Posts Tagged ‘Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina’

Favourites of 2017: Music

January 5, 2018

It seemed this year that I was treated to an avalanche of excellent music — much more than I could listen to with adequate attention. Of those recordings I devoted the most time to, I have selected for praise an even dozen. I proceed roughly chronologically.


Ars Elaboratio
Ensemble Scholastica
(ATMA, 2017)

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

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

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

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

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


Matteo da Perugia: Chansons
(Olive, 2016)

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

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

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


Secret History: Josquin / Victoria
John Potter
(ECM New Series, 2017)

Years ago I drew up a list of my favourite music of the first decade of the 21st century, and near the top of the list I put a CD of music by Victoria, sung by Carlos Mena, in which the familiar intricate polyphony had been adapted for a single voice with instrumental accompaniment. I loved, and still love, everything about it — Mena’s creamy voice, the clarity of the musical texture, the limpid beauty of the vocal line. I’d never heard anything quite like it before — nor, for that matter, since.

But now this new disc from John Potter and friends revisits the same musical territory, with marvellous results once again. Potter tells us in his notes that it was a fairly common practice in the 15th and 16th centuries for sacred polyphony to be adapted into tablature for lutenists and vihuelists, and even that the music of some composers, including Josquin, survives mostly in these intabulated sources. He is here joined by three vihuelas and a viola da gamba, as well as by the soprano Anna Maria Friman (of Trio Medieval) in performances of these intabulated versions of Victoria’s Missa surge propera, a collection of motets by Josquin, a motet by Mouton and another by Victoria again, some Gregorian chant, and some preludes for vihuela by Jacob Heringman, one of the musicians.

It all sounds terrific. Once again, hearing the clarity of the vocal line pulled from what would normally be a dense polyphonic texture is a real delight, and there’s a wonderful intimacy about the whole affair, as though this sublime music were being re-imagined in one’s living room. For me, the recording as a whole doesn’t quite rise to the level of that earlier one by Carlos Mena, and this mainly because Potter, as good as he is (and, as a long-time member of the Hilliard Ensemble, he’s no slouch), simply doesn’t have the translucent voice that Mena does.

The recording was made at the famous monastery of St Gerold in Austria, long favoured by ECM’s engineers, and the sound is impeccable. It was recorded in 2011, so ECM sat on it for 6 years before releasing it. I can’t imagine why. This is my favourite recording of the year.


Palestrina: Missa Papae Marcelli
(Arcana, 2017)

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

Here is the whole of the Missa:


Monteverdi: Vespro della Beata Vergine
La Compagnia del Madrigale, Cantica Symphonia, La Pifarescha, Giuseppe Maletto
(Glossa, 2017)

2017 was a Monteverdi anniversary year, marking his 450th birthday. My plans to devote time to him largely failed, but I was able to hear this glorious new recording of his Vespers. This is a piece for which my appreciation has gradually grown over the years; it’s a sprawling, multi-faceted work that takes time to get to know, and as yet I feel that I’ve only begun to explore its many nooks and crannies. The musicians on this disc are an ace crew who will be recognized by early music aficionados. I must say that it is nice to have Italians performing the music of their countryman, and, quite in contradiction to the sometime-stereotype of period ensembles being rather dry and thin, they bring a stirring, full-bodied sound to their interpretation. The instruments, especially, are recorded with nice bloom, blending beautifully with the voices. I’ve long been fond of William Christie’s recording of this Vespers, with French forces, for its beauty and gentle tenderness, but this shows another side of this wonderful music.

