Favourites in 2021: Music

December 27, 2021

A good chunk of my listening this year has been related to David Hurwitz’s YouTube channel in which he surveys the discography of individual pieces, highlights rare but rewarding repertoire, and gives chats about various aspects of music. His focus is mostly on orchestral music, and his channel has helped me to rediscover, in a sense, the orchestral music in my collection, which has been a very good experience.

But my favourite music of the year has not been orchestral, but vocal, choral, and, in a few cases, pianistic. That’s the kind of music lover I am.

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This past year marked the 500th anniversary of the death of Josquin Desprez, and many ensembles made recordings to celebrate the occasion. I heard a number of excellent ones, but there was one that stood out above the rest, and that’s putting it mildly.

The adventurous Belgian group Graindelavoix put out a disc they called Josquin the Undead, devoted to songs on sombre themes: laments, dirges, and the like. Sounds appealing, no? It is fair to say that Josquin’s sacred music is the more popular side of his compositional personality, but this disc explores his secular chansons, a genre that I tend to think of as relatively light-weight, but is here anything but. I’m not a musician, much less an expert on the theory of early music, so I cannot tell you what Graindelavoix is doing that infuses this music with so much tension and passion and unsettling beauty, nor can I tell you if this is defensible on historical grounds, but I can tell you that whatever they are doing is mesmerizing. This music has never sounded like this before, and it’s something to behold.

Let’s take an example by listening to two performances of Nymphes, nappes. First, here is what I would consider a “standard” approach, from the King’s Singers:

Now let’s hear Graindelavoix tackle the same piece. Notice that it’s more than twice as long — dramatically slower — but especially notice how the harmonies have been juiced up and milked for all they’re worth. There’s a level of attention, and a depth of feeling, and an organic sense of improvisation even (though I doubt actual improvisation) that is simply missing from the other performance, which sounds strait-laced and perfunctory in comparison.

I think that’s extraordinary on every level, and this record is my favourite of the year.

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Another wonderful disc that approached Josquin’s music from a very different angle was The Josquin Songbook. On this recording a selection of Josquin’s motets, masses, and chansons have been arranged for one or two voices, with vihuela accompaniment. Instead of a dense polyphonic fabric, we hear one or two of the vocal lines in an intimate, chamber music ambiance. This sort of thing has been done before, preeminently by the counter-tenor Carlos Mena, many years ago, on a recording of music by Victoria, a disc that remains the gold standard for me. But this new record, with the splendid soprano Maria Cristina Kiehr and the fine (and new to me) tenor Jonatan Alvarado, and the vihuela played by Ariel Abramovich, is outstanding by any reasonable standard. The music takes on a limpid beauty that pierces the heart. Again, this is not “standard” Josquin, but it is another approach to his music that highlights its many beauties.

As an example, let’s hear the same chanson as we heard above, “Nymphes, nappes”:

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In the runner-up category of the Josquin Anniversary sweepstakes, there were a number of excellent recordings that I recommend. The Tallis Scholars completed a decades-long project to record all of Josquin’s Masses; the final volume included three Masses, and was awarded the Recording of the Year award from BBC Music Magazine. This is an ensemble that practically defines the “standard” approach to Josquin’s music, and indeed to all Renaissance polyphony, and they are very good at what they do. Another excellent record was Giosquino, from the ensembles Odhecaton and The Gesualdo Six, which was dedicated to music Josquin wrote in Italy; these are both very fine groups and I enjoyed this disc. The British ensemble Stile Antico recorded the Missa Pange Lingua and were up to their usual high standard. One of the oddest programmes came from the enterprising ensemble Theleme; they recorded a selection of the chansons, and sang them relatively straight, but added a variety of unusual musical interludes, including one for ondes martenot in which Josquin’s music was re-imagined as a video game theme song. Good stuff.

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Sometimes a certain artist and a certain piece of music just seem made for one another. Think of Glenn Gould and the Goldberg Variations, or Arthur Rubinstein and Chopin’s Nocturnes, or Kathleen Ferrier and Mahler’s songs. When I heard that Igor Levit had made a recording of Shostakovich’s Preludes and Fugues, I immediately sensed that same kind of hand-in-glove fit. Here is a pianist with exactly the right combination of sturdiness and finesse to bring these 48 little piano miniatures, which are tightly argued but expressively generous, to life. I’m happy to report that my instincts were sound: this really is the kind of music that showcases his many strengths as a pianist. I’ve got three or four versions of this music in my collection, including the two made by the dedicatee Tatiana Nikolayeva, and Levit is more than worth hearing alongside the others. On a technical level he is flawless (which can’t always be said for Nikolayeva!), and the sound is unimpeachable.

Had he recorded only the Preludes and Fugues it would have been a feast, but actually this only accounts for half of this new record — which runs, incidentally, to about 3-1/2 hours! The other half is Ronald Stevenson’s Passacaglia on DSCH, a long (90 minute) piece written in tribute to Shostakovich. Stevenson was a Scottish pianist and composer who passed away in 2015. I’ve heard some of his music here and there, but never anything like this gargantuan monster. The music is based throughout on the famous DSCH theme that runs through so many of Shostakovich’s own pieces. It’s a big, harmonically lush, and impressive piece, but I would need to hear it a few more times before I could say more.

Here is Shostakovich’s Fugue No.7, in A major:

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The idea to pair the music of Alfred Schnittke — thorny, knotty, and often fiercely dissonant — with the music of Arvo Part — serene, simple, and clear as a struck bell — is a good one. I was delighted this year, therefore, to see a new recording of Schnittke’s marvellous Concerto for Choir paired with Part’s Seven Magnificat Antiphons, and from the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir too, who would be near the top of my short list if I could choose a dream team in this repertoire. They don’t disappoint. The Concerto is hideously difficult, but this crew has no problems with it; they sing with wonderful beauty of tone and allow the dissonant textures to come through clearly. The text of this piece is based on thousand-year-old prayers of an Orthodox monk, and Schnittke’s supple music responds sensitively to them. We then get Schnittke’s brief Three Sacred Hymns, which are comparatively simple and consonant, and therefore a nice transition to Part’s Antiphons. The latter aren’t quite the masterpiece that the Concerto is, but they serve as a splendid contrast, and are beautiful in their own right. The disc is a great way to hear outstanding examples of sacred music from the late 20th century, and it could hardly be better sung or better recorded.

Here is the first of Schnittke’s Sacred Hymns, the Hail Mary:

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Although it was not, so far as I know, an anniversary year, it was nonetheless a banner year for the music of Arvo Part, with a half dozen very fine recordings of his music issued, among them new performances of his Miserere, his Stabat Mater, and his Passio, all of which had authoritative recordings decades ago by the Hilliard Ensemble, in the presence, or at least with the imprimatur, of the composer, and in the meantime, it seems, others have been afraid to try them. But the river thawed this year, and it is wonderful to have a raft of new recordings of these great pieces. I’ve flopped around trying to decide which to pluck for this list, and I’ve settled on the Passio, from the Helsinki Chamber Choir. It’s one of Part’s most monumental scores, combining strict compositional rigour with the starkest of stark beauties. It relies heavily on the voices of a clutch of soloists; they need to be solid and sombre, and a lack of personality is an asset. The Helsinkians carry it off very well. I’m not ready to say it matches the Hilliard Ensemble, but it is very good, and the sound is more immediate, with greater presence. The final peroration, on which so much depends in this piece, is wonderful.

Here is an excerpt from near the end that includes Jesus’ final saying: “Consummatum est”, which you’ll hear from the solo bass voice:

Other fine Part recordings this year, apart from those already mentioned, are a new recording of Lamentate paired with Part’s more recent piano music from the Lithuanian National Symphony Orchestra and Onute Grazinyte, and a disc of Part’s smaller-scale orchestral pieces from Renand Capucon and the Orchestre de chambre de Lausanne. All terrific, and well worth hearing if you’re an admirer of this music.

