Archive for the 'Music' Category

Great moments in opera: L’Orfeo

May 6, 2015

A dozen or so operas have been written on the tale of Orpheus and Euridice, including Jacopo Peri’s Euridice, sometimes said to be the first opera. But Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo, our subject for today, is better known, and justly beloved. It had its premiere in 1607, and so stands very close to the first flowerings of the operatic art.

In common usage the term “renaissance music” usually evokes the polyphonic music of Palestrina, Victoria, and Byrd, but it is a conspicuously poor usage, for that music, with all its resplendent wonders, is deeply rooted in and in continuity with medieval musical traditions stretching back to the 12th century. If the Renaissance is to be identified with a rebirth, and especially a rebirth drawn from Greek and Roman sources, then there is little of the Renaissance about polyphony.

But there is a Renaissance music nonetheless; we call it opera. The Venetian musicians who created it did it quite explicitly in an effort to revive the musical effects — if not the music itself, which was lost beyond recovery — described in Greco-Roman literary sources. They aimed for a form of heightened, expressive speech, and indeed this is one of the first things to strike a modern listener to these early operas. The Baroque bifurcation of opera into alternating recitative and arias had yet to happen; in Monteverdi’s day it was, more or less, all recitative: a declamatory style, respecting the rhythms of speech, with the music intended to heighten the rhetorical power of the words.

To get a feeling for what I mean, let’s hear some of it. The clips below are all taken from a splendid DVD production led by Jordi Savall. Here is the opening instrumental toccata, a brilliant flourish that sets a stately tone for what follows (listen to the first 2 minutes or so):

This is followed by a prologue in which the spirit of music — Orpheus’ muse, of course — sets the stage:

Singing with my golden Lyre, I like
To charm, now and then, mortal ears,
And in such a fashion that I make their souls aspire more
For the resounding harmony of the lyre of Heaven.

Hence desire spurs me to tell you of ORFEO:
Of ORFEO who tamed wild beasts with his song
And made Hades answer his prayers,
To the immortal glory of Pindus and Helicon

Early in Act II Orfeo sings Vi ricorda, ò bosch’ombrosi (Do you remember, O shady groves), in which he tells of his love for Euridice, who has turned all his sorrow into joy. This is one of the most tuneful sections of the opera; the clip has English subtitles:

But this happy scene is not to last. No sooner has Orfeo proclaimed his joy than a messenger arrives bearing ill tidings: Euridice, walking in a flowery meadow, was bitten suddenly by a snake:

Then we all, appalled and sorrowed,
Gathered around her, trying to call back
The spirits that grew faint in her,
With fresh water and with powerful charms,
But to no avail, ah alas,
For she opened her failing eyes a little,
And calling you, ORFEO,
After a deep sigh,
She died in these arms; and I was left,
My heart filled with pity and horror.

This is a long clip, but a wonderful one for the way in which it illustrates all the strengths of Monteverdi’s art: its sensitive word-setting, its emotional power, its smooth integration of solos and choruses, and its musical beauty. It starts with the entry of the messenger and continues to the end of Act II. English subtitles included:

We all know what happens next: Orfeo descends into the underworld to retrieve Euridice, but, turning back to look at her just as he leads her out, thereby loses her forever. The tragic ending is brightened, or spoiled, according to taste, in Monteverdi’s version, for as Orfeo laments Apollo descends and upbraids him for his tears, offering to take him to heaven. The offer once accepted, they ascend, and a final chorus sings a joyful song:

So goes one who does not retreat
At the call of the eternal light,
So he obtains grace in heaven
Who down here has braved Hell
And he who sows in sorrow
Reaps the fruit of all grace.

I don’t know the opera well enough to have a strong view on whether this finale mars what is, in my imagination, an inherently tragic story that ought to have the courage of its convictions. But I do know that L’Orfeo is a landmark in the history of Western music, and that time spent getting to know it cannot be wasted.

Psalm

March 24, 2015

There are certain passages of Scripture that have become permanently associated with a particular piece of music. I cannot hear the phrase “For unto us a child is born” without hearing Handel’s music dancing beneath it.

The Psalm at today’s Mass is another example. Psalm 102: “Hear my prayer, O Lord, and let my crying come unto thee”. I can never hear it without hearing Purcell’s poignant 8-part setting:

Pop music odyssey: the 1980s

March 15, 2015

***

Alright, enough of that.

I have completed another decade of my pop music odyssey, and I’m here to offer a few thoughts. The 1980s are, in my imagination, a kind of desolation for popular music, when the airwaves were ruled by — well, by nobody in this odyssey. Quite a few of the albums I listened to since my last report were new to me, so I have taken my time, listening to many of them numerous times in an effort to get a good sense of them.

This leg of the journey has been composed of 13 albums by Van Morrison (where, as usual, I count bootlegs and live recordings too), 12 by Dylan, 10 by Neil Young, 6 by Tom Waits, 5 by Mark Heard (about whom more below), and a pair each by Nick Cave and Leonard Cohen.

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In my notes on the 1970s I deftly skirted the matter of Dylan’s gospel records, but I suppose I should say something here. The gospel period began with 1978’s Slow Train Coming and continued up through … well, it’s not entirely clear. There is no doubt that Saved and Shot of Love belong in this group, and I think it is pretty clear that 1983’s Infidels also belongs, but things get a little hazier when we come to Empire Burlesque a year later. A case could even be made for Oh Mercy — indeed, a case could be made for every album he’s made since.