This video takes us behind the scenes at the recording sessions:


Bach: De Occulta Philosophia
Emma Kirkby, Carlos Mena, José Miguel Moreno
(Glossa, 1998)

Here is a disc that would appear to have been produced just for me: my favourite soprano, Emma Kirkby, and my favourite counter-tenor, Carlos Mena, joining together to sing chorales of J.S. Bach, my favourite composer, over a performance of the Chaconne, my favourite composition (or, at least, having a fair claim), in an arrangement for the lute, my favourite obsolete instrument in the guitar family! You might remember the recording the Hilliard Ensemble made some years ago, in which they, following a purported “discovery” by musicologist Helga Thoene, did the same experiment: singing chorale fragments over the Chaconne, which was, allegedly, subtextually quoting them. I confess I don’t put any great faith in these musicological claims, but it hardly matters: as musical experiments go, this one is a winner. I liked the Hilliard’s performance, but I like this one even more: the intimacy of the lute, and the purity of the two voices, is entrancing. The Chaconne, mind you, only lasts a quarter-hour. The rest of the disc is filled out with Bach’s Sonata (BWV 1001) and Partita (BWV 1004), played on the lute by José Miguel Moreno. It’s all good, but it’s the chorale-laden Chaconne that is sublime.


Mozart: Don Giovanni
Music Aeterna, Teodor Currentzis
(Sony, 2016)

Like everyone else, I have long been wedded to Giulini’s 1959 recording of this, the greatest opera, so much so that I’ve never felt any real desire to acquire another. But nothing in this veil of tears is perfect in every respect, and there was always a possibility, however slim, that somebody might come along and do the thing well enough, and differently enough, to give us, not so much a rival, but an alternative reading. And then along came Teodor Currentzis and his mad cadre of musicians in a bid to do just that.

I say “mad” partly because of the conditions under which the recording took place: Currentzis had his singers and orchestra come to the Russian hinterland, where they stayed for weeks on end, living together, eating together, performing Don Giovanni hour after hour after hour, doing experiments, taking risks, going mad. The Guardian ran a nice feature that described the highly unusual working conditions.

And I say “mad” also because of the results. Currentzis plays this score with ferocious energy; the strings slash, the brass blares, the timpani thunders. There is nothing at all genteel about it. The sound engineering is impressively vivid. The singing is fine, but for me it is the orchestral playing that is the real draw. That might seem an odd position to take on an opera recording, but we are in the realm of the odd.

I understand the argument from those who say that this is an abuse of Mozart, who wrote at a time when elegance was prized and who could out-elegance anybody when we wanted to, but, on the other hand, this is Don Giovanni! If any opera can take this idiosyncratic, unrestrained treatment, it’s this one. An iconoclastic version could never replace Giulini, but considered as a compelling alternative view of this great music, this one is a success.

Here is a ten-minute featurette on the making of this recording:


Mozart – Piano Concertos 20 & 27
Evgeny Kissin, Kremerata Baltica
(EMI, 2010)

I admit I’ve had a prejudice against Evgeny Kissin, whose status as a child prodigy led me to suspect that there was more of sentimentality behind his fame than solid musical achievement. But this disc was recommended to me in glowing terms, and I decided to listen mainly because of the orchestra, Kremerata Baltica, whom I have long admired. It’s a corker! These concerti are old chestnuts, and they are often played with grace and politeness, but Kissin and his band tackle them with thunderous excitement. The sound is big, the orchestra plays with sharp attacks and tight rhythms, and Kissin is terrific at the keyboard. The performance has verve and sparkle. I don’t know if this is typical of Kissin or not, but, if so, I stand corrected.

Here is Concerto No.20:


Wagner: Arias and Duets
Birgit Nilsson, Hans Hotter, Philharmonia Orchestra, Leopold Ludwig
(Testament, rec.1957/8)

Birgit Nilsson has a claim to being one of the great Wagnerian sopranos of the twentieth century, and Hans Hotter can make a similar claim among bass-baritones. They were both in their prime for these recordings, made in 1957/58 in glowing sound that belies their age. Nilsson, especially, is majestic; her voice gleams, like a shaft of light penetrating the gloom. The sheer beauty of it is awe-inspiring. Hotter sings with tremendous gravitas as well, and he is a superb match for her in the long Act III duet from Die Walküre. The other selections are from Wagner’s earlier operas: Elsa’s Dream from Lohengrin, a long excerpt from Der Fliegende Holländer, and a soprano solo from Tannhäuser. This same music has been previously issued on EMI; probably this Testament release has been remastered but I’ve actually listened to both and I can’t hear any substantial differences. In either case, this is one of the best Wagner recordings I’ve ever heard. [review]

