Archive for the 'Music' Category

Josquin Graindelavoixed

October 8, 2021

This is a Josquin anniversary year, and there have been several high profile recordings made to mark the occasion. Among them, just this week, is Josquin the Undead, an unconventionally titled disc from the very unconventional ensemble Graindelavoix. This is hot stuff. Sure, it’s a catalogue of laments, drenched it tears, but hot stuff nonetheless. Graindelavoix have an incredibly rich sound, full of feeling, and they bring out the adventurous harmonies of the music brilliantly.

Here they are singing Nimphes, nappes. The video is beautifully done too.

Water nymphs, Nereids, Dryads,
come and mourn my desolation
for I suffer such affliction
that my spirits are more dead than alive.

The groans of death have encircled me:
the sorrows of hell have enclosed me.

Music for Dante: The Divine Comedy II

July 9, 2021

Louis Andriessen was a Dutch composer who passed away earlier this month. News of his death caught my attention because I recently became aware of his opera, completed in 2008, based on Dante’s Divine Comedy.

La Commedia clocks in at a little under two hours, and is divided into five parts: the first three are based on the Inferno, the fourth on the Purgatorio, and the last, and longest, on the Paradiso. It is therefore a nice example of a contemporary piece inspired by the full swath of the Comedy. The libretto draws also on a number of other sources, including Dutch poets, the Song of Songs, and even Dante’s little-known Convivio.

When approaching a contemporary piece based, at least in the early going, on the torments of Hell, one braces oneself for an onslaught. It was gratifying, therefore, to find that Andriessen’s music in La Commedia — and I might mention that this is the first of his pieces that I’ve heard — is generally quite tuneful and, though it bristles and grinds at times, its general tendency is to fall fairly easily on the ear. I was pleasantly surprised. The opening moments, composed of modern street noises and sirens, are but a passing dream, and we are soon enough engulfed in music.

The entire piece is available to stream on YouTube, thanks to Nonesuch Records. Here is the first movement, based on Inferno, Cantos 8 and 9, in which Dante and Virgil cross the river Styx and approach the City of Dis.

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The second section, entitled ‘Tale From Hell’, draws on Inferno Canto 21. Dante is in the eighth circle, and encounters the ditch of the corrupt politicians, who flounder in a pool of hot pitch, pushed beneath the surface by trident-wielding demons if they attempt to rise to the surface. It’s a rather cheering scene, really.

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The third section is simply called “Lucifer”, and it is, of course, based on the final Canto of the Inferno, with a substantial additional text in Dutch, for which I lack a translation.

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When we move to the Purgatorio, Andriessen focuses on Canto 8, the last canto before Dante begins his ascent, and in particular on the ominous passage in which a serpent slithers into Ante-Purgatory, only to be arraigned and chased off by angels. The music of this section veers into big-band jazz territory, which strikes me as an audacious and not entirely successful choice, but, then again, most people like jazz more than I do.

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The final section draws liberally on many different cantos of the Paradiso. It is very lovely for the most part: ethereal and majestic. There is a long central section, however, based on Cacciaguida’s speech in Cantos 15/16, in which the text is spoken (in Dutch) over a groovy jazz rhythm. Again, others might like this more than I did.

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Although there were some aspects of this piece that I didn’t care for, it is still an interesting and serious engagement with Dante’s poem, and I’m glad to have made its acquaintance.

Music for Dante: The Divine Comedy I

May 10, 2021

This post is the first in what I hope will be a series devoted to music inspired, in one way or another, by the poetry of Dante — principally, of course, by The Divine Comedy. There has been quite a lot of music written under his influence over the centuries, some of it fairly well-known, but most of it not, and I’m looking forward to exploring it.

I thought it would make sense to start with music inspired by the Comedy as a whole, and then later to focus on pieces written for particular panels of the triptych, and it probably also makes sense to start with the composer whom I most associate with Dante: Franz Liszt.