If we stick just with the least ambiguous cases, it is fair to say that I don’t greatly care for Dylan’s gospel records. Too often angry, too often hectoring, too often downright paranoid — I find little to like. I want to honour the sincerity of Dylan’s religious convictions, which burned up in short order the goodwill he had storehoused with critics and the left-leaning social elites who had cherished him in the 1960s. Songs like “I Believe in You” and “Pressing On” are obviously the work of a man who has turned to God with his whole heart. But I cannot help thinking it a pity that the Christianity into which he converted was in the Hal-Lindsay-laced apocalyptic style, suspicious and rather shallow. Perhaps it was fitting that this most iconic of American talents should adopt a characteristically American branch of religion, I don’t know. But I wonder sometimes, late at night, what might have come if that seed had fallen into richer, more balanced, more nourishing soil. We’ll never know.

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Dylan has never been scrupulous about putting his best music onto his records, but the 1980s were an especially unscrupulous period for him. You can count on the fingers of one hand the truly great songs he put on his records during these years: “Every Grain of Sand”, “I and I”, and a few from Oh Mercy. One could make a case for a few others: “Sweetheart Like You”, “Brownsville Girl”, depending on how generous one feels.

But then consider the songs he wrote and left off his records: “Angelina”, “Caribbean Wind”, “Blind Willie McTell”, “Born in Time”, “Dignity”, “Series of Dreams”, “Foot of Pride” — all of them pure gold. That, in a nutshell, is what makes Dylan in the 1980s such a frustrating listen.

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Favourite anecdote:

Dylan: “How long did it take you to write “Hallelujah”?

Cohen: “About two years. How long did it take you to write “Isis”?”

Dylan: “About fifteen minutes.”

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The plan all along was for this odyssey to focus on a core group of artists, but to pull in others as my fancy led. Thus a few Nick Cave records were included during this leg of the journey, but I also decided to fold in the music — more or less all of it — of Mark Heard. Heard was a songwriter and singer who toiled without much recognition in the “contemporary Christian music” world until his early and unexpected death in 1992. I wanted to include him because most of his early work (beginning in 1975) was unknown to me, and because in the early 1990s he made three truly outstanding records that can stand toe-to-toe with anything else in this odyssey. Maybe I just wanted to hear those records again, in context.

Anyway, I did backtrack to 1975 and listened all the way up through Mosaics, from 1985. (I wasn’t able to find his side-project record, Ideola, from 1987.) I admit I was disappointed. Heard started out as a kind of James Taylor character, plucking his guitar and singing in a sweet tenor. Production values on those early records are poor — the sound is generally thin and flat — and, what surprised me more, the songwriting is pedestrian. In his last years Heard became one of the most incisive and personal songwriters that I’ve ever encountered, but in the beginning he was, it seems, not that. Those early songs are mostly one-dimensional, overtly and rather carefully pious, sometimes hokey, and generally forgettable. But there were signs here and there of things to come: an evocative little song called “All the Sleepless Dreamers” popped up on Fingerprint (1980), and as the years passed his sound became rougher around the edges, the voice more ragged, and the songwriting more thoughtful and probing, until I could hear the whole Mosaics (1985) record as a bridge to his first masterpiece, Dry Bones Dance (1990). It was an interesting and rewarding side-journey, even if it didn’t turn up as much gold as I’d hoped it would.

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Most With Least Award: Van Morrison, “Daring Night” (from Avalon Sunset). There can’t be more than 3 or 4 lines in this song, but Van spins from them a pretty terrific 6 minutes of music.

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Neil Young in the 1970s was great; Neil Young in the 1980s was the opposite. Was he ever. Starting with 1980’s Hawks and Doves and continuing up through 1988’s This Note’s for You he released a string of 8 albums that could only be described as mediocre by an unusually generous listener. He seems to have temporarily mislaid his artistic identity, experimenting with whole records devoted to computer music (the execrable Trans (1983)), rockabilly (the likable but weird Everybody’s Rockin’ (1984)), and flipping from country to jazz to ill-judged synth-pop. A mess. And the songs were no good either, for the most part.

Now, it seems that at least part of the reason his music suffered so badly in this period was because, though he had a contractual obligation to release one record each year, his time and energy were absorbed in caring for his son, who had been born with a disability. In this sense his artistic declension was an honourable one, and I do not hesitate to praise his priorities, but honour and praise do not make the declension any less real.

He rallied, however, at the end of the decade, with Freedom, which saw him return to an even-more-crazed-than-usual Crazy-Horse style of fuzz-drenched rock. I’m not enamoured of the songs for the most part, but the sound of that record is outstanding: once again he is vital and passionate and really, really loud, and it suits him. “Rockin’ in the Free World” became a hit, making it perhaps the bitterest, most ironic stadium anthem ever written.

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Literary figures named in Van Morrison’s songs of the 1980s: Blake, Wordsworth, Rimbaud, Lawrence, Eliot, Whitman, Yeats, Donne, Coleridge, Gibran. That’s off the top of my head. Does Gibran count as a literary figure?

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The 1980s were an exciting time for Tom Waits. It was, arguably, the decade in which he did his best work, and in which he reinvented his sound. The down-and-out lounge poet was replaced by some kind of maniac wielding a monkey wrench and milk bucket and gargling razor blades. The transition was especially sharp between 1982’s Night on Earth soundtrack, with its orchestral score and gravelly love duets, and 1983’s Swordfishtrombones, with its bagpipes, bang-on-a-can percussion, and phalanx of (yes) trombones. It was a tremendously good move for Waits; it opened up a whole new world of sound and songwriting that he has explored for the rest of his career. And yet, as I listened through the records, the sharp lines between this and that began to blur a little. Swordfishtrombones was indeed a radical record, but Rain Dogs, from 1985, seemed to backpeddle a little and it is not too hard to hear continuity with 1980’s Heartattack and Vine, especially on the more “conventional” numbers like “Hang Down Your Head” and “Downtown Train”. Rain Dogs set a template for his future work, in which hallucinogenic croakings often sit comfortably cheek-by-jowel with endearingly downtrodden sentimental numbers. It’s a winning combination, and one unique to Waits.

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I am convinced that three songs on Dylan’s Oh Mercy are masterpieces, but which three varies day to day.

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As much as I count myself an admirer of Van Morrison, his records from the 1980s I have tended to neglect. Part of the fun of this odyssey is that I have opportunity to revisit and revise my thoughts, and I have been favourably impressed by these records.

I think it is fair to say that his mid-decade albums — from 1982’s Beautiful Vision up through 1987’s Poetic Champions Compose — suffer, if that is the right word, from a certain homogeneity. It is not always quite evident where one record ends and the next begins. Roughly speaking, the production values are slightly gauzy and there is a proliferation of mid-tempo musings. But if you can get past that the truth is that there are quite a few excellent songs to be discovered, and, more than that, there is a compelling through-line that makes of these records a unity greater than that afforded by mere musical similarities. He is stalking the holy. He is a dweller on the threshold of the transcendent. So many of these songs are about trying to grasp the ineffable, to behold a primordial beauty, to put himself in the way of ecstatic delight. “I’m a soul in wonder!” In these records — and it is a unifying thread through his whole catalogue, not just here — he is on an inner odyssey. And while it is true that he seems to be at heart beholden to the Romantic tradition of seeking a non-dogmatic transcendence (mediated most intensely through literature and art and nature), in his murky wanderings he does occasionally butt up against the solidity of religion. It’s a fascinating body of work, and I am thoroughly enjoying the time I am spending exploring it.

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I’ll close with some lists. First, my favourite odyssey-albums from the 1980s, in rough descending order:

Tom Waits — Rain Dogs (1985)
Bob Dylan — Oh Mercy (1989)
Tom Waits — Swordfishtrombones (1983)
Van Morrison — Avalon Sunset (1989)
Bob Dylan — Infidels (1983)
Van Morrison — No Guru, No Method, No Teacher (1986)
Leonard Cohen — I’m Your Man (1988)
Van Morrison — Beautiful Vision (1982)
Neil Young — Freedom (1989)
Van Morrison — Common One (1980)

The first four I consider essential. Not perfect, and not as masterful masterpieces as the same singers produced at other times, but they are records that I can, and do, listen to again and again, and they bear the scrutiny.

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Choosing a list of just ten favourite songs is tough, but since I am forced to do so by arbitrary convention, here I go:

Leonard Cohen — “If It Be Your Will” (Various Positions)
Bob Dylan — “Blind Willie McTell” (Infidels sessions)
Tom Waits — “Johnsburg, IL” (Swordfishtrombones)
Bob Dylan — “Foot of Pride” (Infidels sessions)
Bob Dylan — “Shooting Star” (Oh Mercy)
Bob Dylan — “I and I” (Infidels)
Van Morrison — “Summertime in England” (Common One)
Van Morrison — “When Will I Ever Learn to Live in God?” (AS)
Tom Waits — “Jersey Girl” (Heartattack and Vine)
Van Morrison — “In the Garden” (No Guru)

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What was the worst album in this leg of the odyssey? Going in I expected it to be Dylan & The Dead, the concert album that Dylan recorded with the Grateful Dead in 1987. I’d never heard it, but its noxious reputation has achieved canonical status. To my surprise, I found it not all that bad! Bad, yes, but not greatly worse than many of his other live albums, and — more to the point — nowhere near as bad as Neil Young’s Trans, as ill-conceived and unlistenable a record as I have ever heard. It takes the broken palm.

As for worst song, I’m going to stick with Neil Young again. So many candidates! How about “T-Bone”, from Re-ac-tor (1981)? There is just one line in the song: “Got mashed potatoes, ain’t got no T-bone”, repeated ad nauseum. The song is over nine minutes long.

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Next time: the 1990s.

Visual tintinnabulation

March 5, 2015

The Tallis Scholars, in a rare foray outside of their usual Renaissance repertoire, have just issued a disc of Arvo Pärt’s music. Here is the group’s long-time leader, Peter Phillips, describing some of it. The video has a nice way of visualizing the music by showing which singers are singing at any one time. It’s entrancing.

Varieties of wild mountain avalanche

January 21, 2015

Today I’d like to share a couple of curiosities that I have encountered during my pop music odyssey. I am currently working my way through the music of the early 1980s, which means that I am shuffling into the deck, for the first time, the music of Nick Cave. Tonight I began listening to his debut solo album, From Her to Eternity, the very first song of which is a cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Avalanche”.

This is interesting because although both Cohen and Cave are singing the same song, the songs are radically different. Each singer has stamped it with his own distinctive personality. Cave, in particular, has taken the song and made it totally his own. In my experience, this degree of assimilation of a cover song, in which a singer seems to inhabit and alter a song that we already thought we knew, is quite rare. And I like it.

Actually, to be strictly honest, I don’t like Cave’s version, just as I don’t like being threatened and frightened in a dark alley, and for much the same reasons. Cave scares me. But I admire what he’s done; I like that he is a force to be reckoned with.

Let’s hear the songs. Here is Cohen’s original:

And here is Cave’s version:

This is not the first time this phenomenon of the absorbed, pondered, and reborn cover song has impressed me during my odyssey. Back in the early 1970s I came across a Van Morrison song that I had not noted before, and I loved, loved, loved it. The song was “Purple Heather”, and it was a thing of beauty:

I heard the song numerous times before I realized that it was a song I already knew: the old folk song “Wild Mountain Thyme”, but so thoroughly and idiomatically reinterpreted so as to be almost unrecognizable. It’s a wonderful thing.

If you don’t know the original, here it is, sung by Emmylou Harris, Dick Gaughan, Rufus Wainwright, and Kate and Anna McGarrigle. That’s a room full of talent if I’ve ever seen one.

Musical anniversaries in 2015

January 14, 2015

Every year I like to survey the major composer-related anniversaries that the upcoming year has in store. There’s a comprehensive list here. (Thanks once again, Osbert.)  Those I am likely to observe in one way or another are:

Birthdays

850 years

  • Philippe le Chancelier (c.1165-1236)

550 years

  • Richard Davy (1465-1507)
  • William Cornysh (c.1465-1523)

500 years

  • John Sheppard (1515-1558)
  • Cipriano de Rore (1515-1565)

350 years

  • Elisabeth-Claude Jacquet de la Guerre (1665-1729) [17 March]

150 years

  • Jean Sibelius (1865-1957) [8 December]
  • Alexander Glazunov (1865-1936) [10 August]
  • Carl Nielsen (1865-1931) [9 June]

100 years

  • David Diamond (1915-2005) [9 July]

In my books, the big birthday this year is Sibelius’ 150th; I’m planning a fairly extensive listening project to celebrate it. I have long wanted to be better acquainted with his symphonies, and this is a good chance. I include Jacquet de la Guerre because she is one of a very few female composers to have entered the ranks. Sheppard and Rore are polyphonic masters; I never need a good reason to listen to them, but I’ll take one anyway. The same should be said of the lesser-known English composers Davy and Cornysh, who belong to the deliberately obscured generation writing just prior to the English reformation. Philippe le Chancelier was a poet whose work influenced the Notre Dame school of polyphony; whether he was himself a composer is not clear, but it will be nice to remember his birthday anyway.

Memorials

800 years

  • Bertrand de Born (c.1140-c.1215)

700 years

  • Ramon Llull (1232-1315)

500 years

  • Antoine Brumel (1460-1515)

450 years

  • Cipriano de Rore (1515-1565) [September]

100 years

  • Alexander Scriabin (1872-1915) [27 April]

I suppose the big memorial for this year is Scriabin’s. It will give me a chance to re-visit that big set of piano sonatas (with Marc-Andre Hamelin at the helm). Maybe, just maybe, I’ll even listen to the Poem of Ecstasy. Rore also has a memorial this year, so it will be doubly-difficult to overlook him. Ramon Llull was a polymath but not principally a composer; nonetheless, a contemporary source indicates that he “was given to composing worthless songs and poems”, so he makes the list. Bertrand de Born was one of the most eminent troubadours of his age; I certainly intend to spend some time with him and his music this year.

Happy listening!

Favourites of 2014: Classical music

January 8, 2015

I had a good and rewarding year of listening. Much of my time was devoted to a few listening projects: for the Strauss anniversary year I listened to a big chunk of his operas (some of which I wrote about), and I listened chronologically to the symphonies and string quartets of both Shostakovich and Mieczyslaw Weinberg. In the cracks between these slabs, I enjoyed quite a few new, and new-ish, releases. Of those, the following were my favourites:

hilliard-transeamusTranseamus
The Hilliard Ensemble
(ECM New Series, 2014)

In December 2014 the Hilliard Ensemble gave their final concert, finally hanging up their tuning forks after 40 years of exquisite music-making. Though they long since parted ways with their founder, Paul Hillier, and though the membership of the four-man ensemble has changed over the years — countertenor David James being the only original member still singing — they sustained a remarkably consistent sound and sensibility, and few, if any, vocal ensembles could match their technical excellence and artistic adventurousness. Their work has been important to me personally. I had the privilege of hearing them live on two occasions, one of which (a performance of Arvo Part’s Miserere) I count among the great concert-going experiences of my life, and my music collection is littered with dozens of their recordings, many of which I hold close to my heart. I am sad to see them go.

The Hilliard Ensemble has had two principal artistic faces: they are specialists in medieval and renaissance polyphony, and the bulk of their recorded legacy has been devoted to exploring that music, but they are also well-known for commissioning and championing the work of contemporary composers, most especially that of Arvo Part. On Transeamus, said to be their final recording, they return to their roots with a collection of carols from late medieval England. Some of the finest pre-Reformation English composers are represented, including William Cornysh and John Plummer, but most of these pieces are anonymous. The performances are excellent and frequently superb; I might prefer a little more swing in a jaunty carol like “Thomas Gemma Cantuariae” (Paul Hillier’s earlier recording with Theatre of Voices is my touchstone here), but hearing the Hilliards singing “Ecce quod natura” or Sheryngham’s marvellous “Ah, Gentle Jesu” makes clear why they have been ranked with the world’s great vocal ensembles. I miss them already.

[Info] [Review]

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bach-levitBach: Partitas
Igor Levit
(Sony, 2014)

These days it can sometimes seem that the major classical labels do little more than reissue recordings from their glory days, or, when they do issue new recordings, their roster of artists seems to have been chosen based more on consideration of shapely figures than of artistic excellence. But then along comes a pianist like Igor Levit to undermine all such gloomy ruminations. Still in his 20s, he made his recording debut last year with a much praised recording of the late Beethoven piano sonatas, and this year he followed it with this set of Bach’s six partitas (BWV 525-30). These pieces don’t get as much attention as the Goldberg Variations or the Well-Tempered Clavier, much less Beethoven’s late sonatas, but Levit opens them up in a way that I have never heard before. As usual it is hard to put one’s finger on just what sets one pianist apart from another, especially at elite levels where technically proficiency is assured, but nonetheless Levit’s playing has a special quality: muscular, poised, self-effacing, but yet somehow intensely inward-looking and contemplative. I find him mesmerizing, and heartily recommend this superb recording.

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ludford-heronLudford: Missa Inclina cor meum
Blue Heron, Scott Metcalfe
(Blue Heron, 2013)

Blue Heron is an American choir that is engaged on a long-term project to record music from the Peterhouse Partbooks, one of the relatively few sources of pre-Reformation English polyphony to have escaped the bonfires of the reformers. This is the third volume in the series, and it is a jewel. Polyphony in England in the fifteenth-century was clearly part of the same tradition as continental polyphony, but it was just as clearly an offshoot with its own distinctive qualities: there is a harmonic sweetness to the music, and the long, soaring soprano lines give the music an ecstatic quality that exceeds what one would typically have encountered on the continent. And this is music written on an ambitious scale: Nicholas Ludford’s Missa Inclina cor meum takes nearly 40 minutes just to present the Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei, and John Mason’s motet Ave fuit prima salus is 20 minutes long. I wish that I knew more about the context within which this music was originally written and performed. In any case, this is the first time these pieces have been recorded, and it has been worth the wait.

[Info]

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morales-bremenMorales: Christmas Motets
Weser-Renaissance Bremen, Manfred Cordes
(CPO, 2013)

A couple of years ago I praised a recording by Weser-Renaissance Bremen of Josquin’s music during my annual round-up, and here I am again with this disc of Christmas-themed music by Cristóbal de Morales. Morales was an important composer in sixteenth-century Spain, holding appointments in Avila and Toledo. He is probably best known today for his sublime setting of Parci mihi, Domine (made (relatively) famous by the Hilliard Ensemble in their collaboration with Jan Garbarek), but he was a prolific composer of masses, motets, and the like. This recording, with Manfred Cordes leading the choir, gathers together a set of motets on Christmas themes, ranging from settings of standard Christmas texts (O magnum mysterium, Puer natus est nobis) to pieces in honour of the Blessed Virgin (Sancta et immaculata virginitas, Salve nos stella maris). Some of the pieces are not directly associated with Christmas (Salve regina, for example), and others are actually more closely associated with other feasts (Missus est Gabriel, for instance, with the Annunciation). It must be said that the singing on this disc is spectacularly good. The pieces don’t pose any particularly dire technical challenges, but they do call for clarity, balance, and beauty of tone, and at these this choir is impeccable. As I said of their earlier Josquin recording, the sound has a burnished quality, as if glowing from within, and the recorded sound is immediate without being too close. It’s the single best recording of Morales’ music that I know of.

[Info] [Listen to samples]

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podger-angelGuardian Angel
Rachel Podger
(Channel, 2013)

I suppose it is possible that the prospect of 80 minutes of unaccompanied baroque violin playing might set some people on edge, but when the bow is wielded by Rachel Podger there is no need for concern. She plays a variety of early baroque pieces which might have been — though whether they were in fact, I do not know — models for Bach’s more famous contributions to the repertoire. Two sonatas by Giuseppi Tartini (not his most commonly heard “Devil’s Trill” sonata), one by Johann Georg Pisendel, and a few short pieces by Nicola Matteis were all new to me. Podger also includes a transcription for violin of one of Bach’s flute sonatas which, though it might be an odd choice from a programmatic point of view, is nonetheless wonderful to hear. The disc closes with a performance of Biber’s stunning Passacaglia (from his Rosary Sonatas), the piece which was arguably the pinnacle of solo violin music until Bach’s own Chaconne came along. Podger is one of the world’s greatest baroque musicians, and she plays like an angel. For what it’s worth, this disc won the recital award at last year’s BBC Music Magazine awards.

[Info] [Listen to samples]

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invocation-schuchInvocation
Herbert Schuch
(Naive, 2014)

A few excellent piano recitals came my way this year but I kept returning to this one, which features music inspired by the sound of bells. There are several pieces of French modernism with explicit bell-resonances — Ravel’s La vallée des cloches, Messiaen’s Cloches d’angoisse et larmes d’adieu and a piece inspired by it, Tristan Murail’s Cloches d’adieu, et un sourire… — but for me the chief attractions are the pieces by Liszt and Bach. Schuch plays selections from Liszt’s Harmonies poétiques et religieuses, including a moving performance of his glorious Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude, but the recital as a whole is held together by transcriptions of several of Bach’s beautiful chorales, played quietly and with great devotion. The overall feeling of the disc is one of meditative stillness, hushed and attentive. The sound is a bit distant for my liking, and the recording level is a bit low, but the playing and the choice of repertoire more than make up for it.

[Info] [Listen to samples]

Here is a promotional video for the disc:

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pacifica-shostThe Soviet Experience
Shostakovich, Miaskovsky, Prokofiev, Weinberg, Schnittke
Pacifica Quartet
(Cedille, 2011-14)

Over the past few years the Pacifica Quartet has recorded a complete cycle of Shostakovich’s fifteen string quartets; the fourth and final volume appeared this year. The competition in this repertoire is tough: the famous (but incomplete) recordings by the Borodin Quartet are always in the back of one’s mind, and I have also long treasured the cycle by the Emerson String Quartet. But this new set deserves to be considered alongside those ones. The Pacifica Quartet plays with all the muscle and acerbity that one could wish for, really digging into the scores to bring out their nervous energy. The ensemble playing is immaculate, and the recorded sound is as clean as a whistle. It’s a superb collection of what is, almost certainly, the greatest chamber music of the twentieth century.

And, as if that were not enough, each of the volumes in the set has been programmed with an additional quartet by one of Shostakovich’s contemporaries: Miaskovsky, Prokofiev, Weinberg, and Schnittke. Whether this broadening of focus is really enough to warrant the “The Soviet Experience” title under which the series has been proceeding is debatable, but the supplementary quartets do give one an opportunity to compare what Shostakovich was doing with what else was happening in Russian music at the time. And, as good as these other quartets are, it must be said that they renew one’s appreciation for just how colossally good Shostakovich was.

[Info] [Review] [Listen to samples]

***

Honourable mention:

dvorak-stabatDvorak: Stabat Mater
Collegium Vocale Gent, Royal Flemish Philharmonic, Philippe Herreweghe
(Phi, 2013)
[Info][Promo video][Listen to samples]

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where-late-sweet-birdsWhere Late the Sweet Birds Sang
Magnificat, Philip Cave
(Linn, 2012)
[Info][Review][Listen to samples]

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josquin-pratensisJosquin: Missa Ave Maris Stella
Cappella Pratensis
(Challenge, 2014)
[Info][Listen to samples]

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schubert-bostridge-wigmoreSchubert: Lieder
Ian Bostridge, Julius Drake
(Wigmore Hall, 2014)
[Info][Review][Listen to samples]

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bach-contrasteBach: Transcriptions
Ensemble Contraste
(La Dolce Vita, 2013)
[Info][Review][Listen to samples]

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weinberg-kremerWeinberg: Symphony No.10; Chamber Music
Kremerata Baltica, Gidon Kremer
(ECM New Series, 2014)
[Info][Review]

Epiphany 2015

January 6, 2015

adoration-magi-giotto

Epiphany, which closes out the twelve days of Christmas, is always a joyful feast but this year I have a particular, additional reason to rejoice, for today a friend has been received into the Church. Or, I should say, “today”, for these movable feasts can sometimes prove elusive quarry, and in fact he was received on Sunday. But no matter! Let’s celebrate today.

Since this friend is rather fond of music, I offer John Sheppard’s setting of Reges Tharsis, the Gradual from the Epiphany Mass.

Reges Tharsis et insulae munera offerent,
reges Arabum et Saba dona (Domino Deo) adducent.
Et adorabunt eum omnes reges terrae,
omnes gentes servient ei.
Gloria Patri et Filio et Spiritui Sancto.

The kings of Tarshish and the islands will offer tribute,
the Kings of Arabia will bring gifts to the Lord God;
And all kings will adore him,
and all nations will serve Him.
Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost.

Favourites of 2014: Popular music

January 5, 2015

To be honest, I have hesitated to write a retrospective about the popular music I’ve enjoyed this year. As my leisure time has been squeezed I have had to prioritize, and more often than not I simply never get to those things that are second or third on the priority list — like popular music. And this year most of my pop music time has been devoted to that pop music odyssey, about which I have already been writing. So it is not clear that I have much of interest to say.

As if to drive the point home, when I look at a list of 2014’s critical darlings, I’ve heard only 2 or 3 of the top 20, and I haven’t even heard of many more. In the past few days Jeffrey Overstreet has been writing extensively about his favourite records of 2014; his tastes overlap to a large extent with mine, but even so many of the records he praises are new to me. When you’re done here — it won’t take long — I recommend you go over there. (Part 1, Part 2)

Anyway, on paper I was excited about new records from Joe Henry, U2, and Taylor Swift this year, but for various reasons they failed to make a good impression on me. Joe Henry’s latest, Invisible Hour, I believe to be a great record, but I believe it strictly on the testimony of those to whom its greatness is evident; I myself do not perceive it, and this makes me feel rather bad about myself. I was keen when I first heard of U2’s What Was It Called Again?, but it seems to me a pretty indifferent record, nowhere near U2 at their best; for years now I have been awaiting their rumoured collection of songs based on the Psalms, rumoured to be called Songs of Ascent, but rumour has it that we have to keep waiting. As for Taylor Swift: my fears have been realized. I complained last time about the noisy pop posturing of the biggest hits from her last record, and sadly 1989 is cut wholesale from the same glittery cloth. Garish. There are still glimmers here and there of the girl I used to know — I quite like the back-half of “You Are In Love” — but on this record she has mostly been smothered by The Machine, or so it seems to me.

**

cohen-problemsWhich brings us to the one record from 2014 that I am truly fond of: Leonard Cohen’s Popular Problems. I wasn’t sure we would get another record from Cohen, and then suddenly there it was, an unmerited gift. It’s a strong collection of songs, with a production that is lusher and warmer than was the case on his previous record, Old Ideas, closer to a record like Ten New Songs. Though I am not sure I like the album quite as much as I did his previous effort, and while there does seem to be something unbecoming about an octogenerian tossing off double-entendres, in the end this record has found a place in my heart. If its last song, “You Got Me Singing”, should turn out to be Cohen’s last, it will be a most fitting departure. But I hope that it will not be his last.

**

oh-hellosWhen Mumford & Sons announced in 2013 that they would be on extended hiatus, part of me began quietly casting about for someone or something to take their place — that is, someone or something that would unite spiritual sensitivity with accessible roots rock and hipster sartorial excellence. It was then that I stumbled upon The Oh Hellos, who are doing very well on the first two criteria and failing decisively on the third. It’s good enough. The Oh Hellos are a brother and sister duo, Tyler and Maggie Heath, hailing from Texas. To date they have issued an EP (2011) and one full length record (2012), plus a Christmas EP. They are not as hip or as groovy as Mumford & Sons, and not as photogenic as Mumford & Sons, but the comparisons are most invidious only where they matter least. Where they matter most — in the quality of the songs — The Oh Hellos are very interesting indeed. When they sing, “We were young when we heard you call our names in the silence / Like a fire in the dark / Like a sword upon our hearts,” I, for one, feel like I have found a songwriter who is getting to the heart of things. There’s a lot of that sort of thing in their songs: sorrow and trouble, but rumours of glory whispering from between the lines. At the end of the day, I do not know very much about The Oh Hellos, but I like what I hear, and I recommend them for your consideration.

**

Other records I enjoyed, just not enough to write about them: Loudon Wainwright III, Haven’t Got the Blues (Yet); The Lone Bellow, The Lone Bellow.

Pop music odyssey: the 1970s

December 11, 2014

***

Another leg of my pop music odyssey has been completed, and I offer a few quick notes. This stage of the journey included sixteen records by Bob Dylan (including some live albums and bootlegs), fourteen by Neil Young, twelve by Van Morrison, ten by Tom Waits, seven by Leonard Cohen, and just one by the Beatles (to whom we now bid farewell). It has been a long road, and I’ve had to watch my step.

**

When I listen through Dylan’s records from the early 1970s — and here I am thinking of Self Portrait, New Morning, and Planet Waves, principally — I cannot but be curious about the precipitous decline in his standards. His albums from the 1960s were among the greatest on record. In retrospect I would argue that 1969’s Nashville Skyline was an ill omen, the promise of which was to be so sadly realized in the records that followed. In truth these records are not quite so bad as their reputations would suggest, considered in themselves; they are dismal, but it is by way of comparison with what had come before that they appear so crushingly dismal.

If one goes rummaging about in the statements Dylan has made about this period a few possible reasons for this appalling state of affairs can be discerned. One possibility is that Dylan had decided to make bad records; this might be thought a fancy concocted by his fans to save his face, but in fact there may be a real kernel of truth in it. This was the period of Woodstock, when Dylan was still being lauded as “the voice of his generation”. He famously declined to appear at Woodstock, and he has said that he simply wanted to record songs that would disappoint all those who had saddled him with a role he did not want for himself. He wanted them off his back, so he decided to record songs to which they would be unable to relate. Framed in this way, as a joke born of a kind of existential crisis, these records can be seen as the work of a man of paradoxical courage who would destroy his reputation to save his life.

But there must be more to the story as well, for not only had he nearly stopped writing good songs, he nearly stopped writing altogether. It was his first extended period of writer’s block. His muse seems to have abandoned him.

And I think there was something else going on too, something which might have been related to the writer’s block, but was distinct from it. The songs he wrote during and after this period have a quality which was largely absent from his great songs of the 1960s, and that is a sincere concern with simple feelings and direct communication. For instance, one cannot imagine “Forever Young” appearing on one of his mid-to-late 1960s records; the sentiment is too honest and straightforward. Dylan has said that in this period he wanted to get out of the limelight, and to live a normal life with his wife and children. “I realized what I was missing,” he said. And I think it is possible that his efforts to deepen his own personal relationships, and to learn how to express those commonplace but no less genuine feelings, without resort to swirls of imagery or clever wordplay, may have simply taken some time. He was deepening his art, and he went slowly. Whether he ever fully succeeded, and whether his songwriting thereafter ever reached the heights that it had reached before, is arguable, but any case to the contrary will have to contend with the mighty Blood on the Tracks.

It should also be said that no appraisal of this particularly difficult section of Dylan’s discography, and especially no dismissal of it, can be credible if it fails to take into account the recently released Bootleg Series, Vol.10 — Another Self Portrait, which consists of outtakes from the Self Portrait and New Morning sessions. These previously unreleased versions of the songs are frequently greatly superior to the versions that Dylan originally released: they have more spark, more poise, better singing, and clearer arrangements. The contrast with what we thought we knew of those records rather tends to support the “intentionally bad” theory that I mentioned above.

**

Tom Waits was the sole singer in this survey for whom all of his 1970s records were previously familiar to me. I have tended to divide Waits’ recording career into two or three phases: an early, somewhat anomalous, period in which he crooned at the piano (Closing Time and, to a lesser extent, The Heart of Saturday Night), a skid-row beat poet period (The Heart of Saturday Night up through Heartattack and Vine in 1980), followed by a sharp phase transition in the early 1980s when he ditched his piano and his jazz-trimming for a junkyard orchestra and a case of tuberculosis (starting with Swordfishtrombones). But this neat taxonomy has been upended by an encounter with a live bootleg recorded in Bremen in 1977. It’s a superb record, both sonically and for what it reveals about Waits’s development. It was astounding for me to hear an early song like “Depot, Depot”, which for me epitomizes his crooning period, rendered in such a way that it could fit comfortably next to a song like “Shore Leave” (from 1983). Many of the songs are like that. It was recorded with the same instrumental backing as on Small Change — to wit: piano, saxophone, upright bass, and drums — but it is so much more visceral and impolite and phlegm-laden than the studio albums of the same period that it is hard to believe it comes from 1977 and not a decade later. In any case, it’s a terrific concert recording, a very happy discovery for me, that illuminates Waits’ early career in a most satisfying way.

**

In my summation of the 1960s leg of this odyssey, I noted that the Neil Young of the 1960s paled in comparison with the Neil Young of the 1970s, and it is true that he had a spectacularly good decade. He slipped rather easily into Dylan’s evacuated shoes with Harvest (1972), but his parallel work with Crazy Horse showed he could stomp around in big boots as well when the song called for it. Indeed, this is one of the most remarkable things about Young’s career: it’s bifurcation into a mellow, rootsy groove on one hand and a raucous, feedback-drenched noise on the other, not as phases in his “development” (as is often said of Dylan) but in tandem, and somehow the two sides don’t seem to be at odds with one another, and I think this is a testament to the strength and consistency of Young’s artistic vision. The perceived unity of his work is also due in part to that eerie, wavering voice, which always makes the song unmistakably his.

Young is probably the only singer under consideration in this odyssey whose music — the sheer sound he makes — is more interesting than the songs he writes. He has a gift for melody, and he has his moments as a songwriter, but for the most part I find his songs most attractive when I listen least attentively to what he is singing. I could not but be dismayed, for instance, when I discovered that when he sang that “A Man Needs a Maid,” he actually meant that a man needs a maid — you know, to clean his house. Even his best songs suffer a lyrical vacuousness: “You are like a hurricane / There’s calm in your eye / And I’m gettin’ blown away.” Thud. There’s a lot of that sort of thing in his catalogue. Where he is memorable, he is memorable principally for a musical hook, not a turn of phrase.

I think it is also worth noting the extent to which Young was, during this period (without necessarily implying a contrast with what came before or after), the conscience of rock and roll. His forays into political songwriting are mostly failures, but when he is personal he can be very incisive. He was particularly good at indicting the drug culture which took the lives of several of his friends and bandmates during the 1970s. “The Needle and the Damage Done” is probably the most famous instance of this, but there are others, and indeed whole records (Tonight’s the Night) devoted to exploring and exhibiting the personal cost and the terrible sadness of drug addiction. Given his times and his place, this was an honourable vocation.

**

Allow me to present a list of my favourite odyssey-albums from the 1970s. I make no explicit claim that these are the “best” albums from this period, but such a claim might well be implicit. More or less in descending order:

Bob Dylan — Blood on the Tracks (1975)
Van Morrison — Veedon Fleece (1974)
Neil Young — Rust Never Sleeps (1979)
Van Morrison — Moondance (1970)
Van Morrison — It’s Too Late to Stop Now (1974)
Tom Waits — Nighthawks at the Diner (1975)
Neil Young — Harvest (1972)
Van Morrison — Into the Music (1979)
Tom Waits — Live in Bremen (1977)
Van Morrison — Saint Dominic’s Preview (1972)

**

Likewise, here are my ten favourite songs from this period. This was a tough list to put together, there being many good candidates. The list I came up with is a rather personal one; most of these songs are close to my heart. Again, in rough descending order:

Leonard Cohen — “Famous Blue Raincoat” (Love and Hate)
Van Morrison — “Country Fair” (Veedon Fleece)
Van Morrison — “Contemplation Rose” (1972, unreleased)
Van Morrison — “Into the Mystic” (Moondance)
Bob Dylan — “Tangled Up in Blue” (Blood on the Tracks)
Bob Dylan — “Idiot Wind” (Blood on the Tracks)
Van Morrison — “Full Force Gale” (Into the Music)
Van Morrison — “You Don’t Pull No Punches…” (Veedon Fleece)
Neil Young — “Needle and the Damage Done” (Harvest)
Van Morrison — “Madame Joy” (1972, unreleased)

Bob Dylan dominated the list from the 1960s, but here it is Van Morrison who makes the strongest showing. I’m not surprised by this — he wrote so many great songs in the 70s — but I am surprised that not a single song by Tom Waits made my list. There are a lot of Waits songs that I like, but when I put them up against this rather stiff competition I found that they couldn’t crack the top ten.

Those two “unreleased” songs by Van Morrison did eventually see the light of day on his 1991 back catalogue showcase The Philosopher’s Stone. Technically, then, they were “unreleased” only during the period under consideration. They are great songs nonetheless; it is a mystery why he left them off his records at the time.

**

There wasn’t much point of doing so in the 1960s, but here in the more uneven 1970s it might be enjoyable to poke fun at the worst of what my odyssey had to offer. Worst album? Dylan is in competition with himself and the competition is fierce, but I will go with Self Portrait, a record whose quality was well-summarized in the opening flourish of that famous Rolling Stone review. As for the worst song, the runner-up is “All the Tired Horses” (from Self Portrait) and the winner is “If Dogs Run Free” (from New Morning), a song so wretched that I feel physically ill when I hear it. No, don’t listen!

**

And now it is time to swing around and peer into the future: we stand on the cusp of the 1980s. I have long maintained that there were only five great pop/rock records made in the 1980s, and sadly only one of those will be part of my odyssey. My prospects look dim.

But, then again, that might just be because I’m wearing these shades.

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