Posts Tagged ‘Birgit Nilsson’

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:


Matteo da Perugia: Chansons
(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
(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.

Great moments in opera: Turandot

September 12, 2012

Turandot was Puccini’s last opera; in fact, it was left unfinished at his death in 1924. It departs from the verismo conventions of his other major operas, taking us instead into a mythic Far East where a cruel princess has set a deadly trap for the many suitors who come seeking her hand. It is generally considered one of Puccini’s most successful operas, and with good reason, for it is full of splendid music.

The basic scenario is this: Princess Turandot is determined not to marry, and to each potential suitor who approaches her she proposes three riddles; failure to answer correctly results in death. Enter the young Prince of Tartary who, catching a glimpse of Turandot, falls in love and resolves to seek her hand.

Our first “great moment” is the Act I aria Signore, ascolta! (“Sir, listen!”). Sung by the Prince’s servant-girl Liu, it is her plea that he not attempt to answer the riddles. Liu is secretly in love with the Prince, and for her the Prince’s plan is disastrous on all counts: if he succeeds he marries Turandot, and if he fails he dies. The aria is sung here by the wonderful Montserrat Caballé, in a concert performance that, alas, has no subtitles:

The Prince responds immediately with Non piangere, Liu (“Do not cry, Liu”) in which he reassures her, and asks that she look after his aging father if he (The Prince) should fail to answer the riddles correctly. Together these two arias are a great one-two punch, the likes of which one does not encounter very often. (Another great example of back-to-back hits is the combination of Che gelida manina and Si, mi chiamano Mimi in La bohème.) The aria is sung here by Jose Carreras, with English subtitles and poor video quality:

In Act II we are treated to In questa reggia (“In this kingdom”), Turandot’s first big aria. In it she explains why she sets the deadly riddles for her potential suitors: her ancestor, Princess Lo-u-Ling, was forcibly married to a foreign prince, and for this insult she has herself vowed revenge upon foreign princes, one and all. This motive is, admittedly, either not very noble or not very intelligent, but the music in which it is expressed is gorgeous. Here we have Birgit Nilsson in a 1968 performance, senza subtitles:

Act III brings us an aria that has a fair claim to being the most famous in all of opera: Nessun dorma (“No-one shall sleep”). It is a favourite of tenors the world over, from rotund Italians to broken-toothed Englishman to frizzy-haired rockers, and, admittedly, there is something genuinely spine-tingling about its climax, rising to that stupendous threefold “Vincero!“. By this point in the story the Prince has successfully answered Turandot’s riddles (!), but she, being still unwilling to marry him, has been offered a way out: if she can guess the Prince’s name then he will submit to death; otherwise she must relent and marry him. He sings this aria in the early morning hours of the day she is to deliver her answer, anticipating his victory. Here is Placido Domingo, with English subtitles:

(Another terrific YouTube performance of this aria is by Giuseppe di Stefano, which can be seen here.)

For a final great moment, consider Liu’s Act III aria Tu che di gel sei cinta (“You who are begirdled by ice”). She sings to Turandot, chastising her for her coldness, and foretelling that she too will one day know the power of love. This is Liu’s “suicide aria”; she stabs herself when she’s done. (Turandot, having discovered that Liu knows the Prince, is putting the screws to her in order to force her to divulge his name. Liu kills herself to avoid betraying him.) The singer here is Leona Mitchell, and the aria lasts about 2-1/2 minutes:

It would seem that the Prince’s wooing has done little to thaw Turandot’s icy heart, but following Liu’s death he takes the risk of kissing her, and she warms to his embrace. She agrees to marry him, and thus the opera comes to what is supposed to be a happy finish, though opinions might justly vary as to whether the happiness will outlast the honeymoon.

Great moments in opera: Tristan und Isolde

February 18, 2010

My Kobbé’s Complete Opera Book begins its discussion of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde in this way:

All who have made a study of opera, and do not regard it merely as a form of amusement, are agreed that the score of Tristan und Isolde is the greatest setting of a love-story for the lyric stage.  It is a tale of tragic passion, culminating in death, unfolded in the surge and palpitation of immortal music.

That’s an exaggeration, but an understandable one.  Tristan und Isolde is a great opera.  The love that it portrays is obsessive and ultimately destructive, seeking and finding its fulfillment in death, but that the opera taps a deep vein of mythic power is hard to deny.  The music with which Wagner has furnished the story is desperate, yearning, restless, and darkly beautiful.  One doesn’t have to admire his artistic vision to agree that he has realized that vision thoroughly and brilliantly, and in so doing has created something powerful.

The opera is autobiographical to a unique degree in Wagner’s work.  While writing it — and, as always, he wrote not just the music but also the text — he was carrying on an affair with a woman, Mathilde Wesendonck, who was married to his friend and benefactor.  In his letters he seems to have cast himself in the role of Tristan, and her in the role of Isolde.  By the time the opera was finished, the affair had ended, but the passion and turmoil survive in the music.

Tristan und Isolde was the first of Wagner’s operas to be performed after Lohengrin, but he had been busy in the meantime.  After completing Lohengrin he had begun work on Der Ring des Nibelungen, and he had mostly completed the first two operas in that cycle before he, needing some money, turned aside to write a “small” opera on the legend of Tristan and Isolde.  It may have started small, with just five principal characters, but Wagner’s muse was expansive, and the completed opera is nearly four hours in performance, and is among the most difficult in the repertoire.  It demands incredible power and stamina from its small group of singers.  Wagner’s compositional methods also developed between Lohengrin and Tristan und Isolde.  The leitmotif technique plays a much more significant role here than it had previously.

I have chosen one highlight from each of the opera’s three Acts, but before getting to them we must pause to hear the orchestral prelude.  It is not only the most famous music from the opera, but is one of the most famous and “important” pieces in all of Western music.  Wagner’s use of dissonance, chromaticism, and careful avoidance of a closing cadence anywhere gives the music a disorienting, unsettled feeling expressive of the tormented love that is the opera’s subject.  Here is Daniel Barenboim leading the young players of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra at last year’s Proms:

In Act I, Tristan is bringing Isolde by ship from Ireland to Cornwall where she will marry Tristan’s uncle, King Mark.  She, harboring a secret love for Tristan, is unwilling to marry another, and, also hating him for having killed her fiance (in events which transpired before the opera begins), she decides to kill both him and herself with a poisoned elixir.  As the ship approaches Cornwall she offers him the poisoned cup.  Her servant, however, has replaced the expected poison with a love potion, and when the couple drinks they find, not death, but an overwhelming passion for one another.

The scene in which they both drink of the cup is magnificent.  The voices fall silent for a time, and in the orchestra we hear several of the opera’s most important leitmotifs portraying Tristan, Isolde, fate, and love.  Eventually the voices do burst forth again: “Tristan!  Isolde!”  The deed has been done; this passion will lead them both to destruction.

Here is the scene from a television production, with Birgit Nilsson and Wolfgang Windgassen.  (Yes, there really was a Wagnerian tenor — and a great one — called “Windgassen”.)  Here is the text with English translation; this excerpt begins with Tristan’s line “War Morold dir so wert”, about one-third of the way through the scene.  If you don’t want to watch the whole thing, pick it up at about 7:00, as Tristan prepares to drink the cup (singing “Tristans Ehre – höchste Treu’!”).

Act II contains one of the longest and most opulent love duets in all of opera.  Tristan and Isolde have met under cover of darkness, away from the watchful eyes of King Mark, and they declare their love for one another.  The duet goes on for nearly half an hour, and so is far too long to include here in its entirety.  Here is the section beginning “O sink hernieder” (text and translation here), sung by Ben Heppner and Jane Eaglen at the Metropolitan Opera:

In Act III, Tristan has been fatally wounded after he and Isolde were discovered together.  After singing for a long time, he dies, and Isolde takes center-stage to deliver her final oration: the famous Liebestod (Love-death).  One pities the soprano who has to stand up at the end of a long night of singing and confront this monumental conclusion.  Here it is, sung by Birgit Nilsson in a concert performance.  Text and translations here. (Scroll down to the bottom.)


I practiced full Tristan-und-Isolde-immersion this week, hearing or viewing four different performances of the opera.  I watched the production from the Metropolitan Opera that I linked above, with Ben Heppner and Jane Eaglen in the main roles.  Heppner was excellent, but I found Eaglen a little underpowered at times.  On CD I listened to the famous 1936 recording with Kirsten Flagstad and Lauritz Melchior.  The singing is amazing — many contend that there has never been an Isolde to match Flagstad’s — but the sound recording technology of the time was not able to capture the richness of the orchestral music, and in Wagner the orchestra is at least as important as the voices.  I also heard a recent recording with Placido Domingo and Nina Stemme; the sound quality was glorious, and the singing was good, but it didn’t get my blood boiling the way this opera ought to.  In the end I returned to my favourite recording: the 1966 Bayreuth performance led by Karl Böhm with Birgit Nilsson and Wolfgang Windgassen.