Liszt’s largest scale “Dante music” is the Dante Symphony, which premiered in 1857. It is a choral symphony written in two large movements; the first pertains to Inferno and the second to Purgatorio. (Perhaps at this stage in his life Liszt wasn’t much interested in Paradise.) The symphony doesn’t have a great reputation — but neither, for that matter, does any of Liszt’s orchestral music (or choral music!), most of which could be somewhat uncharitably described as lugubrious bombast. Still, it’s a big piece by a major composer, and it’s about Dante, so let’s have a listen. Here is the Frankfurt Radio Symphony under Peter Eotvos:

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The Dante music by Liszt with the best reputation is his Dante Sonata for piano, also called by its full title, Après une lecture du Dante. I always thought Liszt must have written it after hearing a lecture about Dante, but apparently the French actually means “after reading Dante”. The sonata was inspired mainly by Inferno, though some of the music in the middle of the sonata may be attempting to evoke Beatrice. As with much nineteenth-century programme music, it’s pretty hard to say unless someone tells you. But it’s a wonderful sonata. Here is Arcadi Volodos performing the piece live:

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Josquin polyphonissimus

March 19, 2021

Continuing my observance of the Josquin anniversary year I’ve been listening through his motets, and this week came to the mighty Qui habitat, written for 24 voices. To write for such a large number of parts was rare for him, and I wish I knew more about the circumstances for which it was composed. It’s a beautiful piece, like eavesdropping on the angelic choirs around the heavenly throne.

Here is a nice video performance of the piece by Kammerchor Josquin des Prez. The musical texture is fairly static, as though time has stopped, and we hear only the voices cascading over one another in repeated patterns. But as the piece unfolds you’ll hear that the texture does change as the material migrates through pitch ranges. (Following along with the score is rewarding.) Only in the last few minutes does he bring in all 24 voices simultaneously.

Josquin in Montréal

February 22, 2021

This year, as I’ve noted before, is a Josquin anniversary year. A few days ago I went fishing on YouTube for performances of his music, and I found this from a hometown team: Le studio de musique ancienne de Montréal singing his five-voice setting of Ave verum corpus [score]This is quiet, contemplative music, and if you’ve got seven minutes to spare I highly recommend it. It’s a sensitive and beautiful performance, gorgeously sung.

Musical anniversaries in 2021

January 11, 2021

There is quite a raft of musical anniversaries to celebrate this year. From a thorough list (Thanks again, Osbert) I have culled the following set:

Memorials

  • 25 years:
    • Vagn Holmboe
    • Mieczyslaw Weinberg
    • Toru Takemitsu
  • 50 years:
    • Marcel Dupré
    • Igor Stravinsky
  • 100 years:
    • Camille Saint-Saëns
    • Engelbert Humperdinck
  • 150 years:
    • Daniel-François-Esprit Auber
    • Sigismond Thalberg
  • 400 years:
    • Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck
    • Michael Praetorius
  • 500 years:
    • Robert Fayrfax
    • Josquin Desprez

Birthdays

  • 100 years: Malcolm Arnold
  • 150 years: Alexander von Zemlinsky
  • 450 years: Michael Praetorius
  • 500 years: Philippe de Monte
  • 800 years: Alfonso X El Sabio

It’s the year of Michael Praetorius, in a sense, who gets both a birthday and a memorial commemoration, but the big names this year, at least for me and my house, will be Stravinsky and Josquin. I’ve planned a listening project for each: for Stravinsky, I’ll be focusing on the three big ballets (The Rite, Petrouchka, and The Firebird) and his choral music, with a smattering of other things thrown in; for Josquin I hope to listen through all of his 60-odd motets, 60-odd chansons, and 18 Mass settings. It should be great!

I’m also looking forward to spending time with Takemitsu, whose beguilingly dissonant music always lures me back, and Thalberg, whose virtuoso piano works have been given an airing in a few recent records by top-shelf piano virtuosos (this and this). I did a large Weinberg listening project just a few years ago, but I intend to revisit some of the highlights.

Strange to think that Josquin and Fayrfax died in the same year. I’d have put them in adjacent centuries if asked at the bus stop.

I’m not really sure what I should listen to from Dupré or Sweelinck; I don’t have much in my collection. Suggestions welcome.

Favourites in 2020: Music

December 29, 2020

The past year was deficient in many respects, but not in the quality of the music that I heard. I’d like to share a selection of the discs that most appealed to me in 2020.

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Saints Inouis
Ensemble Scholastica
[Atma, 2020]

The marvellous Ensemble Scholastica, based in Montreal, celebrated their 10th anniversary this year with a disc entitled Saints Inouis (“Astonishing Saints”). The musical programme is rather niche: it is structured around liturgies for three specific feast days in the French region of Creuse, located a few hundred kilometres south of Paris. The music celebrates St Pardoux (7th century), St Yrieix (6th century), and the feast of the conception of the Virgin (which would later come to be called the Immaculate Conception). The music itself dates from the 10th-12th centuries, and is of extraordinary beauty. The performances are gorgeous, and this is one of the most beautiful discs of medieval music to come my way in some time.

