Archive for the 'Music' Category

Flagstad in spring

March 12, 2019

Sad songs about spring are something of a niche item, but have you ever heard one sadder or more beautiful than Grieg’s Våren? I recently heard this performance by Kristen Flagstad and it stopped me in my tracks. What a song, and what a voice!

Tangled in the web

March 4, 2019
  • Art thieves are the aristocrats of the crime world, retaining something of the aura of a dashing gentleman. Michael Finkel writes about Stéphane Breitwieser, one of the most successful — until he was caught, and caught again. Meanwhile the story of Vjeran Tomic, an art thief whom the French press called “Spider-Man” for his dramatic techniques, is told at The New Yorker.
  • Randy Boyagoda is a Canadian author whose new novel, Original Prin, is both “deeply Catholic and deeply funny”, says André Forget in The Walrus. I’m reading the book now, and Forget is right; the book is delightful — except, perhaps, for my wife, who has to put up with my late night guffaws.
  • Speaking of guffaws, James Geary writes in The Paris Review in defence of puns.
  • Puns may be the highest form of literary comedy, but literary hoax cannot be far behind. J.W. McCormack digs into the history of such hoaxes at Literary Hub.
  • Meanwhile, perhaps perpetrating a hoax of his own, Robert C. Koons argues at First Things that T.S. Eliot was a populist. Actually, his argument is an interesting one.
  • At Catholic Herald, Michael White writes about the premiere of a new piece for tenor and orchestra by Sir James MacMillan, The Hills and Vales Along, based on the war-time poetry of Charles Sorley, who was killed in WWI. We’re MacMillan enthusiasts around here.
  • To wrap up: if you’ve ever wondered if your construction worker might be a well-disguised liberal, or whether your journalist friend might be a secret conservative, put your musings to rest. Business Insider breaks down the political biases of different professions based on campaign contributions in the US. They look about how you’d expect, although it is interesting that the liberal professions (journalism, tech, entertainment, academia) tend to be markedly more liberal than the conservative professions (farming, construction, mining) are conservative. Actually, maybe that is what you’d expect.

For an envoi, let’s hear James MacMillan’s Ave maris stella, beautifully sung by a local parish choir:

Weinberg: String Quartet No.6

February 28, 2019

For me, the string quartets of Weinberg are essential listening. They bear comparison, I think, with those of Shostakovich, even if they suffer somewhat in the comparison. They are made of intensely interesting and thoughtful music.

Here is the slow movement from the String Quartet No.6, a six-movement work written in 1946. The sinewy lines, which are hard to predict but not capriciously so, embedded in a fairly rigorous imitative structure, offer a good example of what I find so valuable about Weinberg as a composer. Background and analysis here.

Weinberg: two things

February 13, 2019

This week my Weinberg listening project has been focused on music from 1946. This was a difficult time for him, as much of his family had been killed in the war. But the music, which included his clarinet sonata, second symphony, and third piano sonata, is wonderful.

Here’s something cute. In this year he published 21 Easy Pieces for piano. In this video the first, “Merry March”, is played by a talented youngster named Julia:

And here is something more elaborate: the adagio movement from his Symphony No.2:

Weinberg: Piano Trio

February 6, 2019

Marking the centenary of Mieczyslaw Weinberg’s birth this year, I’ve been devoting my evening commute to his music. The past couple of weeks have reaped an embarrassment of riches: his Symphony No.1, several string quartets, his wonderful Piano Quintet, and his first Piano Trio. All are impressive  pieces of work, and all were written while he was still in his mid-20s!

Good filmed performances of his music are not easy to come by, so I was happy to find this artful presentation of the Toccata movement of the Piano Trio, played by Trio Khnopff. This is a frenetic movement, nervous and buzzing, and not, perhaps, what I’d have first chosen, but beggars cannot be choosers:

Schubert 222

January 31, 2019

Unless I am mistaken, today is Schubert’s 222nd birthday. I had thought it would be amusing to choose, for the occasion, his song “Lieb Minna”, which carries the catalogue number D.222. However, this song is so obscure that it seems not to be available on YouTube.

Instead, let’s hear a song that has been rolling around in my mind for the past few days: “Auf dem Flusse”, from Winterreise, sung here by Thomas Quasthoff, with Daniel Barenboim at the piano.

Happy birthday, Schubert!

