Archive for the 'Music' Category

Linked links

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

Please turn that off

May 1, 2018

Over at Slipped Disc Norman Lebrecht opened a can of worms by posting a few lists of “10 Works or Composers You Never Want to Hear Again”. I thought it would be fun to draw up my own list. These are not pieces (or composers) toward which I’m indifferent or just think are overplayed, but ones that will cause me to cover my ears, grimace, and flee if they come within hearing.

The comments on the original post at Slipped Disc are entertaining.

(Hat-tip: The Music Salon)

Canonic Gloria

March 7, 2018

More music from my beloved Matteo da Perugia, this time a Gloria written in canon:

I do not know who the musicians are. The transcription is courtesy, once again, Jordan Alexander Key.

Another circle canon

February 9, 2018

A few days ago I posted some videos showing the scores of music notated on a circular stave. Here’s another, and it’s even better. Salve Radix was set by Richard Sampson to celebrate the birth of Mary Tudor to Henry VIII and Catharine of Aragon. The piece is for four voices, 2 in the countertenor and 2 in the bass, with each pair singing in canon at an interval of a fifth. (It says “canon at the fourth” in the video, but to me it looks like a fifth. Mind, I am a chimpanzee in such matters and happy to be corrected.)

I’m not sure why these are notated in a circular pattern; once around and it’s done. Perhaps it’s just because it’s pretty on the page. But the intricacy of the musical construction is still delightful to behold. My thanks to Jordan Alexander Key for making the video.

Circular musical notation

February 3, 2018

For no very evident reason I’ve recently come across a few pieces of music for which the score has a peculiar feature: the music is notated in a circle, rather than on the usual linear staves.

The first is a piece by Baude Cordier, a fifteenth-century French composer, which has been preserved in the famous Chantilly Codex. It is entitled Tout par compas suy composes (“From a compass I am composed“), and the title gives a clue to the rationale for the odd notation: this is a circle canon, in which the voices wrap around and repeat, just like a circle, with the two discantus voices singing in canon. This excellent video animates the score so that we can follow along more readily:

This is not the only eccentric score from Cordier; he also notated a love song, Belle, Bone, Sage, in such a way that the staves form a heart.

The second example comes from George Crumb, a 20th century composer. Crumb is rather famous for his unorthodox musical scores. (His score for Black Angels is an extreme example.) Today though we will look at his circular score for The Magic Circle of Infinity, a playful piece for piano. It sounds a bit like a mad music-box, and I can imagine a mad little ballerina spinning on top of it as the score spins.

Another fun score by Crumb is his Spiral Galaxy, which spirals.

Thanks to Jordan Alexander Key for making these videos. His YouTube channel is a good one.

Musical anniversaries in 2018

January 15, 2018

Every year I like to plan a few listening projects around composers who will be marking significant birthdays and memorials in the year ahead. From a very thorough list (Thanks, Osbert) I have culled the following set of those that pique my interest:

Memorials

50 years

  • Healey Willan

100 years

  • Hubert Parry
  • Claude Debussy
  • Lili Boulanger

150 years

  • Gioachino Rossini

450 years

  • Jacques Arcadelt
  • Robert Carver

500 years

  • Loyset Compère
  • Pierre de la Rue

600 years

  • Matteo da Perugia

***

Birthdays

100 years

  • Leonard Bernstein
  • George Rochberg

350 years

  • François Couperin

Obviously the big ones in the wide world will be for Debussy and Rossini, and with good reason, but personally I’m most excited about taking some time with the music of three of the lesser-known names: Healey Willan, a composer who lived and worked for most of his life in the same city where I live and work, and whose music I much admire; Robert Carver, a Scottish composer whose few surviving works are good examples of the spectacular polyphony that was sung in those lands before the Reformation; and especially my beloved Matteo da Perugia, whose alluring music is one of life’s choicest pleasures. I’m also interested in getting to know the music of George Rochberg, an important figure in the gradual overthrow of serialism as the de rigueur style of twentieth century music.

For an envoi, let’s hear Healey Willan’s lovely motet “Rise up my love, my fair one”, sung by Flos Campi:

 

Favourites of 2017: Music

January 5, 2018

It seemed this year that I was treated to an avalanche of excellent music — much more than I could listen to with adequate attention. Of those recordings I devoted the most time to, I have selected for praise an even dozen. I proceed roughly chronologically.

***

Ars Elaboratio
Ensemble Scholastica
(ATMA, 2017)

In his short story “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote”, Borges imagines a writer who has become so immersed in the style and the world of Cervantes that he is able to reproduce, as an original work, a word-for-word replica of Don Quixote. This story has been brought irresistibly to mind as I’ve been listening to this truly wonderful and extraordinary recording from Ensemble Scholastica. What this all-female ensemble, based in Montreal, has done is perform newly composed elaborations of medieval plainchant in an impeccably medieval style. These elaborations include adding new monophonic material to the original, or adding additional voices, or instruments. Something like this past-meets-present concept has been done before, but usually the past and present are distinguishable to the ear as modern dissonances or cadences wander into the frame. What makes the music on Ars Elaboratio so intriguing is that there really is nothing modern to hear; for all we can tell, these could be original medieval compositions.

I can imagine someone wondering about the point of doing this. Just as with Menard and his Quixote, context matters, and a modern medieval composition has different resonances than a medieval original. Such an experiment might, for instance, be a way of poking the eye of the notion, current in music circles as elsewhere, that originality is rooted in self-expression; or, to deny the idea that history moves and we have to move with it; or, as a spiritual exercise in humility, wherein musicians enter fully into the imaginative and aesthetic world of another time and place; or, as a way of honouring the beauty and wisdom of the texts by creating music that would have pleased and delighted their medieval authors; or, simply as an expression of love for the beauty of medieval music. In the notes accompanying the recording, the ensemble states their purpose as follows:

“We wish to share with listeners the true beauty and intricacy of medieval music, in particular medieval liturgical traditions, the very roots of Western music. Our audiences thus have the chance to experience the remarkable joy and complexity of medieval spirituality and culture.”

I, for one, thank them for their efforts, which have greatly delighted me.

Here is a brief advertisement for the disc, in which one can hear excerpts:

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Matteo da Perugia: Chansons
Tetraktys
(Olive, 2016)

The number of people whose hearts go pitter-patter at the thought of a collection of music by Matteo da Perugia ought rightly to be legion, but is in fact probably somewhat closer to minuscule. This is just one of the numerous hardships which we must bear on behalf of our beleaguered times. I remember well the first time I heard one of his pieces, at a concert by the Huelgas Ensemble in Toronto; the music was so exquisite, so expressive and beguiling, that an audible gasp escaped the audience when the final note was sung, as though we’d all been holding our breath. Matteo was writing around the year 1400 and was a practitioner of what was then, and is still now, called the ars subtilior style — the subtle art — which is one of the most delightful of the medieval artistic byways awaiting discovery by listeners whose wanderlust leads them off well-beaten trails. His compositions belong to the courtly love tradition, being primarily settings of secular love poetry. Despite his name, he worked in and around the Duomo in Milan, and all of the music we have from him survives in a single manuscript.

His music pops up now and again on early music recordings, but this is, to my knowledge, just the third recording devoted entirely to him, the earlier two being by the Huelgas Ensemble and Mala Punica, both of them superb interpreters. But Tetraktys have nothing to fear from the comparison. They have chosen to perform these pieces as vocal solos with instrumental accompaniment — not a mandatory choice, if comparisons with the other recordings are anything to go on — and much of the appeal of this recording lies in the singing of Stefanie True, a Canadian soprano who is otherwise unknown to me, but who earns high praise for the beautiful purity of her voice. Instrumental accompaniment from a trio of musicians includes medieval fiddles, harp, and organetto. The result is one of the more alluring and gorgeous discs of early music I’ve heard in a long while.

Here is a brief excerpt of the ensemble during the recording process. It gives the flavour of what they are doing, but the sound on the CD is superior to what you hear here:

*

Secret History: Josquin / Victoria
John Potter
(ECM New Series, 2017)

Years ago I drew up a list of my favourite music of the first decade of the 21st century, and near the top of the list I put a CD of music by Victoria, sung by Carlos Mena, in which the familiar intricate polyphony had been adapted for a single voice with instrumental accompaniment. I loved, and still love, everything about it — Mena’s creamy voice, the clarity of the musical texture, the limpid beauty of the vocal line. I’d never heard anything quite like it before — nor, for that matter, since.

But now this new disc from John Potter and friends revisits the same musical territory, with marvellous results once again. Potter tells us in his notes that it was a fairly common practice in the 15th and 16th centuries for sacred polyphony to be adapted into tablature for lutenists and vihuelists, and even that the music of some composers, including Josquin, survives mostly in these intabulated sources. He is here joined by three vihuelas and a viola da gamba, as well as by the soprano Anna Maria Friman (of Trio Medieval) in performances of these intabulated versions of Victoria’s Missa surge propera, a collection of motets by Josquin, a motet by Mouton and another by Victoria again, some Gregorian chant, and some preludes for vihuela by Jacob Heringman, one of the musicians.

It all sounds terrific. Once again, hearing the clarity of the vocal line pulled from what would normally be a dense polyphonic texture is a real delight, and there’s a wonderful intimacy about the whole affair, as though this sublime music were being re-imagined in one’s living room. For me, the recording as a whole doesn’t quite rise to the level of that earlier one by Carlos Mena, and this mainly because Potter, as good as he is (and, as a long-time member of the Hilliard Ensemble, he’s no slouch), simply doesn’t have the translucent voice that Mena does.

The recording was made at the famous monastery of St Gerold in Austria, long favoured by ECM’s engineers, and the sound is impeccable. It was recorded in 2011, so ECM sat on it for 6 years before releasing it. I can’t imagine why. This is my favourite recording of the year.

*

Palestrina: Missa Papae Marcelli
Odhecaton
(Arcana, 2017)

Of the making of records there is no end, and there can be few pieces of Renaissance polyphony that have been recorded more often than Palestrina’s famous Missa Papae Marcelli. One naturally wonders if it’s worth bothering to record it again. But, lo and behold, here comes Odhecaton to make us hear it again anew. This ensemble, which is new to me, has a truly wonderful way with this music: the singing is very assured, pitched low if I’m not mistaken, and it has a splendid gravitas — in happier times I could have called it masculine, and been understood to be saying something intelligible. I have listened to it with some amazement, because I’ve never heard Palestrina sung like this, with such stately grace, which we expect, and earthy texture, which we don’t. The disc also includes a number of motets and Gregorian antiphons, and it actually opens with Sicut cervus, a motet that every mother’s son knows forward and backward; yet, again, not like this. [review]

Here is the whole of the Missa:

*

Monteverdi: Vespro della Beata Vergine
La Compagnia del Madrigale, Cantica Symphonia, La Pifarescha, Giuseppe Maletto
(Glossa, 2017)

2017 was a Monteverdi anniversary year, marking his 450th birthday. My plans to devote time to him largely failed, but I was able to hear this glorious new recording of his Vespers. This is a piece for which my appreciation has gradually grown over the years; it’s a sprawling, multi-faceted work that takes time to get to know, and as yet I feel that I’ve only begun to explore its many nooks and crannies. The musicians on this disc are an ace crew who will be recognized by early music aficionados. I must say that it is nice to have Italians performing the music of their countryman, and, quite in contradiction to the sometime-stereotype of period ensembles being rather dry and thin, they bring a stirring, full-bodied sound to their interpretation. The instruments, especially, are recorded with nice bloom, blending beautifully with the voices. I’ve long been fond of William Christie’s recording of this Vespers, with French forces, for its beauty and gentle tenderness, but this shows another side of this wonderful music.

This video takes us behind the scenes at the recording sessions:

*

Bach: De Occulta Philosophia
Emma Kirkby, Carlos Mena, José Miguel Moreno
(Glossa, 1998)

Here is a disc that would appear to have been produced just for me: my favourite soprano, Emma Kirkby, and my favourite counter-tenor, Carlos Mena, joining together to sing chorales of J.S. Bach, my favourite composer, over a performance of the Chaconne, my favourite composition (or, at least, having a fair claim), in an arrangement for the lute, my favourite obsolete instrument in the guitar family! You might remember the recording the Hilliard Ensemble made some years ago, in which they, following a purported “discovery” by musicologist Helga Thoene, did the same experiment: singing chorale fragments over the Chaconne, which was, allegedly, subtextually quoting them. I confess I don’t put any great faith in these musicological claims, but it hardly matters: as musical experiments go, this one is a winner. I liked the Hilliard’s performance, but I like this one even more: the intimacy of the lute, and the purity of the two voices, is entrancing. The Chaconne, mind you, only lasts a quarter-hour. The rest of the disc is filled out with Bach’s Sonata (BWV 1001) and Partita (BWV 1004), played on the lute by José Miguel Moreno. It’s all good, but it’s the chorale-laden Chaconne that is sublime.

*

Mozart: Don Giovanni
Music Aeterna, Teodor Currentzis
(Sony, 2016)

Like everyone else, I have long been wedded to Giulini’s 1959 recording of this, the greatest opera, so much so that I’ve never felt any real desire to acquire another. But nothing in this veil of tears is perfect in every respect, and there was always a possibility, however slim, that somebody might come along and do the thing well enough, and differently enough, to give us, not so much a rival, but an alternative reading. And then along came Teodor Currentzis and his mad cadre of musicians in a bid to do just that.

I say “mad” partly because of the conditions under which the recording took place: Currentzis had his singers and orchestra come to the Russian hinterland, where they stayed for weeks on end, living together, eating together, performing Don Giovanni hour after hour after hour, doing experiments, taking risks, going mad. The Guardian ran a nice feature that described the highly unusual working conditions.

And I say “mad” also because of the results. Currentzis plays this score with ferocious energy; the strings slash, the brass blares, the timpani thunders. There is nothing at all genteel about it. The sound engineering is impressively vivid. The singing is fine, but for me it is the orchestral playing that is the real draw. That might seem an odd position to take on an opera recording, but we are in the realm of the odd.

I understand the argument from those who say that this is an abuse of Mozart, who wrote at a time when elegance was prized and who could out-elegance anybody when we wanted to, but, on the other hand, this is Don Giovanni! If any opera can take this idiosyncratic, unrestrained treatment, it’s this one. An iconoclastic version could never replace Giulini, but considered as a compelling alternative view of this great music, this one is a success.

Here is a ten-minute featurette on the making of this recording:

*

Mozart – Piano Concertos 20 & 27
Evgeny Kissin, Kremerata Baltica
(EMI, 2010)

I admit I’ve had a prejudice against Evgeny Kissin, whose status as a child prodigy led me to suspect that there was more of sentimentality behind his fame than solid musical achievement. But this disc was recommended to me in glowing terms, and I decided to listen mainly because of the orchestra, Kremerata Baltica, whom I have long admired. It’s a corker! These concerti are old chestnuts, and they are often played with grace and politeness, but Kissin and his band tackle them with thunderous excitement. The sound is big, the orchestra plays with sharp attacks and tight rhythms, and Kissin is terrific at the keyboard. The performance has verve and sparkle. I don’t know if this is typical of Kissin or not, but, if so, I stand corrected.

Here is Concerto No.20:

*

Wagner: Arias and Duets
Birgit Nilsson, Hans Hotter, Philharmonia Orchestra, Leopold Ludwig
(Testament, rec.1957/8)

Birgit Nilsson has a claim to being one of the great Wagnerian sopranos of the twentieth century, and Hans Hotter can make a similar claim among bass-baritones. They were both in their prime for these recordings, made in 1957/58 in glowing sound that belies their age. Nilsson, especially, is majestic; her voice gleams, like a shaft of light penetrating the gloom. The sheer beauty of it is awe-inspiring. Hotter sings with tremendous gravitas as well, and he is a superb match for her in the long Act III duet from Die Walküre. The other selections are from Wagner’s earlier operas: Elsa’s Dream from Lohengrin, a long excerpt from Der Fliegende Holländer, and a soprano solo from Tannhäuser. This same music has been previously issued on EMI; probably this Testament release has been remastered but I’ve actually listened to both and I can’t hear any substantial differences. In either case, this is one of the best Wagner recordings I’ve ever heard. [review]

Here is the opening of Die Walküre, Act III, Scene III. Hotter is Wotan and Nilsson is Brünnhilde:

*

Brahms: Piano Works
Arcadi Volodos
(Sony, 2017)

If, like me, you love those last, late piano pieces Brahms left us in his Op.116, 117, and 118, then I cannot recommend more highly these superb renditions by Arcadi Volodos. Volodos is a pianist I haven’t followed very closely (though I love his account of Liszt’s virtuosic transmutation of the Wedding March!). His playing is muscular, and he makes a big, well-rounded sound. You might not think that would work all that well with these elegiac masterpieces, but these are winsome performances that I have greatly enjoyed. This is elite playing, not just technically but artistically, and this is a great disc. [review]

*

Messiaen: Turangalîla-Symphonie
Steven Osborne, Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra, Juanjo Mena
(Hyperion, 2012)

Messiaen described this gigantic musical explosion as “a song of love, a hymn to joy”, and the joyous feeling he sought to capture as “superhuman, overflowing, dazzling, and abandoned”. Perhaps no better description of the symphony is possible. It is among the biggest, boldest, most outrageous, wildest examples of musical excess in the repertoire, and, as such, not the kind of thing I would normally be drawn to, but it’s the symphony’s spirit of unadulterated, supercharged love of life that wins me over. I’ve a few recordings in my collection, but this one from the Bergen Philharmonic, with Steven Osborne handling the difficult piano part, has delighted me to no end. The orchestral sound, which is the be-all and end-all of this piece, is wonderfully alive and vivid. A ravishing sonic experience. [Audio excerpts]

*

Weinberg: Chamber Symphonies
Kremerata Baltica, Gidon Kremer
(ECM New Series, 2017)

For the past few years my year-end list of favourites has usually included something by Mieczyslaw Weinberg, and I have something this year too. Gidon Kremer has become a high-profile champion for Weinberg’s music, and in 2017 he, with Kremerata Baltica again, issued a two-disc set of Weinberg’s four chamber symphonies and the Piano Quintet. The Quintet is an early work (Op.18) that has become quite popular, having now been recorded more than any of Weinberg’s other music. Kremer and his crew give it a good hearing, and of course ECM’s sound engineering is outstanding. But for me the chamber symphonies are the real draw. They are late works (the earliest being his Op.145), and, as always with Weinberg, I feel they put me in touch with a man of great musical intelligence, overlooked for too long. Music to treasure.

***

In years past I have written twice about my favourite music of the year: first classical and then popular. This year there were pop music records that interested me from Bob Dylan, Joan Osborne, Van Morrison, Sufjan Stevens, Joe Henry, Josh Ritter, Justin Townes Earle, Taylor Swift, Lee Ann Womack, and Neil Young, and some others too, but I either didn’t get around to hearing them, or didn’t hear enough of them to form a judgement. Maybe next year.

Alma Redemptoris Mater

December 3, 2017

During Advent this year I intend to learn this lovely hymn, which is sung at Compline during the Advent and Christmas seasons.

A happy Advent to all those observing it.

Cecilia virgo

November 22, 2017

In honour of the feast of St Cecilia, patroness of music and musicians, here is a very fine performance of James MacMillan’s Cecilia virgo, sung by the National Youth Choir of Australia.

Virgin Cecilia, all musicians celebrate your praises,
and through your merits, supplicants can be heard by God.
With one voice and with one heart, they call upon your name,
that you may deign to change the mourning of the world into the glory of paradise;
and be willing, O protecting Virgin, to look upon your wards,
calling upon the pious Lady, and always saying:
Saint Cecilia, pray for us.

Thinking on your seat

November 17, 2017

This is pretty great: Marie João Pires was scheduled to play a Mozart piano concerto with Riccardo Chailly and (I assume) the Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam. When the orchestra began to play, though, she realized that she had practiced a different concerto!

It’s difficult to hear the exchange between Chailly and her during the introduction. He seems to be rather enjoying her quandary. But his faith in her is not misplaced; taking a few moments to recollect herself, she finds her footing and begins to play.

When I see something like this, it helps me to realize what a wonderful and perilous thing music-making before a live audience is. It could collapse at any moment, and is only kept afloat, note by note, by superb musicianship and retentive memories.