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Gesualdo: Tenebrae Responsories
Graindelavoix
[Glossa, 2020]

In their last few records the vocal ensemble Graindelavoix has experimented more and more with new ways of interpreting the music of Renaissance masters. The style they have evolved, which is about as far as one can get from the pure, cool style familiar to us from the work of English choirs, is rugged, plangent, dark-toned, and lush. This disc, in which they sing the Tenebrae music of Gesualdo, is a match made in heaven. Gesualdo’s extraordinary harmonic adventurousness emerges in all its prickly, abrasive glory in these vigorous and committed performances. I have no idea if this sounds like what Gesualdo had in mind, but I have a feeling he would have liked it. I, at any rate, like it very much. Here is a lovely short film of the ensemble singing Plange Quasi Virgo, from the service for Holy Saturday:

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Music for Milan Cathedral
Siglo de Oro, Patrick Allies
[Delphian, 2019]

This wonderful disc is structured around the music of Hermann Matthias Werricore, a virtually unknown composer who, I learn from the liner notes, was maestro di cappella at Milan’s Duomo Cathedral from about 1520-1550, a good long stretch. We get to hear a half dozen of his motets, including a 10 minute setting of Ave maris stella. The program is filled out by other music that would have been heard at the cathedral during his tenure, the best known of whom was Josquin Desprez. I am putting the disc on my year-end list not so much because of the music — though it is wonderful music — but because of the singing by Siglo de Oro. I think I have praised this group in the past, and so long as their singing continues to be as rich, balanced, and transparent as this I’ll continue to do so. Excellent engineering from Delphian made this one of the best sounding discs of polyphony I heard this year.

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Handel: Acis and Galatea
Early Opera Company, Christian Curnyn
[Chandos, 2018]

I’ve a long-standing admiration for Handel’s Acis and Galatea. Sometimes described as a “pastoral opera”, it is a relatively small scale work (~90 minutes) full of delightful melodies and charming scenes. The story is of a love triangle between the shepherd Acis, the nymph Galatea, and the cyclops Polyphemus — obviously, from the title, Polyphemus is very much a third wheel. It was Handel’s first dramatic work in English, and it is a triumph, well worth getting to know. This performance, from Christian Curnyn and the Early Opera Company, is headlined by the wonderful soprano Lucy Crowe singing the part of Galatea. The singing is great, the choruses are great. It’s all great. Here is the second-Act trio “The flocks shall leave the mountains”:

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This year marked the 250th birthday of Beethoven, and much of my year was devoted to listening to his music. I went through all of the symphonies, string quartets, piano sonatas, and major choral works, often in multiple interpretations. It was a splendid project. Out of all the music I heard, certain things stand out as particularly excellent. I was very taken with George Szell’s cycle of symphonies, made in the 1960s with the Cleveland Orchestra.  I chose a small but eminent stable of pianists for the sonatas and listened through each sonata from each of them: Solomon, Arrau, Kempff, Gilels, Schiff, and Levit, with occasional forays into the playing of Perahia, Rubinstein, and Richter.

To my surprise, the pianist who consistently emerged as my favourite was Andras Schiff. I was surprised because he alone among these pianists played a “period instrument”, a relatively underpowered piano that lacks the rich sonority of a modern Steinway. But I grew to really appreciate his instrument’s clarity and lack of bombast, and hearing Schiff’s interpretations was one of the musical highlights of my year.

Another pianistic highlight was Ronald Brautigam’s three-disc survey of all Beethoven’s “theme and variations” pieces (excluding the Diabelli Variations).  The most famous among these is the Eroica Variations, but there are many more, including delightful pieces based on the tunes of “God Save the King” and “Rule Brittania”. I have a special affection for theme and variations compositions, and Beethoven was a master of the form. These were great fun. Here is a sample, an unpublished set of six small variations on a Swiss song:

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Offenbach: Colorature
Jodie Devos, Münchner Rundfunkorchester, Laurent Campellone
[Alpha, 2019]

After the austerity of medieval chant, the formality of Renaissance polyphony, the pastoral beauty of Handel, and the robust musical intelligence of Beethoven, we come across Offenbach in exactly the right frame of mind: ready for some candy. Last year (2019) was the 200th anniversary of his birth, and I had intended to listen to some of his music then. In the event, I didn’t get to it until this year, and one of the discs I most enjoyed was this corker from Jodie Devos. As suggested by the title, the disc is devoted to coloratura fireworks, and magnificent it is. Put this music on at a party — assuming we were able to have parties — and before you could say “Vive l’Escargot” your guests would be lined up, dancing a can-can. Here’s an aria from The Tales of Hoffmann:

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Zender: Schubert’s Winterreise
Julian Prégardien, Deutsche Radio Philharmonie, Robert Reimer
[Alpha, 2018]

Schubert’s great song-cycle Winterreise I recommend to everyone. This disc of Hans Zender’s Schubert’s Winterreise is quite a different beast; I recommend it, but only to those who already know the original well. Zender’s Winterreise, which he called a “composed interpretation” of the original, was completed in 1993. It is completely bonkers. The piano has blossomed into an orchestra, and each of the 24 songs has been filtered through the musical developments of the two hundred years since Schubert first wrote them. Strange sonorities erupt, songs fracture and break apart, or take sharp turns down unexpected alleyways, and the singing sometimes reverts to speech. It’s not something to hear every day, but as a stimulating meditation on these immortal songs, it has won a place in my heart.

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Sorabji: Sequentia Cyclica
Jonathan Powell
[Piano Classics, 2019]

Also in the bonkers category is this monster from Kaikhosru Sorabji. His Sequentia Cyclica is an 8-1/2 hour long colossus, a set of 27 variations on the “Dies Irae” theme from the Requiem Mass. It makes superhuman demands on the pianist — and also on the listener. This is the “theme and variations” form conceived on a massive scale; some of these individual “variations” run to nearly an hour. It is, again, not something I am going to listen to very often, but I am really happy to have heard it. Recommended to those with an affection for Mount Everest, the US national debt, and galactic superclusters.

Here is Powell playing the variation “in the style of Debussy”, complete with score:

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Fading
The Gesualdo Six
[Hyperion, 2020]

My disc of the year, however, is this one from the British ensemble Gesualdo Six. The music is an eclectic mash-up of Renaissance polyphony and modern vocal music, tied together thematically by references to light and darkness. We hear Veljo Tormis’ Four Estonian Lullabies and pieces by Joanna Marsh, Sarah Rimkus, and the group’s own director, Owain Park, interwoven with music by Gombert, Byrd, and Tallis. It works wonderfully. The singing of this young group is immaculate, and I look forward to hearing much more from them in the future.

Here is Owain Park’s own setting of Phos hilaron, which, being translated, goes like this:

Hail, gladdening light, of his pure glory poured,
who is the immortal Father, heavenly, blest,
holiest of holies, Jesu Christ, our Lord.

Now we are come to the sun’s hour of rest,
the lights of evening round us shine,
we hymn the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit divine.

Worthiest art thou at all times to be sung
with undefiled tongue,
Son of our God, giver of life alone;
therefore in all the world thy glories, Lord, they own.

Fitting thoughts as we close out this year and look forward to another.

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That’s the kind of year in music it has been for me. Wishing you all the best for 2021.

Bruckner: Os justi

December 15, 2020

My goodness, this is beautiful singing. Bruckner’s Os justi, sung by Tenebrae.

The mouth of the righteous utters wisdom,
and his tongue speaks what is just.
The law of his God is in his heart:
and his feet do not falter.
Alleluia.

Feast of All Souls, 2020

November 3, 2020

Carol of the Bell-thoven!

September 23, 2020

We all know the “Carol of the Bells”, that jaunty but insistent carol that scampers along too rapidly for most of us to sing it. The recurring riff goes like this:

Ding dong! Ding dong! This carol is on my mind because I’ve been listening to Beethoven’s string quartets, and, having reached the late quartets, I’ve been listening in particular to his quartet No.15, Op.132. In the final movement, there is a segment that comes up a few times in which this same riff occurs in the cello part:

Admittedly, it is not quite the same: the first quarter note in each bar of the carol is, in Beethoven, split into two eighth notes, but I don’t hear that. All I hear is the “Carol of the Bells”! I have to say that this is driving me crazy. It’s like finding a hook from a Taylor Swift song in the middle of a Mozart symphony.

If you’d like to hear it yourself, I’ve cued up the sequence in this clip. You should hear it within the first 10 seconds.

See what I mean? Even if one seems to hear words of good cheer from ev’rywhere, filling the air, it’s still annoying as all get out.