Musical anniversaries in 2019

January 25, 2019

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:

Memorials

25 years

  • Witold Lutosławski

150 years

  • Hector Berlioz

***

Birthdays

100 years

  • Mieczyslaw Weinberg

200 years

  • Clara Schumann
  • Jacques Offenbach

400 years

  • Barbara Strozzi

*

This is a pretty thin showing, and from this evidence I think we can confidently conclude that being born in a year ending 19 or 69 is a misfortune from a musicality point of view; the same holds true for those destined to die in such years. I expect there is a straightforward astrological explanation.

I have put Clara and Barbara on the list mainly because I thought it was interesting that two of the relatively few female composers were born in years for which the last two digits were the same. What were the chances? [*]

In a similar way, I mention Berlioz only because it seemed unduly audacious to leave him off. As far as I can tell, his principal redeeming quality is that Jacques Barzun admired him.

For me the highlight of the year is unquestionably the centenary of Mieczyslaw Weinberg, who has been mentioned here several times over the years. I’ve planned a big listening project that will take me through all those of his compositions which have been recorded and are available — roughly 100, I believe. I note that the blog Lines that have escaped destruction, which is dedicated to Weinberg’s music, has planned a series of 100 blog posts for this year about various aspects of his life and work; I will be following it with interest.

Happy listening! As an envoi, here is the adagio section of Weinberg’s Sinfonietta No.2, played by Gidon Kremer and Kremerata Baltica:

***

[*] This is a variant on the birthday problem. Suppose we have N female composers, and we want to find the probability that at least 2 of them share the final two digits of their birth year. There are Y = 100 possible such two-digit combinations.

It is easiest to calculate the probability that they do not share those digits. This probability is

\bar{P}(N, Y) = 1 \cdot \left(\frac{Y-1}{Y}\right) \cdot \left(\frac{Y-2}{Y}\right) \cdot \cdot \cdot \left(\frac{Y-(N-1)}{Y}\right)

assuming that N < Y and (of course) that each pair of year-digits are equally likely. This means that the probability that at least two of our ladies do share those digits in their birth years is

P(N, Y) = 1 - \prod^{N-1}_{\ell=0} \left(1-\frac{\ell}{Y}\right)

Since Y=100, the only variable is N, the number of female composers. It’s easy to find lists of more than 100, so the probability of having a collision on birth dates becomes 1. But my list above is limited to the cream of the crop, or at least the composers of no small repute, on both the male and female sides, and everyone knows that on those conditions there have been only a handful of female composers: St Hildegard, Barbara Strozzi, Fanny Mendelssohn, Clara Schumann, Lili Boulanger, and another few of your choosing — maybe Gloria Coates, Judith Weir, and Lera Auerbach, but feel free to swap in your favourites. Let’s say ten in total. Then the probability of a collision on one of these lists is

P(10, 100) = 0.37

which is higher than I expected! If we’re really strict and only admit those eminent five into the circle, the probability drops to about 10%. In other words, we are, quite possibly, witnessing this year an event that shall not be repeated for a decade!

Favourites in 2018: Music

January 3, 2019

I had another great year of listening to music, and I’ve selected, from the many that I enjoyed, ten recordings that I found particularly excellent. I’ll review them in rough chronological order, moving from medieval to modern.

***

Boethius: Songs of Consolation
Sequentia
(Glossa, 2018)

Boethius’ The Consolation of Philosophy has for centuries been read with profit, but would it not, like most things, be even better if sung? Several dozen poems are sprinkled through the text, and there actually is manuscript evidence from the ninth to the twelfth centuries that these poems were sometimes converted into songs. A Cambridge scholar, Sam Barrett, working with the musicians of Sequentia, with their many years of experience in early medieval song, have here attempted to reconstruct those songs, or at least, as the liner notes say, “to arrive at realisations informed by both scholarly insight and practical experience,” which is an admirably modest way of putting it. There is necessarily some guesswork involved, and I am not in a position to judge the merit of the scholarly argument. All I can say is that I have greatly enjoyed listening to the results. Here is a video describing the process the scholars and musicians went through, with some performance excerpts as well; it is well worth watching, as the disc is well worth hearing, not only for the music, if I can put it that way, but also for the novelty and interest of the project. Early music is so often a blend of scholarship and musicianship, and this is early music at its best.

**

En seumeillant
Dreams and Visions of the Middle Ages
Sollazzo Ensemble
(Ambronay, 2018)

The Sollazzo Ensemble was founded in 2014, in Basel, and now has two recordings to its credit, both tremendously good. This disc, bearing a nearly unspellable title (try it!), is built around the theme of “reveries, fantasies, trances, visions, [and] nightmares”. The music is fascinating: the group reconstructs, from medieval descriptions, a “discordant litany” in which a plainchant melody is harmonized dissonantly; they sing an apocalyptic “Song of the Sibyl” that was, for centuries, sung in Catholic churches during Advent; we get a Florentine lauda, which would have been sung in procession through the streets of the city; and we hear a simply splendid performance of the oft-recorded but ne’er-tamed Fumeux fume, which, if it was not actually inspired by a hallucinogen, might serve as one. This is fantastically difficult and intricate music, often, and just as often exceptionally beautiful and alluring. The Sollazzo Ensemble seems to have absorbed the refined idiom of this music into their bones.

**

Ockeghem & La Rue: Requiems
Diabolus in Musica, Antoine Guerber
(Bayard, 2018)

About 25 years ago Ensemble Organum made a recording of Ockeghem’s Requiem that was like nothing on earth: a big, bass-heavy sound, wild dynamics, and pervasive ornamentation of the vocal lines gave the piece, which can sound polite when done in the best English choral tradition, an alien cast. It was glorious — radical, yes, but defensible, because the truth is that we don’t really know what this music sounded like at the time it was written; the notated sources only tell us so much.

This new disc of Ockeghem’s Requiem from Diabolus in Musica seems, to my ears, to have that earlier recording in mind. It is sung, as before, by an all-male choir, giving it a rich, visceral sound, and the style is craggy rather than smooth, as though great blocks of sound, like tectonic plates, are moving around. It is not as radical as Ensemble Organum’s version of the piece, but is still very much off the beaten track. I confess I love it. They give the same treatment to Pierre de la Rue’s Requiem, a piece that I do not know nearly as well, and it sounds terrific too.

**

Antoine de Févin: Masses and Motets
The Brabant Ensemble, Stephen Rice
(Hyperion, 2018)

Everyone has their short list of favourites when it comes to medieval and Renaissance polyphony; yours, like mine, probably includes Machaut’s Messe de Nostre Dame, Ockeghem’s Requiem, Byrd’s Ave verum corpus, and the entire surviving corpus of Benedictus Appenzeller, but at the top of my heap sits Josquin’s gorgeous motet Ave Maria … Virgo serena. I’ve never sung it for an audience, but I’ve frequently sung it in the privacy of my car, or late at night, muffled, into a pillow, and I know it pretty well. Imagine my delight, therefore, to discover that Antoine de Févin, a little-known French composer active around 1500, wrote an entire Mass, his Missa Ave Maria, in which the music is based on Josquin’s motet. This practice, of basing a Mass setting on pre-existing music, was common at the time; Masses were written based on chant fragments (as in Josquin’s famous Missa pange lingua, for instance) or on popular songs (as in the rash of Masses based on the song “L’homme armé'”) or on pieces written by other composers, and Févin’s Mass falls into the latter category. What is special about it is simply that it is based on a piece that I particularly love. It is wonderful to hear Josquin’s original music adapted to its new setting, like seeing a familiar picture turned to a new perspective and recoloured. I have a new appreciation for the art involved in writing these homage Masses, and I think no single piece of music has given me greater pleasure this year.

**

Bach: Magnificat
Handel: Dixit Dominus
Vox Luminis, Lionel Meunier
(Alpha, 2017)

From the Belgian group Vox Luminis come marvellous performances of two Baroque masterpieces: Bach’s Magnificat and Handel’s Dixit Dominus. Vox Luminis has been going from strength to strength in recent years, making a series of excellent discs of early music, and being justly showered with praise — including having Gramophone magazine’s “Recording of the Year” honours bestowed upon them. There is a luxurious quality to their music-making; they have an unusually rich sonority, both instrumentally and vocally, that gives nice body to these two joyful works. I am especially impressed by Dixit Dominus, which I’ve never heard done better.

**

Life
Igor Levit
(Sony, 2018)

The programme on Life is one Igor Levit crafted in response to the sudden death of a friend, and consists mainly of melancholy, quiet pieces expressing, naturally enough, his sorrow. We get some old chestnuts: Liszt’s transcription of Isolde’s Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde and of the solemn march from Parsifal, Brahms’ left-hand transcription of Bach’s mighty Chaconne, and Schumann’s Ghost Variations. But there are also some rarities, like Busoni’s Fantasia after Bach, and some pieces entirely new to me, such as a substantial excerpt from Frederic Rzewski’s Dreams and, most notably, a half-hour-long transcription of an organ piece by Liszt (!). The recital closes with a meditative piece by Bill Evans, the jazz pianist, and even this does not ruin it. Some of this music might not be of the very highest quality, but it works together well as a programme, and the playing is simply magnificent. Levit’s playing seems to come from a place of profound stillness and attention. He is a very wonderful pianist indeed.

There’s more!

**

Mahler: Symphony No.6
Teodor Currentzis; MusicAeterna
(Sony, 2018)

It has been a long time since a disc of orchestral music has thrilled me as has Teodor Currentzis and MusicAeterna’s recent recording of Mahler’s Symphony No.6. I praised Currentzis last year for his way with Mozart, and the same passion and intensity are all over this Mahler recording. The opening march rhythm, which usually puts me in mind of an army on the move, here becomes the tread of an army of ferocious beasts, snarling and snapping, and this intensity continues through essentially the entire work. What is amazing is that Currentzis has been able to amp up the music, infuse it with quivering excitement, without also flattening it out. It is as though he went over every phrase, every bar, and thought about orchestral colour and balance, and found a way to clarify the texture while simultaneously amplifying weight and presence. Certainly I have heard details on this recording, especially from the low strings, that I have never heard before. It’s magnificent.

In fact, I’ve enjoyed it so much that I have begun to second-guess myself. Currentzis is an iconoclast. His orchestra goes to 11. My worry is that perhaps I am being seduced by a debased aesthetic: orchestral music for rock ‘n’ rollers, which is to the main tradition as Charles Atlas is to you and me — basically the same, but exaggerated. I am also a little wary of the unusual vividness and clarity of the sound: is this really the sound of an orchestra, or a sound collage made possible by close-micing and a sound board? I’m not sure, nor do I know what to make of my aesthetic concerns. I suppose that I will just keep listening, and trust my judgment. In fact, I think I’ll put it on again now.

**

Stravinsky: Music for violin, Vols 1-2
Ilya Gringolts, Peter Laul
(BIS; 2017, 2018)

I’m cheating a bit by grouping together two discs. The first volume narrowly missed making my year-end list last year; this year, in combination with the fine second volume, it makes the cut easily. Ilya Gringolts, accompanied by Peter Laul, tackles the music Stravinsky wrote for violin and piano. I recall that Robert Craft, Stravinsky’s amanuensis, once said that all of Stravinsky’s music is happy music, and that judgment is borne out by this collection, which is unfailingly delightful and interesting. Many of these pieces are minor, mere chips from the workman’s bench, but Stravinsky’s imagination did not run in dull channels. Some of the pieces are arrangements of his ballet music (including excerpts from The Firebird, Petrushka, and the “Suite Italienne” from Pulcinella). Gringolts plays them with poise and wit, which is exactly what they need, and he has superb sound.

The major work (appearing on Vol.2) is the Violin Concerto, surely the most amiable violin concerto of the twentieth century. Everybody and his dog have recorded it. Gringolts, supported by Orquesta Sinfónica de Galicia, does not, perhaps, give us a performance for the ages, but it’s a creditable, perfectly fine performance that I have enjoyed. It sits somewhat awkwardly alongside the smaller-scale chamber works that otherwise fill the discs.

**

Messiaen: Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant Jésus
Jean-Rodolphe Kars
(Piano Classics, 2017)

I have in my collection several recordings of Messiaen’s feature-film-length piano masterpiece Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant Jésus, surely the least catchy Christmas-themed music ever written — but wonderful music all the same. I might not have heard this one but for a laudatory review from a reputable source, and then another, and another. The recording has an interesting background story: the pianist, Jean-Rodolphe Kars, calls Messiaen his spiritual father, and in fact converted to Catholicism shortly after the recording was made. He then entered the seminary, and has served as a priest in France ever since.

That interesting story would be little more were it not matched by artistry of a high order, but it is. There is a wonderful spaciousness to Kars’ playing; Messiaen’s music can be extremely complex and multifaceted, but never sounds hectic or laboured in Kars’ hands. The claim that one can hear the difference between a world-class pianist who plays with devotion and one who merely plays as if with devotion is probably false, but nonetheless over the course of this long concert Kars’ musicality does cast a contemplative spell over the listener that I, at least, have not experienced with other pianists. This recording, made live before an Amsterdam audience in 1976 and reissued in 2017, is now my first-choice for this music.

**

Schnittke: Psalms of Repentance
Pärt: Magnificat and Nunc dimittis
Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir
Kaspars Putnins
(BIS, 2018)

Several years ago I highlighted a recording of Schnittke’s Psalms of Repentance that, to my ears, wasn’t quite up to the expressive standards set by my reference version of this work, but that had superior sound and therefore a claim to serious consideration. In 2018 we got this new recording that takes the palm in both the artistic and technical categories, and therefore becomes the obvious first choice for a recording of a work that, I would argue, belongs on a short list of the greatest choral works of the 20th century. It’s a harrowing piece in some ways, the music an often thorny and agonized stew of dissonances, but it is very beautiful in its way, without gimmickery or self-indulgence. It is music that I love, and it is given here, by one of the world’s best choirs, the performance of a lifetime. After those haunting sounds, it is sweet relief to fall into the still pool that is the music of Arvo Pärt, Schnittke’s contemporary, fellow subject of Soviet power, and fellow convert to Christianity. Pärt’s Magnificat and Nunc dimittis have been recorded many times, including previous recordings by this choir, but he has rarely sounded better. This is my record of the year.

***

Addendum on popular music

The big box of outtakes from Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks sessions brought me great pleasure this year, but is not something I’m likely to listen to very many times, if only because it takes so long to get through it. My favourite new album this year was Sam Phillips’ World on Sticks; I usually find her characteristic combination of flint-dry voice, precise manner, and enigmatic lyrics beguiling, and this new record is no exception.

I have an appetite for melancholy in song, and this year I grew fat and juicy feeding on Patty Griffin’s “Rain”, from her 2002 record 1000 Kisses.

Oh Patty, where have you been all my life?

Christmas music recommendations

December 27, 2018

Now that the Christmas season is upon us, I’d like to recommend two wonderful discs of Christmas music that have brought me much pleasure over the past few years.

**

ros-christmas

The first is RÓS: Songs of Christmas, from the Norwegian Soloists’ Choir, a group of which you’ve probably not been previously aware. The music is a blend of things you’d think wouldn’t work well together, and you’d be wrong. The disc begins with a Norwegian-language rendition of Lo, how a Rose e’er blooming (called Det hev ei rose sprunge), as lovely a version as you’re ever likely to hear. The centerpiece is a “suite for Christmas” which interweaves the ecstatic melodies of St Hildegard von Bingen with carols, sung in a manner inspired by the Norwegian folk tradition. The arrangements of St Hildegard’s music are unusually rustic, and the carol arrangements are unusually elaborate, which helps to bridge the gap between these two very different musical realms. Of course, you and I don’t speak Norwegian, but it hardly matters: the warmth and happy good cheer of this music are such that it could be nothing but Christmas music, and this disc is among the most joyful and delightful collections of Christmas music known to me. Here is a featurette about the disc:

**

rusby-sweet

Kate Rusby has made a few Christmas records, but I’m partial to Sweet Bells. She is a bright light on the English folk music scene, with a distinctive lilting voice and a wonderful way with traditional songs. On this record she sings some standard Christmas fare — carols like “Here We Come A-Wassailing” and “Hark the Herald Angels Sing”, the latter given a slow and surprisingly effective tempo — with songs, both sweet and sad, that draw more strongly on the folk tradition, like “Serving Girl’s Holiday” and “The Miner’s Dream of Home”. It’s an unconventional combination, but convincing in her hands. Here is “The Holly and the Ivy”:

Merry Christmas!

Another missed concert

November 17, 2018

Last weekend I did not get to see Hilary Hahn in concert. Tonight I don’t get to hear the Latvian Radio Choir in concert. But I can stay home and listen to them sing Arvo Pärt’s Nunc dimittis. This is a quiet and slow piece, but difficult to sing well. It’s delicate, and fragile, and will break if the choir fumbles it. It’s safe in these hands:

I wonder what concert I will not attend next weekend?