Doing my best to avoid “dangerous and disgusting habits”, I am sticking with Advent music for another few days. Here is a nice discovery: “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming” arranged by, of all people, Arnold Schoenberg.
(Hat-tip: Ivan Hewett)
All shall be well, all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.
Surprised by Beauty
A Listener’s Guide to the Recovery of Modern Music
Robert Reilly (Morley, 2002)
350 p. First reading.
The usual history of twentieth-century music pivots around the music of Arnold Schoenberg. He overturned our musical apple-cart in a radical way by declaring the tonal system “diseased” and “exhausted”, and he bequeathed us a new, atonal kind of music. Since he believed that the tonal system was just an arbitrary convention, unrelated to any natural order, he saw no reason that it could not be replaced by a heroic act of will, and he prophesied that in the future school-children would sing atonal ditties to one another across the playground. This fanciful — or absurd — dream has not been realized, and atonal music now sounds far more exhausted and tiresome than tonal music ever did (although such a statement raises the perplexing old question of whether atonal music makes a sound when there is nobody listening to it). In the meantime, however, the sonic noise of Schoenberg, Babbitt, Xenakis, Stockhausen, Boulez, Varèse, and the rest of the radicals dominated the composers’ guild and the prize committees for most of the century. Composers who wanted to continue writing tonal music were cast into the outer darkness (though, oddly enough, the guild retained the gnashing of teeth to themselves).
In this book, Robert Reilly goes roaming through that outer darkness, searching out the music of many composers who, despite the disapproval of their peers, rejected atonality and continued writing expressive music that aimed at beauty. There are a surprisingly large number of such composers. Some of them (Shostakovich, Stravinsky, Sibelius, Elgar, Vaughan Williams) are famous and much beloved, others (Adams, Janáček, Finzi, Villa-Lobos, Nielsen) are fairly well-known to music lovers, some (Tcherepnin, Rautavaara, Rochberg, Arnold) may be known by name but not by ear, and a few (Tveitt, Rütti, Holmboe, Saeverud) were completely unknown to me. It is to Reilly’s credit that his enthusiasm for even the most obscure of these figures is infectious. At the end of each short chapter I was ready to run out and plunge (further) into debt in order to hear this music for myself.
Reilly is a good guide. He has been writing about music for decades (including a a regular gig as music columnist at Crisis Magazine, and now at Inside Catholic), and he knows whereof he speaks. He is on familiar terms with this music, even when it is quite obscure. (In one amusing passage, discussing the Poco adagio section of Harald Saeverud’s ultra-obscure Symphony No.9, he exclaims, “I have not heard such a delectable treatment of the waltz since the second of Lars-Erik Larsson’s Due Auguri“. I don’t mind saying that it has been even longer for me.) He writes well about music, which is not easy to do, even if his range of descriptors is not quite as wide as his subject warrants; I think I counted four different composers whose music is described as “crepuscular murmurings”. But that’s a minor, and sort of endearing, fault. The repetition derives in part from the fact that many (all?) of these composer-specific essays were originally published as separate columns.
At the end of the book Reilly has included several transcribed interviews with composers and conductors. These are very interesting, and for a variety of reasons. My eyes were popping out of my head reading his interview with conductor Robert Craft, who is famous as an interpreter of Stravinsky and Schoenberg. Craft essentially concedes Reilly’s point that Schoenberg’s music is arid and inhuman. (This in contrast to Stravinsky, of whom Craft forthrightly — and rightly — says, “All of his music is happy music.”) In an interview with Gian Carlo Menotti we learn that Menotti received some sort of spiritual gift or miracle through the intercession of Padre Pio. Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara says that some of his compositions were inspired by encounters with angels. For many of these composers the rejection of atonality was identical with a rejection of the willfullness at its root. They chose instead to serve beauty in order to convey goodness and truth.
This is perhaps the most interesting point that emerges from these essays and the comments of the various composers: the reality of the unity of goodness, truth, and beauty, the three transcendentals. It is one thing to state that the three are ultimately one (or, for that matter, to deny that they are), but another to see that it is so. Philosophers of the old school offered metaphysical arguments of various kinds, but here, in the art of music, we encounter not an argument but a demonstration. Music, says Reilly, is the sound of metaphysics. Atonalists denied that there was a truth, an order, to which their minds must conform, and they produced ugliness. At least one of the composers in this book describes such ugliness as a manifestation of evil. And again and again we find them drawing a connection between a composition expressing truth — true feeling, rationality, or whatever it happens to be — and its being a good composition, or between music being beautiful and its being morally good, or between a desire to portray goodness and the need to write beautiful music, or between the writing of beautiful music and an inner attitude of submission and obedience to an external order of beauty.
This apparent connection between music and the transcendental goods raises the question of the relationship of music to religion and the sacred. There is a long tradition, going back to Pythagoras, of regarding music as a manifestation of the order of the cosmos, and also as reflecting and cultivating order in the human soul. Christian music theorists of the Middle Ages connected Christ, the Logos, to this “music of the spheres”, and the beauty of music was connected to both cosmic and moral order. Even today, when this intellectual framework is mostly ignored or unknown, people persist in describing certain kinds of music as “spiritual” or “transcendent”. Reilly discusses these matters in a provoking prefatory essay called “Is Music Sacred?” His answer is broadly in the affirmative, and he draws an explicit three-way connection between the atheism of the leading atonalists, their denial of an objective order governing music, and the harsh and inhuman ugliness of their compositions. If this is true, it should not be surprising to find (as we do) that many of those who rejected atonalism, and those who are rehabilitating music in its aftermath, are explicitly religious, or describe their vocation in religious terms, or are at least friendly to religious themes and interested in writing sacred music. It is God alone who can make these dry bones live.
As a history of twentieth-century music, Surprised by Beauty bears comparison with Alex Ross’ The Rest is Noise, which I wrote about a few years ago. Objectively, Ross’ book is the greater of the two: wider in scope, deeper in detail, and more elegantly written. Reilly’s book is not half as ambitious, and it is certainly much more polemical, with Schoenberg and his progeny the targets. But, personally, I enjoyed reading Reilly’s book more than I did Ross’. He is more obviously passionate about his subject, and I found myself eagerly devouring chapter after chapter. If you are interested in hearing “the untold story” of twentieth-century music, I recommend it highly.
This week I look back at my favourite classical music recordings issued between 2000-2009. Though I have listened to hundreds of recordings, it goes without saying that there is a lot of music, much of it no doubt excellent, that I have not heard.
I have decided to structure this post according to genre. For each genre I have selected two outstanding recordings, with a third “runner-up” sometimes slipped in. The exception to this rule is the choral music category; my initial short list had about twenty-five recordings on it, and it was too cruel to cut that down to just two, or even three. I compensate for this surplus by omitting an opera category altogether.
I have also included links to more thorough reviews and to streaming samples of the music when it was possible to do so.
Without further ado:
I have chosen six discs of choral music, plus a few runners-up. They are arranged in rough chronological order.
Paolo da Firenze: Narcisso Speculando (Mala Punica, Pedro Memelsdorff) [2002; Harmonia Mundi]: This is music of the medieval avant-garde. Paolo da Firenze, who died in 1425, belonged to the ars subtilior school of late medieval composition. The music is incredibly intricate, and must be exceptionally difficult to sing, but it is also marvelous to hear — in that respect, the medieval avant-garde consistently bested the modern. The ensemble Mala Punica specializes in this music, and their awe-inspiring performances must be heard to be believed. This is one of the most ear-opening recordings I’ve ever heard. (Reviews: ClassicsToday)
I don’t know why this video is nine minutes long; the piece ends at 3:43.
Richafort: Requiem (Huelgas Ensemble, Paul van Nevel) [2000; Harmonia Mundi]: For sheer ravishing beauty, this is my choral music pick of the decade. Richafort (c.1480-c.1550) is a mostly forgotten composer, but on the evidence here that forgetfulness is unjust. His Requiem, which may have been written to commemorate the death of Josquin Desprez, is a thing of glories, with wave after wave of beautiful music spilling over the listener. Just when you think it can’t possibly get any lovelier, it does. The disc is filled out by a selection of motets, including a gorgeous Salve regina for five voices, and even a drinking song (rendered, it must be said, a little stiffly). The singing of the Huelgas Ensemble, which is always excellent, is here focused and luminous to an uncommon degree. (Reviews: ClassicsToday)
Here is the Introit of the Requiem:
In Paradisum (Hilliard Ensemble) [2000; ECM New Series]: The Hilliard Ensemble sing the Gregorian setting of the Requiem Mass and interpose motets by two of the grand masters of Renaissance polyphony: Victoria and Palestrina. As is fitting, the music is dark-toned and somber. The singing is as good as singing gets in this vale of tears: concentrated, responsive, inward-looking, and incredibly beautiful. The richness of the sound is astonishing. Part of the credit obviously goes to the four voices of the Hilliard Ensemble, and part to ECM’s superb engineers, but thanks must also be rendered to the walls and vaults of St. Gerold monastery in Austria, where the recording was made. (Reviews: ClassicsToday)
Bach: Missae Breves (Pygmalion) [2008; Alpha]: Before hearing this recording I had not known of the group Pygmalion, and I expect they are new to most listeners too. I still don’t know anything about them — except that they sing Bach to perfection. This disc includes two of Bach’s short Masses, BWV 234 and 235. (A Missa Brevis includes only the Kyrie and Gloria.) This music has never sounded better. The voices are confident, clear, and precise, with none of the raggedness or wooliness that sometimes plagues choirs who try to sing Bach. The instrumental accompaniment is lively and vivid. This is simply terrific music-making. (Reviews: AllMusic) (Listen to samples)
Bach: St. John Passion (Philippe Herreweghe, Collegium Vocale Gent, soloists) [2001; Harmonia Mundi]: Bach’s St. John Passion is not as well-known as his St. Matthew Passion, and with some justification, for it is not as ambitious as its more famous companion. Its comparative modesty in scale makes it a tighter and more dramatic account of the Passion story, and I find that attractive. This performance from Bach-specialist Herreweghe, with a starry cast of soloists and his usual crack choir Collegium Vocale Gent, is uniformly excellent. This music was a great discovery for me this decade. (Reviews: ClassicsToday) (Listen to samples)
Here is the final section of the work, Christe, du Lamm Gottes (an adaptation of the Agnus Dei):
Grechaninov: Passion Week (Charles Bruffy, Phoenix Bach Choir, Kansas City Chorale) [2007; Chandos]: The prospect of hearing Russian sacred music sung by a choir from the American Midwest does not immediately inspire confidence, but this disc upset my expectations. The music, written in 1911, is inspired by the Holy Week services of the Orthodox Church. The texts are in Old Slavonic, and the music communes with the long history of Russian Orthodox music. It bears an obvious similarity to Rachmaninov’s Vespers, and, to my surprise, it does not suffer greatly in the comparison. It is extremely well sung — all praise to the basses! — and the recording, though perhaps a bit boxy, still allows us to hear the music clearly. I was very pleasantly surprised by this recording. (Reviews: AllMusic) (Listen to samples)
Here is the section of the work titled “The Wise Thief”. (Sorry about the flowers.)
Victoria: Et Iesum (Carlos Mena, Juan Carlos Rivera) [2004; Harmonia Mundi]: We naturally associate Victoria with the high Renaissance style of polyphony, of which he was a master. Himself a priest, his music was intended to serve the sacred liturgy. Yet, as this intriguing recording informs us, some of his music was adapted for performance on a more modest and intimate scale. In such cases, one of the polyphonic vocal lines was given to a solo voice, and the other musical lines were put into the instrumental accompaniment. The result is something like a madrigal or song, but with a sacred text. The comparative simplicity of the music allows us to relish the beauty of the exposed vocal melody without interference. Carlos Mena, my favourite counter-tenor (and yours?), has marvelous breath-control in the sometimes very long vocal lines, and his voice has a creamy richness that is very satisfying. Counter-tenor singing has come a long way in the last few generations of singers, and Mena has it all. He is tastefully accompanied by Juan Carlos Rivera on the lute and vihuela. This is a very special recording. (Reviews: ClassicsToday, AllMusic)
Here is Carlos Mena singing Victoria’s adaptation of Salve regina. If you enjoy this, consider clicking through to YouTube; the same person who posted this song has also posted several other tracks from this disc.
Strauss: Lieder (Soile Isokoski, Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin, Marek Janowski) [2002; Ondine]: Finnish soprano Soile Isokoski turns in an unforgettable performance of Strauss’ great Vier Letzte Lieder (Four Last Songs). She has a full-bodied, very expressive voice, and it suits these opulent late flowerings of Strauss’ muse perfectly. Competition in this repertoire is stiff, but Isokoski has displaced Elisabeth Schwarzkopf as my favourite. The disc is filled out by a selection of Strauss’ other songs. They are not among Strauss’ greatest inspirations, but they are still beautifully sung. (Reviews: ClassicsToday) (Listen to samples)
In this live performance (not taken from the recording), Isokoski sings “Fruhling”, the first of the Four Last Songs:
Messiaen: Complete Organ Works (Olivier Latry) [2002; DG]: As I think I have said before, to a first approximation there has been only one composer for the organ, and that was J.S. Bach. But if we broaden our vision just a little, Olivier Messiaen comes into view. His music is nothing like Bach’s, of course, but in its own way it is perfect music for the instrument: immense, deep, ecstatic, glorious, and overwhelming. It is a major body of work. Olivier Latry plays the mighty organ of Notre Dame de Paris, where he is house organist, and the DG engineers have caught the sonics in spectacular fashion. This set is a cornerstone for my collection of twentieth-century music. (Reviews: ClassicsToday)
Bach: Goldberg Variations (Murray Perahia) [2000; Sony]: Starting in the 1990s Murray Perahia began at last to record the music of Bach. He started with the English Suites, and has since moved through the keyboard concertos, the Partitas, and, in 2000, he made this excellent recording of the Goldberg Variations. It is a superb, finely calibrated performance that positively dances, and it has become my favourite recording of this inexhaustible music. (Reviews: ClassicsToday)
Here is Perahia playing the opening Aria and the first three variations:
Shostakovich: Complete String Quartets (Emerson String Quartet) [2000; DG]: One of the two or three greatest concert-going experiences of my life was hearing the Emerson String Quartet play Shostakovich’s devastating final quartet, No.15. It left me reeling and exhausted, but deeply grateful. Afterward I bought this complete cycle of Shostakovich’s quartets, on five well-filled CDs. It is an incredibly rich collection. Some consider his string quartets to be his greatest music, and I am among them. I have since heard a few other cycles of these quartets, including the famous recordings by the Borodin Quartet. I love them too, but they do not include the last two quartets, and the Emersons have the edge on precision and sound quality. This is another cornerstone of my music collection. (Reviews: AllMusic)
Here is a short video I have posted before of the Emersons playing the third movement of String Quartet No.3. Not one of my very favourite movements, but the only one I can find on YouTube:
Weinberg: Cello Sonatas (Alexander Chaushian, Yevgeny Sudbin) [2007; BIS]: Mieczysław Weinberg is not a well-known composer. I had never heard of him until I heard this recording, and, now that I have heard this recording, I cannot understand why he is unknown. His music is fantastic. Weinberg (also sometimes called Vainberg, or Vaynberg) was born in Poland in 1919 and lived most of his life under the Soviets. He was a close friend of Shostakovich — the two would play their new compositions to one another. His music is in many ways quite similar to Shostakovich’s, and that is a very, very good thing! It is tough and lyrical, full of interesting ideas and genuine feeling, and it sounds urgent and important. These cello sonatas — two for cello and piano and one for solo cello — are almost unbelievably beautiful. When I first heard this record I was struck speechless by it, and I hung on every note until it was over. I have since heard several other recordings of Weinberg’s music, and I have not been disappointed. He is a major discovery for me. (Reviews: AllMusic) (Listen to samples)
Here is the first movement of his Cello Sonata No.2, Op.63. I hope somebody likes this as much as I do.
Runner-up: Pärt: Alina [2000; ECM New Series]: ECM Records are known for their innovative and unusual programming, but, even so, it took a certain audacity to put this disc out. It includes just two compositions: Für Alina for piano and Spiegel im Spiegel for piano and violin (or cello), together amounting to about 20 minutes of music. Both pieces are devotedly minimalist, with very sparsely notated scores and absence of dramatic effects. An uncharitable listener might say that “nothing happens” in either of them. ECM, in their wisdom, interleaved on the disc two versions of the first piece with three versions of the second! And, strangely enough, it works. The record, by the very simplicity of the music, asks the listener to really pay attention to each note. Close listening becomes a kind of meditative experience. It’s a rather special disc. (Reviews: ClassicsToday)
Gus van Sant’s 2002 film Gerry used Speigel im Spiegel during the opening scene. This five-minute clip includes roughly half of the piece. The visual is perfect for this music. (Incidentally, in the early days of our courtship I took my wife to see Gerry. I am lucky that she was willing to see me again.)
Concerto and Orchestral
Schoenberg & Sibelius: Violin Concertos (Hilary Hahn, Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra, Esa-Pekka Salonen) [2008; DG]: I confess with some shame that I had ignored Hilary Hahn’s recordings in the past. I assumed that her success had more to do with her youthful attractiveness than the quality of her playing. (Yes, sex sells even in the beleaguered marketing departments of classical music labels.) After hearing this recording I am happy to say that this assumption was totally false: her playing stands firmly on its own merits. She has chosen to couple the violin concerti of Sibelius and Schoenberg, which is a bit like having a meal of truffles and tacks. To her great credit, she actually manages to find music in Schoenberg’s concerto. She gives shape to the almost unremittingly angular musical line, and her tone is steely and firm, as though she’s taken this anarchic music in hand and shown it who is master. She makes as good a case for it as is likely to be made. But it is in the Sibelius concerto that she really shines. I’ve heard three or four other recordings of this wonderful concerto, but none has gripped me as hers has. Her playing is precise, with no wavering or wooliness in her violin’s tone, and she really gets inside the music, allowing it to speak for itself. (Reviews: ClassicsToday, AllMusic)
Here she is playing the final movement of the Sibelius concerto:
Messiaen: Des Canyons aux Étoiles… (Myung-Whun Chung, Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio-France, soloists) [2003; DG]: This massive orchestral composition was written to celebrate the bicentenary of the United States, and it was inspired by Messiaen’s visit to Utah’s Bryce Canyon. It celebrates in sound the canyon’s rocks, cliffs, and — of course, since this is Messiaen — its birds. Scored for a large orchestra with piano, horn, xylorimba, and glockenspiel soloists, it is a colourful and essentially joyful composition, both weird and wonderful, and animated by Messiaen’s Catholic nature-mysticism. The recording is sonically spectacular. (Reviews: ClassicsToday)
The length of these symphonies prevents my linking to whole movements. I hope the samples will give some idea of what is in store.
Bruckner: Symphony No.9 (Günter Wand, Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart des SWR) [2006; Profil]: This is a live recording made in 1979, but this 2006 disc was (I believe) its first commercial appearance, so it qualifies for inclusion on this list. Günter Wand apparently said of this performance that it was “one of the most memorable of [his] life”, and I believe it. It is tremendously beautiful music that seeks, as Bruckner said, to make the transcendent perceptible, and Wand leads his orchestra about as far in that direction as it is possible to go. When called for, they play with thunderous power, and at other times with the most delicate sensitivity. The sound is excellent. (Reviews: AllMusic) (Listen to samples)
Vaughan Williams: Symphony No.2 “London” (Richard Hickox, London Symphony Orchestra) [2001; Chandos]: This splendid recording of the “London” symphony was named Record of the Year by Gramophone Magazine in 2001, and it was a richly deserved accolade. It is a wonderful symphony, and it has never sounded better. The music glows on this recording. It is a great interpretation too, with drama and presence. (Listen to samples)
I have not seen any “Best of Decade” lists from major critics, but a number of “Best of 2009” lists have appeared: