Archive for the 'Music' Category

Favourites of 2019: Popular music

January 8, 2020

I didn’t spend a huge amount of time listening to pop music this year, but I did hear some things that I liked. Today I’m gathering them together in this post.

The only full record that really won my admiration this year was the latest instalment in Dylan’s on-going Bootleg Series. Travelin’ Thru consists mostly of outtakes from the John Wesley Harding sessions — one of Dylan’s underrated masterpieces — and some material from Nashville Skyline and a bunch of songs he recorded with Johnny Cash. For the most part it is excellent stuff. In the Cash sessions Dylan is wearing his Nashville Skyline voice, and sounds like a feather-weight next to Cash, but it is still a pleasure to hear the two of them singing Gospel standards and their own songs together.

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Apart from that, I’ve just picked ten or so songs that I particularly liked this year.

The singer whom I’m most happy to have discovered is Tyler Childers, whom I first heard on his country record Country Squire. He’s the real deal. His songwriting is inconsistent; he puts me in mind of that girl in the nursery rhyme who had a curl right in the middle of her forehead: when he is good he is very, very good, but when he is bad he is horrid.

Here is something good: “Country Squire”, from his most recent record. Put on your Merle Haggard boots.

And here’s an older song, “Lady May”, which is more rooted in the English folk tradition.

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When Leonard Cohen died in 2016 he left behind vocal tracks for some unfinished songs, and this year saw the release of Thanks for the Dance, on which a set of those songs have been completed by his friends and family. It’s a haunting record, as you might expect, and darker than his most recent records. There are some really good things on it, including this song, “It’s Torn”:

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My sister introduced me to Brandi Carlile’s song “The Mother”. I’m not sure what’s going on with the “fight the power” material in the final verse, unless she means “fight the principalities, and powers, and rules of the darkness of this world”, in which case I’m on board, but this is a really touching song for those of us with a daughter named Evangeline:

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Buddy and Julie Miller put out another duet album this year, and it’s quite good, as you’d expect. My heart strings were plucked by this little love song, “Til the Stardust Comes Apart”:

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Two cover songs caught my ear. The first was Robby Hecht’s version of Jackson Browne’s “Two of Me, Two of You”. I am knocked over by the songwriting.

So terribly sad, but so beautiful. Just to be safe, maybe it’s best to go back up and listen to Buddy and Julie again.

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The second cover song was Audrey Assad’s version of Mumford & Son’s “Sigh No More”, which she put on her most recent EP, Peace. No YouTube, so I’m going to just embed this unsatisfactory excerpt from Spotify:

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But my single favourite song of the year was “Gloria”, from The Lumineers. I don’t know what it’s about — a lady with a drinking problem, by the sounds of it — but I found its stripped-down ebullience irresistible.

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Anything I should make a point of hearing?

Musical anniversaries in 2020

January 4, 2020

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 again, Osbert) I have culled the following set:

Memorials

10 years

  • Henryk Gorecki

100 years

  • Max Bruch

250 years

  • Giuseppe Tartini

400 years

  • Thomas Campion

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Birthdays

50 years

  • Eric Whitacre

150 years

  • Louis Vierne
  • Franz Lehar
  • Leopold Godowsky
  • Charles Tournemire

200 years

  • Henri Vieuxtemps

250 years

  • Beethoven

350 years

  • Antonio Caldara

550 years

  • Bartolomeo Tromboncino
  • Antoine de Fevin
  • Francisco de Penalosa

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Some of these are fairly minor composers whose work I’d nonetheless like to know a little better — or at all. Into this category go Vierne and Tournemire, two organ composers whose music I know but little, as well as Vieuxtemps and Caldara. One shouldn’t need an excuse to listen again to Campion’s wonderful songs, but 2020 gives us a good one. And of course it will be cheering to celebrate the birthday of Bartolomeo Tromboncino, the man with the best name in the entire history of music.

The 800 pound gorilla is Beethoven’s 250th birthday. Expect an avalanche as every record label in the business tries to get in on the fun. I’ll be doing my part to mark the occasion; I’ve planned a big listening project focused — one can’t do everything — on the symphonies, piano sonatas, piano concertos, cello sonatas, string quartets, and Missa solemnis. I plan to listen to Andras Schiff’s lectures on the piano sonatas, and I’ll be reading Joseph Kerman’s book on the string quartets as I work my way through those marvellous pieces. I sometimes weary of Beethoven, but I’ve girded up my loins and I’m looking forward to this year-long immersion in his music.

Jazz enthusiasts will be marking the 100th birthdays of both Charlie Parker and Dave Brubeck this year, but I mention this only in passing.

Here is Daniel Barenboim playing Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No.1:

Favourites of 2019: Music

January 1, 2020

It was a very good year in music, with dozens of excellent recordings crossing my path. Of the many good things I heard, I’d like to highlight today the ten records that meant the most to me, offering, at the same time, my very sincere thanks to the musicians who brought them to life.

Proceeding in chronological order:

Tinctoris: Secret Consolations
Le Miroir de Musique, Baptiste Romain
(Ricercar, 2017)

Johannes Tinctoris is best remembered as a late medieval music theorist, but he composed as well, and his pieces show up from time to time on recordings, usually as bon bons ornamenting the music of others. It was nice, therefore, to see the French ensemble Le Miroir de Musique (whose name is a reference to one of Tinctoris’ treatises) devoting an entire album to exploring his music. We get a mix of instrumental and vocal pieces, some sacred and some secular. It’s not an especially cohesive programme, but it’s tied together by the intimate, small-scale feel of the music-making. Most worthy of note is Tinctoris’ Missa sine nomine (the “no name” Mass); it is, hands down, one of the most beautiful things I heard all year, and earned this fine recording a place on this list.

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Cueurs desolez
Carlos Mena, Iñaki Alberdi
(IBS, 2019)

Josquin: Adieu mes Amours
Dulces Exuviae
(Ricercar, 2019)

Some years ago Carlos Mena — the world’s greatest countertenor, in my books — made a record in which he sang adaptations, for solo voice and instrumental accompaniment, of Victoria’s polyphonic masterpieces. This approach, following historical precedents, involved plucking one of the vocal lines from the polyphonic web, and had the effect of highlighting the incredible beauty of the line within an intimate setting. I loved it then, and my admiration has not flagged in the meantime.

He’s returned to this idea on this new record, made with accordianist Iñaki Alberdi, though this time the lucky recipient of the treatment is Josquin Desprez. Best to listen sitting down, because your knees are likely to buckle at the sheer beauty of it. Mena’s voice is still as creamy and pure as ever it was, and the music, of course, is exquisite — mostly. The catch on this record is that Josquin’s music is interlarded with several pieces by modern composers. Your mileage may vary; mine was poor.

If the thought of picking daisies in a minefield doesn’t appeal, there was another record this year in many respects similar but without the risk. On Adieu Mes Amours the duo Dulces Exuviae also focus on Josquin, also adapting him for solo voice and accompaniment (this time lute). Baritone Romain Bockler isn’t Carlos Mena — who is? — so this record doesn’t soar into the seventh heaven as the previous one does, but neither does it descend to the eighth circle, and it is superbly enjoyable on its own merits. Taken together, these two records make a fantastic Josquinian double-bill.

Here are Mena and Alberdi with the closing section of Josquin’s Inviolata:

And here are Dulces Exuviae singing his In te Domine speravi:

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Dowland: First Booke of Songes
Grace Davidson, David Miller
(Signum, 2018)

Dowland’s songes have a certaine delicious melancholie aire, and they can be sunge in a melancholie waye, and to wonderful effect, but to my ear they worke even better when the voice is brighte and cheeringe. The contraste between the luxurious sorrowe of the sentiments and the beautiful, sunny claritie of the voice heightens the artistic effect. On these groundes, this recital by Grace Davidson is splendide. She is a British singere who has sunge for yeares with ace British choirs: the Tallis Scholares, Tenebrae, and The Sixteene, and she is blessed with a voice that is pure and cleare, like freshe water, or a strucke bell (but not at alle like a strucke bell in freshe water). This recital puts me in minde of that marvellous disc Emma Kirkby made yeares ago of the same songes, and that is highe praise indeed. I cannot recall when laste I enjoyed a collection of Dowland’s songes as muche as I have enjoyed this one, and I hope she makes a recordinge of the other bookes too.

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Cardoso: Requiem
Cupertinos, Luis Toscano
(Hyperion, 2018)

Manuel Cardoso, who lived from 1566-1650, is one of a relatively small stable of Portuguese composers whose work has caught the ear of the wider music-loving world. His music turns up here and there, and I have a few discs in my collection devoted to him, but none of them makes a more convincing case than this one from Cupertinos, a young Portuguese choir who have taken the polyphony of their native land as their specialty. The centrepiece of the programme is Cardoso’s Requiem, which, though perhaps not in the very top tier of settings of the funeral Mass (an exalted realm inhabited by Faure, Mozart, Ockeghem, and Gregory), is nonetheless very beautiful, and is here given a lush, poised treatment. We also get to hear a Magnificat and a variety of shorter motets. Even more attractive than the repertoire, fine as it is, is the quality of the singing and the sound, which together vault this recording into a distinguished class. Cupertinos is a small (10 voices) choir and they sing with breathtaking clarity and transparency; you can hear everything, top to bottom. This disc won Gramophone’s “Early Music” award this year, and quite justly. I look forward to hearing more from this choir.

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Bach: Partitas Nos.4 and 6
Anton Batagov
(Melodiya, 2017)

There may be no composer whose music stands up better to adaptation and experiment than Bach. Play his music on an accordion, or transcribe it for string quartet, or share it out to a group of saxophonists and it still sounds pretty good. Push it here, pull it there, and it bounces back. The Russian pianist Anton Batagov (of venerable age) has evidently become interested in what happens when you pull, and pull, and pull. On this recording he plays Bach at roughly half the normal speed, stretching each of these two partitas for piano out to nearly an hour in length! He thus stakes out an extremal point in Bach interpretation. And, perhaps to the surprise of nobody, the result is pretty great. I, at least, have kept coming back to Batagov’s Bach all year as a meditative, ruminative remedy, a gracious shelter from the hurly-burly, an entrancing slow-motion dance. There is so much going on in Bach’s music that playing it ritardandissimo actually allows for a different register of appreciation, and, somewhere deep down, I think I am also dreaming that if it were slowed down by a further factor of three or four, maybe I could play it myself? A fantasy brought tantalizingly near.

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Johann Sebastian Bach
Víkingur Ólafsson
(Deutsche Grammophon, 2018)

I was initially wary of the flashy young Icelandic pianist Víkingur Ólafsson. He had a big contract with Deutsche Grammophon, who (these days) often seem more interested in style than substance, and his past musical projects have been with folks like Bjork and Philip Glass, which didn’t inspire confidence. However, when this record won BBC Music Magazine’s “Record of the Year” honours last year, I ventured to give it a try. It is terrific! Ólafsson is his own man, but he belongs to the Glenn Gould school of pianism: fleet pacing, staccato tone, and perfect rhythmic precision. He plays with tremendous momentum and a playfulness that suits Bach’s counterpoint admirably. The programme is also worthy of comment, for it appears at first to be a dog’s breakfast: we get the whole of the Aria variata (BWV 989) and the Concerto in G minor (BWV 974), but beyond that it’s a mixture of preludes and fugues, chorales, inventions and sinfonias, and individual movements of other works — Bach as pastiche. But on acquaintance this Bach Collage (heh) has been thoughtfully put together, flowing nicely from one step to the next, and adding up to a satisfying immersion in Bach’s art. DG’s sound far outstrips anything that Gould ever had. It’s a truly exceptional Bach recital.

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Bruckner: Symphony No.9
Manfred Honeck, Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra
(Reference, 2019)

You might not expect Steel Town to be a bastion of high culture, but Manfred Honeck and the PSO are stellar together. A few years ago I cheered their recording of two Beethoven warhorses, and this year it’s Bruckner’s mighty Ninth. I have over a dozen versions in my collection, but this one vaults to the top of the heap (where it shares space, cheek by jowl, with Gunter Wand and the Stuttgart RSO). The pacing is excellent — a little brisker in the immense final adagio than is typical, but it works fine. As has been the case in all the recordings from this orchestra in recent years, the sound engineering is spectacular: the strings are majestic and the brass is searing. To be played loudly.

It’s hard to excerpt Bruckner symphonies, but here is the shortest movement. Give it one minute and you’ll be hooked:

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Einsamkeit: Songs by Mahler
Marianne Beate Kielland, Nils Anders Mortensen
(LAWQ, 2018)

The title means something like “loneliness”, and I suppose it is apt, though these wonderful songs have a much broader emotional range. Marianne Beate Kielland sings the big three cycles: the Ruckert-Lieder, the Kindertotenlieder, and the Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, all of which have been recorded hundreds of times, usually in full orchestral dress, but often enough, as here, in a piano reduction. What is special about this disc is the singing: Kielland has a modestly sized voice, very well suited to the chamber-scale intimacy of these settings, and she sings with intelligence, feeling, and great beauty. The proof, as they say, is in the pudding: I’ve returned to this disc many times over the year under the allure of that voice, and I consider this one of the most interesting and enchanting presentations of these inexhaustible songs known to me. A treasured discovery.

***

Messiaen: L’Ascension
Paavo Järvi, Tonholle-Orchester Zürich
(Alpha, 2019)

Messiaen’s orchestral music is marvellous in its variety and strangeness: great, luscious blocks of sound, amazing tone colours, exotic percussion, and spine-tingling harmonies aplenty. It is sometimes played in a broadly majestic manner, shimmering but soft-edged. Not here. On this disc it fairly crackles with electricity: attacks are tight and crisp, the complicated rhythms are precisely executed, and the sound, though perhaps slightly on the dry side, is full and immediate. I’ve never heard Messiaen presented with so much energy, and even ferocity, and I really like it. The centrepiece of the Tonholle-Orchester of Zürich’s programme is the mighty L’Ascension (which I think of as an organ piece, but I’ve now learned the organ version is a derivative from this orchestral original), and it is joined by several other pieces from the 1930s, Les Offrandes oubliées and Le Tombeau resplendissant, and then rounded out by one of his last pieces, Un sourire. Recommended listening for lovers of Messiaen, but only when wearing rubber-soled shoes.

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Weinberg: Symphonies
Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
Gidon Kremer, Kremerata Baltica
(Deutsche Grammophon, 2019)

2019 marked the centenary of the birth of Mieczyslaw Weinberg, a composer whose music I have come to love over the past 10 years as it has finally found a hearing in the West. Quite a few labels put out recordings of Weinberg’s music to mark the occasion, and notable among them was Deutsche Grammophon, which thereby became the first of the major labels to devote attention to this wonderful composer. And they did a good job of it too: the young conductor Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, with Weinberg champion Gidon Kremer as sidekick, give us excellent performances of an early symphony (No.2, written in 1946) and a late (No.21, written in 1991). The Symphony No.2 is one of my favourite of Weinberg’s orchestral works; written for strings only, it is tightly argued, inventive, and brimming with unimpeachable musicality. The later symphony is a tougher nut to crack; about an hour long, it sprawls across six movements, and even features an extended solo for soprano voice — which, thrillingly and capably, Gražinytė-Tyla sings herself. Both symphonies are plausibly meditations on the Holocaust, for the first was written immediately after the war, a war in which the Nazi machine claimed the lives of Weinberg’s entire family, and the second, subtitled “Kaddish”, is as close as Weinberg ever came to writing a religious work, dedicating it to the victims of the Warsaw Ghetto. It is fascinating music that has richly rewarded the attention I gave it this year.

Here is the final movement of the Symphony No.2:

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Around and about

December 19, 2019

A few interesting articles that have come my way in the past month or so:

  • At The New Atlantis, Aaron Kheriaty reviews the recent history of the spread of assisted suicide and euthanasia, with a special eye on how medical societies have aided and abetted the process by assuming a stance of neutrality toward these “procedures”.
  • In physics news, a new experiment in Germany has put an improved upper limit on the mass of neutrinos. For a long time it was thought they might be massless, like photons, but the discovery of neutrino oscillations implied that they must have some non-zero, albeit very tiny mass, and this new result assures us that they weigh no more than about 1/500000 of the mass of an electron. Still, this has interesting implications for cosmology.
  • Also in the physics world: the first detection of gamma-ray bursts by a ground-based telescope. Gamma-ray bursts are amazing astrophysical events that can release in 1 second as much energy as our sun will generate in its entire lifetime.
  • Some months ago, we read The Tale of Genji. A manuscript of a very early copy of a portion of the book was recently discovered.
  • A few years ago a big media splash was made by a study which found that children with religious upbringings were less generous then their unchurched counterparts. Since religion poisons everything, this result was reasonable, right? But it turned out that the data showed no such thing, and the study has been retracted. In fact, the associations of religiosity in childhood with psychological and social health measures generally run the other way.
  • Daniel Kennelly writes an engaging essay marking the 60th anniversary of A Canticle for Leibowitz.
  • At the New York Review of Books, Matthew Aucoin writes a fascinating account of Verdi’s two late Shakespearean masterpieces, Otello and Falstaff.

For an envoi, here is Desdemona’s “Willow Song” from Otello, sung by Rosanna Carteri in a 1950’s television production:

The house where nobody lives (but you’ll cry)

December 4, 2019

In the fantasy list of dream-duets, a pairing of Tom Waits with Iris Dement must rank pretty near the top. It’s never happened, to my knowledge, but Iris Dement has recently recorded a cover of Waits’ “The House Where Nobody Lives”, and it’s an oh-so-sweet heartbreaker. Pass the whiskey and the tissue box.

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We can get a taste of what that Waits/Dement duet might sound like by playing the video above and the video below at the same time!

O magnum mysterium

November 13, 2019

I can’t quite decide if I like Ola Gjeilo’s setting of the Christmas antiphon O magnum mysterium, but it is definitely tempting me to like it. It is beautifully sung here by The Jasmina’s Choir, from Latvia. (Yes indeed, the International Baltic Choir Competition is upon us once more!)

O great mystery,
and wonderful sacrament,
that animals should see the newborn Lord,
lying in a manger!
Blessed is the virgin whose womb
was worthy to bear
the Lord, Jesus Christ.
Alleluia!

The canonical setting of this text is, of course, the one by Victoria:

Solemnity of All Saints, 2019

November 1, 2019

And I saw a new heaven and a new earth;
for the first heaven and first earth had passed away,
and there was no more sea.
And I, John, saw the holy city, new Jerusalem
coming down from God out of heaven,
prepared as a bride adorned for her husband;
and I heard a great voice out of heaven, saying:
‘Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men,
and he will dwell with them and they shall be his people;
and God himself shall be with them and be their God;
and God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes,
and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow nor crying,
neither shall there be any more pain,
for the former things are passed away.’

(Edgar Bainton, ‘And I saw a new heaven’)

 

 

 

Gleanings: MacMillan, Wittgenstein, and more!

September 30, 2019
  • At Image Journal, I’ve discovered an essay by Michael Capps which gives an appreciative overview of the music of the fine Scottish composer James MacMillan. I learned quite a lot from it. MacMillan’s Fifth Symphony recently premiered in Edinburgh.
  • Also at Image Journal, the editor, Gregory Wolfe, in a neat inversion of the usual formula, confesses to being “religious, but not spiritual”. I don’t know that I’d put it quite so emphatically myself, but I’m sympathetic.
  • The Toronto International Film Festival wrapped in the last week or so, and, once again, I failed to attend any screenings, but I did take note of this positive reaction to Terrence Malick’s A Hidden Life. I wonder when I’ll get a chance to see it…
  • Standpoint has been running a series on persons and things they judge “overrated”. It’s hard to argue with some of their targets (Harry Potter, Ayn Rand, Voltaire, Richard Dawkins); I confess I’ve never heard of some others, which makes me wonder how overrated they can be. But the most recent entry, on Wittgenstein, is a gem.
  • Deal Hudson has assembled what he thinks the 100 best Catholic movies. Inclusion criteria seem to have been fairly loose: we expect to find “A Man for All Seasons”, but “First Reformed” isn’t specifically Catholic. “Movies of interest to Catholics” is probably closer to what was intended. I’ve seen 8 of his top 10, but only 30-odd of the titles on the full list. Plenty of fodder there for future movie nights. Did you know there was a film version of “Kristin Lavransdatter”?

For an envoi, let’s hear a piece that ravished me this week: the “Agnus Dei” from Johannes Tinctoris’ Missa sine nomine, performed by Le Miroir de Musique.

Lux aeterna

September 29, 2019

Labyrinthine

September 8, 2019

Everybody thought that George Crumb was cool for notating his music in a circular fashion, but here’s an anonymous medieval piece on a labyrinthine theme that is actually notated to look like a circular labyrinth. It was way, way ahead of its time (and the music is better than the Crumby modern stuff).