Archive for the 'Music Note' Category

Leonard Cohen: Old Ideas

February 15, 2012

Leonard Cohen’s most recent record, Old Ideas, has been available for a few weeks now. His songs always take a while to unfold, so it is premature to make any definitive judgments about it, but my initial impression is that it’s a very fine record. Love, carnal and spiritual, has long been his special preoccupation, and that is true in these new songs as well, but the dominant theme on Old Ideas, from a man who is now 77 years old, is mortality, which he confronts with a fitting seriousness and what I imagine must be a hard-won graciousness.

He declares himself in the first lines of the lead track — or, to be precise, the Almighty Himself sets the stage: “I love to speak with Leonard / He’s a sportsman and a shepherd / He’s a lazy bastard living in a suit”. But he is, it seems, also a man willing to say what must be said: “He only has permission / To do my instant bidding / Which is to say what I have told him to repeat”. Thus, with cunning good humour, Cohen opens up a space in which to address the biggest, and oldest, ideas of all.

It is a late-night record, best heard in a quiet room, in a big leather chair, with something pungent in your glass. The musical textures on Old Ideas are more organic than has been typical on Cohen’s records during the past few decades: the soft-focus synthesizers are not entirely gone, but they are countered by the snap and twang of real guitar strings, real drumsticks hitting real drumheads, and what sounds like a real violin wending its wandering way. With that welcome difference, the songs here are built on the model we have come to expect: Cohen’s sepultural voice in the foreground, speaking as much as singing, and a halo of women’s voices shining in the background.

“Come Healing” is in some respects atypical on the record; the figure and ground are reversed, with the women moving into the foreground, and as such it functions as a kind of interlude. I include it here simply because it is so lovely, and captures well the hopeful spirit that, it seems to me, is at the heart of the record.

Martin: Golgotha

March 31, 2010

Frank Martin
Daniel Reuss; Estonian National Symphony Orchestra
Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir; Cappella Amsterdam
Judith Gauthier (sop.); Marianne Beate Kielland (alto)

Adrian Thompson (ten.)
Mattijs van de Woerd (bar.); Konstantin Wolff (bass)

(Harmonia Mundi HMC 902056.57; 90 min.)

Each year, as Easter approaches, I try to find one new recording of music for Holy Week to add to my collection.  Last year it was James MacMillan’s St. John Passion, an ambitious and searingly intense but ultimately (in my judgment) flawed piece.  This year I was circling around Frank Martin’s Golgotha, but was unable to decide between the various second-rate recordings that seemed to be the only ones available.  I was delighted, therefore, when I saw that Harmonia Mundi had slated this superb recording for a Lenten release date; it came at just the right time.

Frank Martin was a Swiss composer, the son of a Calvinist preacher, and he wrote several important compositions on sacred themes during his life, including what is probably his most well-known piece, the Mass for Double Choir.  Like the Mass, Golgotha was written privately, without a commission, as a personal expression of faith, and Martin apparently never expected it to receive a public performance.  Throughout his life Martin lived in creative contact with the music of Bach, and in Golgotha, rather than trying to fight his predecessor’s influence, he adopted an oratorio format that is reminiscent of Bach’s Passions: passages from the Gospels are set verbatim, as dramatic dialogues, and are separated by passages of reflection and commentary on the story.  In Golgotha these passages of reflection are drawn principally from the writings of St. Augustine, with lesser contributions from the Psalms and liturgical texts.  Unlike Bach’s Passions, which end when Christ is laid in the tomb, Golgotha‘s final section is a tumult of joy in celebration of the Resurrection.

It is a large-scale composition, lasting about 90 minutes, and scored for orchestra, organ, large choir, and five vocal soloists.  The music is richly evocative, at times pared down to a bare texture of voice and unadorned strings or organ, and at times building to thunderous, swelling climaxes.  It has surprised me with its great beauty, and by the way in which it manages the difficult task of being dramatic without losing its contemplative spirit.  Inspired by Rembrandt’s sketch that adorns the cover of this CD, Martin said that he “sought to concentrate all the light on the person of Christ”.  The writing is attentive and responsive to the meaning of the texts, and the style of declamation used in the narrative sections reminded me of Debussy’s Pelleas et Melisande, or of Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmelites.  The choral sections — almost always the highlight for me — are beautifully written; Martin often combines a Bach-inspired contrapuntal texture with the soft, colourful orchestral palate that is so characteristic of twentieth-century French music, and the result is very effective.

The performances here are as good as could be desired.  The Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir remains, under their new director Daniel Reuss, one of the best choirs in the world.  All of the vocal soloists are new to me, but they sing very well, and the soprano, Judith Gauthier, particularly impressed me.  The sound, as we have grown to expect from Harmonia Mundi, is clear and vivid, and the packaging is posh.  This is an all-around success.

Excerpts from Golgotha can be heard at eMusic.  Despite the fact that I have an eMusic subscription, I bought a physical copy of this CD in order to have the texts and translations, and I am glad that I did.

The Swirling Eddies: Outdoor Elvis

August 27, 2009

The Swirling Eddies : Outdoor Elvis
(Alarma, 1989; 54:00)

When I was visiting my parents last month, they remarked that there were some boxes of my things out in the garage, and suggested that I might sort through them to decide what to keep and what to toss.  I had a wonderful time digging through everything.  I found course notes and exams from my undergraduate days (keep), some old trophies I had won in elementary school — for academics, not athletics — (keep), and even my baby book (keep).  I also found a box of old cassette tapes and CDs that I had purchased in my youth, mostly between about 1988 and 1992.  This cassette by the Swirling Eddies was among them.

Outdoor Elvis was one of my favourite albums at that time in my life, and guess what?  It’s still pretty terrific.  The Swirling Eddies were — or, I suppose, are, since their most recent album is from 2007 — one of the many brainchildren of Terry Taylor, the mercurial mastermind behind Daniel Amos and the Lost Dogs.  I don’t know how many records Taylor has made in his life; dozens, probably, and each toiling in undeserved obscurity.  I have not heard them all, but there are at least a few masterpieces among them: MotorCycle (from 1993) is a brilliant and beautiful record that gets better every time I hear it, Horrendous Disc (from 1978) has achieved whatever legendary status is available to an album that hardly anybody has heard, and, in my judgment, Outdoor Elvis also belongs in this distinguished company.

The Eddies were founded as the slightly goofy, high-spirited alter ego of Daniel Amos, and there are moments of pure comic tomfoolery here: a musical therapy session (“Coco the Talking Guitar”), a herky-jerky robotic exhortation (“Don’t Hate Yerself”), and, of course, the (sort of) famous sing-a-long “Arthur Fhardy’s Yodeling Party” (which I was singing in the shower this very morning, and to good effect).  But the fascination of the record partly consists in the way this forthright comedy lies cheek-by-jowl with more serious fare.  This was the period in which televangelist scandals were leading the nightly news, and a touch of anger creeps into the campy “Hide the Beer, the Pastor’s Here” and “Attack of the Pulpit Masters” (with its auctioneer-style chorus: “moneymoneymoneymoneymoneymoneymoneymoneymoney”, etc.).  But there are bits of quiet, bemused reflection (“Strange Days”, “Blowing Smoke”) and some seriously ambitious songwriting (“Outdoor Elvis”, “Hell Oh”) on the record as well.  It’s an album that seems to always have a new idea up its sleeve, always something more to offer, and, maybe surprisingly, all the bits and pieces fit together into what feels like a cohesive whole.

I’m not sure how to describe the style of this music.  It’s rock.  There’s a bit of White Album-era Beatles, a bit of the Beach Boys (with a dash of vinegar), and a bit of a bunch of other influences.  A comparison to They Might Be Giants would not be out of order.  Anyway, it’s good music, and this is a really good record.  I am glad that I found it again.


Here is one of the songs from the album, called “Driving in England”:

MacMillan: St. John Passion

April 7, 2009

MacMillan: St. John Passion
Christopher Maltman; London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus
Sir Colin Davis
(LSO Live; 1.5 h)

The tradition of writing musical settings of the Passion of Christ has its roots deep in the Middle Ages, and came to full flower in Europe during the early eighteenth-century, most eminently in the music of J.S. Bach.  Then, for two centuries or more, the genre seems to have fallen out of favour.  In the last few decades, however, we have, perhaps unexpectedly, witnessed a revival of the form: in the mid-1960s Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki wrote a St.Luke Passion that boldly combined the traditional form with avant-garde musical techniques; in the 1980s Arvo Pärt wrote a beautiful, contemplative setting of the St.John Passion; the millenium saw a flurry of Passion settings from modern composers Wolfgang Rihm, Tan Dun, Osvaldo Golijov, and Sofia Gubaidulina.  Here, with his 2008 St.John Passion, the excellent Scottish composer James MacMillan steps into the ring.

He isn’t shy about throwing his weight around: this is an urgent, thoroughly dramatic telling of the Passion, and he brings the full force of his large orchestra and chorus to bear.  Horns blare, timpani rumble, cymbals crash, and the narrative is carried irresistibly forward.  He makes use of two choruses: a small, light one in the role of the Evangelist (singing the non-dialogue portions of the text), and a large one in the role of the turba — the crowd.

MacMillan’s text, in English, adheres faithfully to Scripture, beginning at John 18:1 (the arrest of Jesus) and continuing through John 19:30 (the death of Jesus).  He has divided the story into eight narrative sections, at the end of each inserting an appropriate Latin prayer for chorus. These interludes are wonderful, the music opening up in glorious meditations on the events of the story.  These prayers have been thoughtfully chosen: the section narrating the arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane ends with Christ asking, “Shall I not drink the cup which the Father has given me?”  MacMillan continues with a setting of the Eucharistic prayer over the wine: Accipite et manducate ex hoc omnes….  Another example: the section which ends with the words “Peter again denied it; and at once the cock crowed” is followed by a setting of the triumphant Tu es Petrus….  The tender section in which Jesus, hung on the cross and near death, commends his mother to the care of St. John is followed by a few stanzas of the Stabat mater.  You get the idea.

The final narrative section, on the death of Jesus, is magnificently and movingly done, and the Passion closes with a ten-minute orchestral epilogue that is fittingly sorrowful and subdued, but grants, at the end, a glimmer of hope: the gentle ringing of bells.  It is a superb finish.

This Passion setting has a great deal going for it: ambitious and dramatic writing, and genuine theological insight and piety.  On this recording it is sung and played to the highest standards.

It is a pity, therefore, that it is marred by a terrible flaw.  The problem is the manner in which MacMillan has set the words of Jesus.  It is traditional to set Christ’s words in the bass register, signifying his profundity and sovereignty.  MacMillan has followed suite, but has written most of the music in the highest part of his singer’s range.  And rather than giving Christ simple and direct melodies, he has written florid, jagged vocal lines, most unlovely.  The result is that Christ sounds strained and weak, more like a vascillating Pilate than a heavenly king.  Baritone Christopher Maltman copes manfully with the demands placed on him, but it is a thankless job.  It is a shame — not enough to overwhelm all the wonderful things that MacMillan has accomplished here, and on balance I would still recommend this to those with an interest, but a shame nonetheless.

Pärt: In Principio

March 31, 2009


Pärt: In Principio
Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir
Estonian National Symphony Orchestra
Tallinn Chamber Orchestra; Tõnu Kaljuste
(ECM New Series 2050; 70:36)

Arvo Pärt has had a special relationship with ECM Records from the beginning.  Twenty-five years ago it was ECM that first presented Pärt’s music to a sizable audience with the release of the now-classic album Tabula Rasa.  It was a marriage made in heaven, Pärt’s spare and contemplative music a perfect match for ECM’s sleek and austere aesthetic. In the intervening years the label has recorded most of Pärt’s major compositions, often in definitive versions. In Principio is the twelfth record to come from this fruitful relationship.

Some labels might have used the occasion of a major anniversary to bundle together some old recordings as a “Greatest Hits” album, but not ECM.  On the contrary, of the six pieces included on this disc, four are recorded here for the first time, and the other two are substantial revisions of older works.  All of the music was either written or revised in the last decade.

The centerpiece of the program is In Principio, a setting of the prologue of St. John’s Gospel for chorus and orchestra.  It’s an attractive piece that occupies a sonic space reminiscent of several other of Pärt’s recent compositions (both Litany and Lamentate come to mind).  La Sindone, for orchestra, is a quarter-hour long piece, written in honour of the Turin Shroud, that slowly unfolds a gentle, sinewy melody.  Cecilia, vergine romana is another work for chorus and orchestra, its text taken from the Roman Breviary’s account of the martyrdom of our beloved St.Cecilia.  It’s a gorgeous, evocative piece that I hope we will hear more frequently in the coming years.  Da Pacem Domine, written in 2004 to commemorate the victims of the Madrid train bombings, has been recorded a few times before, but appears here in a new version for chorus and orchestra. It is a near-static piece that seems to hang peacefully in the air, slowly settling over the listener like dew.  Mein Weg is a short piece that was originally written in the late 1980s for organ, but has been newly arranged for string orchestra and percussion.  The final piece on the record is Für Lennart in memoriam, an orchestral tribute to the late Estonian president Lennart Georg Meri.

None of these works break bold new ground for Pärt. He is one of the few modern composers blessed with a compositional voice that is both distinctive and accessible, and there can be little reason for him to tamper with a good thing.  The music is unfailingly beautiful, even if the level of inspiration is not as high as it once was. I consider Pärt main strength to be in composing for voices, and this record, which places choral works side-by-side with purely orchestral ones, confirms that judgement.  His harmonic language, when sung, sounds clear and pure, but, for some reason, when transferred to orchestral strings I find it a bit drab and one-dimensional.  But this is no reason to avoid this recording; it is still a splendid exhibition of Pärt’s enchanting art.

The performances and recording quality on this release are beyond reproach.  Kaljuste and the Estonians have been collaborators with Pärt for many years, and routinely premiere his pieces.  ECM’s engineers are as good as we have come to expect: the sound is clean and vibrant.


ECM has prepared a mini-site for this record, featuring music clips, videos, and background information.  It is well worth a look.

MacMillan: Seven Last Words from the Cross

March 12, 2009

This Music Note was originally written April 2006, but is here posted to All Manner of Thing for the first time.


MacMillan: Seven Last Words from the Cross
Polyphony, Britten Sinfonia, Stephen Layton
(Hyperion CDA67460; 67:47)

Given that the Western world in the twentieth century was growing progressively more secular, and that this trend was particularly pronounced in the arts, it is perhaps surprising that so much first-rate sacred music was written.  Igor Stravinsky and Benjamin Britten, two of the very finest composers of the past hundred years, both made substantial contributions to the sacred music tradition, as did many others.  Moreover, in the last forty years the number of composers devoting their talents to sacred music seems to have been increasing, prominent among them the so-called “holy minimalists”: Arvo Pärt, Henryk Górecki, and (the distractingly pompous) John Tavener.  These men have tended to write music that is accessible and beautiful, but also fairly solemn, slow, and austere.

Into the picture steps the young Scottish composer James MacMillan.  His music, too, is rooted in personal devotion — he is a lay Dominican — but there is nothing sentimental or gentle about it.  His musical language is aggressive, frequently dissonant, and the fruit of an incisive musical intelligence.  This is not to say that his music is not approachable, because it certainly is, but it is not comfortable, and will not appeal to those who take their music like warm milk.

Take, for example, the opening section of his terrific cycle Seven Last Words from the Cross.  The orchestra begins quietly in layered chords and, gradually increasing in volume, a fugal counterpoint in women’s voices arises out of the texture: Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.  As this interplay soars higher, an agitated men’s chorus enters with a Latin text from the Palm Sunday liturgy, rising to a dissonant exclamation: Rex Israel! The orchestral foundation, grown louder, spawns a wild sawtooth solo violin line that cuts jaggedly through the texture, now accompanied by the women’s voices rapidly intoning a Tenebrae text for Good Friday.  At its climax the music is a well-controlled chaos of colour, rhythm, and language.  The air slowly clears, the strings swelling sweetly, until all that remains is the patter of the women’s voices in monotone: They placed me in a wasteland of desolation, and all the earth mourned for me.  It’s a bracing, thrilling piece of music.

This opening to Seven Last Words sets the stage for what is to follow.  In general, the music is an explosive mixture of sharp orchestral attacks, bold dissonance, and soaring soprano voices, with interludes of lyrical beauty.  Though the texts center around the seven sayings of Jesus on the cross, Macmillan has embellished them with texts from the Holy Week liturgy.  Behind it all is the voice of an unmistakeably passionate and prodigiously talented composer.

Seven Last Words lasts about three-quarters of an hour in performance.  The disc is filled out by two lesser works, a motet On the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin and a setting of Te Deum, both written quite recently.  They are fine works, but can’t compete with the main event.  The choir is top-notch, coping admirably with their frequently challenging parts, and the sound is excellent.  This is a really superb disc.


Listen to the opening section of Seven Last Words:

More clips from the Hyperion Records website.

Lubimov: Der Bote

March 4, 2009


Der Bote
Alexei Lubimov
(ECM New Series 1771; 56:20)

At first glance the program for this piano recital looks like a dog’s breakfast.  The first two items place the high classicism of C.P.E. Bach cheek by jowl with the ultra-modernism of John Cage, and the rest of the program goes on in a similar vein, a time-traveling jumble of romantic (Liszt, Chopin, Glinka), modern (Debussy, Bartók), and contemporary (Mansurian, Silvestrov) piano music. It raises fears that the pianist plans to make an impression by the sheer shock of his stylistic discontinuities. Frankly, it looks like a mess.

But here’s the thing: it doesn’t sound like a mess.  On the contrary, these pieces sound like they actually belong together, and that is much to Lubimov’s credit.  The program is built around the idea of the elegy, and the unifying emotional thread is that wistful, melancholy, quietly moody feeling of farewell.  The music is mostly ruminative and measured, with occasional turbulent eruptions.  It is music that asks to be played at dusk, with a glass of whiskey near at hand.

A program unified around an emotional tone is in danger of running together into an indistinct blob, but it is here that Lubimov’s stylistic eclecticism comes to the rescue.  There is enough variety in the harmonic spaces to keep the selections from bleeding together.  Lubimov’s playing, too, is sharply etched and sensitive, and he brings out the individuality of the pieces.  His pianism is deliberate without being stolid; he plays each note as though it counts for something, and that is not always the case in a piano recital.

None of the music on the disc is well-known.  (See the track listing here.)  The most familiar piece is probably Chopin’s Prelude in C-sharp minor, Op.45, and that is not saying much.  (Can you hum it?)  The major discovery for me is John Cage’s In a Landscape; I am not normally inclined to say approving things about Cage, but this piece is truly lovely and deserves to be better known; it is music of clear, crystalline beauty, like a cold winter’s crisp night sky.  The album’s title (“The Herald”, I think) comes from a piece by the contemporary Ukrainian composer Valentin Silvestrov, a long-time favourite son of ECM Records.  It is a dreamy idyll built from Mozartian fragments, and quite beautiful, as is (to be brief and blunt) pretty much everything on this disc.

ECM is an audiophile label, and not surprisingly their sound is open and clear; the piano has satisfying body and is not overly resonant.


Related links:

Brief music samples at Amazon.
John Cage: In a Landscape (not played by Lubimov)

Knaifel: Amicta Sole

February 18, 2009


Knaifel: Amicta Sole
Mstislav Rostropovich, Tatiana Melentieva, and others
(ECM New Series 1731; 53:00)

Sometimes — not often — a piece of music crosses my path that stops me in my tracks.  Such pieces skirt around my critical faculties and casual inquisitiveness to echo in some deeper part of me.  I expect this happens to others too.  In my case, this music is almost always austere and very simple, and it evokes in me something for which I do not really have a word.  Perhaps “joy”, in the sense in which C.S. Lewis used it, would do.  It is a sweet longing, a desire for something intangible and unknown, yet somehow it contains within itself the promise of its fulfillment.  It is difficult to explain.

Alexander Knaifel’s Psalm 51, included on this disc, is one of these rare pieces for me.  It is written for solo cello, played here by the great Mstislav Rostropovich, and it speaks with a clean and clear simplicity.  Knaifel has said of this piece that “not a note was composed”, and I believe him.  As its title indicates, the piece is based on Psalm 51, the penitential psalm beginning “Have mercy on me, O God, according to Thy great mercy”.  The cello wordlessly “sings” the Russian text, one note per syllable, evoking not the words themselves but the feeling behind them. The music is slow and measured, often quiet, sometimes climbing into the instrument’s highest registers where it takes on a plaintive quality, sometimes resting easily in the warm low registers, and always gently lamenting.  It is sad music, music of a broken and contrite heart, but without rage or self-condemnation — a clean sadness, and extremely beautiful.  The music is so sparse and exposed that it could, perhaps, in the hands of a lesser artist, come across as merely dull, but Rostropovich (for whom it was written) conveys all its austere beauty.  There is a reason he was considered one of the great musicians of the last century.  I cannot praise this music, nor this performance, highly enough.

The other composition on this disc is Amicta Sole (Clothed with the Sun), for orchestra, boy choir, and female “soloist of soloists”.  It bears certain resemblances to what preceded it: spare textures, and tempi that are slow to the point of being static.  Yet where Psalm 51 partakes of ashes and warm tears, Amicta Sole is radiant, shimmering in the air like hot white light.  The title alludes to the glory of the Virgin Mary, and the text is drawn from an Orthodox prayer in praise of the Holy Trinity.  The notes state that the instruments “sing out”, in a manner similar to the cello in Psalm 51, a biblical text — in this case the genealogies of Christ from the Gospels of St. Matthew and St. Luke — but I am not sure I have understood this correctly; I cannot hear any genealogical descent in the music.  In any case, the soloist declaims the prayer, the boy choir forms an aural halo around her, and the orchestra gently swells into the empty spaces when the voices fall silent.  The overall impression is one of dazzling, inchoate beauty.  Again, the danger of this tipping over into “New Age” schmaltz is real, but the seriousness of the text and the excellence of the performances prevent it in this case.  It is really gorgeous, engaging music.

Who is Alexander Knaifel anyway?  Before encountering this disc I had never heard of him.  He is a Russian, born in 1943.  He studied cello, but turned to composition when an injury prevented a career as a performer.  He belonged, for many years, to the Soviet avant-garde, but following the collapse of Communism his music has become increasingly religious in character. Some of his compositions, including, I believe, the two on this disc, he calls “quiet giants” for their gentle and tranquil qualities.  He has said, about his approach to music and composition, that musical sounds are “signs of the existence of beauty”.  That is only a phrase; it is not clear just what he means — but it sounds promising.


Brief sound samples from Amazon.

Feldman: String Quartet No.2

January 20, 2009


Feldman: String Quartet No.2
FLUX Quartet
(Mode Records; 366:00)

Morton Feldman, who died in the 1980s, was a composer based in New York.  With all due respect, he was one strange bird.  Although I had been aware of him, there, on the periphery of the avant-garde, it was only when I read Alex Ross’ warm appreciation in The Rest is Noise that I decided to seek him out and listen.  Despite some reservations, I am glad that I did.

How to describe his music?  In some pieces there is nearly as much silence as sound; instruments rarely play more than one note before taking a break; tempi are predominantly slow; there is no discernible development of musical ideas, and dramatic gestures are rare; tonality is frequently absent, but the glacial pacing and spare textures prevent the music from sounding too dissonant. He was a master of instrumental timbre, often writing for unusual combinations of instruments.  His music seems to “paint” the air with a certain hue, and leave it at that.

Toward the end of his life he began to write extremely long compositions: Triadic Memories, for piano, runs to about two hours, and For Christian Wolff, for flute and piano, lasts well over three hours, but the biggest of them all is this, his String Quartet No.2, which clocks in at just over six hours.  It is longer than a flight across Canada, longer than Götterdammerung, longer even (though it scarcely seems possible) than Lawrence of Arabia.

What music does he write to carry the listener through such a span of time?  Basically it sounds much like his other music: spare, slow, and static.  Some distinct musical ideas come and go.  At times it sounds like an ambulance siren, or like one of those mosquitoes that linger around one’s ears on a summer night.  At times the music prances to skittish pizzicati, or wheezes like an asthmatic, or succumbs to a lament adorned with forlorn sliding notes.  It doesn’t seem to go anywhere; it meanders.

This might not sound appealing, but wait a moment.  In his travel book Italian Hours, Henry James says that visitors to Venice ought to stay until they’ve had their fill of canals, gondolas, and bridges, until it seems dull and they’re ready to move on, and then they should stay a little longer.  One passes a point where the novelty or strangeness of a thing loses its first appeal, but a little patience and a new world opens up; you receive it again in a new way.  Maybe, just maybe, Feldman’s music is like that.  The music is calculated to infuriate a certain kind of listener, and the unsympathetic will not be seduced, but for those with ears to hear I believe Feldman’s music has something to give.  Allow it to be what it is and it opens up a unique aesthetic space, a quiet place of delicate beauty.

Where does this music come from?  What are its spiritual springs?  Feldman was Jewish, but I am not sure that he practiced the Jewish faith.  As I listen, two contrary possibilities suggest themselves.  One: the music rejects the arbitrary conventions that have heretofore defined Western music; it forsakes the tonal system and musical form because such systems impose the appearance of rationality in a world of chaos and formlessness; it expresses the rootlessness of modern man, floating over the abyss of nothingness from which he comes and to which he goes; it responds to the fragmentation of culture with resignation and surface play — it doodles while Rome burns.  Two: the music is a protest against the restless noise and pointless activity of modern life; it grounds the listener in elemental musical realities: timbre, pitch, duration; it seeks to create a zone of silence and gentle beauty within which the ear can once again meditate on a single sound, the heart recover a spirit of simplicity; like being itself, the music simply is, and in contemplating it we learn to contemplate the ground of all being.  It is music of love and purity of heart.

I have no idea which of these two views of his music Feldman would most endorse, if indeed he would endorse either.  I expect that the former is closer to the truth, but I try to listen in the spirit of the latter.

Praetorius: Christmette

December 8, 2008

This year during Advent I am reviewing a few of my favourite recordings of music for Advent and Christmas.


Michael Praetorius: Christmette
Lutheran Mass for Christmas Morning

Paul McCreesh; Gabrieli Consort & Players
(Deutsche Grammophone Archiv 439 931-2; 79:00)

One of the more interesting programming ideas for classical music recordings is the “liturgical quasi-reconstruction”.  Instead of packing three or four Mass settings cheek-by-jowl onto a single disc, the performers focus on a single setting, but place it into the sort of context for which it was written: a liturgical celebration.  Thus the polyphonic Mass Ordinary (Kyrie, Gloria, etc.) is surrounded by Gregorian chant, ringing bells, congregational hymns, and so on.  This can be really effective, not only because it helps one to hear the polyphony with new ears, but because it helps one learn about liturgical practices of past times.

Paul McCreesh, with his Gabrieli Consort, is one of the foremost practitioners of this fly-on-the-wall type of recording, and he’s made some good ones: A Venetian Christmas recreates a seventeenth-century Christmas Mass at San Marco; Missa Cantate takes us to a sixteenth-century Mass at Salisbury Cathedral, complete with a lengthy opening processional; and his Epiphany Mass recording recreates a service at Bach’s parish in eighteenth-century Leipzig.  Good as they are, none of them are quite as good as Christmette, which records a Christmas morning service in Roskilde, Denmark “as it might have been celebrated around 1620”.

What makes this disc so special is its wonderful sense of atmosphere.  Listening to it, I can almost see the pews full of mittened and scarfed parishioners puffing frozen breath and slapping their arms to stay warm in the wee hours.  I imagine candlelight, and happy children, and I feel a fine sense of occasion.  When the music does begin, first with a lovely processional song, and then a lengthy, and steadily more rousing, congregational hymn, the wonder of Christmas, and the beauty of liturgy, and a sense of community all contribute to the festive atmosphere.  I know it’s fake, but the point is that it doesn’t sound fake.

Most of the music for the service comes from Michael Praetorius, a distinguished Lutheran composer.  He contributes hymns, motets, and (German) settings of the Kyrie, Gloria, and Sanctus.  Since this is a liturgical reconstruction, we also hear organ interludes, chanted readings of Scripture, and a recitation of the Lord’s Prayer — but no homily!  The music is unfailingly tuneful and joyous, and it sounds great.  This is one of the best Christmas recordings I have heard.


A helpful YouTube user (called OedipusColoneus) has provided the opening processional, Christum wir sollen loben schon (“We now must praise Christ”).  The melody is by Martin Luther.  What? You thought he was all bad?


Previously: Pomerium: Creator of the Stars