Here is the opening of Die Walküre, Act III, Scene III. Hotter is Wotan and Nilsson is Brünnhilde:


Brahms: Piano Works
Arcadi Volodos
(Sony, 2017)

If, like me, you love those last, late piano pieces Brahms left us in his Op.116, 117, and 118, then I cannot recommend more highly these superb renditions by Arcadi Volodos. Volodos is a pianist I haven’t followed very closely (though I love his account of Liszt’s virtuosic transmutation of the Wedding March!). His playing is muscular, and he makes a big, well-rounded sound. You might not think that would work all that well with these elegiac masterpieces, but these are winsome performances that I have greatly enjoyed. This is elite playing, not just technically but artistically, and this is a great disc. [review]


Messiaen: Turangalîla-Symphonie
Steven Osborne, Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra, Juanjo Mena
(Hyperion, 2012)

Messiaen described this gigantic musical explosion as “a song of love, a hymn to joy”, and the joyous feeling he sought to capture as “superhuman, overflowing, dazzling, and abandoned”. Perhaps no better description of the symphony is possible. It is among the biggest, boldest, most outrageous, wildest examples of musical excess in the repertoire, and, as such, not the kind of thing I would normally be drawn to, but it’s the symphony’s spirit of unadulterated, supercharged love of life that wins me over. I’ve a few recordings in my collection, but this one from the Bergen Philharmonic, with Steven Osborne handling the difficult piano part, has delighted me to no end. The orchestral sound, which is the be-all and end-all of this piece, is wonderfully alive and vivid. A ravishing sonic experience. [Audio excerpts]


Weinberg: Chamber Symphonies
Kremerata Baltica, Gidon Kremer
(ECM New Series, 2017)

For the past few years my year-end list of favourites has usually included something by Mieczyslaw Weinberg, and I have something this year too. Gidon Kremer has become a high-profile champion for Weinberg’s music, and in 2017 he, with Kremerata Baltica again, issued a two-disc set of Weinberg’s four chamber symphonies and the Piano Quintet. The Quintet is an early work (Op.18) that has become quite popular, having now been recorded more than any of Weinberg’s other music. Kremer and his crew give it a good hearing, and of course ECM’s sound engineering is outstanding. But for me the chamber symphonies are the real draw. They are late works (the earliest being his Op.145), and, as always with Weinberg, I feel they put me in touch with a man of great musical intelligence, overlooked for too long. Music to treasure.


In years past I have written twice about my favourite music of the year: first classical and then popular. This year there were pop music records that interested me from Bob Dylan, Joan Osborne, Van Morrison, Sufjan Stevens, Joe Henry, Josh Ritter, Justin Townes Earle, Taylor Swift, Lee Ann Womack, and Neil Young, and some others too, but I either didn’t get around to hearing them, or didn’t hear enough of them to form a judgement. Maybe next year.

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].



St Hildegard: Ursula11
(Le Bricoleur, 2011)

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)

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
(Harmonia Mundi, 2016)

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
(Linn, 2016)

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)

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)

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)

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)

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
Jon Vickers, Geoffrey Parsons
(EMI, 1985?)

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)

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)

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)

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)

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)

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)

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!

Feast of the Assumption of the Virgin, 2013

August 15, 2013
The Assumption of the Virgin, Francesco Botticini (c.1475)

The Assumption of the Virgin, Francesco Botticini (c.1475)

A very happy feast of Our Lady to everyone! Here is the Alleluia chant for today:

And here is Palestrina’s six-part elaboration of a related text, sung by Stile Antico:

A great sign appeared in heaven:
A woman clothed with the sun,
and the moon under her feet,
and on her head a crown of twelve stars. 

Sing ye to the Lord a new song:
because He hath done wonderful things.

