Posts Tagged ‘Franz Schubert’

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.

**

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.

*

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:

*

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.

*

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”:

*

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:

*

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:

*

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.

*

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:

*

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.

***

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

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!

Favourites in 2016: Classical music

December 29, 2016

If 2016’s harvest of good pop music was slim pickings, my year in classical music has yielded a bumper crop. Over the past two months or so I’ve been slowly sifting my favourites, and I’ve arrived at a list of 10 discs that I’d like to praise today.

This year I’ve decided to discuss them more or less in chronological order, so we’ll begin with medieval music and move forward. Not all of these are 2016 records, but most are of fairly recent vintage. I’ve chosen one of them as my “record of the year”, and another as a runner-up, but you’ll have to read through to find out which is which. Where possible I’ve added a link to a video or excerpt from the disc, and in some cases I’ve also added links to more detailed reviews by real music critics, like so: [Review].

***

psallentes

St Hildegard: Ursula11
Psallentes
(Le Bricoleur, 2011)
55m

I’d like to begin with a collection of music by St Hildegard of Bingen. Ursula11 is the InternetAge title of the disc, a reference to the legend of St Ursula and her 11000 companions martyred by marauding Huns. St Hildegard composed an office to celebrate the feast of these martyrs. This music has been recorded before, notably by the medieval music matriarchs Anonymous 4, but that disc has always struck me as one of their least successful, and I find this performance, by the women of Psallentes, far preferable. They sing a capella, but they’ve done some interesting things with Hildegard’s monophonic compositions, for instance by layering the ecstatic flight of Hildegard’s vocal lines over more conventional recitation tones, or even by singing Hildegard’s music in canon. They have an exceptionally clear sound, light and flexible, and they keep the music, which can sometimes become lugubrious in the wrong hands, moving along at a brisk andante. The result is lovely on all counts. The one drawback, with respect to Anonymous 4’s approach, is that the earlier disc embedded Hildegard’s music within the context of sung offices (Vigil, Lauds, Vespers), whereas Psallentes simply groups the pieces by liturgical function (antiphons, then responsories, then a sequence and a hymn). It doesn’t make as much sense, but it nonetheless sounds great.

Here is a fragment of O rubor sanguinis, with a rather nice video to accompany it:

**

Johannes Ciconia worked in Italy, mostly in Rome and Padua, around the turn of the fifteenth century, and died in 1412. His music is a rather eclectic blend of genres and styles — sacred and secular, with French and Italian influences — and it can be seen today as a kind of summing up of late medieval composition, with isorhythms, canons, hockets, poly-texting, and a variety of other delightful techniques popping up.

Johannes Ciconia: Complete Works La Morra, Diabolus in Musica (Ricercar, 2010) 2h31m

Ciconia: Complete Works
La Morra, Diabolus in Musica
(Ricercar, 2010)
2h31m

This two-disc set includes all of Ciconia’s surviving works. The first disc consists of his secular music, and is performed by La Morra; the second is reserved for his sacred music, and is performed by (ironically) Diabolus in Musica. These are both ace ensembles, among the best in the world in this complex medieval repertoire, and it almost goes without saying that they sound terrific. There’s a suppleness and grace to the performances that comes from long familiarity. Both ensembles experiment with adding instruments to the mix — instruments are not notated on surviving manuscripts, but there’s evidence that they were used in an improvisational manner. The secular music is treated with lutes, vieles, and early keyboard instruments; the sacred music is filled out by sackbuts and a cheerfully plangent chamber organ. No full Mass setting survives — through-composed Mass settings were still a relatively new idea at the time — but we do have a number of different settings of the Gloria and Credo preserved here, and they sound wonderful.

Perhaps surprisingly, this set is actually the second of Ciconia’s complete works! The previous one, by the Huelgas Ensemble (made in the early 1980s), is presently unavailable. Bits and pieces of his music have been recorded by a few dozen ensembles, and all of his motets have been sung by Mala Punica (and everything that Mala Punica touches turns to gold; that’s a great record). I thoroughly enjoyed this set, which earns that coveted trifecta: interesting music, superb performances, great sound.

Here Diabolus in Musica performs Gloria Spiritus Et Alme:

**

An intriguing development in the world of early music this year was the launch of ORA, a British ensemble consisting of a select set of eminent early music choristers. They have commissioned an extensive set of new compositions from contemporary composers, each of which is to relate in some way to a renaissance masterpiece. This is a splendid idea that comes close to fulfilling a fantasy of mine (which is that I might somehow be magically endowed with compositional talent, which talent I would apply in just this way). Apparently they plan to issue ten recordings over the next five years pairing these originals with their modern “reflections”, and 2016 saw the release of the first two.

Upheld by Stillness ORA (Harmonia Mundi, 2016) 1h18m

Upheld by Stillness
ORA
(Harmonia Mundi, 2016)
1h18m

Volume 1 is entitled Upheld by Stillness and circles, broadly speaking, around the music of William Byrd. We get his setting of Psalm 137, Quomodo cantabimus? alongside the samely-psalmed motet by Philippe de Monte that inspired it (Super flumina Babylonis), and we hear his masterful Ave verum corpus, but the centerpiece is the Mass for Five Voices. The disc is then filled out with six new compositions: Roxanna Panufnik contributes a Kyrie after Byrd, Roderick Williams (the baritone) writes Ave Verum Corpus Reimagined, an extended meditation, with elaboration, on Byrd’s original, and Charlotte Bray gives us a marvellous Agnus Dei. Each of these hews fairly closely to Byrd’s model, both in text and texture, but the others on the disc are more loosely affiliated. Alexander d’Etrange’s Show Me, Dear Christe, for instance, combines parts of the Credo with excerpts from Byrd’s will and Donne’s poem. As one would expect, the quality of these modern “reflections” varies, and some of them I don’t much care for, but it’s still an excellent initiative, especially when the singing is this accomplished and the sound this pristine. [Review] [Review]

Alas! The second volume in the series, entitled Refuge from the Flames, fails in my mind to live up to the promise of the first. Subtitled “Miserere and the Savonarola Legacy”, it explores music inspired by or somehow related to the Florentine preacher, and is centered on William Byrd’s Infelix ego, which sets a text written by Savonarola on the eve of his execution. Also included are some Italian secular songs, a few short motets, and two large-scale versions of the Miserere, one the famous setting by Allegri (although in an edited version that hasn’t been recorded before) and the other by James MacMillan. The second (and only other) modern piece on this disc is another setting of Infelix ego (after Byrd), this time by the talented young Latvian composer Ēriks Ešenvalds. So the music is great; it’s the singing that disappointed me. Technically it is above reproach, but there’s something missing. It sounds beautiful, yes, but somehow inert. I really wanted to like it. Alas!

Here is a promotional video for the choir:

**

Scattered Ashes Magnificat (Linn, 2016) 1h24m

Scattered Ashes
Magnificat
(Linn, 2016)
1h24m

But if we were a little disappointed by that particular foray into the Miserere and the Savonarola legacy, comfort is at hand in the form of Scattered Ashes: Josquin’s Miserere and the Savonarola Legacy, a curiously similarly conceived record from Philip Cave and Magnificat. Actually, despite the near identical titles the music is mostly different. Magnificat build their program around the expansive (17 min) setting of the Miserere by Josquin Desprez, which is given a dazzling performance, and fill it out with a variety of other 16th-century masterpieces, including another Miserere from Jean Lheretier and two settings of Tristitia obsedit me by Le Jeune and Clemens non Papa (the same two as on ORA’s record). The Savonaralan aspect of the program enters in two settings of the eve-of-execution testament Infelix Ego by Byrd and Lassus. The program is filled out with pieces by Palestrina and Gombert.

I’ve praised Magnificat before for the superb quality of their singing, and I’m happy to do so again: they have a tremendously rich sound, especially in the lower voices, which give them a wonderfully dark sonority, like aural velvet, smooth and luxurious. The soaring soprano lines pierce through this texture like shafts of white light. It’s gorgeous, and they sing with an intensity that was missing from ORA. [Review]

Here the choir sings Gombert’s In te Domine speravi:

**

Jones: Missa spes nostra Blue Heron (Blue Heron, 2015) 1h5m

Jones: Missa spes nostra
Blue Heron
(Blue Heron, 2015)
1h5m

The American ensemble Blue Heron has been engaged in a long-term project to perform music from the Peterhouse Partbooks, a set of manuscripts copied c.1540 that preserve a number of works of pre-Reformation English polyphony that were otherwise destroyed by reformers. The manuscripts have been damaged and, in some cases, lost, so these performances are supported by a behind-the-scenes scholarly effort (by Nick Sandon) to reconstruct missing parts. The disc I’m discussing here is the fourth in a projected set of five.

The centerpiece is a Mass by Robert Jones, Missa spes nostra, here given its world-premiere recording, and what a premiere! It’s a large-scale work, the four polyphonic sections of the Mass Ordinary being each about 10 minutes in duration. (English composers of this period generally did not set the Kyrie polyphonically, and Blue Heron sing an aptly chosen Sarum plainchant one.) The Mass is book-ended in front by Ludford’s Ave cujus conceptio, another rarity that, to my knowledge, has been recorded only once before, and in back by an ambitious (18 min) Stabat mater by Robert Hunt, a work that survives only in the Peterhouse manuscripts and, again, has not been recorded before. So a big part of the draw here is the repertoire, which is “new” and, what will not surprise you if you’ve any familiarity with pre-Henrician English polyphony, breathtakingly beautiful, with long, lyrical melodic lines, soaring upper voices, and judicious control of texture to provide structure to these expansively conceived compositions. It’s therefore a nice bonus to find that the performances are as good as they are. The choir, of about a dozen voices, is a good size for these pieces. The sound is not big (and some considerable part of the music is scored for fewer than four parts), but it is precise and clean. I love this music.

Here the ensemble sings the Credo from Robert Jones’ Missa spes nostra:

**

Let’s move on now to baroque music.

Bach: French Suites Murray Perahia (DG, 2016) 1h31m

Bach: French Suites
Murray Perahia
(DG, 2016)
1h31m

If you want to put me in a good mood, use the words “Bach”, “Murray”, and “Perahia” in the same sentence. Twenty years ago, when I was taking my first tentative steps into the world of classical music, among the first recordings I bought were Perahia’s then-new English Suites. They delighted and dazzled me then, as they delight and dazzle me now, and those records have an enduring special place in my heart. A few years afterward he made a recording of the Goldberg Variations, which to this day is my favourite of that great work.

This year he gave us the French Suites. I’ve had a somewhat difficult relationship with these pieces; of all Bach’s keyboard works, they are probably my least favourite. I’m not sure why this is so. (It’s not because they are particularly “French”, because they’re not.) I find they don’t sing the way Bach’s music usually does, and the counterpoint often feels angular to me, as if it can’t quite generate momentum. I don’t know. I’ve never warmed to them.

Well, I’m here to report that when Murray Perahia plays them they sound pretty wonderful. I’d like very much to put into words just what it is about his playing that can transmute (comparative) lead into gold, but I don’t know that I can. There are a hundred pianists who can play this music to the highest standards of technical perfection, and Perahia is one of them, but, to my ears, few who can infuse the music with that indefinable, elusive quality that makes it sing.

This is my runner-up for favourite record of the year. [Review]

Here is a video of Perahia playing the Courante from French Suite No.5:

**

Bach: Motets St Jacobs Kammarkor, REbaroque Gary Graden (Proprius, 2015) 1h18m

Bach: Motets
St Jacobs Kammarkör, REbaroque
Gary Graden
(Proprius, 2015)
1h18m

When people think of Bach’s choral music, they tend to think of the Passion settings and the cantatas, but his motets are great, life-giving music. The technical challenges they pose are formidable, requiring a choir that is quick on its feet, well-balanced, and capable of delivering long, laughing melismas without ceasing to sound joyful. They have been recorded many times, and I have a dozen or so performances in my collection, but this year I was impressed by this disc from St Jacobs Kammarkör, a Swedish choir I’d never heard of before (but which is evidently very accomplished), with orchestral support from REbaroque. Too often Bach’s motets can sound wooly, with too much vibrato obscuring the rapid-fire counterpoint, or ragged in tone, but not here: the performance are tight, confident, and effervescent. There were one of two moments I noticed where a high staccato note had an element of squeak in it, rather than being nicely rounded, but these were rare, and overall the impression left by St Jacobs Kammarkör is one of happy excellence. The instruments add a welcome bit of colour without obscuring the choral textures. The recorded sound is clear, with little resonance but still nice space around the sound.

**

Beethoven: Symphonies 5 & 7 Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra Manfred Honeck (Reference, 2015) 1h11m

Beethoven: Symphonies 5 & 7
Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra
Manfred Honeck
(Reference, 2015)
1h11m

There are so many recordings of these symphonies that it seems folly to keep making them. This might seem especially true of the present disc, which goes toe-to-toe with Carlos Kleiber’s famous 1975 record, which has long been regarded not just as a reference recording for these two symphonies, but as one of the greatest orchestral recordings ever made. But every so often the habit of revisiting these warhorses of the repertoire turns up just the right combination of musical instincts and recorded sound, and this disc from Manfred Honeck and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra is one such case. The music sounds just as it should, but more so: the pacing is excellent, the playing is tight and expressive, and the sound is big and punchy. Even the final pages of No.5, which can sound laboriously comical in the wrong hands as the cadence resists resolution again and again, come across with tremendous crackle and excitement. I’m not going to claim that it unseats Kleiber, because it doesn’t, but it is an extremely good recording of these great pieces, well worth seeking out.

Here is a brief promotional video for the record, with excerpts:

**

schubert-winterreise-vickers-cover

Schubert: Winterreise
Jon Vickers, Geoffrey Parsons
(EMI, 1985?)
1h20m

I tend to avoid recordings in which opera singers descend from the stage to sing parlour-room art-songs, just as I avoid (or would avoid, if occasion arose) elephants in tutus. In Schubert’s lieder, and especially in this beloved song cycle, my preferences run to lieder specialists — Fischer-Dieskau, Bostridge, Goerne — whose voices are calibrated to an intimate scale.

Now, there is no more operatic an opera singer than Jon Vickers; he is Tristan, Otello, and Peter Grimes. In the realm of big voices there is none bigger. Therefore it was with considerable skepticism that I gave this 30-year old recording of Winterreise a spin, just to see how badly it had turned out. Greatly to my surprise, I loved it. Yes, the voice is big, but he reins it in, and yes, the nuances that other singers give us are sometimes lost, but this is a remarkably intense performance. Vickers has such a commanding presence, that even when he’s dialed his power way down he still grips my attention. Anyone who has heard his Peter Grimes knows that he can inhabit a desperate, wild-eyed man with terrifying credibility, and he brings something of that same character — much subtler, as befits the scale — to Schubert’s protagonist. It’s very much worth hearing.

Here is a thoughtful old review of the disc from the New York Times, and here is Vickers singing “Frühlingstraum”:

**

Flitting lightly over the bulk of the Romantic period, we alight on a branch of early modernism.

Each of us, I suppose, can point to particular corners of the repertoire that, though they be little frequented, have a particular personal fascination. For me one such corner is the choral music of Stravinsky. Everyone loves the Symphony of Psalms, but beyond that masterpiece I believe this music is not very well known, and that is a shame, because it is quite marvellous in its own peculiar way. It is notable that the great bulk of it — if we can speak of ‘bulk’ in this sleek and slender context — is sacred music, a reflection largely of Stravinsky’s own devotion. (Here is a good overview.) This year I made a special effort to get to know this music better, and today I’ll highlight three particularly good records that, between them, cover most of the principal sacred choral pieces that he composed.

Stravinsky: Symphony of Psalms Collegium Vocale Gent Royal Flemish Philharmonic Philippe Herreweghe (Pentatone, 2010) 50m

Stravinsky: Symphony of Psalms
Collegium Vocale Gent
Royal Flemish Philharmonic
Philippe Herreweghe
(Pentatone, 2010)
50m

First up is a disc from Collegium Vocale Gent and the Royal Flemish Philharmonic, under the direction of Philippe Herreweghe. These musicians we usually associate with period-practice baroque, and especially with Bach’s choral music, of which they are exemplary interpreters. To hear them sing Stravinsky might therefore seem an odd fit, but in fact the opposite is true: their ability to produce a clear, cool sound, sans vibrato, with pin-point tuning serves Stravinsky’s music extremely well. (Stravinsky’s own recordings of this music, as well as those of his protege Robert Craft, are generally plagued by exactly the problems Herreweghe et al. avoid: wobbly tuning, ragged ensemble, and ugly tone.) The programme on the disc is a well-conceived one: we get the brief Monumentum pro Gesualdo, a late-period instrumental piece that serves as prelude; then his neo-classical Mass, written “out of personal necessity” in the 1940s; then, as something of a novelty, Stravinsky’s orchestral arrangement of Bach’s Canonic Variations on Vom Himmel Hoch (BWV 769), which is as delicious as you are imagining; and, finally, the mighty Symphony of Psalms. All of it is extremely well done, with the prime attraction probably being the Mass, which sounds splendid. Competition is fierce when it comes to the Symphony of Psalms, and this recording doesn’t displace my favourite (Pierre Boulez), but it’s nonetheless outstanding.

Stravinsky: Threni Collegium Vocale Gent Royal Flemish Philharmonic Philippe Herreweghe (Phi, 2016) 47m

Stravinsky: Threni
Collegium Vocale Gent
Royal Flemish Philharmonic
Philippe Herreweghe
(Phi, 2016)
47m

Next is another disc from the same forces (from 2016, whereas the one just discussed was from 2010). In this case the focus falls on Stravinsky’s thorny late masterpieces, especially Threni, an adaptation of the Lamentations of Jeremiah which had been set by so many Renaissance composers, and Requiem Canticles, Stravinsky’s last completed work, and the one which was performed at his own funeral. Starting in the 1950s, his arch-nemesis Schoenberg safely six-feet under, Stravinsky began to explore the possibilities of serialism, and these two works belong to that period. They are extremely difficult to sing, and, according to taste, nearly as hard to hear. Threni, in particular, has the character of a musical hair-shirt, even though Stravinsky has taken some pains to mitigate the most extreme ill effects of the serial regimen. (For instance, the liner notes point out that in one duet section the two soloists sing simultaneous but differing versions of the tone row, but in such a way that they always form a consonance.) This piece leans heavily on vocal soloists, so heavily that the few other recordings of the piece I have heard pretty much crushed them to dust; Herreweghe has chosen a brave and able group, including the wonderful bass Florian Boesch, and they find the music in this music, which is high praise. The Requiem Canticles, setting a selection of texts from the Latin Requiem, is also serial, but more approachable, and the choir delivers a performance that bests any other that I have heard. The clean, dispassionate tone allows the strange beauty of this music to stand out clearly. The programme is bookended by two shorter pieces. At the beginning we get The Dove Descending Breaks the Air, a fearsome setting of T.S. Eliot that, I laughed to learn, was Stravinsky’s contribution to the Cambridge Hymnal and intended for singing at school assemblies. It’s a wonderful piece, but good grief. And, finally, the disc closes with Da Pacem Domine, a truly lovely little piece, very much in communion with the great stream of Russian sacred music, that falls even more gently on the ear given the terrors through which we have just passed.

Stravinsky: Sacred Choral Works Netherlands Chamber Choir Schoenberg Ensemble Reinbert de Leeuw (Philips, 1999) 1h

Stravinsky: Sacred Choral Works
Netherlands Chamber Choir
Schoenberg Ensemble
Reinbert de Leeuw
(Philips, 1999)
1h

Finally, the best of the bunch is an older recording, from 1999, featuring the Netherlands Chamber Choir and Schoenberg Ensemble, under the direction of Reinbert de Leeuw. It includes some of the same music already discussed (in particular, the Mass and The Dove Descending Breaks the Air), but the principal work is the Cantata, composed in the early 1950s for unusual forces: soprano and tenor soloists, female chorus, and a smattering of instruments (flute, oboe, cor anglais, and cello). It is constructed around the Middle English Lyke-Wake Dirge. Again, this is challenging music for both performers and audience, and I’ve heard it sound pretty wretched. In this performance the chorus is good, as is the soprano soloist (Rosemary Hardy), but the coup de grâce is that Ian Bostridge is the tenor. His lean, agile voice is absolutely perfect for the part, and he sings the heck out of it. It’s fantastic. The disc is rounded out by a variety of shorter works, including the Introitus (in memoriam T.S. Eliot)), the Ave Maria, and a few others. The glory of this disc, apart from Ian Bostridge’s solo turn, is the choral sound, which is lush, smooth, and vibrant, with considerably more body than we get from Collegium Vocale Gent. It’s a nice alternative, and is especially well suited to the generally more amiable music programmed on this disc.

What is missing from these discs? Chiefly the Canticum Sacrum. If you know of a good recording of that piece, I’d love to hear about it. In the meantime, these three give a superb overview of Stravinsky’s sacred music.

Here is a full performance of Threni, from the second disc above:

**

Weinberg: Solo Violin Sonatas Linus Roth (Challenge, 2016) 1h15m

Weinberg: Solo Violin Sonatas
Linus Roth
(Challenge, 2016)
1h15m

For the past few years the music of Mieczyslaw Weinberg has appeared consistently on my list of annual favourites. He is a wonderful composer, largely unknown outside Russia until the last decade or so (largely for political reasons, for as a Polish Jew the Soviets had little motive to champion his music to the West). The “Weinberg renaissance” continues, with quite a few record companies joining the fray: violin sonatas, symphonies, string quartets, an opera, ballet scores, flute sonatas, and his cello concerto were all issued in the past year or so.

Of those that I have heard, my favourite is this set of the three sonatas for solo violin, played by Linus Roth. Roth has been something of champion for Weinberg in recent years, having previously played the violin concerto and all five violin sonatas (with piano). His are not the first recordings of these fearsomely difficult pieces — Gidon Kremer recorded the third (Op.126) a couple of years ago, and the other two have been played by Yuri Kalnits on a set of recordings for Toccata Classics — but this is the first time they’ve been pulled together on one disc.

Like the best of Weinberg’s music, these pieces are intense and intelligent. Writing for a single instrument leaves a composer nowhere to hide; he has to bring his best to it. The music spins out rapidly, with lightning quick changes in tempo, dynamics, and musical ideas. The technical challenges must be considerable; sometimes it seems incredible that all the music is coming from just one instrument. (There is lots of double-stopping, and maybe some higher-stopping too.) This is by no means music to relax to; it asks for all of the listener’s attention, and it practically sparks when it is played. But, as always with Weinberg, it is really music, through and through, top to bottom. It doesn’t sing the way Bach’s solo violin music does, but it argues, laments, harangues, and delights in no small measure.

On this recording the three sonatas, each of which runs about 20-30 minutes, are separated by transcriptions (for violin and piano) of Shostakovich’s Three Fantastic Dances. These provide a welcome change of texture to refresh the palette, and are a nice homage to the friendship the two composers shared. In short: fantastic music, beautifully played, and thoughtfully programmed.

**

Part: The Deer's Cry Vox Clamantis (ECM New, 2016) 1h02m

Part: The Deer’s Cry
Vox Clamantis
(ECM New, 2016)
1h02m

In 2012 my favourite record of the year was Filia Sion, a collection of mostly monophonic chant sung by an Estonian ensemble called Vox Clamantis. That record impressed me with its unusually sensitive ensemble singing and the spirit of “restful poise” that seemed to permeate the performances, and, as I can now report, the bloom is not off the rose: I return to that album regularly and with great enjoyment, and I have been waiting in expectation to hear what Vox Clamantis would do next.

They returned this year with The Deer’s Cry, devoted entirely to the music of their countryman Arvo Pärt. Like chant, Pärt’s music calls for a delicacy of touch, an attentiveness, and a solemnity of manner that would seem to play to Vox Clamantis’ strengths. Suffice to say that those strengths are everywhere in evidence on this record: the singing is faultless, the interpretations are rapt, and the effect on the listener is one of a quiet and gentle intensity. This is ideal Pärt singing. I was not surprised, though I was delighted, to see that Pärt himself participated in the recording sessions, which took place in Tallinn’s Church of the Transfiguration.

The disc opens with “The Deer’s Cry”, a setting of the text more commonly known as St Patrick’s Breastplate (“Christ before me, Christ behind me, etc.”), and includes a number of Pärt’s best known compositions, including “Da Pacem Domine”, “Summa”, and the extended Gospel setting “And One of the Pharisees”. But there is unfamiliar music here too which has been recorded rarely, such as revised versions of “Virgencita” (written to honour Our Lady of Guadalupe) and “Alleluia-Tropus”. There are also two first-time recordings: “Drei Hirtenkinder aus Fátima” (in honour of Our Lady of Fatima) and “Habitare Fratres” (a newly composed piece that was written for and premiered by Vox Clamantis). The disc closes with one of Pärt’s greatest masterpieces, the “Prayer After the Canon”, the concluding section of his mighty Kanon Pokajanen; it is a piece that I can hardly hear without my eyes brimming with tears.

In short, this is a superb overview of Part’s small- and mid-scale choral writing, focusing especially on fairly recent compositions, and sung to an exemplary standard. There are one or two cases in which there is another recording which I would prefer to this one — for instance, the Hilliard Ensemble’s treatment of “And One of the Pharisees” has yet to be surpassed — but all things considered this goes onto my shortlist of favourite Pärt recordings, and is my favourite record of 2016.

Here is a promotional video with pictures and videos from the recording sessions, and here the ensemble sings Alleluia-Tropus:

**

Part: Kanon Pokajanen Cappella Amsterdam Daniel Reuss (Harmonia Mundi, 2016) 1h

Part: Kanon Pokajanen
Cappella Amsterdam
Daniel Reuss
(Harmonia Mundi, 2016)
1h

The other great Pärt recording this year is from Cappella Amsterdam, led by Daniel Reuss, who sing the entirety of Kanon Pokajanen. For almost 20 years the reference recording for this great piece has been the one by the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, who premiered it and recorded it in the presence of the composer. It’s a hugely ambitious composition, immensely powerful in effect, and it’s been a matter of some puzzlement to me that more choirs haven’t tackled it. Well, Cappella Amsterdam finally has, and they’ve done it very well. The singing is sensitive and expressive, delicate when it needs to be and full of roaring power when appropriate. The sound is even somewhat better than that enjoyed by the Estonians, which was always a bit recessed. It’s too early to say which of these recordings I’m ultimately going to enjoy more, but certainly this new one has earned a place at the table.

**

That was more than 10 records, but my target was 10 and I got close. A very good year!

Favourites of 2015: Classical music

December 30, 2015

Today the theme is classical music. Quite a few good records came my way, and I’d like to share a few words about my favourites.

levit-variationsI had occasion last year to praise Igor Levit’s recording of Bach’s Partitas, and this year he was back with another outstanding piano recital. I have a special affection for “theme and variations” compositions, and Levit tackles three of the most important: from the 18th-century, Bach’s Goldberg Variations, from the 19th-century, Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations, and, from the 20th-century, Frederic Rzewski’s The People United Will Never Be Defeated!.

Obviously it’s the last of these that is the least well-known. The theme of the work, and its title too, are taken from a rather catchy revolutionary Chilean song, and Rzewski puts it through a series of 36 virtuosic variations — from what I understand, this is much the most technically challenging of the pieces on this recording. I have heard only one other recording (of the mere handful available), by Marc-Andre Hamelin, and I’m not sure I’d want to choose between him and Levit. Nor, to be honest, will I return to Rzewski all that often.

The Diabelli Variations is an unqualified masterpiece, on the testimony of those who should know, but I confess that I’ve never been very enamoured of it. All that banging, Ludwig! Part of the problem is the theme: Beethoven was famously asked to contribute a single variation on a rather non-descript waltz, and replied instead with 32 variations of permanent musical importance, but I’ve always found them somehow too cold, too rigid, too downright Teutonic, boots high and elbows swinging, for my tastes. I’ve got a dozen or so recordings of the work in my collection, so I haven’t written it off easily, nor, to be clear, have I written it off yet. We’re still wrestling. With that in mind, I was keen to hear what Levit would do with it, and I must concede that his playing is marvellous. His careful dynamic control goes a long way to alleviating the overzealous banging that has marred other recordings for me, and there’s a certain rhythmic suppleness to his playing that is attractive.

But the principal reason why I want to praise this recording is for Levit’s Goldberg Variations. This is the summit of keyboard music for me, and Levit plays it beautifully. The contrapuntal lines are brought out with great clarity, the tempi are well-chosen, and the whole has a pristine quality, like clear water. One of the things I most appreciate about Levit is the sense of concentration he brings to his playing, a feeling that he is right inside the music: everything flows nicely, transitions are handled deftly, each note falls where it seems it should — everything just makes sense, musically. Those qualities are very much in evidence in Levit’s performance here. It doesn’t dislodge my favourite recording of this piece (by Murray Perahia), but it is undoubtedly a superb interpretation of inexhaustible music.

***

part-tallisThis year was a special year for Arvo Pärt, who celebrated his 80th birthday in September. There were a number of fine recordings of his music issued over the course of the year, but to my mind the finest of them came from an unexpected source: the Tallis Scholars! They are one of the world’s most admired choral ensembles, but over their 40 year history I believe this is the first time they have recorded music not by medieval or Renaissance composers. It’s a very pleasant surprise, and it makes sense too: Part’s music owes a great debt to the music the Tallis Scholars usually sing, so why wouldn’t they sing his music beautifully too? They’ve chosen a nice program: the seven Magnificat antiphons, the Magnificat itself, the jaunty Which Was The Son Of…, then Nunc Dimittis, two of Part’s gospel narrations (The Woman With the Alabaster Box and Tribute to Caesar), his beautiful setting of I Am The True Vine, and they close with the inward-looking Triodion. The voices throughout are crystal clear, tuning impeccable, pacing well-judged, and, most importantly with Pärt’s music but hard to articulate and harder to achieve, they let the sound of the music be in a kind of dialogue with the silence that surrounds it. Not every choir can pull that off.

***

macmillan-luke-passionJames MacMillan — or, I suppose, Sir James MacMillan — is one of the most consistently rewarding contemporary composers, and this year saw the release of the first recording of his St Luke Passion. MacMillan has written a fair amount of music for Holy Week, including a St John Passion and a scintillating Seven Last Words from the Cross. His St Luke Passion is a work for orchestra and chorus, lasting about 70 minutes in performance, and is divided into three parts: a short prelude on the Annunciation that is addressed to Our Lady, then a long central section in which he sets, word by word, chapters 23 and 24 of St Luke’s Gospel, and finally a postlude which draws on texts associated with the Resurrection and Ascension. MacMillan makes the unusual decision to set the words of Jesus in the higher registers (children’s voices) and the words of characters in the story, including Pilate, in the lower registers; this is the opposite of the usual pattern in Passion settings. The part of the Evangelist is sung by a male choir. The word setting is largely homophonic, except for the sayings of Jesus, on which he lavishes some lovely choral writing. There are a few problems on this recording with intelligibility of the texts; the words are familiar to me but even so I sometimes had trouble following if I simply listened. But the whole work is outstanding: vigorous, passionate, confident, and devout; and well worth hearing.

***

vox-silentii-memento-meiI listen to a fair bit of chant, and I have had occasion to recommend particularly good chant recordings in the past. This year is no exception, for this year I discovered the ensemble Vox Silentii, which hails from Finland. Vox Silentii is Hilkka-Liisa Vuori and Johanna Korhonen. They take an approach to chant that I think I have not encountered before: chant is, by its nature, a public music, meant to be sung during the sacred liturgy, and it is typically performed with sizable ensembles adhering to a fairly regular rhythmic plan, but Vox Silentii treat this music as a kind of personal disclosure, an intimate offering that might be arising directly from the heart in prayerful silence. That’s paradoxical, but I’m not sure how to say it more aptly. The singing is quiet and still, gently arising from silence and returning to it, the two voices wonderfully responsive to one another. The two discs which I heard, both of which I can recommend wholeheartedly, are Nox Lucis, a disc of Christmas chants, and Memento Mei, a disc of Easter chants. Mesmerizing.

***

hildegard-vox-cosmicaAn unexpected delight this year was a superb disc devoted to the music of the most recently-named Doctor of the Church: Hildegard von Bingen. Over the past few decades Hildegard’s music has become quite well known, and the catalogue now contains a substantial number of recordings, but this new disc, titled Vox Cosmica, stands out as something special. For one thing, it is sung principally by Arianna Savall (daughter of early music royals Jordi Savall and Montserrat Figueras), whose clear, radiant soprano is perfectly suited to these soaring vocal lines, lending them a gentle ecstatic quality. She is supported by an ensemble called Hirundo Maris, who play a curio-shop of unusual instruments: hardingfele, monochord, tromba marina, nyckelharpa, Roman bells, and lyra, not to mention the usual fiddles, flutes, and harps. Hildegard didn’t write musical accompaniments for her songs, so these are presumably improvised, and they provide a quietly shifting background on which the voice floats. “Inauthentic”, perhaps, but I have no objections to re-creations of old music when done as sensitively and imaginatively as this. The disc features five of Hildegard’s songs, plus a performance of Peter Abelard’s Planctus David, sung by Petter Udland Johansen. Between the medieval compositions are a set of original instrumental “meditations” by Johansen. These are not strictly in the medieval manner, for the creative exchange between past and present is part of the appeal of this project, but neither are they stylistically jarring. I thought they worked quite effectively as interludes. Taken together, this makes for a rewarding hour of listening.

***

haydn-early-londonMy favourite orchestral music of the year comes from an old recording first issued in the late 1960s: George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra’s performances of Haydn’s early London symphonies (Nos.93-98). Haydn’s symphonies are often overlooked, being overshadowed in the popular imagination by Mozart’s and Beethoven’s, but they are delightful and worth getting to know. Haydn’s musical imagination was always active, and his symphonies, though very numerous, are full of fresh ideas. In his London symphonies he’s as good as he ever was. The Cleveland Orchestra is a full-bodied modern orchestra (this recording was made before the period-instrument movement really got off the ground), and they lend Haydn’s music plenty of weight and presence, but without sacrifice of clarity. These recordings have been beloved for decades, and I understand why.

***

christian-gerhaher-2014-nachtviolen-compact-discThis Schubert recital is something of a souvenir for me this year. Back in February I was able to attend a concert in which Christian Gerhaher, accompanied from the piano by Gerold Huber, sang Schubert’s Winterreise. I had been looking for a good opportunity to hear this song-cycle in live performance for a long time, and I was not disappointed. Gerhaher has enjoyed critical plaudits across the board, with good reason. It was the best concert I went to this year. True, it was also the only concert I went to this year.

Nachtviolen is a collection of Schubert’s songs, none of which are taken from Winterreise, but all of which are worth hearing in Gerhaher’s hands. They range from the early An die Nachtigall, written when Schubert was a teenager, to the late Herbst, written sometime during the last year of his life. The singing throughout is immune to criticism, and the sound quality is excellent. There was another Schubert recital I greatly enjoyed this year, a live recording of Ian Bostridge and Julius Drake, and I went back and forth about which of them to prefer for this list. In the end I chose Nachtviolen on the strength of its superior recorded sound.

***

aquilonisThe title of this disc, Aquilonis, means “north wind”, and it is a fitting title for this collection of cool and crisp music from the Scandinavian women of Trio Mediaeval. Glancing over the program, it would seem unlikely to cohere: we have Italian sacred songs from the 12th century, English carols of the 15th century, a handful of pieces by contemporary composers, Norwegian folk songs, and self-composed instrumental interludes, all structured around the 14th-century Icelandic Office of St Thorlak, the patron of Iceland. The miracle is that it does sound like a unified program, and a gorgeous one too. Those who know Trio Mediaeval’s earlier recordings know that they sing with perfect precision and a slightly chilly tone, making the music sounds as though carved from ice. It’s very appealing. Perhaps the most interesting music on this disc are the new compositions, written specifically for Trio Mediaeval by Anders Jormin, Andrew Smith, and William Brooks. Smith, especially, is a composer who impresses me: he writes modest but superbly well-crafted miniatures, and seems (based on there and other pieces I have in my collection) to be drawn to sacred texts. (On this recording he sets Ave maris stella, Ave regina caelorum, and Ioseph fili David). I’d like to know more about him. If I have one complaint about Aquilonis it is that while it coheres musically, it is hard to see the thematic connections between Christmas songs, St Thorlak, fragments of Virgil, Marian hymns, and Norwegian folk. It feels like a jumble. As was the case with their mentors, The Hilliard Ensemble, Trio Mediaeval often seems to treat the pieces they sing as objet d’art, without reference to what the songs are about. That detracts a little from my enjoyment, but I’m willing to forgive such defects when they sing like this. [Hear excerpts]

***

sokolov-fugueThis year I discovered the Russian pianist Grigory Sokolov. (Hat-tip: Bryan Townsend) Sokolov has made only a few recordings over the course of his long career, all of them live recordings, I believe, and so he has not been well-known to record collectors, including myself. But he is a magnificent pianist. He cites both Rubinstein and Gould as important influences, and I think that helps to convey the qualities of his playing: rhythms are sprightly, counterpoint is clear, but the tone remains warm. This year he had his first major-label release, The Salzburg Recital, with a nice program principally of Mozart and Chopin. I enjoyed it, but I also acquired a few of his earlier recordings, and it has been hard for me to decide between his Chopin, his Schubert sonatas, or his Art of Fugue as my favourite. I’m going to go with Art of Fugue. In any case, I’m so pleased to have discovered him.

***

cantigasThe Cantigas de Santa Maria are a collection of vernacular songs compiled in the thirteenth century under the Castilian king Alfonso X el Sabio. It is the largest such collection in existence, consisting of over 400 songs, most of them narrating miracles of the Blessed Virgin. Selections from the collection have been recorded by many different ensembles over the years. I have 8 or 10 such in my collection, but I have never enjoyed one as much as I have enjoyed this one from Hana Blazikova and companions. The early music ‘movement’ is now several generations old, and the best of the young musicians evince a suppleness and gracefulness in their performances borne of familiarity with the musical idiom that was largely absent in the playing of the early music pioneers. This ensemble has that sense of familiarity and comfort in spades. This sounds like natural music-making, not a self-conscious revival of old music. They use authentic instruments of course — gothic and renaissance harps, percussion, and something called a dulcis melos — but they play them as if to the manner born. I can’t resist noting that the recording was made in the wonderfully-named Church of Our Lady under Chain at the End of the Bridge, in Prague. I’m sure they didn’t choose that venue for the name, but for the sound, which is excellent. This is an outstanding disc on every count, and worth hearing.

***

togni-responsioI would also like to praise two very interesting new records that engage with the music of the great medieval composer Guillaume de Machaut. The first is Responsio, by the Canadian composer Peter Togni, in which he has entered into a kind of dialogue with Machaut’s Messe de Nostre Dame. The foundation for Togni’s music is Machaut’s own four-part polyphony, into which Togni has woven a musical line for a bass clarinet (played on this recording by Jeff Reilly). The clarinet part, which is at least partly improvised, disrupts the smooth course that the voices would otherwise follow: modern dissonances and rhythmic aberrations crop up, diverting Machaut’s music into unexpected eddies and alternate courses before it finds its way again. Togni has also written original music for the Introit and a series of “responses” between the movements of the Mass. It’s a fascinating exercise, ably executed by a cast of four wonderful singers, and recommended to listeners who know Machaut’s Messe well. If I were ever to venture into composition (which, for lack of talent, I shall never do) a project like this is what I would want to try.

machaut-holligerThe second recording presents a selection of Machaut’s music alongside “transcriptions” by Heinz Holliger. I have to use the scare quotes because these are far from straightforward transcriptions. The distance between Machaut’s originals and Holliger’s reinventions is sometimes so great as to be inaudible, at least to this listener. Yet, even so, there is again something fascinating about the exercise, which one feels has been a labour of love; and anyone who loves Machaut is a friend of mine. The disc pairs performances of Machaut, ravishingly sung by the Hilliard Ensemble, with Holliger’s creative interpretations, scored for voices and violas. Spiky dissonances and all, this is a treat.

***

Other outstanding recordings:

Schnittke_PsalmsSchnittke: Penitential Psalms
SWR Vokalensemble Stuttgart
Marcus Creed
(Hanssler)

I have long treasured an old ECM recording of these choral pieces sung by the intrepid Swedish Radio Choir; its only real flaw is that the recorded sound is somewhat distant. On this new record the SWR Vokalensemble Stuttgart grapples manfully with the serious technical challenges of this music, and though I don’t think they quite match the fluency and ease of the Swedes, they do have the benefit of superior sound. I listened side by side to the two recordings to try to choose a favourite, and I couldn’t quite decide. Both are very good indeed.

weinberg-symphony10Weinberg: Symphony No.10
Amadeus Chamber Orchestra of Polish Radio
Ewelina Nowicka
(CPO)

Over the past few years I’ve fallen in love with the music of Mieczyslaw Weinberg. This year saw the release of a number of discs of his music — including a first recording of his opera The Idiot — but I kept returning to this fine collection of orchestral music, which includes his Symphony No.10, the very engaging Concertino for violin and string orchestra, and the winsome Rhapsody on Moldavian Themes. It’s a nice collection that shows off Weinberg’s orchestral writing to good effect.

puccini-kaufmannPuccini: Nessun Dorma
Jonas Kaufmann
Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia
Antonio Pappano
(Sony)

A couple of years ago in my year-end review I praised Jonas Kaufmann’s Wagner recital; this year he returned with a fantastic collection of arias by Puccini. The programming is interesting: rather than focus just on the big hits, Kaufmann sings at least one aria from each of Puccini’s operas, so that while we do get the big numbers from Turandot and La boheme, we also get to hear some rarely heard arias from Edgar andLa Rondine. Kaufmann is in wonderful voice. Antonio Pappano directs the orchestra, so you know this is top shelf from start to finish.

contrapunctus-midstIn the Midst of Life
Contrapunctus
Owen Rees
(Signum)

It was also two years ago that I praised a previous recording by the choral ensemble Contrapunctus. On this new disc they sing music from the Baldwin Partbooks, one of the relatively few surviving sources for English (though Latin-texted) polyphony of the sixteenth century. All of the pieces selected for this disc are on the theme of mortality in one way or another, concluding with John Sheppard’s massive Media vita. This music is mostly quite familiar to enthusiasts, but Contrapunctus sing it so beautifully, with a clear, clean blend, that it seems new again. Gorgeous.

Favourites of 2014: Classical music

January 8, 2015

I had a good and rewarding year of listening. Much of my time was devoted to a few listening projects: for the Strauss anniversary year I listened to a big chunk of his operas (some of which I wrote about), and I listened chronologically to the symphonies and string quartets of both Shostakovich and Mieczyslaw Weinberg. In the cracks between these slabs, I enjoyed quite a few new, and new-ish, releases. Of those, the following were my favourites:

hilliard-transeamusTranseamus
The Hilliard Ensemble
(ECM New Series, 2014)

In December 2014 the Hilliard Ensemble gave their final concert, finally hanging up their tuning forks after 40 years of exquisite music-making. Though they long since parted ways with their founder, Paul Hillier, and though the membership of the four-man ensemble has changed over the years — countertenor David James being the only original member still singing — they sustained a remarkably consistent sound and sensibility, and few, if any, vocal ensembles could match their technical excellence and artistic adventurousness. Their work has been important to me personally. I had the privilege of hearing them live on two occasions, one of which (a performance of Arvo Part’s Miserere) I count among the great concert-going experiences of my life, and my music collection is littered with dozens of their recordings, many of which I hold close to my heart. I am sad to see them go.

The Hilliard Ensemble has had two principal artistic faces: they are specialists in medieval and renaissance polyphony, and the bulk of their recorded legacy has been devoted to exploring that music, but they are also well-known for commissioning and championing the work of contemporary composers, most especially that of Arvo Part. On Transeamus, said to be their final recording, they return to their roots with a collection of carols from late medieval England. Some of the finest pre-Reformation English composers are represented, including William Cornysh and John Plummer, but most of these pieces are anonymous. The performances are excellent and frequently superb; I might prefer a little more swing in a jaunty carol like “Thomas Gemma Cantuariae” (Paul Hillier’s earlier recording with Theatre of Voices is my touchstone here), but hearing the Hilliards singing “Ecce quod natura” or Sheryngham’s marvellous “Ah, Gentle Jesu” makes clear why they have been ranked with the world’s great vocal ensembles. I miss them already.

[Info] [Review]

*

bach-levitBach: Partitas
Igor Levit
(Sony, 2014)

These days it can sometimes seem that the major classical labels do little more than reissue recordings from their glory days, or, when they do issue new recordings, their roster of artists seems to have been chosen based more on consideration of shapely figures than of artistic excellence. But then along comes a pianist like Igor Levit to undermine all such gloomy ruminations. Still in his 20s, he made his recording debut last year with a much praised recording of the late Beethoven piano sonatas, and this year he followed it with this set of Bach’s six partitas (BWV 525-30). These pieces don’t get as much attention as the Goldberg Variations or the Well-Tempered Clavier, much less Beethoven’s late sonatas, but Levit opens them up in a way that I have never heard before. As usual it is hard to put one’s finger on just what sets one pianist apart from another, especially at elite levels where technically proficiency is assured, but nonetheless Levit’s playing has a special quality: muscular, poised, self-effacing, but yet somehow intensely inward-looking and contemplative. I find him mesmerizing, and heartily recommend this superb recording.

*

ludford-heronLudford: Missa Inclina cor meum
Blue Heron, Scott Metcalfe
(Blue Heron, 2013)

Blue Heron is an American choir that is engaged on a long-term project to record music from the Peterhouse Partbooks, one of the relatively few sources of pre-Reformation English polyphony to have escaped the bonfires of the reformers. This is the third volume in the series, and it is a jewel. Polyphony in England in the fifteenth-century was clearly part of the same tradition as continental polyphony, but it was just as clearly an offshoot with its own distinctive qualities: there is a harmonic sweetness to the music, and the long, soaring soprano lines give the music an ecstatic quality that exceeds what one would typically have encountered on the continent. And this is music written on an ambitious scale: Nicholas Ludford’s Missa Inclina cor meum takes nearly 40 minutes just to present the Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei, and John Mason’s motet Ave fuit prima salus is 20 minutes long. I wish that I knew more about the context within which this music was originally written and performed. In any case, this is the first time these pieces have been recorded, and it has been worth the wait.

[Info]

*

morales-bremenMorales: Christmas Motets
Weser-Renaissance Bremen, Manfred Cordes
(CPO, 2013)

A couple of years ago I praised a recording by Weser-Renaissance Bremen of Josquin’s music during my annual round-up, and here I am again with this disc of Christmas-themed music by Cristóbal de Morales. Morales was an important composer in sixteenth-century Spain, holding appointments in Avila and Toledo. He is probably best known today for his sublime setting of Parci mihi, Domine (made (relatively) famous by the Hilliard Ensemble in their collaboration with Jan Garbarek), but he was a prolific composer of masses, motets, and the like. This recording, with Manfred Cordes leading the choir, gathers together a set of motets on Christmas themes, ranging from settings of standard Christmas texts (O magnum mysterium, Puer natus est nobis) to pieces in honour of the Blessed Virgin (Sancta et immaculata virginitas, Salve nos stella maris). Some of the pieces are not directly associated with Christmas (Salve regina, for example), and others are actually more closely associated with other feasts (Missus est Gabriel, for instance, with the Annunciation). It must be said that the singing on this disc is spectacularly good. The pieces don’t pose any particularly dire technical challenges, but they do call for clarity, balance, and beauty of tone, and at these this choir is impeccable. As I said of their earlier Josquin recording, the sound has a burnished quality, as if glowing from within, and the recorded sound is immediate without being too close. It’s the single best recording of Morales’ music that I know of.

[Info] [Listen to samples]

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podger-angelGuardian Angel
Rachel Podger
(Channel, 2013)

I suppose it is possible that the prospect of 80 minutes of unaccompanied baroque violin playing might set some people on edge, but when the bow is wielded by Rachel Podger there is no need for concern. She plays a variety of early baroque pieces which might have been — though whether they were in fact, I do not know — models for Bach’s more famous contributions to the repertoire. Two sonatas by Giuseppi Tartini (not his most commonly heard “Devil’s Trill” sonata), one by Johann Georg Pisendel, and a few short pieces by Nicola Matteis were all new to me. Podger also includes a transcription for violin of one of Bach’s flute sonatas which, though it might be an odd choice from a programmatic point of view, is nonetheless wonderful to hear. The disc closes with a performance of Biber’s stunning Passacaglia (from his Rosary Sonatas), the piece which was arguably the pinnacle of solo violin music until Bach’s own Chaconne came along. Podger is one of the world’s greatest baroque musicians, and she plays like an angel. For what it’s worth, this disc won the recital award at last year’s BBC Music Magazine awards.

[Info] [Listen to samples]

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invocation-schuchInvocation
Herbert Schuch
(Naive, 2014)

A few excellent piano recitals came my way this year but I kept returning to this one, which features music inspired by the sound of bells. There are several pieces of French modernism with explicit bell-resonances — Ravel’s La vallée des cloches, Messiaen’s Cloches d’angoisse et larmes d’adieu and a piece inspired by it, Tristan Murail’s Cloches d’adieu, et un sourire… — but for me the chief attractions are the pieces by Liszt and Bach. Schuch plays selections from Liszt’s Harmonies poétiques et religieuses, including a moving performance of his glorious Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude, but the recital as a whole is held together by transcriptions of several of Bach’s beautiful chorales, played quietly and with great devotion. The overall feeling of the disc is one of meditative stillness, hushed and attentive. The sound is a bit distant for my liking, and the recording level is a bit low, but the playing and the choice of repertoire more than make up for it.

[Info] [Listen to samples]

Here is a promotional video for the disc:

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pacifica-shostThe Soviet Experience
Shostakovich, Miaskovsky, Prokofiev, Weinberg, Schnittke
Pacifica Quartet
(Cedille, 2011-14)

Over the past few years the Pacifica Quartet has recorded a complete cycle of Shostakovich’s fifteen string quartets; the fourth and final volume appeared this year. The competition in this repertoire is tough: the famous (but incomplete) recordings by the Borodin Quartet are always in the back of one’s mind, and I have also long treasured the cycle by the Emerson String Quartet. But this new set deserves to be considered alongside those ones. The Pacifica Quartet plays with all the muscle and acerbity that one could wish for, really digging into the scores to bring out their nervous energy. The ensemble playing is immaculate, and the recorded sound is as clean as a whistle. It’s a superb collection of what is, almost certainly, the greatest chamber music of the twentieth century.

And, as if that were not enough, each of the volumes in the set has been programmed with an additional quartet by one of Shostakovich’s contemporaries: Miaskovsky, Prokofiev, Weinberg, and Schnittke. Whether this broadening of focus is really enough to warrant the “The Soviet Experience” title under which the series has been proceeding is debatable, but the supplementary quartets do give one an opportunity to compare what Shostakovich was doing with what else was happening in Russian music at the time. And, as good as these other quartets are, it must be said that they renew one’s appreciation for just how colossally good Shostakovich was.

[Info] [Review] [Listen to samples]

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Honourable mention:

dvorak-stabatDvorak: Stabat Mater
Collegium Vocale Gent, Royal Flemish Philharmonic, Philippe Herreweghe
(Phi, 2013)
[Info][Promo video][Listen to samples]

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where-late-sweet-birdsWhere Late the Sweet Birds Sang
Magnificat, Philip Cave
(Linn, 2012)
[Info][Review][Listen to samples]

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josquin-pratensisJosquin: Missa Ave Maris Stella
Cappella Pratensis
(Challenge, 2014)
[Info][Listen to samples]

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schubert-bostridge-wigmoreSchubert: Lieder
Ian Bostridge, Julius Drake
(Wigmore Hall, 2014)
[Info][Review][Listen to samples]

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bach-contrasteBach: Transcriptions
Ensemble Contraste
(La Dolce Vita, 2013)
[Info][Review][Listen to samples]

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weinberg-kremerWeinberg: Symphony No.10; Chamber Music
Kremerata Baltica, Gidon Kremer
(ECM New Series, 2014)
[Info][Review]

Fischer-Dieskau and the art of song

July 16, 2012

When the great German baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau died in May, I posted a brief appreciation of him. A longer, more informed, but no less appreciative appraisal by Heather Mac Donald appeared a few weeks ago at City Journal:

I usually reject the declinist conceit in classical music — the belief that the Golden Age of performance lies behind us. But when it comes to Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, the Olympian German baritone who died last month at age 86, I must succumb. German art songs, Lieder, have never had an interpreter of such exquisite sensibility; whether they ever will again remains to be seen. Yes, Fischer-Dieskau’s lyrical voice was stunningly beautiful, with a legato that enveloped the listener in the warmth of the most tender humanity. But it was what he did with that natural beauty that set him apart. No other musician has brought such subtlety of phrasing to the song literature. Each note and syllable were characterized by an individual nuance of breath, vibrato, and pulse, the product of a probing intelligence that at every moment considered how verbal meaning interacted with musical line. As a result, a song in Fischer-Dieskau’s hands led one to contemplate in awe the mysteries of human communication itself.

She goes on to discuss several of his recordings in detail, focusing on his legacy as an interpreter of Schubert’s lieder. It’s an interesting article, from which one can learn not only something about Fischer-Dieskau, and about Schubert, but also something about the art of listening.

She draws special attention to the monumental set of Schubert recordings which he made with pianist Gerald Moore in the 1960s and 1970s for Deutsche Grammophon:

The purchase of the Deutsche Grammophon sets, priced in the hundreds of dollars, may seem like a daring extravagance, but it is really a milestone commitment to musical culture—the equivalent of buying all of The Remembrance of Things Past or the complete Greek tragedies and comedies.

Agreed on all counts but one: the Deutsche Grammophon set to which she refers, all 20-odd hours of it, can be purchased for less than $100. It’s a steal.

By the way, Heather Mac Donald (whose name really does have a space where there normally isn’t one) writes about music quite regularly for City Journal, and she is well worth following. I can’t speak for her writings on political matters.

Music about music

November 22, 2010

Today is the feast of St. Cecilia, the patroness of music and musicians. To celebrate the day, I thought to put together an ‘audio gallery’ of music about music — that is, music that in one way or another celebrates musicians, music-making, or music itself. I drew up a preliminary list of 12 or 15 pieces, but I ran out of time before I could prepare them all. It is probably just as well.

I will proceed in chronological order, more or less, starting with something medieval. Here is Musicalis scientia / Scientia laudabili, a witty two-part motet that is a dialogue between Music and Rhetoric. Music, singing the upper part, begins by listing the names of a long string of music theorists, and then addresses Rhetoric as follows:

I wish to greet them, and observe
Their rules, entrusted to you
To use as you please
So your rhythms may not be contrary
To the rhetorical model
Or to the grammatical form.

Meanwhile (for this dialogue is really a double monologue, with both parts sung simultaneously), Rhetoric begins in this way:

To that praiseworthy science,
Venerable music,
The science of rhetoric sends greetings
With every reverence.

and then goes on to complain about music that is written for too many voices, which results in “simple things being divided”, and asks that Music provide a remedy. And Music does: the two voices of this piece come together periodically in a complex rhythmic interplay called “hocketing”, in which the voices alternate notes in a single melodic line. It is a nice example of a divided thing being made simple. As I said, it’s very witty, and it has a nice swing to it too:

Henry Purcell’s Music for a While is perhaps my personal favourite of all the pieces gathered in this post. It’s a beautiful, melancholy song about the enchanting power of music, written as incidental music for a play.  My favourite performance of the song is this one, by Alfred Deller.

Music for a while
Shall all your cares beguile.
Wond’ring how your pains were eas’d
And disdaining to be pleas’d
Till Alecto free the dead
From their eternal bands,
Till the snakes drop from her head,
And the whip from out her hands.

Schubert’s song An die Musik is another favourite, a lovely tribute to the consolation music brings.  Here it is sung by Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, with Gerald Moore at the piano, from a 1961 broadcast. A translation of the text is as follows:

To Music

Oh lovely Art, in how many grey hours,
When life’s fierce orbit ensnared me,
Have you kindled my heart to warm love,
Carried me away into a better world!

How often has a sigh escaping from your harp,
A sweet, sacred chord of yours
Opened up for me the heaven of better times,
Oh lovely Art, for that I thank you!

Vaughan Williams wrote several pieces about music.  His Serenade to Music, written for a group of 16 soloists, sets the passage about music from Act V of The Merchant of Venice.

How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank!
Here will we sit and let the sounds of music
Creep in our ears: soft stillness and the night
Become the touches of sweet harmony.
Look how the floor of heaven
Is thick inlaid with patines of bright gold:
There’s not the smallest orb that thou behold’st
But in his motion like an angel sings,
WW Still quiring to the young-eyed cherubins;
Such harmony is in immortal souls;
But whilst this muddy vesture of decay
Doth grossly close it in, we cannot hear it.
Come, ho! and wake Diana with a hymn!
With sweetest touches pierce your mistress’ ear,
And draw her home with music.
I am never merry when I hear sweet music.
The reason is, your spirits are attentive
The man that hath no music in himself,
Nor is not mov’d with concord of sweet sounds,
Is fit for treasons, stratagems and spoils;
The motions of his spirit are dull as night
And his affections dark as Erebus:
Let no such man be trusted. Music! hark!
It is your music of the house.
Methinks it sounds much sweeter than by day.
Silence bestows that virtue on it
How many things by season season’d are
To their right praise and true perfection!
Peace, ho! the moon sleeps with Endymion
And would not be awak’d. Soft stillness and the night
Become the touches of sweet harmony.

Here is the closing section, beginning at “Music! hark!”, in a performance led by Sir Adrian Boult.  This video very helpfully includes subtitles:

(The earlier part of the piece can be heard here.)

Benjamin Britten (whose birthday is today, incidentally) also wrote a number of pieces that could have qualified for inclusion in this post. I am selecting a portion of his Rejoice in the Lamb, a setting of the strange and wonderful poetry of Christopher Smart. In this section a group of musical instruments are summoned to the praise of God, and then we hear of the “magnitude and melody” of God’s own harp, which brings peace to the living and the dead.

For the instruments are by their rhimes,
For the shawm rhimes are lawn fawn and the like.
For the shawm rhimes are moon boon and the like.
For the harp rhimes are sing ring and the like.
For the harp rhimes are ring string and the like.
For the cymbal rhimes are bell well and the like.
For the cymbal rhimes are toll soul and the like.
For the flute rhimes are tooth youth and the like.
For the flute rhimes are suit mute and the like.
For the bassoon rhimes are pass class and the like.
For the dulcimer rhimes are grace place and the like.
For the clarinet rhimes are clean seen and the like.
For the trumpet rhimes are sound bound and the like.

For the trumpet of God is a blessed intelligence
And so are all the instruments in Heav’n.
For God the Father Almighty plays upon the harp
Of stupendous magnitude and melody.
For at that time malignity ceases
And the devils themselves are at peace.
For this time is perceptible to man
By a remarkable stillness and serenity of soul.

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I wanted to include some popular music in this post as well, but I have had a very difficult time coming up with anything. My wife, whose tastes in music are almost orthogonal to my own, thought of this song by Natasha Bedingfield, which is about how hard it is to write a song. That’s witty enough for me to overlook the drum loops:

The only other popular song I could think of is Bob Dylan’s “Lay Down Your Weary Tune”. I love this song. In each stanza a different part of nature — the wind, the rain, the river — serenades the weary traveller with a music that surpasses all art. Come to think of it, this song would make a decent lullaby:

Lay down your weary tune
Lay down the song you strum
And rest yourself ‘neath the strength of strings
No voice can hope to hum

If you can think of anything else that could have been included in this post (I can), please leave a comment.