its new setting, like seeing a familiar picture turned to a new perspective and recoloured. I have a new appreciation for the art involved in writing these homage Masses, and I think no single piece of music has given me greater pleasure this year.

**

Bach: Magnificat
Handel: Dixit Dominus
Vox Luminis, Lionel Meunier
(Alpha, 2017)

From the Belgian group Vox Luminis come marvellous performances of two Baroque masterpieces: Bach’s Magnificat and Handel’s Dixit Dominus. Vox Luminis has been going from strength to strength in recent years, making a series of excellent discs of early music, and being justly showered with praise — including having Gramophone magazine’s “Recording of the Year” honours bestowed upon them. There is a luxurious quality to their music-making; they have an unusually rich sonority, both instrumentally and vocally, that gives nice body to these two joyful works. I am especially impressed by Dixit Dominus, which I’ve never heard done better.

**

Life
Igor Levit
(Sony, 2018)

The programme on Life is one Igor Levit crafted in response to the sudden death of a friend, and consists mainly of melancholy, quiet pieces expressing, naturally enough, his sorrow. We get some old chestnuts: Liszt’s transcription of Isolde’s Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde and of the solemn march from Parsifal, Brahms’ left-hand transcription of Bach’s mighty Chaconne, and Schumann’s Ghost Variations. But there are also some rarities, like Busoni’s Fantasia after Bach, and some pieces entirely new to me, such as a substantial excerpt from Frederic Rzewski’s Dreams and, most notably, a half-hour-long transcription of an organ piece by Liszt (!). The recital closes with a meditative piece by Bill Evans, the jazz pianist, and even this does not ruin it. Some of this music might not be of the very highest quality, but it works together well as a programme, and the playing is simply magnificent. Levit’s playing seems to come from a place of profound stillness and attention. He is a very wonderful pianist indeed.

There’s more!

**

Mahler: Symphony No.6
Teodor Currentzis; MusicAeterna
(Sony, 2018)

It has been a long time since a disc of orchestral music has thrilled me as has Teodor Currentzis and MusicAeterna’s recent recording of Mahler’s Symphony No.6. I praised Currentzis last year for his way with Mozart, and the same passion and intensity are all over this Mahler recording. The opening march rhythm, which usually puts me in mind of an army on the move, here becomes the tread of an army of ferocious beasts, snarling and snapping, and this intensity continues through essentially the entire work. What is amazing is that Currentzis has been able to amp up the music, infuse it with quivering excitement, without also flattening it out. It is as though he went over every phrase, every bar, and thought about orchestral colour and balance, and found a way to clarify the texture while simultaneously amplifying weight and presence. Certainly I have heard details on this recording, especially from the low strings, that I have never heard before. It’s magnificent.

In fact, I’ve enjoyed it so much that I have begun to second-guess myself. Currentzis is an iconoclast. His orchestra goes to 11. My worry is that perhaps I am being seduced by a debased aesthetic: orchestral music for rock ‘n’ rollers, which is to the main tradition as Charles Atlas is to you and me — basically the same, but exaggerated. I am also a little wary of the unusual vividness and clarity of the sound: is this really the sound of an orchestra, or a sound collage made possible by close-micing and a sound board? I’m not sure, nor do I know what to make of my aesthetic concerns. I suppose that I will just keep listening, and trust my judgment. In fact, I think I’ll put it on again now.

**

Stravinsky: Music for violin, Vols 1-2
Ilya Gringolts, Peter Laul
(BIS; 2017, 2018)

I’m cheating a bit by grouping together two discs. The first volume narrowly missed making my year-end list last year; this year, in combination with the fine second volume, it makes the cut easily. Ilya Gringolts, accompanied by Peter Laul, tackles the music Stravinsky wrote for violin and piano. I recall that Robert Craft, Stravinsky’s amanuensis, once said that all of Stravinsky’s music is happy music, and that judgment is borne out by this collection, which is unfailingly delightful and interesting. Many of these pieces are minor, mere chips from the workman’s bench, but Stravinsky’s imagination did not run in dull channels. Some of the pieces are arrangements of his ballet music (including excerpts from The Firebird, Petrushka, and the “Suite Italienne” from Pulcinella). Gringolts plays them with poise and wit, which is exactly what they need, and he has superb sound.