Feast of the Ascension, 2012

May 17, 2012

Jesus led his followers into the vicinity of Bethany, we are told. “Lifting up his hands he blessed them. While he blessed them, he parted from then, and was carried up into heaven” (Luke 24:50-51.) Jesus departs in the act of blessing. He goes while blessing, and he remains in that gesture of blessing. His hands remain stretched out over this world. The blessing hands of Christ are like a roof that protects us. But at the same time, they are a gesture of opening up, tearing the world open so that heaven may enter in, may become “present” within it.

The gesture of hands outstretched in blessing expresses Jesus’ continuing relationship to his disciples, to the world. In departing, he comes to us, in order to raise us up above ourselves and to open up the world to God. That is why the disciples could return home from Bethany rejoicing. In faith we know that Jesus holds his hands stretched out in blessing over us. That is the lasting motive of Christian joy.

— Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth.

Ye men of Galilee, why stand you looking up to heaven?
This Jesus who is taken up from you into heaven,
shall so come as you have seen him going into heaven.

God is gone up with a shout,
the Lord with the sound of a trumpet.
The Lord hath prepared his throne in heaven.

Palestrina found-footage

March 9, 2012

At the end of 2011 I selected a recording by the British ensemble Alamire as my ‘Recording of the Year’. Here is some recent iPhone footage of them singing in rehearsal. The music is the Agnus Dei from Palestrina’s Missa Aspice Domine, which is rarely recorded. Beautiful! I am going to start saving my pennies now.

(Hat-tip: Chant Cafe)

Feast of the Assumption, 2010

August 15, 2010

Best of the Decade: Classical Music

December 17, 2009

This week I look back at my favourite classical music recordings issued between 2000-2009.   Though I have listened to hundreds of recordings, it goes without saying that there is a lot of music, much of it no doubt excellent, that I have not heard.

I have decided to structure this post according to genre.  For each genre I have selected two outstanding recordings, with a third “runner-up” sometimes slipped in.  The exception to this rule is the choral music category; my initial short list had about twenty-five recordings on it, and it was too cruel to cut that down to just two, or even three.  I compensate for this surplus by omitting an opera category altogether.

I have also included links to more thorough reviews and to streaming samples of the music when it was possible to do so.

Without further ado:


I have chosen six discs of choral music, plus a few runners-up.   They are arranged in rough chronological order.

Paolo da Firenze: Narcisso Speculando (Mala Punica, Pedro Memelsdorff) [2002; Harmonia Mundi]: This is music of the medieval avant-garde. Paolo da Firenze, who died in 1425, belonged to the ars subtilior school of late medieval composition.  The music is incredibly intricate, and must be exceptionally difficult to sing, but it is also marvelous to hear — in that respect, the medieval avant-garde consistently bested the modern.  The ensemble Mala Punica specializes in this music, and their awe-inspiring performances must be heard to be believed.  This is one of the most ear-opening recordings I’ve ever heard.  (Reviews: ClassicsToday)

I don’t know why this video is nine minutes long; the piece ends at 3:43.

Richafort: Requiem (Huelgas Ensemble, Paul van Nevel) [2000; Harmonia Mundi]: For sheer ravishing beauty, this is my choral music pick of the decade.  Richafort (c.1480-c.1550) is a mostly forgotten composer, but on the evidence here that forgetfulness is unjust.  His Requiem, which may have been written to commemorate the death of Josquin Desprez, is a thing of glories, with wave after wave of beautiful music spilling over the listener.  Just when you think it can’t possibly get any lovelier, it does.  The disc is filled out by a selection of motets, including a gorgeous Salve regina for five voices, and even a drinking song (rendered, it must be said, a little stiffly).  The singing of the Huelgas Ensemble, which is always excellent, is here focused and luminous to an uncommon degree.  (Reviews: ClassicsToday)

Here is the Introit of the Requiem:

In Paradisum (Hilliard Ensemble) [2000; ECM New Series]: The Hilliard Ensemble sing the Gregorian setting of the Requiem Mass and interpose motets by two of the grand masters of Renaissance polyphony: Victoria and Palestrina.  As is fitting, the music is dark-toned and somber.  The singing is as good as singing gets in this vale of tears: concentrated, responsive, inward-looking, and incredibly beautiful.  The richness of the sound is astonishing.  Part of the credit obviously goes to the four voices of the Hilliard Ensemble, and part to ECM’s superb engineers, but thanks must also be rendered to the walls and vaults of St. Gerold monastery in Austria, where the recording was made. (Reviews: ClassicsToday)