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It has been five years since I picked a disc of Bach’s motets for my year-end list, so the time was ripe for this new recording from Pygmalion, an ensemble that impresses me every time I hear them. This music needs fleet rhythms, clear textures, perfect timing, and joy! Pygmalion brings everything they have, and it sounds wonderful. They interleave between the motets a variety of pieces written a century or two earlier, in a Renaissance style, by composers like Praetorius (H., if you are wondering) and Gabrieli (G., if you are wondering). It’s an interesting programming decision that highlights the effervescent energy of Bach’s music, while also serving as a pleasant palate cleanser between courses. Excellent all around.

Here is a brief promotional video for the disc:

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The sensational young Icelandic pianist Vikunger Olaffson returned this year with a record built around the music of Mozart, Haydn, and their contemporaries. A couple of years ago I praised a recording of Bach by Olaffson, and this new repertoire once again plays to his strengths: rhythmic verve, perfect precision, marvelous clarity, and a singing musicality. We get to hear Mozart’s Sonata No.16 and Haydn’s Sonata in B minor alongside a variety of shorter pieces by lesser-known composers like Galuppi, CPE Bach, and Cimarosa. Olaffson has done these pastiche programmes before, and he does them well. (The disc ends with Liszt’s transcription of Mozart’s Ave Verum Corpus, which makes a perfect finish.) I’ve returned to this music often this year.

Here he is playing Mozart’s famous Rondo (K.545):

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Estonia, a small country, produces more than its fair share of composers and choirs, and it might be that Cyrillus Kreek had something to do with that. Born late in the nineteenth century, he belongs to an older generation of Estonian musicians who built up the musical culture of the country. The Suspended Harp of Babel is a fine tribute from the superb Estonian ensemble Vox Clamantis, who sing an assortment of Kreek’s settings of folk songs, hymns, and psalms, all of which are woven together with instrumental interpolations on unusual instruments like the nyckelharpa and kannel. The disc closes with an enterprising collision of Estonian folk music, a Lutheran chorale, and, of all things, a song of Guillaume de Machaut. It’s all very “ECM”, if you know what I mean, but in my books that’s a good thing more often than not, and I find it definitely a good thing here. The mood of the disc is generally serene and contemplative. As good as the music is, the biggest draw for me is Vox Clamantis, who are one of the world’s great vocal ensembles. Let them sing anything, and I will listen.

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Another favourite pianist, Anton Batagov, was back this year with a two-disc set of Schubert’s music. It had to be two discs because Batagov plays the music so slowly. That’s his thing. I’ve an affection for him that is something like the affection one has for a true but socially awkward friend: one doesn’t wheel him out at a party, but afterward, when most everyone has gone home and the lights are low, he’s just the thing. I’ve discovered, with his help, that I quite like slowed down music. I like hearing the harmonies and the melodic lines without being hurried. On these discs he plays the massive Sonata No.21 — which, of course, is even more massive in his hands: where a canonical pianist like Kempff takes about 45 minutes, Batagov takes a little over 60. Andras Schiff gave us the Impromptu No.3 in about 5 minutes; Batagov takes 11. It’s not the last word on this music, not by any means, but it’s wonderful in its own peculiar way.

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I’m a person who likes to be systematic, and so it’s fitting, I suppose, that St. Hildegard’s Ordo Virtutum, which is sometimes called the first opera, was also the first opera I ever went to. It’s not an opera in our later sense, of course, but it is a musical drama. She wrote it for performance in her abbey, and it tells an allegorical story about a soul tempted by the devil but defended by the virtues.  All of the singing parts are for women, of course, but the devil’s role, shouted instead of sung, is for a man. I saw it performed by Sequentia, who I think were the first to make a recording of it. In the intervening years another three or four records have been made, some quite good, and this year there was another: from the US ensemble Seraphic Fire. They say it is the “first complete recording”, but I’m not sure what that means; at just over an hour, it’s the shortest of the versions I have in my collection. No matter. It’s beautiful. This music was an interesting choice for Seraphic Fire because they are by no means medieval specialists. They sing the piece mostly a capella, though the different sections of the drama are introduced by bells, and the devil’s entry gets some crude, toneless percussion. It’s a relatively simple interpretation, but the singing is so fine, and the sound so good, that I’m happy to recommend it.

Here is a segment from early in the drama, “The Soul Invokes the Virtues”:

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All in all, a great year for music, as it always is!

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