Archive for the 'Music' Category

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?

Christmas music recommendations

December 27, 2018

Now that the Christmas season is upon us, I’d like to recommend two wonderful discs of Christmas music that have brought me much pleasure over the past few years.

**

ros-christmas

The first is RÓS: Songs of Christmas, from the Norwegian Soloists’ Choir, a group of which you’ve probably not been previously aware. The music is a blend of things you’d think wouldn’t work well together, and you’d be wrong. The disc begins with a Norwegian-language rendition of Lo, how a Rose e’er blooming (called Det hev ei rose sprunge), as lovely a version as you’re ever likely to hear. The centerpiece is a “suite for Christmas” which interweaves the ecstatic melodies of St Hildegard von Bingen with carols, sung in a manner inspired by the Norwegian folk tradition. The arrangements of St Hildegard’s music are unusually rustic, and the carol arrangements are unusually elaborate, which helps to bridge the gap between these two very different musical realms. Of course, you and I don’t speak Norwegian, but it hardly matters: the warmth and happy good cheer of this music are such that it could be nothing but Christmas music, and this disc is among the most joyful and delightful collections of Christmas music known to me. Here is a featurette about the disc:

**

rusby-sweet

Kate Rusby has made a few Christmas records, but I’m partial to Sweet Bells. She is a bright light on the English folk music scene, with a distinctive lilting voice and a wonderful way with traditional songs. On this record she sings some standard Christmas fare — carols like “Here We Come A-Wassailing” and “Hark the Herald Angels Sing”, the latter given a slow and surprisingly effective tempo — with songs, both sweet and sad, that draw more strongly on the folk tradition, like “Serving Girl’s Holiday” and “The Miner’s Dream of Home”. It’s an unconventional combination, but convincing in her hands. Here is “The Holly and the Ivy”:

Merry Christmas!

Another missed concert

November 17, 2018

Last weekend I did not get to see Hilary Hahn in concert. Tonight I don’t get to hear the Latvian Radio Choir in concert. But I can stay home and listen to them sing Arvo Pärt’s Nunc dimittis. This is a quiet and slow piece, but difficult to sing well. It’s delicate, and fragile, and will break if the choir fumbles it. It’s safe in these hands:

I wonder what concert I will not attend next weekend?

A missed opportunity

November 11, 2018

This weekend Hilary Hahn was in town for a concert. Despite my best efforts, I was not able to go; six or eight hundred people were better organized, and all the tickets were sold.

It had the potential to be a memorable night: one of the great musicians of our time, and certainly my favourite living violinist, playing nothing but Bach’s music for solo violin. A dream come so nearly true. The pain of regret is slightly alleviated by looping this short video, in which she plays the Presto from Sonata No.1:

Schnittke via Riga

October 16, 2018

It’s that time of year again: it’s the season of the International Baltic Sea Choir Competition!

Performances from wonderful young choirs are piling up; views are trickling in. Here are the choristers of the Riga Cathedral Choir School singing Schnittke’s brief but beautiful Gospodi, gospodi Iisuse, one of his Three Sacred Hymns.

Feast of St Hildegard

September 17, 2018

Today is the feast of St Hildegard of Bingen, our most recent Doctor of the Church, and one of our most musical saints.

Of all her exceptionally beautiful pieces it is hard to choose just one, but here is O Frondens Virga, performed by Chanticleer.

Sancta Hildegard, ora pro nobis.

Ave verum corpus

July 18, 2018

Here is a beautiful performance of one of the crown jewels of sacred polyphony: William Byrd’s Ave verum corpus.

The singers are Ensemble ZENE, a French group new to me. They sound terrific.

Chagall in noise

July 4, 2018

Poems about Olivier Messiaen are not plentiful; it’s a pleasure to read one. Micheal O’Siadhail begins in this way:

I hear the bells and singing stained glass birds
As, Olivier Messiaen, you shift the scale
Of chirps from semitones to tones or thirds
For tawny owl or tenor nightingale.

There’s a good deal of solid matter in the poem — references, direct and oblique, to quite a few of Messiaen’s pieces, to his synesthesia, to the musicians and instruments with which he was associated — but most of all the poem communicates a love for him and his music, a love that I heartily share.

