Archive for the 'Music' Category

Nowakowski: ‘O sacrum convivium’

March 16, 2023

I don’t know the date of composition — at least ten years ago, I think — but I’ve only just discovered this piece by Mark Nowakowski. It’s beautiful, and beautifully sung, too, by His Majesty’s Men.

Musical anniversaries in 2023

January 5, 2023

There are a few notable musical anniversaries to celebrate this year. From a thorough list (Thanks again, Osbert) I have culled the following set:

Memorials

  • 25 years:
    • Alfred Schnittke
    • Michael Tippett
  • 50 years:
    • Gian Francesco Malapiero
    • Noel Coward
  • 400 years:
    • William Byrd
    • Thomas Weelkes
  • 450 years
    • Christopher Tye

Birthdays

  • 50 years:
    • Lera Auerbach
  • 100 years:
    • Gyorgy Ligeti
  • 150 years:
    • Sergei Rachmaninov
    • Max Reger

As usual, I will structure some of my listening this year around these anniversaries. I only made the acquaintance of Tippett’s music for the first time in the last couple of years, so I’m looking forward to exploring more this year, and I am a little surprised to find that I have only one disc of Noel Coward’s songs in my collection, so this anniversary year is a welcome chance to improve my familiarity with him. Lera Auerbach is a young(-ish) composer whose music has, on limited exposure, intrigued me, and this year seems a good opportunity to hear it again.

I suppose the 800 pound gorilla is Rachmaninov, and of course I’ll hear the All-Night Vigil, which I love, and I’ll probably pull down the symphonies and piano concertos, though I’m not really enthusiastic about it. For me, the two big names this year are Schnittke and Byrd; I’m really excited at the prospect of spending some significant chunk of time with each of them.

Favourites of 2022: Music

December 30, 2022

Of all the many recordings I listened to this year, my ten particular favourites were, in no particular order (though with my “record of the year” at the end):

***

Busoni: Bach Transcriptions
Holger Groschopp
(Capriccio, 2014)

I have a weakness for transcriptions of Bach’s music. There’s a little cottage industry devoted to making them, and they range from the dubious to the delightful. Some years ago Hyperion did an entire series devoted to transcriptions for piano, and they are terrific. One composer, though, made so many piano transcriptions of Bach that he has the honour of actually having his name married to that of the great man. I refer, of course, to Bach-Busoni. Maybe the best known of his transcriptions is that of the Chaconne, and it is indeed magnificent, but he made many more, and here Holger Groschopp plays two hours’ worth of them. Many are transcribed from the organ; there is a set taken from the Musical Offering; there are chorale transcriptions; and an assortment of other things. All of the music is good, naturally, and it’s nice to hear it on a big, warm piano, and played so beautifully.

*

Romantic French Arias
Joan Sutherland, L’Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, Richard Bonynge
(Decca, 1970)

A golden oldie from Joan Sutherland. First issued in 1970, I only heard this classic record for the first time this year, and it is a knock-out. Sutherland lets loose her dazzling vocal pyrotechnics in a programme of nearly two hours of French opera that reaches as far back as Charpentier, but is focused on nineteenth-century music: Delibes, Meyerbeer, Bizet, Gounod, Massenet, and Offenbach. Singing doesn’t get any better.

Here is a very brief excerpt from Meyerbeer’s L’Etoile du Nord in which she sings a messa-di-voce trill (in which the dynamics are varied in the pattern piannissimo-fortissimo-pianissimo). Stupendous!

*

Chamber Music Arrangements
Linos Ensemble
(Capriccio, 2018)

Speaking of adapting music, here is a beautiful set: 8 CDs of orchestral pieces arranged for chamber ensemble. The music dates from around the turn of the twentieth century, give or take a few decades: we get several waltzes of Johann Strauss II, Bruckner’s Symphony No.7, lots of Mahler, healthy doses of the Second Viennese School, and a few pieces by Debussy, Reger, and Zemlinsky. Personally, I usually prefer the intimacy and clarity of chamber music over big orchestral pieces, so these transcriptions, scaled down to fewer than ten musicians, have been very enjoyable for me. They have a certain historical importance, too, as many (all?) of them were made for the Viennese Society for Private Musical Performances founded in 1918 by Schoenberg. Schoenberg himself made several of the transcriptions. Webern’s transcriptions of his own Op.6 Pieces are also here. It’s a delightful collection, full of fascinating details and wonderful music, that has given me many hours of enjoyment.