The major work (appearing on Vol.2) is the Violin Concerto, surely the most amiable violin concerto of the twentieth century. Everybody and his dog have recorded it. Gringolts, supported by Orquesta Sinfónica de Galicia, does not, perhaps, give us a performance for the ages, but it’s a creditable, perfectly fine performance that I have enjoyed. It sits somewhat awkwardly alongside the smaller-scale chamber works that otherwise fill the discs.

**

Messiaen: Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant Jésus
Jean-Rodolphe Kars
(Piano Classics, 2017)

I have in my collection several recordings of Messiaen’s feature-film-length piano masterpiece Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant Jésus, surely the least catchy Christmas-themed music ever written — but wonderful music all the same. I might not have heard this one but for a laudatory review from a reputable source, and then another, and another. The recording has an interesting background story: the pianist, Jean-Rodolphe Kars, calls Messiaen his spiritual father, and in fact converted to Catholicism shortly after the recording was made. He then entered the seminary, and has served as a priest in France ever since.

That interesting story would be little more were it not matched by artistry of a high order, but it is. There is a wonderful spaciousness to Kars’ playing; Messiaen’s music can be extremely complex and multifaceted, but never sounds hectic or laboured in Kars’ hands. The claim that one can hear the difference between a world-class pianist who plays with devotion and one who merely plays as if with devotion is probably false, but nonetheless over the course of this long concert Kars’ musicality does cast a contemplative spell over the listener that I, at least, have not experienced with other pianists. This recording, made live before an Amsterdam audience in 1976 and reissued in 2017, is now my first-choice for this music.

**

Schnittke: Psalms of Repentance
Pärt: Magnificat and Nunc dimittis
Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir
Kaspars Putnins
(BIS, 2018)

Several years ago I highlighted a recording of Schnittke’s Psalms of Repentance that, to my ears, wasn’t quite up to the expressive standards set by my reference version of this work, but that had superior sound and therefore a claim to serious consideration. In 2018 we got this new recording that takes the palm in both the artistic and technical categories, and therefore becomes the obvious first choice for a recording of a work that, I would argue, belongs on a short list of the greatest choral works of the 20th century. It’s a harrowing piece in some ways, the music an often thorny and agonized stew of dissonances, but it is very beautiful in its way, without gimmickery or self-indulgence. It is music that I love, and it is given here, by one of the world’s best choirs, the performance of a lifetime. After those haunting sounds, it is sweet relief to fall into the still pool that is the music of Arvo Pärt, Schnittke’s contemporary, fellow subject of Soviet power, and fellow convert to Christianity. Pärt’s Magnificat and Nunc dimittis have been recorded many times, including previous recordings by this choir, but he has rarely sounded better. This is my record of the year.

***

Addendum on popular music

The big box of outtakes from Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks sessions brought me great pleasure this year, but is not something I’m likely to listen to very many times, if only because it takes so long to get through it. My favourite new album this year was Sam Phillips’ World on Sticks; I usually find her characteristic combination of flint-dry voice, precise manner, and enigmatic lyrics beguiling, and this new record is no exception.

I have an appetite for melancholy in song, and this year I grew fat and juicy feeding on Patty Griffin’s “Rain”, from her 2002 record 1000 Kisses.

Oh Patty, where have you been all my life?

2 Responses to “Favourites in 2018: Music”

  1. Osbert Parsley Says:

    I am hoping the Brabant Ensemble will one day release an Appenzeller disc; they have already recorded a fairly large selection of works by lesser-known mid-sixteenth-century composers (including the likes of Pierre Moulu and Jacquet of Mantua), so it would be a logical next step, especially since, as you say, Appenzeller’s entire corpus of surviving music is loved by so many people.

    We sang the Josquin Ave Maria for the January 1st feast day here in Parkdale; the Févin mass is not in our repertoire, but I have conducted a few Févin motets over the years (“Sancta Trinitas” and “Tempus meum est”). Wonderful, lucidly written music.

    • cburrell Says:

      If they do make an Appenzeller disc, I will buy you a copy.

      I should have known that you’d have some Fevin under your belt. If you ever do the Missa Ave Maria, let me know. I’d have liked to your your Josquin, and will check your YouTube channel for a recording.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: