Posts Tagged ‘Ensemble Scholastica’

Favourites in 2020: Music

December 29, 2020

The past year was deficient in many respects, but not in the quality of the music that I heard. I’d like to share a selection of the discs that most appealed to me in 2020.

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Saints Inouis
Ensemble Scholastica
[Atma, 2020]

The marvellous Ensemble Scholastica, based in Montreal, celebrated their 10th anniversary this year with a disc entitled Saints Inouis (“Astonishing Saints”). The musical programme is rather niche: it is structured around liturgies for three specific feast days in the French region of Creuse, located a few hundred kilometres south of Paris. The music celebrates St Pardoux (7th century), St Yrieix (6th century), and the feast of the conception of the Virgin (which would later come to be called the Immaculate Conception). The music itself dates from the 10th-12th centuries, and is of extraordinary beauty. The performances are gorgeous, and this is one of the most beautiful discs of medieval music to come my way in some time.

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Gesualdo: Tenebrae Responsories
Graindelavoix
[Glossa, 2020]

In their last few records the vocal ensemble Graindelavoix has experimented more and more with new ways of interpreting the music of Renaissance masters. The style they have evolved, which is about as far as one can get from the pure, cool style familiar to us from the work of English choirs, is rugged, plangent, dark-toned, and lush. This disc, in which they sing the Tenebrae music of Gesualdo, is a match made in heaven. Gesualdo’s extraordinary harmonic adventurousness emerges in all its prickly, abrasive glory in these vigorous and committed performances. I have no idea if this sounds like what Gesualdo had in mind, but I have a feeling he would have liked it. I, at any rate, like it very much. Here is a lovely short film of the ensemble singing Plange Quasi Virgo, from the service for Holy Saturday:

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Music for Milan Cathedral
Siglo de Oro, Patrick Allies
[Delphian, 2019]

This wonderful disc is structured around the music of Hermann Matthias Werricore, a virtually unknown composer who, I learn from the liner notes, was maestro di cappella at Milan’s Duomo Cathedral from about 1520-1550, a good long stretch. We get to hear a half dozen of his motets, including a 10 minute setting of Ave maris stella. The program is filled out by other music that would have been heard at the cathedral during his tenure, the best known of whom was Josquin Desprez. I am putting the disc on my year-end list not so much because of the music — though it is wonderful music — but because of the singing by Siglo de Oro. I think I have praised this group in the past, and so long as their singing continues to be as rich, balanced, and transparent as this I’ll continue to do so. Excellent engineering from Delphian made this one of the best sounding discs of polyphony I heard this year.

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Handel: Acis and Galatea
Early Opera Company, Christian Curnyn
[Chandos, 2018]

I’ve a long-standing admiration for Handel’s Acis and Galatea. Sometimes described as a “pastoral opera”, it is a relatively small scale work (~90 minutes) full of delightful melodies and charming scenes. The story is of a love triangle between the shepherd Acis, the nymph Galatea, and the cyclops Polyphemus — obviously, from the title, Polyphemus is very much a third wheel. It was Handel’s first dramatic work in English, and it is a triumph, well worth getting to know. This performance, from Christian Curnyn and the Early Opera Company, is headlined by the wonderful soprano Lucy Crowe singing the part of Galatea. The singing is great, the choruses are great. It’s all great. Here is the second-Act trio “The flocks shall leave the mountains”:

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This year marked the 250th birthday of Beethoven, and much of my year was devoted to listening to his music. I went through all of the symphonies, string quartets, piano sonatas, and major choral works, often in multiple interpretations. It was a splendid project. Out of all the music I heard, certain things stand out as particularly excellent. I was very taken with George Szell’s cycle of symphonies, made in the 1960s with the Cleveland Orchestra.  I chose a small but eminent stable of pianists for the sonatas and listened through each sonata from each of them: Solomon, Arrau, Kempff, Gilels, Schiff, and Levit, with occasional forays into the playing of Perahia, Rubinstein, and Richter.

To my surprise, the pianist who consistently emerged as my favourite was Andras Schiff. I was surprised because he alone among these pianists played a “period instrument”, a relatively underpowered piano that lacks the rich sonority of a modern Steinway. But I grew to really appreciate his instrument’s clarity and lack of bombast, and hearing Schiff’s interpretations was one of the musical highlights of my year.

Another pianistic highlight was Ronald Brautigam’s three-disc survey of all Beethoven’s “theme and variations” pieces (excluding the Diabelli Variations).  The most famous among these is the Eroica Variations, but there are many more, including delightful pieces based on the tunes of “God Save the King” and “Rule Brittania”. I have a special affection for theme and variations compositions, and Beethoven was a master of the form. These were great fun. Here is a sample, an unpublished set of six small variations on a Swiss song:

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Offenbach: Colorature
Jodie Devos, Münchner Rundfunkorchester, Laurent Campellone
[Alpha, 2019]

After the austerity of medieval chant, the formality of Renaissance polyphony, the pastoral beauty of Handel, and the robust musical intelligence of Beethoven, we come across Offenbach in exactly the right frame of mind: ready for some candy. Last year (2019) was the 200th anniversary of his birth, and I had intended to listen to some of his music then. In the event, I didn’t get to it until this year, and one of the discs I most enjoyed was this corker from Jodie Devos. As suggested by the title, the disc is devoted to coloratura fireworks, and magnificent it is. Put this music on at a party — assuming we were able to have parties — and before you could say “Vive l’Escargot” your guests would be lined up, dancing a can-can. Here’s an aria from The Tales of Hoffmann:

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Zender: Schubert’s Winterreise
Julian Prégardien, Deutsche Radio Philharmonie, Robert Reimer
[Alpha, 2018]

Schubert’s great song-cycle Winterreise I recommend to everyone. This disc of Hans Zender’s Schubert’s Winterreise is quite a different beast; I recommend it, but only to those who already know the original well. Zender’s Winterreise, which he called a “composed interpretation” of the original, was completed in 1993. It is completely bonkers. The piano has blossomed into an orchestra, and each of the 24 songs has been filtered through the musical developments of the two hundred years since Schubert first wrote them. Strange sonorities erupt, songs fracture and break apart, or take sharp turns down unexpected alleyways, and the singing sometimes reverts to speech. It’s not something to hear every day, but as a stimulating meditation on these immortal songs, it has won a place in my heart.

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Sorabji: Sequentia Cyclica
Jonathan Powell
[Piano Classics, 2019]

Also in the bonkers category is this monster from Kaikhosru Sorabji. His Sequentia Cyclica is an 8-1/2 hour long colossus, a set of 27 variations on the “Dies Irae” theme from the Requiem Mass. It makes superhuman demands on the pianist — and also on the listener. This is the “theme and variations” form conceived on a massive scale; some of these individual “variations” run to nearly an hour. It is, again, not something I am going to listen to very often, but I am really happy to have heard it. Recommended to those with an affection for Mount Everest, the US national debt, and galactic superclusters.

Here is Powell playing the variation “in the style of Debussy”, complete with score:

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Fading
The Gesualdo Six
[Hyperion, 2020]

My disc of the year, however, is this one from the British ensemble Gesualdo Six. The music is an eclectic mash-up of Renaissance polyphony and modern vocal music, tied together thematically by references to light and darkness. We hear Veljo Tormis’ Four Estonian Lullabies and pieces by Joanna Marsh, Sarah Rimkus, and the group’s own director, Owain Park, interwoven with music by Gombert, Byrd, and Tallis. It works wonderfully. The singing of this young group is immaculate, and I look forward to hearing much more from them in the future.

Here is Owain Park’s own setting of Phos hilaron, which, being translated, goes like this:

Hail, gladdening light, of his pure glory poured,
who is the immortal Father, heavenly, blest,
holiest of holies, Jesu Christ, our Lord.

Now we are come to the sun’s hour of rest,
the lights of evening round us shine,
we hymn the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit divine.

Worthiest art thou at all times to be sung
with undefiled tongue,
Son of our God, giver of life alone;
therefore in all the world thy glories, Lord, they own.

Fitting thoughts as we close out this year and look forward to another.

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That’s the kind of year in music it has been for me. Wishing you all the best for 2021.

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.

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Ars Elaboratio
Ensemble Scholastica
(ATMA, 2017)

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

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

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

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

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

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Matteo da Perugia: Chansons
Tetraktys
(Olive, 2016)

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

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

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

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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.

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Palestrina: Missa Papae Marcelli
Odhecaton
(Arcana, 2017)

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

Here is the whole of the Missa:

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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:

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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.

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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:

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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:

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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:

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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]

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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]

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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.

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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.