Here is the arrangement of Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, which I think sounds wonderful in this smaller, more transparent setting:

*

Mozart Momentum 1785
Leif Ove Andsnes, Mahler Chamber Orchestra
(Sony, 2021)

What I love here is the concept: it’s a two-disc set of music that Mozart composed in one calendar year: 1785, when Mozart was in his late-20s. (There is a companion set that focuses on 1786 as well.) He wrote 15 or 20 pieces that year, and 5 of them, suitable for this ensemble to play, are included: we get the famous piano concertos Nos 20-22, the Piano Quartet in G minor, a bit of Masonic funeral music, and the Fantasia in C minor for piano. It’s a nice mix of orchestral music, chamber music, and solo recital, with the piano part taken by Andsnes, who also leads the orchestra, just as Mozart would have done. We get a sense for how Mozart changed gears between pieces, or worked on things of quite different character simultaneously. The music is wonderful, of course, and the music-making is fleet, the sound is clear and warm, and it all works together marvellously well.

Here they are playing the final movement of the Piano Concerto No.21:

*

Shostakovich: Symphonies 1, 5, 6, 8, 10, 15
Kurt Sanderling, Berlin Symphony Orchestra
(Berlin Classics, 2006)

I embarked on a major Shostakovich symphony voyage this year, and of all the recordings I heard, this is the set that stood out to me. Kurt Sanderling and the Berlin Symphony Orchestra play fewer than half of the symphonies, whether for contractual or artistic reasons I do not know, but they are magnificent. Shostakovich’s music can be emotionally ambiguous — is this real feeling, or sarcasm? — but Sanderling goes straight to the heart, choosing to bring out the qualities of darkness, brooding menace, and, when appropriate, ferocity. The symphonies sound big and bad, in the best sense. It’s music-making to haunt your dreams.

If you have the time, here is the whole of Symphony No.5:

*

A Meditation: St. John Henry Newman
The Sixteen, Harry Christophers
(Coro, 2022)

John Henry Newman was canonized in 2019, and here the great British choir The Sixteen gives us a meditation on his spiritual legacy and ongoing influence. The disc features four new compositions based on texts by St. Newman by Will Todd, Anna Semple, Eoghan Desmond, and James MacMillan. (These latter two set the same text, which gives us a nice opportunity to compare their different approaches to it.) The disc also includes a few older Newman settings of “Leady, Kindly Light” (W.H. Harris) and “Praise to the Holiest” (R.R. Terry), and is filled out with a few classics by Elgar. It’s a truly lovely disc with a pleasing mixture of romantic and modern music, and it does honour to a great man. The singing, as always with The Sixteen, is beyond criticism.

*

Weinberg: Sonatas for Solo Violin
Gidon Kremer
(ECM New Series, 2022)

It wouldn’t be another year without another outstanding recording of the music of Mieczylsaw Weinberg. Gidon Kremer has emerged as one of his most eminent champions, and on this ECM record he tackles the three sonatas for solo violin. This music has been recorded a number of times in recent years, and I recall that in 2016 I picked Linus Roth’s recording as one of my favourites. My comments about the qualities of the music on that occasion still apply. Not having done side-by-side comparisons of the two, I’ll not venture to make comparisons between Kremer and Roth, but suffice to say that this newcomer is excellent in every respect, and maybe has the edge sonically. The ongoing rediscovery of Weinberg’s music is one of the most cheering subplots in the world of classical music today!

*

Sisask: Gloria Patri
Chamber Choir Eesti, Anne-Liis Treimann
(Finlandia, 1994)

Urmas Sisask is an Estonian composer, still active, whose music I had heard in bits and pieces over the years, but whom this year I began to explore in earnest. The jewel from those explorations is his Gloria Patri…, a collection of 24 choral pieces on sacred texts. There’s are Marian hymns (Ave Maria, Ave Regina Caelorum, O Sanctissima), Eucharistic hymns (O salutaris hostia, Ave verum corpus), almost an entire Mass (only the Gloria is missing), and a variety of other things, even a Stabat mater! It’s a cornucopia, and the music is glorious. Sisask is of a younger generation than Arvo Part, and I think I can hear the latter’s influence in the crystalline textures and directness of expression, though the music is Sisask’s own. It is unfailingly lovely. A real discovery. The disc is filled out by Sisask’s large-scale (35 minute!) setting of the Magnificat, which is equally splendid.

*

Josquin’s Legacy
The Gesualdo Six, Owain Park
(Hyperion, 2021)

At the start of 2022, it had been some years since I’d been to a concert, not just because of the Covid-related matters, but because, you know, babysitters and all that, but this year my wife and I ventured out to hear the Gesualdo Six when they visited our parish. What a great evening it was! The first piece was sung from the back of the church, and I’ll not soon forget that first chord, so perfectly tuned, that made the hair on my neck stand up. And the rest of the night was no less fine.

Anyway, the programme that night was not exactly what we find on this disc, but there was a good deal of overlap. The music is structured around a year that Josquin spent at the court of the Duke of Ferrara, one of the musical hubs of Europe at the time. The music was either copied and performed there, or was written there, or was written by composers who spent some time there, or otherwise had some sort of relationship to it. Highlights include Josquin’s lament on the death of Ockeghem, Nymphes de bois, and his lovely Marian motet O virgo prudentissima. Wonderful music, gloriously sung, and a fine souvenir from a memorable evening!

*

Josquin: In memoria mea
Rebecca Stewart, Cantus Modalis, Seconda Prat!ca
(Carpe Diem, 2021)

Last year (2021) was the Josquin anniversary year, and in last year’s review I highlighted my favourites of the records made to mark that occasion, but here is one that I missed at the time. Rebecca Stewart here leads two ensembles, Cantus Modalis and Seconda Prat!ca (yes, the exclamation mark is part of the name), in a selection of unaccompanied choral music of Josquin, centered around his Missa mater patris. I have praised Rebecca Stewart in the past, when she directed other ensembles, and I am happy to do it again. Here is a musician who brings a highly personal musical vision and sensibility to the music of this period, without any gimmickry. Under her direction, the music has space to breathe, and it develops an intense inwardness, a sense of attention and contemplation. You might think this describes much music of this period, but I’m pointing out that this is something special, not at all standard issue. It’s a treasure, and my favourite of the records I heard this year.

Nymphes des bois, Graindelavoixed

September 2, 2022

The great, mad ensemble Graindelavoix have posted this week new footage of themselves singing Josquin’s Nymphes des bois. This wonderful piece was written as a lament on the death of Johannes Ockeghem, and the text is remarkable because it actually names Josquin, alongside several other composers who worked in Ockeghem’s shadow. It’s a heart-breaking piece that builds to a gorgeous “Requiescat in pace. Amen.”

Every early musical ensemble worth its salt has sung it, but nobody sings it like this. A typical performance lasts 4-5 minutes; Graindelavoix take almost 9, stretching it out, and pressing on the harmonies until the tension is nearly unbearable. But it serves the piece. They included Nymphes des bois on their most recent, award-winning [*] record Josquin the Undead.

Maybe you don’t care about Josquin, Ockeghem, or nymphs in the woods. You should still listen to a few minutes of this. It will haunt your dreams.

Nymphs of the woods, goddesses of the fountains,
singers renowned across all nations,
turn your voices most clear and high
to piercing cries and laments.
For the meddlings of Atropos
ensnare your Ockeghem in their rigidity,
the true treasure and masterpiece of music,
who from death no longer escapes,
for whom great mourning covers the earth.

Give them eternal rest, Lord,
and let perpetual light shine on them.

Put on your mourning clothes;
Josquin, Brumel, Pierson, Compère,
and weep heavy tears from your eyes;
you have lost your good father.

May he rest in peace. Amen.

[*] I gave it an award. 

Richard Taruskin, RIP

August 26, 2022

The great American musicologist Richard Taruskin passed away last month, and this week Alex Ross has written an appreciation in the New Yorker:

The imperiously brilliant music historian Richard Taruskin, who died on July 1st, at the age of seventy-seven, combined several qualities that are seldom found together in one person. He was, first of all, staggeringly knowledgeable about his chosen field. His near-total command of the history and practice of classical music engendered “The Oxford History of Western Music,” a five-volume, forty-three-hundred-page behemoth, which Taruskin published in 2005. His ability to hold forth with equal bravura on Gregorian chant, polyphonic masses, Baroque concertos, and Russian opera was grounded not only in profound learning but also in deep-seated musicianship.

His Oxford History of Western Music is one of the glories of my home library. Way back when, I wrote about it in this space, and at some length. It remains a staggering achievement, and it is probably the work for which Taruskin will be best and longest remembered, and rightly so.

Ross describes his interests as a scholar, his apparently prickly personality and pugilistic tendencies in argument, and also his (Ross’) own relationship with Taruskin over the years. He reminds us that Taruskin’s wide-ranging intellectual interest in music was always personal and passionate:

An underlying agenda of Taruskin’s work was his drive to convince nonspecialist readers that music mattered—not in some timeless fairy-tale realm but in the fraught lives of twentieth- and twenty-first-century people.

That is certainly the impression I took away from his books. RIP.

On Another’s Sorrow

June 27, 2022

William Blake’s poem “On Another’s Sorrow” is the last in his Songs of Innocence. It’s a long-time favourite of mine, and lately, because when I’ve not been comforting crying youngsters I’ve been nursing a baby bird back to health, it has been coming to mind frequently. I took some time to explore musical settings of the poem, and today I’d like to share a few.

First, let’s look at the poem briefly.

On Another’s Sorrow

Can I see another’s woe,
And not be in sorrow too?
Can I see another’s grief,
And not seek for kind relief?

Can I see a falling tear,
And not feel my sorrow’s share?
Can a father see his child
Weep, nor be with sorrow filled?

Can a mother sit and hear
An infant groan, an infant fear?
No, no! never can it be!
Never, never can it be!

And can He who smiles on all
Hear the wren with sorrows small,
Hear the small bird’s grief and care,
Hear the woes that infants bear —

And not sit beside the nest,
Pouring pity in their breast,
And not sit the cradle near,
Weeping tear on infant’s tear?

And not sit both night and day,
Wiping all our tears away?
Oh no! never can it be!
Never, never can it be!

He doth give his joy to all:
He becomes an infant small,
He becomes a man of woe,
He doth feel the sorrow too.

Think not thou canst sigh a sigh,
And thy Maker is not by:
Think not thou canst weep a tear,
And thy Maker is not near.

Oh He gives to us his joy,
That our grief He may destroy:
Till our grief is fled an gone
He doth sit by us and moan.

It falls into three sections, each of three stanzas. In the first we have the picture of the parents attending their child; in the second, the scene widens to consider God’s care of the world; and in the third, an affirmation of God’s solicitude toward those who suffer. The poem uses repetition very effectively: the prevalence of “can” questions in the first stanzas, the repetition of “hear” in the second section, and of “He” in the third. There are a variety of parallelisms that make the whole thing hold together really well. I can testify that when once memorized it rolls off the tongue easily.

*

Now let’s turn to some musical settings.

I think I first heard Greg Brown’s setting at least 25 years ago. His 1986 record, Songs of Innocence and of Experience, was the means by which I had my first introduction to Blake’s poetry, and I’m particularly fond of the music for this poem. (I add parenthetically that this record, though little-known, is a treasure, and highly recommended to everyone.) Brown captures the building momentum of the short lines very well. It goes like this:

Isn’t that wonderful?

*

The other folksy setting I found — that I liked — is by a group calling themselves simply Blake. This is the only song I’ve been able to find from them, so how and why this song came about is a bit of a mystery. But it is an effective setting of the poem, capturing the sorrow better than Brown’s setting does, and featuring some lovely harmonizations.

*

There have been quite a number of “high art” settings of the poem too. I think there’s a tension between the home-spun simplicity of the poetry and the trappings of high art, but let’s take a look at some attempts to join the two.

John Sykes was an Englishman (d.1962) who taught music and composed where and when he could; almost all of his music, including a substantial number of William Blake settings, was unpublished at his death and has only slowly found its way onto recordings. This setting of “On Another’s Sorrow”, for soprano and piano, is quite lovely. There’s nothing overly complicated about it — although the pianist cannot be a slouch! — and the musical structure respects the structure of the poem. I like this very much:

*

If that is a fairly minimal arrangement — just voice and piano — then at the opposite end of the spectrum, at the maximalist extreme, we find William Bolcom’s setting. Bolcom is an American composer who has produced a big body of often very interesting music, and his gigantic Songs of Innocence and of Experience is no exception. At about 2-1/12 hours in length, it’s big, bold, and brash, drawing on all manner of music traditions: big band, jazz, classical, even rock, and he gives it to a big orchestra and choir and a horde of soloists.

