Favourites of 2019: Music

January 1, 2020

It was a very good year in music, with dozens of excellent recordings crossing my path. Of the many good things I heard, I’d like to highlight today the ten records that meant the most to me, offering, at the same time, my very sincere thanks to the musicians who brought them to life.

Proceeding in chronological order:

Tinctoris: Secret Consolations
Le Miroir de Musique, Baptiste Romain
(Ricercar, 2017)

Johannes Tinctoris is best remembered as a late medieval music theorist, but he composed as well, and his pieces show up from time to time on recordings, usually as bon bons ornamenting the music of others. It was nice, therefore, to see the French ensemble Le Miroir de Musique (whose name is a reference to one of Tinctoris’ treatises) devoting an entire album to exploring his music. We get a mix of instrumental and vocal pieces, some sacred and some secular. It’s not an especially cohesive programme, but it’s tied together by the intimate, small-scale feel of the music-making. Most worthy of note is Tinctoris’ Missa sine nomine (the “no name” Mass); it is, hands down, one of the most beautiful things I heard all year, and earned this fine recording a place on this list.

***

Cueurs desolez
Carlos Mena, Iñaki Alberdi
(IBS, 2019)

Josquin: Adieu mes Amours
Dulces Exuviae
(Ricercar, 2019)

Some years ago Carlos Mena — the world’s greatest countertenor, in my books — made a record in which he sang adaptations, for solo voice and instrumental accompaniment, of Victoria’s polyphonic masterpieces. This approach, following historical precedents, involved plucking one of the vocal lines from the polyphonic web, and had the effect of highlighting the incredible beauty of the line within an intimate setting. I loved it then, and my admiration has not flagged in the meantime.

He’s returned to this idea on this new record, made with accordianist Iñaki Alberdi, though this time the lucky recipient of the treatment is Josquin Desprez. Best to listen sitting down, because your knees are likely to buckle at the sheer beauty of it. Mena’s voice is still as creamy and pure as ever it was, and the music, of course, is exquisite — mostly. The catch on this record is that Josquin’s music is interlarded with several pieces by modern composers. Your mileage may vary; mine was poor.

If the thought of picking daisies in a minefield doesn’t appeal, there was another record this year in many respects similar but without the risk. On Adieu Mes Amours the duo Dulces Exuviae also focus on Josquin, also adapting him for solo voice and accompaniment (this time lute). Baritone Romain Bockler isn’t Carlos Mena — who is? — so this record doesn’t soar into the seventh heaven as the previous one does, but neither does it descend to the eighth circle, and it is superbly enjoyable on its own merits. Taken together, these two records make a fantastic Josquinian double-bill.

Here are Mena and Alberdi with the closing section of Josquin’s Inviolata:

And here are Dulces Exuviae singing his In te Domine speravi:

***

Dowland: First Booke of Songes
Grace Davidson, David Miller
(Signum, 2018)

Dowland’s songes have a certaine delicious melancholie aire, and they can be sunge in a melancholie waye, and to wonderful effect, but to my ear they worke even better when the voice is brighte and cheeringe. The contraste between the luxurious sorrowe of the sentiments and the beautiful, sunny claritie of the voice heightens the artistic effect. On these groundes, this recital by Grace Davidson is splendide. She is a British singere who has sunge for yeares with ace British choirs: the Tallis Scholares, Tenebrae, and The Sixteene, and she is blessed with a voice that is pure and cleare, like freshe water, or a strucke bell (but not at alle like a strucke bell in freshe water). This recital puts me in minde of that marvellous disc Emma Kirkby made yeares ago of the same songes, and that is highe praise indeed. I cannot recall when laste I enjoyed a collection of Dowland’s songes as muche as I have enjoyed this one, and I hope she makes a recordinge of the other bookes too.

***

Cardoso: Requiem
Cupertinos, Luis Toscano
(Hyperion, 2018)

Manuel Cardoso, who lived from 1566-1650, is one of a relatively small stable of Portuguese composers whose work has caught the ear of the wider music-loving world. His music turns up here and there, and I have a few discs in my collection devoted to him, but none of them makes a more convincing case than this one from Cupertinos, a young Portuguese choir who have taken the polyphony of their native land as their specialty. The centrepiece of the programme is Cardoso’s Requiem, which, though perhaps not in the very top tier of settings of the funeral Mass (an exalted realm inhabited by Faure, Mozart, Ockeghem, and Gregory), is nonetheless very beautiful, and is here given a lush, poised treatment. We also get to hear a Magnificat and a variety of shorter motets. Even more attractive than the repertoire, fine as it is, is the quality of the singing and the sound, which together vault this recording into a distinguished class. Cupertinos is a small (10 voices) choir and they sing with breathtaking clarity and transparency; you can hear everything, top to bottom. This disc won Gramophone’s “Early Music” award this year, and quite justly. I look forward to hearing more from this choir.

***

Bach: Partitas Nos.4 and 6
Anton Batagov
(Melodiya, 2017)

There may be no composer whose music stands up better to adaptation and experiment than Bach. Play his music on an accordion, or transcribe it for string quartet, or share it out to a group of saxophonists and it still sounds pretty good. Push it here, pull it there, and it bounces back. The Russian pianist Anton Batagov (of venerable age) has evidently become interested in what happens when you pull, and pull, and pull. On this recording he plays Bach at roughly half the normal speed, stretching each of these two partitas for piano out to nearly an hour in length! He thus stakes out an extremal point in Bach interpretation. And, perhaps to the surprise of nobody, the result is pretty great. I, at least, have kept coming back to Batagov’s Bach all year as a meditative, ruminative remedy, a gracious shelter from the hurly-burly, an entrancing slow-motion dance. There is so much going on in Bach’s music that playing it ritardandissimo actually allows for a different register of appreciation, and, somewhere deep down, I think I am also dreaming that if it were slowed down by a further factor of three or four, maybe I could play it myself? A fantasy brought tantalizingly near.

***

Johann Sebastian Bach
Víkingur Ólafsson
(Deutsche Grammophon, 2018)

I was initially wary of the flashy young Icelandic pianist Víkingur Ólafsson. He had a big contract with Deutsche Grammophon, who (these days) often seem more interested in style than substance, and his past musical projects have been with folks like Bjork and Philip Glass, which didn’t inspire confidence. However, when this record won BBC Music Magazine’s “Record of the Year” honours last year, I ventured to give it a try. It is terrific! Ólafsson is his own man, but he belongs to the Glenn Gould school of pianism: fleet pacing, staccato tone, and perfect rhythmic precision. He plays with tremendous momentum and a playfulness that suits Bach’s counterpoint admirably. The programme is also worthy of comment, for it appears at first to be a dog’s breakfast: we get the whole of the Aria variata (BWV 989) and the Concerto in G minor (BWV 974), but beyond that it’s a mixture of preludes and fugues, chorales, inventions and sinfonias, and individual movements of other works — Bach as pastiche. But on acquaintance this Bach Collage (heh) has been thoughtfully put together, flowing nicely from one step to the next, and adding up to a satisfying immersion in Bach’s art. DG’s sound far outstrips anything that Gould ever had. It’s a truly exceptional Bach recital.

***

Bruckner: Symphony No.9
Manfred Honeck, Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra
(Reference, 2019)

You might not expect Steel Town to be a bastion of high culture, but Manfred Honeck and the PSO are stellar together. A few years ago I cheered their recording of two Beethoven warhorses, and this year it’s Bruckner’s mighty Ninth. I have over a dozen versions in my collection, but this one vaults to the top of the heap (where it shares space, cheek by jowl, with Gunter Wand and the Stuttgart RSO). The pacing is excellent — a little brisker in the immense final adagio than is typical, but it works fine. As has been the case in all the recordings from this orchestra in recent years, the sound engineering is spectacular: the strings are majestic and the brass is searing. To be played loudly.

It’s hard to excerpt Bruckner symphonies, but here is the shortest movement. Give it one minute and you’ll be hooked:

***

Einsamkeit: Songs by Mahler
Marianne Beate Kielland, Nils Anders Mortensen
(LAWQ, 2018)

The title means something like “loneliness”, and I suppose it is apt, though these wonderful songs have a much broader emotional range. Marianne Beate Kielland sings the big three cycles: the Ruckert-Lieder, the Kindertotenlieder, and the Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, all of which have been recorded hundreds of times, usually in full orchestral dress, but often enough, as here, in a piano reduction. What is special about this disc is the singing: Kielland has a modestly sized voice, very well suited to the chamber-scale intimacy of these settings, and she sings with intelligence, feeling, and great beauty. The proof, as they say, is in the pudding: I’ve returned to this disc many times over the year under the allure of that voice, and I consider this one of the most interesting and enchanting presentations of these inexhaustible songs known to me. A treasured discovery.

***

Messiaen: L’Ascension
Paavo Järvi, Tonholle-Orchester Zürich
(Alpha, 2019)

Messiaen’s orchestral music is marvellous in its variety and strangeness: great, luscious blocks of sound, amazing tone colours, exotic percussion, and spine-tingling harmonies aplenty. It is sometimes played in a broadly majestic manner, shimmering but soft-edged. Not here. On this disc it fairly crackles with electricity: attacks are tight and crisp, the complicated rhythms are precisely executed, and the sound, though perhaps slightly on the dry side, is full and immediate. I’ve never heard Messiaen presented with so much energy, and even ferocity, and I really like it. The centrepiece of the Tonholle-Orchester of Zürich’s programme is the mighty L’Ascension (which I think of as an organ piece, but I’ve now learned the organ version is a derivative from this orchestral original), and it is joined by several other pieces from the 1930s, Les Offrandes oubliées and Le Tombeau resplendissant, and then rounded out by one of his last pieces, Un sourire. Recommended listening for lovers of Messiaen, but only when wearing rubber-soled shoes.

***

Weinberg: Symphonies
Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
Gidon Kremer, Kremerata Baltica
(Deutsche Grammophon, 2019)

2019 marked the centenary of the birth of Mieczyslaw Weinberg, a composer whose music I have come to love over the past 10 years as it has finally found a hearing in the West. Quite a few labels put out recordings of Weinberg’s music to mark the occasion, and notable among them was Deutsche Grammophon, which thereby became the first of the major labels to devote attention to this wonderful composer. And they did a good job of it too: the young conductor Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, with Weinberg champion Gidon Kremer as sidekick, give us excellent performances of an early symphony (No.2, written in 1946) and a late (No.21, written in 1991). The Symphony No.2 is one of my favourite of Weinberg’s orchestral works; written for strings only, it is tightly argued, inventive, and brimming with unimpeachable musicality. The later symphony is a tougher nut to crack; about an hour long, it sprawls across six movements, and even features an extended solo for soprano voice — which, thrillingly and capably, Gražinytė-Tyla sings herself. Both symphonies are plausibly meditations on the Holocaust, for the first was written immediately after the war, a war in which the Nazi machine claimed the lives of Weinberg’s entire family, and the second, subtitled “Kaddish”, is as close as Weinberg ever came to writing a religious work, dedicating it to the victims of the Warsaw Ghetto. It is fascinating music that has richly rewarded the attention I gave it this year.

Here is the final movement of the Symphony No.2:

***

5 Responses to “Favourites of 2019: Music”

  1. Rob G Says:

    I did not see that Honeck’s Bruckner 9 had been released. I was at one of the performances from which this recording was taken! (same with their Bruckner 4 recording). It was magnificent. I’m sure you’re aware of this, but Honeck is a very committed Catholic.

    (Btw, we’re no longer much of a Steel Town anymore. It’s mostly tech and medicine nowadays!)

    Are you going to do a pop music addendum? I’ve always found those interesting in the past.

  2. cburrell Says:

    I’d love to hear the PSO if I should ever find myself in the city. They’ve made great recordings since Honeck arrived on the scene.

    I did know that about Honeck, although I’m not sure how. Maybe from you?

    I will be doing a shorter post on popular music. Just songs I particularly liked, rather than whole records. Probably in a few days.

    I usually do a favourite films of the year post too, but this year I spent the whole year watching films from the last 10 years, and I’m preparing a “Favourites of the Decade” list. It’ll be a while yet, though, as there are still a number of films I’d like to see.

  3. Rob G Says:

    re: Honeck — maybe from me, but I think also that Crisis did a piece on him some years ago. The PSO was very good under M. Jansons (who died recently), but after that they briefly tried a “conductor by committee” thing, which was okay, but didn’t give the orchestra much by way of stability. When they decided to go back to the traditional model I was hoping that Yan Pascal Tortelier would get the nod, as he was the one from the “committee” that I liked best. But then I saw Honeck conduct Dvorak’s “New World” here in 2006, turning that old warhorse and long-time favorite of mine into something utterly sublime. I immediately thought, “This is the guy if he’s available.” Well, the PSO board thought the same thing, because they hired him the next year!

    He was little known in the States at that time, and there was a certain amount of grumbling that they didn’t grab someone with a higher profile, but all that has definitely changed!

    Looking forward to the other posts.

  4. Rob G Says:

    Thanks — I’ll check it out!


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