Archive for the 'Music' Category

Pop music odyssey: the finale

April 20, 2016

At long last, about two years and 235 albums after it began, my pop music odyssey has come to an end. Rejoice!

This leg of the journey was the longest, covering the years from 2000-2016, and it consisted of 13 albums by Neil Young, 10 by Van Morrison, 6 each by Bob Dylan and Tom Waits, and 4 by Leonard Cohen.

During the 2000s (the actual 2000s, not this rehearsal of them) my interests had migrated away from popular music toward classical, and in consequence many of the records I’ve been listening to over these past few months have been new to me. There have been some really nice discoveries, Tom Waits’ Real Gone especially.

Having said that, it is also fair to say that the level of inspiration among my chosen few has been ebbing away during these years. There were few outright bad records, but there were quite an armful of mediocre ones, and it has been rather difficult to come up with a list of ten favourite albums.

Nonetheless, a tradition is a tradition, so let me propose the following list, arranged more or less in descending order:

Leonard Cohen – Ten New Songs (2001)
Van Morrison – Down the Road (2002)
Leonard Cohen – Old Ideas (2012)
Tom Waits – Orphans (2006)
Tom Waits – Alice (2002)
Tom Waits – Real Gone (2004)
Bob Dylan – Tell Tale Signs (2008)
Bob Dylan – Modern Times (2006)
Bob Dylan – Love and Theft (2001)
Van Morrison – Pay the Devil (2006)

Ten New Songs I consider to be one of Leonard Cohen’s best records, and maybe the only downright masterpiece on this list. Sonically it is quite spectacular, especially by his rather lacklustre standards, and the songwriting is consistently excellent. Van Morrison’s Down the Road is uneven, but it has a few real corkers on it and I love to put it on. Orphans was a 3-disc set of unreleased songs, fragments, and experiments, and it too is uneven, but gloriously so. Waits had all these songs lying around, and he went back into the studio to record them all afresh in his late, Cerberusian style, so there is a sonic consistency throughout even though the songs were written over the course of decades. It’s fun to try to guess which period each dates from. Dylan’s records in this period have been critically lauded, but for me they lean too much on the blues, and I’ve put them onto the list more or less in order to fill it up. I hate to say that, but it’s true.

**

It’s easier to come up with a list of ten favourite songs, and even to put them in rough descending order:

Dylan — “Ain’t Talkin'” (Modern Times)
Cohen — “Alexandra Leaving” (Ten New Songs)
Morrison — “The Beauty of the Days Gone By” (Down the Road)
Cohen — “Come Healing” (Old Ideas)
Waits — “Down There By The Train” (Orphans)
Cohen — “You Got Me Singing” (Popular Problems)
Morrison — “Once a Day” (Pay the Devil)
Waits — “Alice” (Alice)
Cohen — “In My Secret Life” (Ten New Songs)
Dylan — “Cross the Green Mountain” (Tell Tale Signs)

Dylan’s lawyers prevent me linking to his songs, which is a pity.

**

Odyssey MVP

At the outset I assumed that the MVP would be Bob Dylan. He’s my pop music pole star, and I built the odyssey around his music. But, here at the finish line, I’m inclined to give the palm to Van Morrison. He never reached the colossal heights that Dylan reached in the mid-1960s, but, then again, neither did anybody else, including Dylan over the subsequent decades. And Van Morrison never really had a bad patch; he’s been consistently good-to-great for decades.

And, by the phonebook test (“Who would you most want to hear sing the phonebook?”), it’s Van Morrison by a country mile.

I hereby name him the Odyssey MVP.

**

As a way of wrapping things up, let me point out a few examples of cross-referencing: instances in which one subject of the odyssey makes reference to another. There weren’t many that I noticed, but there were a few.

  • On A Letter Home, Neil Young covers Dylan’s “Girl From the North Country”.
  • In the song “Twisted Road” (from Psychedelic Pill) Neil Young sings about hearing Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone”.
  • On “Highlands” (from Time Out of Mind) Bob Dylan sings about “listening to Neil Young” (and everybody shouts at him to “turn it down”).
  • Bob Dylan and Van Morrison recorded a session of duets together.

So it would seem that it’s been mostly Young and Dylan trading cards.

**

This has a been a really rewarding project, and in a sense I’m sad to see it end. In another sense I’m glad, because I’m ready to move on to something else.

I’ve been mulling over a few other possible projects that I might start: Mahler symphonies (again), Schubert lieder (actually, I’m already doing this one), fifteenth-century music, Mozart’s operas, Johnny Cash, Hank Williams. Any suggestions?

All’s well that ends well

April 7, 2016

About 15 months ago I embarked on a little “listening project” to hear all of Beethoven’s piano sonatas, violin sonatas, symphonies, and string quartets in chronological order. Today I’ve finally finished, with his String Quartet No.16, Op.135. (Yes, I know he wrote the final movement of the Op.130 quartet afterwards, but never mind.) I’ve had a great time.

Here is the charming final movement of that last quartet, played by the Alban Berg Quartett:

Books briefly noted

February 23, 2016

A few quick notes on books I’ve read recently. The theme for today is Books With Subtitles:

veryshort-medievalMedieval Literature
A Very Short Introduction
Elaine Treharne
(Oxford, 2015)
144 p.

I acquired this book in the hopes that it would help extend my list of “to read” medieval literature. I was interested in learning about medieval masterworks a little off the beaten trail (viz. not Dante, Chaucer, or Malory). As such, I was fairly disappointed with the book, which makes only brief mention of particular works. Instead, the book takes a wide view of medieval literature, discussing its social context, some principal themes, methods of book production, and so on. It has a rather academic tone (“Literary spaces, literary identities” is the title of one chapter, for instance). This is fine; no doubt it was what the author was going for. It just wasn’t what I was looking for.

veryshort-classicalClassical Literature
A Very Short Introduction
William Allan
(Oxford, 2014)
135 p.

This is more like it. In an effort to organize my Greco-Roman reading lists, I nabbed this brief volume to get a bird’s eye view. I could hardly have done better. Allan gives a brief introduction to the historical and social context for classical literature, and then proceeds by genre — epic, lyric poetry, drama, historiography, oratory, pastoral poetry, satire, and novel — summarizing the principal features of each literary type and highlighting a few of the principal works. I didn’t need him to tell me about Homer or Herodotus, but I’m happy to have a better understanding of where Horace and Juvenal fit into the picture, not to mention Plautus and Petronius. My reading list is now in pretty good shape, I’d say. I faint to think how long it will take to get to all these books, but it is nice that there is always more to look forward to.

kapilow-what-makesWhat Makes It Great?
Short Masterpieces, Great Composers
Rob Kapilow
(Wiley, 2011)
314 p.

Rob Kapilow takes about twenty short pieces of music, mostly excerpted from larger works, and examines each of them in detail, highlighting the compositional techniques and describing the musical structure. The pieces are presented chronologically, beginning with the early eighteenth century (“Spring”, from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons) and finishing with the early twentieth century (“…Des Pas sur le Neige”, from Debussy’s Preludes). They range in length from about one minute (the ‘Trepak’ movement from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite) to ten minutes (Wagner’s prelude to Tristan und Isolde), with the median being around 3-4 minutes. The book is written at a level appropriate for a general reader with some musical education: each piece is illustrated with numerous excerpts from the score, so he assumes a competence with musical notation, and he uses some, but not too much, technical language to describe what the composer is doing. This is just the sort of mini-listening project that I relish, and it was enjoyable for me to see the musical logic of the various pieces unveiled. For instance, the piece by Debussy is one that I’ve heard numerous times, but I’d never stopped to appreciate the fact that it is based on such a simple musical idea, suitably varied and lavishly harmonized. Likewise, I’d not discerned the musical reasoning informing a little piece like Schumann’s Traumerei, or the way in which Bach’s Prelude in C grows from a tiny musical seed. The book is full of little insights into the craft of musical composition, and I found it very enjoyable.

physics-on-your-feetPhysics On Your Feet
Berkeley Graduate Exam Questions
Dmitry Budker & Alexander O. Sushkov
(Oxford, 2015)
216 p.

This was great fun. I did not have to take many oral exams during my graduate studies, but this book gives a flavour (minus the stress) of what I might have encountered. The authors have selected about sixty oral exam questions given to Berkeley grad students over the years, providing both the questions and, on the flip side, the solutions. The questions are drawn from across the spectrum: mechanics, fluids, electromagnetism, squalid state, nuclear & particle, astrophysics, optics, and molecular physics. Because of the oral exam context, none of the questions can call for lengthy calculations; more often they lean on physical intuition, approximations, and a basic (but wide) knowledge of principles. Which is not to say that they are easy! Admittedly, I have been out of the game for a decade now, and I am getting rusty, but these questions are meant to be challenging, and they succeed. Still, I enjoyed trying my hand at one question each day. I’d like to find another such book and continue the practice.

Messiaen and the celestial city

February 19, 2016

Alex Ross has a nice short essay in The New Yorker on Messiaen (Hat-tip: The Music Salon). Ross writes mostly about Des Canyons aux Étoiles…, the orchestral work Messiaen wrote about the Grand Canyon:

“Zion Park and the Celestial City,” the final movement of “From the Canyons to the Stars . . .” (1971-74), dwells for a short eternity on a hyper-luminous chord of A major. What makes it unlike any A-major chord in history is the noise that wells up within it: clanging bells, bellowing gongs, an upward-glissandoing horn, the sandy rattle of a geophone (a drum filled with lead pellets). This supreme consonance seems less to banish dissonance than to subsume it.

Ross writes that the continuing interest in Messiaen’s music “suggests that the composer is destined to be the next Mahler — a cult figure who becomes a repertory staple.” I hope so! A few years ago I missed hearing a live performance of his Turangalîla Symphony, and I’m still kicking myself.

Here is “Zion Park and the Celestial City”, featuring that wonderful A-major chord:

Musical anniversaries in 2016

January 12, 2016

I usually like to start the year by reviewing which composers will have significant anniversaries over the next 12 months. Here are notable birthdays and memorials coming up in 2016:

Birthdays

450 years

  • Carlo Gesualdo (1566-1613) [30 March]

150 years

  • Erik Satie (1866-1925) [17 May]
  • Ferruccio Busoni (1866-1924) [1 April]

100 years

  • Henri Dutilleux (1916-2013) [22 January]

Memorials

100 years

  • George Butterworth (1885-1916) [5 August]
  • Max Reger (1873-1916) [11 May]

10 years

  • György Ligeti (1923-2006) [12 June]

It’s a rather weak year, all things considered, with no ‘A-list’ composers. As such, we have a nice opportunity to explore the music of some lesser-known figures. Speaking for myself, I am planning ‘listening projects’ around the music of Satie, Gesualdo, Butterworth, and Dutilleux.

Related:

  • Read David Bentley Hart’s appreciation of George Butterworth, who died in the trenches at the Battle of the Somme.
  • Learn a little about Henri Dutilleux at The Music Salon (here and here).
  • Whatever you do, don’t waste your time with Werner Herzog’s film Gesualdo. Instead, buy this and listen over and over and over…
  • Let your soundtrack of 2016 include Satie’s Vexations, all 9+ hours of which can be heard right here: 

***

Of course, there are many other, even less well-known composers marking anniversaries this year, including Giovanni Paisello, Malcolm Arnold, Manuel Cardoso, and — if we stretch the definition of “composer” to the breaking point — Milton Babbitt. A full list can be found here (Thanks, Osbert.).

Happy listening!

Favourites of 2015: Classical music

December 30, 2015

Today the theme is classical music. Quite a few good records came my way, and I’d like to share a few words about my favourites.

levit-variationsI had occasion last year to praise Igor Levit’s recording of Bach’s Partitas, and this year he was back with another outstanding piano recital. I have a special affection for “theme and variations” compositions, and Levit tackles three of the most important: from the 18th-century, Bach’s Goldberg Variations, from the 19th-century, Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations, and, from the 20th-century, Frederic Rzewski’s The People United Will Never Be Defeated!.

Obviously it’s the last of these that is the least well-known. The theme of the work, and its title too, are taken from a rather catchy revolutionary Chilean song, and Rzewski puts it through a series of 36 virtuosic variations — from what I understand, this is much the most technically challenging of the pieces on this recording. I have heard only one other recording (of the mere handful available), by Marc-Andre Hamelin, and I’m not sure I’d want to choose between him and Levit. Nor, to be honest, will I return to Rzewski all that often.

The Diabelli Variations is an unqualified masterpiece, on the testimony of those who should know, but I confess that I’ve never been very enamoured of it. All that banging, Ludwig! Part of the problem is the theme: Beethoven was famously asked to contribute a single variation on a rather non-descript waltz, and replied instead with 32 variations of permanent musical importance, but I’ve always found them somehow too cold, too rigid, too downright Teutonic, boots high and elbows swinging, for my tastes. I’ve got a dozen or so recordings of the work in my collection, so I haven’t written it off easily, nor, to be clear, have I written it off yet. We’re still wrestling. With that in mind, I was keen to hear what Levit would do with it, and I must concede that his playing is marvellous. His careful dynamic control goes a long way to alleviating the overzealous banging that has marred other recordings for me, and there’s a certain rhythmic suppleness to his playing that is attractive.

But the principal reason why I want to praise this recording is for Levit’s Goldberg Variations. This is the summit of keyboard music for me, and Levit plays it beautifully. The contrapuntal lines are brought out with great clarity, the tempi are well-chosen, and the whole has a pristine quality, like clear water. One of the things I most appreciate about Levit is the sense of concentration he brings to his playing, a feeling that he is right inside the music: everything flows nicely, transitions are handled deftly, each note falls where it seems it should — everything just makes sense, musically. Those qualities are very much in evidence in Levit’s performance here. It doesn’t dislodge my favourite recording of this piece (by Murray Perahia), but it is undoubtedly a superb interpretation of inexhaustible music.

***

part-tallisThis year was a special year for Arvo Pärt, who celebrated his 80th birthday in September. There were a number of fine recordings of his music issued over the course of the year, but to my mind the finest of them came from an unexpected source: the Tallis Scholars! They are one of the world’s most admired choral ensembles, but over their 40 year history I believe this is the first time they have recorded music not by medieval or Renaissance composers. It’s a very pleasant surprise, and it makes sense too: Part’s music owes a great debt to the music the Tallis Scholars usually sing, so why wouldn’t they sing his music beautifully too? They’ve chosen a nice program: the seven Magnificat antiphons, the Magnificat itself, the jaunty Which Was The Son Of…, then Nunc Dimittis, two of Part’s gospel narrations (The Woman With the Alabaster Box and Tribute to Caesar), his beautiful setting of I Am The True Vine, and they close with the inward-looking Triodion. The voices throughout are crystal clear, tuning impeccable, pacing well-judged, and, most importantly with Pärt’s music but hard to articulate and harder to achieve, they let the sound of the music be in a kind of dialogue with the silence that surrounds it. Not every choir can pull that off.

***

macmillan-luke-passionJames MacMillan — or, I suppose, Sir James MacMillan — is one of the most consistently rewarding contemporary composers, and this year saw the release of the first recording of his St Luke Passion. MacMillan has written a fair amount of music for Holy Week, including a St John Passion and a scintillating Seven Last Words from the Cross. His St Luke Passion is a work for orchestra and chorus, lasting about 70 minutes in performance, and is divided into three parts: a short prelude on the Annunciation that is addressed to Our Lady, then a long central section in which he sets, word by word, chapters 23 and 24 of St Luke’s Gospel, and finally a postlude which draws on texts associated with the Resurrection and Ascension. MacMillan makes the unusual decision to set the words of Jesus in the higher registers (children’s voices) and the words of characters in the story, including Pilate, in the lower registers; this is the opposite of the usual pattern in Passion settings. The part of the Evangelist is sung by a male choir. The word setting is largely homophonic, except for the sayings of Jesus, on which he lavishes some lovely choral writing. There are a few problems on this recording with intelligibility of the texts; the words are familiar to me but even so I sometimes had trouble following if I simply listened. But the whole work is outstanding: vigorous, passionate, confident, and devout; and well worth hearing.

***

vox-silentii-memento-meiI listen to a fair bit of chant, and I have had occasion to recommend particularly good chant recordings in the past. This year is no exception, for this year I discovered the ensemble Vox Silentii, which hails from Finland. Vox Silentii is Hilkka-Liisa Vuori and Johanna Korhonen. They take an approach to chant that I think I have not encountered before: chant is, by its nature, a public music, meant to be sung during the sacred liturgy, and it is typically performed with sizable ensembles adhering to a fairly regular rhythmic plan, but Vox Silentii treat this music as a kind of personal disclosure, an intimate offering that might be arising directly from the heart in prayerful silence. That’s paradoxical, but I’m not sure how to say it more aptly. The singing is quiet and still, gently arising from silence and returning to it, the two voices wonderfully responsive to one another. The two discs which I heard, both of which I can recommend wholeheartedly, are Nox Lucis, a disc of Christmas chants, and Memento Mei, a disc of Easter chants. Mesmerizing.

***

hildegard-vox-cosmicaAn unexpected delight this year was a superb disc devoted to the music of the most recently-named Doctor of the Church: Hildegard von Bingen. Over the past few decades Hildegard’s music has become quite well known, and the catalogue now contains a substantial number of recordings, but this new disc, titled Vox Cosmica, stands out as something special. For one thing, it is sung principally by Arianna Savall (daughter of early music royals Jordi Savall and Montserrat Figueras), whose clear, radiant soprano is perfectly suited to these soaring vocal lines, lending them a gentle ecstatic quality. She is supported by an ensemble called Hirundo Maris, who play a curio-shop of unusual instruments: hardingfele, monochord, tromba marina, nyckelharpa, Roman bells, and lyra, not to mention the usual fiddles, flutes, and harps. Hildegard didn’t write musical accompaniments for her songs, so these are presumably improvised, and they provide a quietly shifting background on which the voice floats. “Inauthentic”, perhaps, but I have no objections to re-creations of old music when done as sensitively and imaginatively as this. The disc features five of Hildegard’s songs, plus a performance of Peter Abelard’s Planctus David, sung by Petter Udland Johansen. Between the medieval compositions are a set of original instrumental “meditations” by Johansen. These are not strictly in the medieval manner, for the creative exchange between past and present is part of the appeal of this project, but neither are they stylistically jarring. I thought they worked quite effectively as interludes. Taken together, this makes for a rewarding hour of listening.

***

haydn-early-londonMy favourite orchestral music of the year comes from an old recording first issued in the late 1960s: George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra’s performances of Haydn’s early London symphonies (Nos.93-98). Haydn’s symphonies are often overlooked, being overshadowed in the popular imagination by Mozart’s and Beethoven’s, but they are delightful and worth getting to know. Haydn’s musical imagination was always active, and his symphonies, though very numerous, are full of fresh ideas. In his London symphonies he’s as good as he ever was. The Cleveland Orchestra is a full-bodied modern orchestra (this recording was made before the period-instrument movement really got off the ground), and they lend Haydn’s music plenty of weight and presence, but without sacrifice of clarity. These recordings have been beloved for decades, and I understand why.

***

christian-gerhaher-2014-nachtviolen-compact-discThis Schubert recital is something of a souvenir for me this year. Back in February I was able to attend a concert in which Christian Gerhaher, accompanied from the piano by Gerold Huber, sang Schubert’s Winterreise. I had been looking for a good opportunity to hear this song-cycle in live performance for a long time, and I was not disappointed. Gerhaher has enjoyed critical plaudits across the board, with good reason. It was the best concert I went to this year. True, it was also the only concert I went to this year.

Nachtviolen is a collection of Schubert’s songs, none of which are taken from Winterreise, but all of which are worth hearing in Gerhaher’s hands. They range from the early An die Nachtigall, written when Schubert was a teenager, to the late Herbst, written sometime during the last year of his life. The singing throughout is immune to criticism, and the sound quality is excellent. There was another Schubert recital I greatly enjoyed this year, a live recording of Ian Bostridge and Julius Drake, and I went back and forth about which of them to prefer for this list. In the end I chose Nachtviolen on the strength of its superior recorded sound.

***

aquilonisThe title of this disc, Aquilonis, means “north wind”, and it is a fitting title for this collection of cool and crisp music from the Scandinavian women of Trio Mediaeval. Glancing over the program, it would seem unlikely to cohere: we have Italian sacred songs from the 12th century, English carols of the 15th century, a handful of pieces by contemporary composers, Norwegian folk songs, and self-composed instrumental interludes, all structured around the 14th-century Icelandic Office of St Thorlak, the patron of Iceland. The miracle is that it does sound like a unified program, and a gorgeous one too. Those who know Trio Mediaeval’s earlier recordings know that they sing with perfect precision and a slightly chilly tone, making the music sounds as though carved from ice. It’s very appealing. Perhaps the most interesting music on this disc are the new compositions, written specifically for Trio Mediaeval by Anders Jormin, Andrew Smith, and William Brooks. Smith, especially, is a composer who impresses me: he writes modest but superbly well-crafted miniatures, and seems (based on there and other pieces I have in my collection) to be drawn to sacred texts. (On this recording he sets Ave maris stella, Ave regina caelorum, and Ioseph fili David). I’d like to know more about him. If I have one complaint about Aquilonis it is that while it coheres musically, it is hard to see the thematic connections between Christmas songs, St Thorlak, fragments of Virgil, Marian hymns, and Norwegian folk. It feels like a jumble. As was the case with their mentors, The Hilliard Ensemble, Trio Mediaeval often seems to treat the pieces they sing as objet d’art, without reference to what the songs are about. That detracts a little from my enjoyment, but I’m willing to forgive such defects when they sing like this. [Hear excerpts]

***

sokolov-fugueThis year I discovered the Russian pianist Grigory Sokolov. (Hat-tip: Bryan Townsend) Sokolov has made only a few recordings over the course of his long career, all of them live recordings, I believe, and so he has not been well-known to record collectors, including myself. But he is a magnificent pianist. He cites both Rubinstein and Gould as important influences, and I think that helps to convey the qualities of his playing: rhythms are sprightly, counterpoint is clear, but the tone remains warm. This year he had his first major-label release, The Salzburg Recital, with a nice program principally of Mozart and Chopin. I enjoyed it, but I also acquired a few of his earlier recordings, and it has been hard for me to decide between his Chopin, his Schubert sonatas, or his Art of Fugue as my favourite. I’m going to go with Art of Fugue. In any case, I’m so pleased to have discovered him.

***

cantigasThe Cantigas de Santa Maria are a collection of vernacular songs compiled in the thirteenth century under the Castilian king Alfonso X el Sabio. It is the largest such collection in existence, consisting of over 400 songs, most of them narrating miracles of the Blessed Virgin. Selections from the collection have been recorded by many different ensembles over the years. I have 8 or 10 such in my collection, but I have never enjoyed one as much as I have enjoyed this one from Hana Blazikova and companions. The early music ‘movement’ is now several generations old, and the best of the young musicians evince a suppleness and gracefulness in their performances borne of familiarity with the musical idiom that was largely absent in the playing of the early music pioneers. This ensemble has that sense of familiarity and comfort in spades. This sounds like natural music-making, not a self-conscious revival of old music. They use authentic instruments of course — gothic and renaissance harps, percussion, and something called a dulcis melos — but they play them as if to the manner born. I can’t resist noting that the recording was made in the wonderfully-named Church of Our Lady under Chain at the End of the Bridge, in Prague. I’m sure they didn’t choose that venue for the name, but for the sound, which is excellent. This is an outstanding disc on every count, and worth hearing.

***

togni-responsioI would also like to praise two very interesting new records that engage with the music of the great medieval composer Guillaume de Machaut. The first is Responsio, by the Canadian composer Peter Togni, in which he has entered into a kind of dialogue with Machaut’s Messe de Nostre Dame. The foundation for Togni’s music is Machaut’s own four-part polyphony, into which Togni has woven a musical line for a bass clarinet (played on this recording by Jeff Reilly). The clarinet part, which is at least partly improvised, disrupts the smooth course that the voices would otherwise follow: modern dissonances and rhythmic aberrations crop up, diverting Machaut’s music into unexpected eddies and alternate courses before it finds its way again. Togni has also written original music for the Introit and a series of “responses” between the movements of the Mass. It’s a fascinating exercise, ably executed by a cast of four wonderful singers, and recommended to listeners who know Machaut’s Messe well. If I were ever to venture into composition (which, for lack of talent, I shall never do) a project like this is what I would want to try.

machaut-holligerThe second recording presents a selection of Machaut’s music alongside “transcriptions” by Heinz Holliger. I have to use the scare quotes because these are far from straightforward transcriptions. The distance between Machaut’s originals and Holliger’s reinventions is sometimes so great as to be inaudible, at least to this listener. Yet, even so, there is again something fascinating about the exercise, which one feels has been a labour of love; and anyone who loves Machaut is a friend of mine. The disc pairs performances of Machaut, ravishingly sung by the Hilliard Ensemble, with Holliger’s creative interpretations, scored for voices and violas. Spiky dissonances and all, this is a treat.

***

Other outstanding recordings:

Schnittke_PsalmsSchnittke: Penitential Psalms
SWR Vokalensemble Stuttgart
Marcus Creed
(Hanssler)

I have long treasured an old ECM recording of these choral pieces sung by the intrepid Swedish Radio Choir; its only real flaw is that the recorded sound is somewhat distant. On this new record the SWR Vokalensemble Stuttgart grapples manfully with the serious technical challenges of this music, and though I don’t think they quite match the fluency and ease of the Swedes, they do have the benefit of superior sound. I listened side by side to the two recordings to try to choose a favourite, and I couldn’t quite decide. Both are very good indeed.

weinberg-symphony10Weinberg: Symphony No.10
Amadeus Chamber Orchestra of Polish Radio
Ewelina Nowicka
(CPO)

Over the past few years I’ve fallen in love with the music of Mieczyslaw Weinberg. This year saw the release of a number of discs of his music — including a first recording of his opera The Idiot — but I kept returning to this fine collection of orchestral music, which includes his Symphony No.10, the very engaging Concertino for violin and string orchestra, and the winsome Rhapsody on Moldavian Themes. It’s a nice collection that shows off Weinberg’s orchestral writing to good effect.

puccini-kaufmannPuccini: Nessun Dorma
Jonas Kaufmann
Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia
Antonio Pappano
(Sony)

A couple of years ago in my year-end review I praised Jonas Kaufmann’s Wagner recital; this year he returned with a fantastic collection of arias by Puccini. The programming is interesting: rather than focus just on the big hits, Kaufmann sings at least one aria from each of Puccini’s operas, so that while we do get the big numbers from Turandot and La boheme, we also get to hear some rarely heard arias from Edgar andLa Rondine. Kaufmann is in wonderful voice. Antonio Pappano directs the orchestra, so you know this is top shelf from start to finish.

contrapunctus-midstIn the Midst of Life
Contrapunctus
Owen Rees
(Signum)

It was also two years ago that I praised a previous recording by the choral ensemble Contrapunctus. On this new disc they sing music from the Baldwin Partbooks, one of the relatively few surviving sources for English (though Latin-texted) polyphony of the sixteenth century. All of the pieces selected for this disc are on the theme of mortality in one way or another, concluding with John Sheppard’s massive Media vita. This music is mostly quite familiar to enthusiasts, but Contrapunctus sing it so beautifully, with a clear, clean blend, that it seems new again. Gorgeous.

Favourites of 2015: Popular music

December 29, 2015

This year almost all of my popular music listening was devoted to that on-going pop music odyssey, and I didn’t go out of my way to listen to a lot of new records. In other words, to the extent that there was any good popular music this year, I probably don’t know about it. As such, you might wish to stop reading now.

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dylan-shadowsIt was a good year to be a Bob Dylan fan. Early in the year he released Shadows in the Night, a disc devoted to covering songs associated with Frank Sinatra. If that seems like an intriguing combination to you, and if you’re keen to transmute a voice of gold into a voice of lead, you’re not alone: it received good reviews. I confess it is not really my thing. Sinatra’s music is a big blind spot for me, and Shadows in the Night hasn’t convinced me to rush to change that. I think of this record as a minor side-project, rather like (though not nearly so loveable as) his Christmas album.

dylan-cuttingNo, the really exciting Dylan record this year was The Bootleg Series, Vol.12: The Cutting Edge, 1965-66, a set of studio outtakes from the recording sessions for Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde on Blonde. Popular music doesn’t get any better than those three records, and exploring these alternate versions and previously unreleased songs has been a thrill. The Cutting Edge has been issued in a 2-disc sampler version, a 6-disc “deluxe” edition (which is the one I have), and, if you can believe it, an 18-disc collector’s edition. Included in the set are a long-rumoured but heretofore unreleased electric version of “Desolation Row”, a full-band version of “Mr Tambourine Man”, a superb acoustic “She Belongs To Me” taken as a gentle andante, and many other delights. One disc is devoted entirely to outtakes of “Like A Rolling Stone”. There are even a few songs (some fragmentary) in this set that I’d never heard before: “Jet Pilot”, “Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window?”, “California”, “Medicine Sunday”, and “Lunatic Princess”. One of Dylan’s most famous unreleased songs — and, I am tempted to say, one of his best — is “She’s Your Lover Now”, a version of which appeared on the very first Bootleg Series issue back in the 1990s, but on this set we get a handful of other takes, some of them quite different. For years it has been an entertaining parlour game to try to complete the stanza in which the previously-released recording faltered and broke down:

Your mouth used to be so naked,
Your eyes used to be so blue,
Your hurts used to be so nameless,
And your tears used to be so few.
Now your mouth cries wolf
While…

While what?! On The Cutting Edge we finally find out how it ends. And if you’ve ever dreamed about what it would have been like to eavesdrop on Dylan as he first strummed out one of his masterpieces, the very last track in this set, a quarter-hour long, tentative first airing of “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands”, will be a dream come true, as it was for me.

To move from Dylan circa 1966 to anything else is inevitably to make a precipitous decline, but let’s look around and see what else came my way this year.

sufjan-carrie-lowellSufjan Stevens returned with Carrie & Lowell. After pulling out all the musical stops on his previous record, The Age of Adz, here he retreats to a quiet, dark corner to pluck out a collection of intimate songs about memory, family, and death — the record was written, I believe, following the death of his mother. It is a difficult record, thematically, though sprinkled with moments of grace here and there, and all that pain is transmuted into a quiet beauty by the simple arrangements and gentle melodies. When I first heard the record I did find it disappointing, not because of the spare sound (which I generally prefer to something more ambitious), but because the songs sounded too much alike. On further acquaintance, however, I withdraw this objection, and the record has been growing on me. And if I want to cleanse my pallet at record’s end with something more jovial, I can always take a ride on the “Christmas Unicorn”.

**

fullbright-songsIt is fitting that John Fullbright’s sophomore record (from 2014) is called, simply, Songs; he is a young songwriter of considerable gifts. Blessed with a nicely-rounded baritone, an instinct for good melodies, and enough heartbreak and melancholy to satisfy even the most exacting critic, he comes across as a genuine artistic force to be reckoned with. Most of these songs, influenced variously by the blues and the classic American songbook, are on the quiet side, with acoustic guitars and pianos in the foreground, though a few tracks do get the full band treatment. There is an intensity and a modesty — nothing too flashy — about his songwriting that I admire, and I’m going to be keeping an eye on him in the future.

**

The biggest disappointment of my year was unquestionably Mumford & Sons’ Wilder Mind. The first disappointment was that there was to be a third Mumford & Sons record at all; as much as I’d enjoyed their previous work — and I had — it was, and is, my view that Mumford would do better if he disinherited his Sons. Nonetheless, if there must be a third record, I was keen to hear it. I bought it. I listened to it, once, and couldn’t bring myself to listen to it again for the next six months. Nearly all that had made them distinctive and interesting was thrown overboard in favour of amped-up stadium rock of the kind you can hear any hour of any day on your local Bland FM station. I could hardly believe my ears. What possessed them to do this, I don’t know — though I $uppo$e I can think of $ome po$$ible rea$on$. Late in the year I have returned to Wilder Mind to give it another chance, and I will say that it’s not quite as bad as I had initially thought. There are some catchy tunes, and a couple of the songs I rather like (“The Wolf” and “Only Love”, principally). But there’s no denying that it’s still a big disappointment.

**

adams-1989Perhaps the oddest release of the year was Ryan Adams’ 1989, a track-for-track cover of Taylor Swift’s 1989. He says he became interested in what it would sound like if Nebraska-era Springsteen were to sing Swift’s songs, and so he decided to find out himself — and a very creditable imitation he does too. Now, I am one of those who think that Nebraska-era Springsteen could sing any old dreck and it would sound pretty terrific, and Adams’ 1989 vindicates me to a considerable extent. Some of the songs succeed better than others, naturally. In any case, Adams is one of those singers whom you can’t help but respect: he’s been toiling away in the indie rock world for years now, famously prolific, but never hitting the big time. I can only imagine that this little project, in addition to being an interesting experiment, will do wonders for his bottom line, and I hope so.

**

Children’s Music: Let me put in a good word for Justin Roberts, who has a respectable stack of children’s records under his belt, but whom we just discovered this year. It was his Pop Fly record that we found first, after I heard it described as “the Sgt Pepper of children’s albums”. We all enjoyed it tremendously. From there we got Jungle Gym, and then Meltdown!, and with each new record my appreciation of his talents has grown. roberts-pop-flyHe writes songs that the kids can relate to: songs about field trips, having a broken arm, getting lost in a store, playing in a treehouse, playing baseball, crossing the street, having an imaginary friend, going to bed, liking trucks, riding a bike, getting a new baby sister, having a birthday, and that sort of thing. He has a wonderful way with words too; if your typical pop music songsmith was half as witty the world would be a better place. What really sets him apart, however, is the quality of his music: the melodies are catchy and the arrangements are often impressively intricate. It’s rare to hear this level of craftsmanship from a children’s entertainer. So: Justin Roberts, thank you for a good year; our van singing would not be the same without you.

**

Other good records I heard: Josh Garrels, Home; Josh Ritter, Sermon on the Rocks; Andrew Peterson, The Burning Edge of Dawn; David Ramirez, Fables; The Innocence Mission, Hello, I Feel The Same; Robby Hecht, Robby Hecht.

Songs, Both Ear-Worms and Things More Substantial: Sinead O’Connor: “Take Me To Church”; Tim McGraw: “Losin’ You”; John Fullbright: “All That You Know”; Lee Ann Womack: “Chances Are”; Justin Roberts, “Fruit Jar”; Robby Hecht, “The Sea and the Shore”; The Collection, “Scala Naturae”; Ashley Monroe, “Has Anybody Ever Told You”; Jason Isbell, “Flagship”, Josh Garrels, “At The Table”.

♪ ♫ Have yourself a very little Schoenberg ♬

December 23, 2015

Doing my best to avoid “dangerous and disgusting habits”, I am sticking with Advent music for another few days. Here is a nice discovery: “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming” arranged by, of all people, Arnold Schoenberg.

(Hat-tip: Ivan Hewett)

Rise up, my love, my fair one

December 21, 2015

A beautiful setting, by Healey Willan, of the first reading for today:

Pop music odyssey: the 1990s

October 27, 2015

It’s time for another checkpoint on my pop music odyssey. It has taken quite a few months for me to navigate this stretch, but here I am, safe and sound. This portion of the odyssey has included 12 records from Van Morrison, 8 from Neil Young, 6 from Bob Dylan, 5 from Tom Waits, 3 from Mark Heard, and just 1 (but a good one!) from Leonard Cohen. I also threw in a sampling of 3 records by Nick Cave (Let Love In, Murder Ballads, and The Boatman’s Call).

By the end of the 1990s, my companions on this pop music odyssey were getting on in years: Dylan was in his late 50s, Van Morrison and Neil Young were both 55, Tom Waits had reached 50, and Leonard Cohen was in his mid-60s. One might think that their creativity and ambition would be in decline, rock and roll being a young man’s game, and in some cases that expectation is born out. But all of them released at least one pretty great album in the 1990s, and a few of them were doing work at least as good as what had come before.

In fact, the music these men made in the 1990s is particularly close to my heart. I myself was 15 years old in 1990, and it was during this decade that I discovered each of these singers for the first time. The years 1991-92, in particular, are a kind of golden dream in my personal history of music appreciation: it was in those years that Van Morrison made Hymns to the Silence, Mark Heard made Second Hand, Tom Waits made Bone Machine and Leonard Cohen made The Future, and beyond the borders of this odyssey they were the years of great records from U2, R.E.M., The Tragically Hip, Lyle Lovett, Sting, Crowded House, and Pearl Jam. For me all of these records have an aura of wonder around them. I know their nooks and crannies. I honestly can’t say if they are as good as I think they are; I can only hear them with my 17-year old ears, and they sound pretty darn terrific.

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Not that there wasn’t some dross in the mix. Dylan launched his first LP of the decade with a contender for his very worst song (viz. “Wiggle Wiggle”), and his subsequent two records, on which he sang folk standards, were critically well-received but have never done anything for me. It seemed possible that Oh Mercy, in 1989, was to be his last hurrah. But then in 1997 he released Time Out of Mind, which is to my mind his best record since Blood on the Tracks, and, as it turned out, a record which inaugurated a bona fide late-career renaissance that continues, arguably, to this very day. In any case, I’ve loved Time Out of Mind since I first heard Dylan croak out the first line of “Love Sick”: I’m walking through streets that are dead. We understand implicitly that it was his voice that killed everything. Daniel Lanois, for all that he has been criticized for making all the records he produced sound the same, at least managed to get Dylan to record songs with arrangements and texture, something that was too often missing from the blunt-force approach to production that he used through much of the 1970s and 1980s. And “Tryin’ to Get to Heaven” and “Not Dark Yet” rank with the very best of the Dylan songbook.

*

Neil Young had ended the 1980s on a high note, with Freedom, and he opened the new decade with the same raucous noise (only more so). Later in the decade he would team up with Pearl Jam on some blistering rock and roll records. But my favourite records of the decade are the quiet ones: Harvest Moon in 1992 and Sleeps with Angels in 1994, the later being the mildest mannered Crazy Horse album on record, and one of the high points in Young’s discography, a record of rough-hewn beauty, even if it lacks any particularly great individual songs. As is often the case with Young, the sound is more entrancing than the substance.

*

The mouths of the best poets
Speak but a few words
And then lay down, stone cold,
In forgotten fields.

Well, I doubt that one of the best poets would write about mouths laying down, but, still, these lines of his come to mind when I think about Mark Heard, who passed away suddenly in 1992, and who was, I’ll wager, the best songwriter you’ve never heard of. As I said last time, he made three truly outstanding records in the early 1990s, of which the second, called Second Hand, is his masterpiece, and one of my all-time favourite albums. It’s a sort of miracle and a sort of tragedy that an album this intimate and desperate and honest found its way into the world through the “contemporary Christian music” portal; a miracle because the piety of the record, though very real, is not expressed in comfortable or comforting ways, and a tragedy because it didn’t find the audience it deserved. The music is stripped down to a few acoustic instruments, and Heard’s ragged tenor was never captured in better form. Indispensable.

*

Leonard Cohen released only one record in the 1990s: The Future. Despite its hokey instrumentation — it sounds as though it was made with one of those $50 electronic keyboards from Radio Shack — it contains some of his most ambitious songwriting, and he is in glorious sepultural voice. It is fair to say, I think, that it is the most political record he has made, for it contains two epic songs on broadly political and cultural themes (“The Future” and “Democracy”), and though I am normally averse to politics in song I don’t tire of these ones. “Closing Time”, his bouncy apocalyptic number, was a pretty big hit, and I have a very distinct memory of hearing these lines on the radio: “So we struggle and we stagger / Down the snakes and up the ladders / To the tower where the blessed hours chime”. Not much to look at when set down on paper, I suppose, but to my inexperienced teenaged ears, those lines convinced me that popular song could, in the right hands, aspire to be something like art. I don’t remember if I was already listening to Dylan and Waits at that point, but my encounter with Leonard Cohen’s The Future certainly catalyzed my interest in the craft of songwriting.

*

If I’m not mistaken, Hymns to the Silence was the first Van Morrison record that I really got to know. I can still remember reading the review, by Brian Quincy Newcomb, and thinking that I needed to find a way to hear it. It was not at all a bad entry point into Van’s music. The gauzy veil that had hung over much of his music in the 1980s was blown away on this record; everything was crisp and clear, and he was firing on most cylinders. Of course, being a sprawling double album it does have its share of sub-standard material, but they are the exception not the rule, and there are a handful of outstanding numbers. There is even a flute on a few tracks. (It is strange but true that Van Morrison only puts a flute on his very best songs; this is a fool-proof crutch for critics.) And the record contains my favourite rendition of a hymn by a pop music singer: he sings “Be Thou My Vision”.

*

It has been said that Tom Waits writes two kinds of songs: grand weepers and grim reapers. The two have never worked together to better effect than on Bone Machine, the record that I consider to be his masterpiece. The grand weepers, in “Who Are You?” and “Whistle Down the Wind”, are luxurious, and the grim reapers, in “Black Wings” and “Earth Died Screaming” and “Murder in the Red Barn” (and others! There are a lot of grim reapers on this record.), have never been more deliciously grim. And in “A Little Rain” he managed to combine the two kinds of song into one. It’s a terrific, terrific record — but too scary for the kids. (Still not as scary as Nick Cave’s Murder Ballads.)

*

Favourite cover songs: Van Morrison singing Don Gibson’s “I Can’t Stop Loving You” (Hymns to the Silence); Dylan covering Stephen Foster’s “Hard Times” (Good As I Been To You).

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Scariest song I’ve ever heard: Nick Cave’s “Song of Joy” (Murder Ballads)

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It is easy to come up with a list of ten favourite records for this decade. In rough descending order, I choose as follows:

Mark Heard — Second Hand (1991)
Tom Waits — Bone Machine (1992)
Bob Dylan — Time Out of Mind (1997)
Van Morrison — Hymns to the Silence (1991)
Leonard Cohen — The Future (1992)
Mark Heard — Dry Bones Dance (1990)
Neil Young — Sleeps with Angels (1994)
Mark Heard — Satellite Sky (1992)
Van Morrison — Enlightenment (1990)
Neil Young — Harvest Moon (1992)

The bottom five on that list are good, solid records, but the first five are knock-outs.

*

As for a list of ten favourite songs, it’s not at all easy to settle, and that because of an abundance of riches. My initial short list had 35 songs, so whittling it down to 10 has been no laughing matter. Nonetheless, here we are:

Van Morrison — “Avalon of the Heart” (Enlightenment)
Bob Dylan — “Not Dark Yet” (Time Out of Mind)
Mark Heard — “Treasure of the Broken Land” (Satellite Sky)
Mark Heard — “Look Over Your Shoulder” (Second Hand)
Tom Waits — “A Little Rain” (Bone Machine)
Bob Dylan — “Tryin’ to Get to Heaven” (Time Out of Mind)
Mark Heard — “Lonely Moon” (Second Hand)
Van Morrison — “Take Me Back” (Hymns to the Silence)
Leonard Cohen — “The Future” (The Future)
Mark Heard — “Worry Too Much” (Second Hand)

Oh, this is too cruel. Here are another ten:

Van Morrison — “Real Real Gone” (Enlightenment)
Tom Waits — “Whistle Down the Wind” (Bone Machine)
Van Morrison — “I Need Your Kind of Loving” (Hymns to the Silence)
Mark Heard — “Orphans of God” (Satellite Sky)
Bob Dylan — “Highlands” (Time Out of Mind)
Van Morrison — “High Summer” (Back on Top)
Van Morrison — “Hymns to the Silence” (Hymns to the Silence)
Tom Waits — “Murder in the Red Barn” (Bone Machine)
Mark Heard — “Nod Over Coffee” (Second Hand)
Leonard Cohen — “Closing Time” (The Future)

There; that’s better. But then there are these songs too:

Van Morrison — “Rough God Goes Riding” (The Healing Game)
Tom Waits — “Black Wings” (Bone Machine)
Leonard Cohen — “Waiting for the Miracle” (The Future)
Mark Heard — “House of Broken Dreams” (Dry Bones Dance)
Tom Waits — “House Where Nobody Lives” (Mule Variations)
Van Morrison — “Piper at the Gates of Dawn” (The Healing Game)
Neil Young — “Harvest Moon” (Harvest Moon)
Leonard Cohen — “Democracy” (The Future)
Mark Heard — “Dry Bones Dance” (Dry Bones Dance)
Van Morrison — “Carrying a Torch” (Hymns to the Silence)

Yes. Here is a YouTube playlist of all these songs.

*

What was the worst of this portion of the odyssey? I can’t say for sure just how bad it is because I’ve never been able to listen to it through, but I’m going to go with Van Morrison’s “In the Days before Rock ‘n Roll” (Enlightenment). I think I’m going to be sick. The worst album has got to be Dylan’s Under the Red Sky (or, under the red sky, if you care about typographical niceties).

*

I’ve not decided yet if I’ll take the remaining 15 years of the odyssey in one bite or two. Until next time…

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