The setting of “On Another’s Sorrow” is only about 2 minutes long, but it captures the Bolcomian excess well enough. The herky-jerky rhythms are bizarre and the tune is maybe a little hard to remember. I don’t much like it, but it at least has the virtue of having character. Here we go!

*

But the best choral setting I found was by an American composer named Shawn Kirchner.  He captures the rhythms of the poem extremely well, and the choral writing is unfailingly lovely. It is been recently recorded by LA Choral Lab. (I can’t find it on YouTube, but I can embed this link to Spotify. If you have a Spotify account you’ll be able to hear the whole thing; if not, only 30 seconds, which is too bad.)

Josquin: Prolation canon

April 12, 2022

Among the many delights of the ars perfecta music that prevailed prior to the seventeenth century in Europe is the intricacy and mathematical subtlety of the counterpoint composers created. A particularly impressive sub-genre was the prolation canon, in which a specific musical idea was reproduced at different pitches and different tempos, but in such a way that it continued to harmonize beautifully.

If we conceive of a musical line as a set of ordered pitch relationships and a rhythmic pattern, then we have the freedom to play the “same” musical line at different starting pitches and different speeds. When these variations on the “same” music are played simultaneously, we have a prolation canon.

Johannes Ockeghem wrote an entire Mass using this virtuosic idea, but today I’d like to illustrate it using a section of the “Agnus Dei” from Josquin’s Missa L’homme armé. It is a three-part prolation canon, and this video shows the idea very clearly using the notation of Josquin’s time before switching to modern notation. Fascinating!

(Hat-tip: The Music Salon)

Musical anniversaries in 2022

January 3, 2022

There are a few notable musical anniversaries to celebrate this year. From a thorough list (Thanks again, Osbert) I have culled the following set:

Memorials

  • 10 years:
    • Richard Rodney Bennett
    • Elliott Carter
  • 50 years:
    • Havergal Brian
  • 350 years:
    • Heinrich Schutz

Birthdays

  • 100 years:
    • Iannis Xenakis
  • 150 years:
    • Alexander Scriabin
    • Ralph Vaughan Williams
  • 200 years:
    • Cesar Franck

As usual, I will structure some of my listening this year around these anniversaries. Franck’s music I do not know well, and it will be good to spend some time with his symphony and chamber music. Havergal Brian is the big, mad Englishman whose music has a genuine though maybe not entirely salubrious fascination; of his dozens of symphonies I’ll listen to at least a few. Schutz is a big name, but I struggle to love his music; time to give it another hearing.

But the big ones this year will be Vaughan Williams and Scriabin. The former is a favourite, and I’m greatly looking forward to spending lots of time with him: symphonies, songs, choral works, chamber music, even operas. Scriabin is more mercurial, but there are numerous famous recitals of his music by great pianists, and I’ll also give his orchestral music a try again, including the hyper-maximal, world-transforming Mysterium.

There is one birthday I will not be celebrating.

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.

***

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.

***

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”:

***

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.

***

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:

***

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:

***

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!

Music for Dante: The Divine Comedy III

November 25, 2021

We previously had a listen to Liszt’s Dante Symphony, which premiered in 1857. A few years later an Italian composer, Giovanni Pacini, wrote another symphonic work based on the Comedy. His Sinfonia Dante, which is not nearly as well-known, premiered in Florence in 1865 to mark the 600th anniversary of Dante’s birth.

This symphony is divided into the traditional 4 movements, with the first three dedicated to each of the three parts of the Comedy, and the final movement, entitled “Il trionfo del Dante”, a kind of musical encomium for the poet.

The reasons for its comparative neglect might be various — Italians, for instance, do not have a reputation for writing symphonies — but it’s plausible that the primary reason is simply musical. It’s a pleasant work but not a gripping one; it’s tuneful but not especially memorable. If you’re interested, you can hear the whole thing (~22 minutes) right here:

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Next time we’ll look at a few pieces based on the Divine Comedy that were written in the first decades of the 20th century.