There is a line that I cannot parse:

Our spirit’s here and there both correspond;

Perhaps it’s just because I haven’t slept properly for a while, but I can’t see how that apostrophe doesn’t spoil the sense of the line. Please correct me.

Our envoi has to be Éclairs sur l’au delà — which is not about desserts.

Big Apple music

June 19, 2018

Last week we were in New York City for a few days, and while there were able to hear New York Polyphony in concert. This is an ensemble I’ve admired for years, and it was good fortune that they happened to be singing in their hometown during our brief sojourn in the city. We made the trek up to the 92nd St Y to hear them.

They normally pivot between Renaissance and modern music, but on this night we heard only one piece from the sixteenth century — a chanson of Lassus — with most of the programme devoted to nineteenth and twentieth century repertoire: part-songs of Schubert up through part-songs of Parry, with a few modern pieces to add spice. Of the latter, my favourites were Ivan Moody’s challenging settings of Canticum Canticorum, which called for, and received, impeccable tuning and finely controlled ensemble singing. But then we’d not have expected anything less from New York Polyphony. It was a wonderful night of music.

Here is one of the pieces they sang at the show: Joseph Barnby’s Sweet and low.

Linked links

May 15, 2018
  • This blog was called All Manner of Thing because in the beginning I didn’t know what it would be, but, given how it has turned out, it might have been called Reading My Library. That’s just what our long-time friend Janet Cupo has called her new blog, which I recommend highly.
  • Reading my library sometimes feels that it could be a full-time job (and I am accepting offers from investors who would like to pay me to do it), but what about reading the Vatican Archives, with its 53 linear miles of shelves? A group of researchers are trying to make it easier by using Optical Character Recognition to convert the handwritten manuscripts into searchable text. The Atlantic has a fascinating article on the method and the technical challenges.
  • The special character of Cistercian architecture can also be recognized optically, especially when a talented photographer is at hand. Such is the case with Federico Scarchilli’s collection of photos of Italian Cistercian abbeys. They remind me of a wonderful book, David Heald’s Architecture of Silence, which I cannot recommend highly enough; it is a book that seems to make time stand still.
  • What would it mean to claim that time does stand still — or, put another way, that time is an illusion? This was apparently the view of Kurt Gödel. Ed Feser looks at his reasons, and the possible reasons behind his reasons.
  • Gödel may have been something like an idiot savant, but Gary Paul Morson argues that Dostoyevsky was The Idiot savant in his fascinating essay on the story and backstory of the novel.
  • Dostoyevsky was one of the authors Rene Girard principally relied upon in his early work of literary criticism Deceit, Desire, and the Novel, which I’ve had on my shelves for years, as yet unread. (Again, investors welcome.) An excerpt from Cynthia Haven’s forthcoming biography of Girard takes a very interesting look at this book, its argument, and its influence.
  • Another appraisal of a notable book’s argument and influence is Brain Smith’s essay on Walker Percy’s Lost in the Cosmos, which turns 35 this year. I am tempted to say that this is my favourite of Percy’s books, though I have read it only once, and should probably revisit it before making such a claim official.
  • I should revisit the Hammerklavier sonata too, which I sometimes claim to dislike because of all the banging, but probably mostly avoid because it is too large and sublime for me to understand. An occasion arises both because of an informative essay, coloured by the purple prose that a piece of such immense sublimity reliably conjures up, and also because my favourite pianist, Murray Perahia, has recently recorded it alongside my children’s favourite sonata.
  • It’s relevant that my children like it, because of course what they like and dislike affects what I get to hear, just as they affect pretty much everything about my life. Michael Chabon, the novelist, writes a touching piece about how good it is that children get in the way of what adults want to do.
  • On the other hand, adults sometimes have to get in the way of what children want to do. Joseph Bottum writes about the special challenges of being a parent when children are surrounded by, and fascinated with, digital screens.
  • Finally, my screen fascination is never so great as when Terrence Malick is on the marquee. It is with happy trepidation that I hear of a forthcoming extended version of The Tree of Life. Rumours have long circulated that Malick compressed the ending of the theatrical release, with mixed results, but this forthcoming extended version is apparently going to extend the central sections of the film, not the ending.
  • I extended the central sections of this post, but not the ending.