Bach: Missae Breves (Pygmalion) [2008; Alpha]: Before hearing this recording I had not known of the group Pygmalion, and I expect they are new to most listeners too.  I still don’t know anything about them — except that they sing Bach to perfection.  This disc includes two of Bach’s short Masses, BWV 234 and 235.  (A Missa Brevis includes only the Kyrie and Gloria.) This music has never sounded better.  The voices are confident, clear, and precise, with none of the raggedness or wooliness that sometimes plagues choirs who try to sing Bach.  The instrumental accompaniment is lively and vivid.  This is simply terrific music-making. (Reviews: AllMusic) (Listen to samples)

Bach: St. John Passion (Philippe Herreweghe, Collegium Vocale Gent, soloists) [2001; Harmonia Mundi]: Bach’s St. John Passion is not as well-known as his St. Matthew Passion, and with some justification, for it is not as ambitious as its more famous companion.  Its comparative modesty in scale makes it a tighter and more dramatic account of the Passion story, and I find that attractive.  This performance from Bach-specialist Herreweghe, with a starry cast of soloists and his usual crack choir Collegium Vocale Gent, is uniformly excellent.  This music was a great discovery for me this decade.  (Reviews: ClassicsToday) (Listen to samples)

Here is the final section of the work, Christe, du Lamm Gottes (an adaptation of the Agnus Dei):

Grechaninov: Passion Week (Charles Bruffy, Phoenix Bach Choir, Kansas City Chorale) [2007; Chandos]: The prospect of hearing Russian sacred music sung by a choir from the American Midwest does not immediately inspire confidence, but this disc upset my expectations.  The music, written in 1911, is inspired by the Holy Week services of the Orthodox Church.  The texts are in Old Slavonic, and the music communes with the long history of Russian Orthodox music.  It bears an obvious similarity to Rachmaninov’s Vespers, and, to my surprise, it does not suffer greatly in the comparison.  It is extremely well sung — all praise to the basses! — and the recording, though perhaps a bit boxy, still allows us to hear the music clearly.  I was very pleasantly surprised by this recording. (Reviews: AllMusic) (Listen to samples)

Here is the section of the work titled “The Wise Thief”.  (Sorry about the flowers.)


  • La Bele Marie (Anonymous 4) [2002; Harmonia Mundi]: This is a collection of Marian songs from thirteenth-century France.  Some are in Latin, some in French.  As befits their subject, they are bright, lovely, and mostly joyful.  The four women of Anonymous 4 sing with their customary blend and luminosity.  A very heart-warming record.  (Reviews: ClassicsToday ) (Listen to samples)
  • A Scottish Lady Mass (Red Byrd) [2005; Hyperion]: This disc contains thirteenth-century music from St. Andrews, Scotland.  It includes polyphonic music (for two parts) that is not known elsewhere, and there are some real curiosities, including troped versions of the Kyrie and Gloria, as well as some unique sequences.  The record’s cover, which shows an old church at night across a foggy moor, perfectly captures the feel of this music.  The voices of Red Byrd are manly and resonant, creating a warm sonic blanket to wrap oneself in. This is my kind of singing. (Reviews: ClassicsToday) (Listen to samples) (Listen to a troped Kyrie: Rex, virginum amator)
  • Dufay: Quadrivium (Cantica Symphonia) [2005; Glossa]: Guillaume Dufay is my favourite medieval composer, and this collection of sacred motets serves his music very well.  Cantica Symphonia make the interesting decision to bring instruments, as well as voices, into the music, and although this necessarily involves some improvisation and guess-work, it sounds great.  The singing — just one voice to a part — is confident and idiomatic, and the music is dazzling.  (Reviews: AllMusic) (Listen to samples) (Listen to Anima mea liquefacta est)
  • Heavenly Harmonies (Stile Antico) [2008; Harmonia Mundi]: This disc is a superb collection of Elizabethan sacred music by William Byrd and Thomas Tallis, illustrating the parting of the ways between Catholic music (intricate polyphony, in Latin) and Protestant music (simple and strophic, in English).  As I have said before, the singing of Stile Antico is amazingly good.  (my Music Note) (Reviews: ClassicsToday, AllMusic) (Listen to samples)
  • Elgar: The Dream of Gerontius (Sir Mark Elder, Hallé Orchestra and Chorus, soloists) [2008; Hallé]: Elgar’s setting of John Henry Cardinal Newman’s poem about death and the afterlife has not really attracted me in the past.  I had heard a few recordings, but I found them stodgy and sluggish.  When this disc from the Hallé Orchestra began earning accolades in the British press, I thought it might be another case of patriotic fervour overwhelming sound judgment, but I decided to give it a try anyway.  I am glad that I did.  The sound is much clearer, with far better articulation from the choir than on previous recordings, and the soloists are tremendous.  There’s a real sense of occasion too.  (Reviews: AllMusic)   Here is the section “Praise to the Holiest”:

Solo Voice

Victoria: Et Iesum (Carlos Mena, Juan Carlos Rivera) [2004; Harmonia Mundi]: We naturally associate Victoria with the high Renaissance style of polyphony, of which he was a master.  Himself a priest, his music was intended to serve the sacred liturgy.  Yet, as this intriguing recording informs us, some of his music was adapted for performance on a more modest and intimate scale.  In such cases, one of the polyphonic vocal lines was given to a solo voice, and the other musical lines were put into the instrumental accompaniment.  The result is something like a madrigal or song, but with a sacred text.  The comparative simplicity of the music allows us to relish the beauty of the exposed vocal melody without interference.  Carlos Mena, my favourite counter-tenor (and yours?), has marvelous breath-control in the sometimes very long vocal lines, and his voice has a creamy richness that is very satisfying.  Counter-tenor singing has come a long way in the last few generations of singers, and Mena has it all.  He is tastefully accompanied by Juan Carlos Rivera on the lute and vihuela.  This is a very special recording. (Reviews: ClassicsToday, AllMusic)

Here is Carlos Mena singing Victoria’s adaptation of Salve regina.  If you enjoy this, consider clicking through to YouTube; the same person who posted this song has also posted several other tracks from this disc.

Strauss: Lieder (Soile Isokoski, Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin, Marek Janowski) [2002; Ondine]: Finnish soprano Soile Isokoski turns in an unforgettable performance of Strauss’ great Vier Letzte Lieder (Four Last Songs).  She has a full-bodied, very expressive voice, and it suits these opulent late flowerings of Strauss’ muse perfectly.  Competition in this repertoire is stiff, but Isokoski has displaced Elisabeth Schwarzkopf as my favourite.  The disc is filled out by a selection of Strauss’ other songs.  They are not among Strauss’ greatest inspirations, but they are still beautifully sung. (Reviews: ClassicsToday) (Listen to samples)

In this live performance (not taken from the recording), Isokoski sings “Fruhling”, the first of the Four Last Songs:

Solo Instrument

Messiaen: Complete Organ Works (Olivier Latry) [2002; DG]: As I think I have said before, to a first approximation there has been only one composer for the organ, and that was J.S. Bach.  But if we broaden our vision just a little, Olivier Messiaen comes into view.  His music is nothing like Bach’s, of course, but in its own way it is perfect music for the instrument: immense, deep, ecstatic, glorious, and overwhelming.  It is a major body of work.  Olivier Latry plays the mighty organ of Notre Dame de Paris, where he is house organist, and the DG engineers have caught the sonics in spectacular fashion.  This set is a cornerstone for my collection of twentieth-century music. (Reviews: ClassicsToday)

Bach: Goldberg Variations (Murray Perahia) [2000; Sony]: Starting in the 1990s Murray Perahia began at last to record the music of Bach.  He started with the English Suites, and has since moved through the keyboard concertos, the Partitas, and, in 2000, he made this excellent recording of the Goldberg Variations.  It is a superb, finely calibrated performance that positively dances, and it has become my favourite recording of this inexhaustible music.  (Reviews: ClassicsToday)

Here is Perahia playing the opening Aria and the first three variations:


Shostakovich: Complete String Quartets (Emerson String Quartet) [2000; DG]: One of the two or three greatest concert-going experiences of my life was hearing the Emerson String Quartet play Shostakovich’s devastating final quartet, No.15.  It left me reeling and exhausted, but deeply grateful.  Afterward I bought this complete cycle of Shostakovich’s quartets, on five well-filled CDs.  It is an incredibly rich collection.  Some consider his string quartets to be his greatest music, and I am among them.  I have since heard a few other cycles of these quartets, including the famous recordings by the Borodin Quartet.  I love them too, but they do not include the last two quartets, and the Emersons have the edge on precision and sound quality.  This is another cornerstone of my music collection. (Reviews: AllMusic)

Here is a short video I have posted before of the Emersons playing the third movement of String Quartet No.3.  Not one of my very favourite movements, but the only one I can find on YouTube:

Weinberg: Cello Sonatas (Alexander Chaushian, Yevgeny Sudbin) [2007; BIS]: Mieczysław Weinberg is not a well-known composer.  I had never heard of him until I heard this recording, and, now that I have heard this recording, I cannot understand why he is unknown.  His music is fantastic.  Weinberg (also sometimes called Vainberg, or Vaynberg) was born in Poland in 1919 and lived most of his life under the Soviets.  He was a close friend of Shostakovich — the two would play their new compositions to one another.  His music is in many ways quite similar to Shostakovich’s, and that is a very, very good thing!  It is tough and lyrical, full of interesting ideas and genuine feeling, and it sounds urgent and important.  These cello sonatas — two for cello and piano and one for solo cello — are almost unbelievably beautiful.  When I first heard this record I was struck speechless by it, and I hung on every note until it was over.  I have since heard several other recordings of Weinberg’s music, and I have not been disappointed.  He is a major discovery for me. (Reviews: AllMusic)  (Listen to samples)

Here is the first movement of his Cello Sonata No.2, Op.63.  I hope somebody likes this as much as I do.

Runner-up: Pärt: Alina [2000; ECM New Series]: ECM Records are known for their innovative and unusual programming, but, even so, it took a certain audacity to put this disc out.  It includes just two compositions: Für Alina for piano and Spiegel im Spiegel for piano and violin (or cello), together amounting to about 20 minutes of music.  Both pieces are devotedly minimalist, with very sparsely notated scores and absence of dramatic effects.  An uncharitable listener might say that “nothing happens” in either of them.  ECM, in their wisdom, interleaved on the disc two versions of the first piece with three versions of the second!  And, strangely enough, it works.  The record, by the very simplicity of the music, asks the listener to really pay attention to each note.  Close listening becomes a kind of meditative experience.  It’s a rather special disc. (Reviews: ClassicsToday)

Gus van Sant’s 2002 film Gerry used Speigel im Spiegel during the opening scene.  This five-minute clip includes roughly half of the piece.  The visual is perfect for this music.  (Incidentally, in the early days of our courtship I took my wife to see Gerry.  I am lucky that she was willing to see me again.)

Concerto and Orchestral

Schoenberg & Sibelius: Violin Concertos (Hilary Hahn, Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra, Esa-Pekka Salonen)  [2008; DG]: I confess with some shame that I had ignored Hilary Hahn’s recordings in the past.  I assumed that her success had more to do with her youthful attractiveness than the quality of her playing.  (Yes, sex sells even in the beleaguered marketing departments of classical music labels.)  After hearing this recording I am happy to say that this assumption was totally false: her playing stands firmly on its own merits.  She has chosen to couple the violin concerti of Sibelius and Schoenberg, which is a bit like having a meal of truffles and tacks.  To her great credit, she actually manages to find music in Schoenberg’s concerto.  She gives shape to the almost unremittingly angular musical line, and her tone is steely and firm, as though she’s taken this anarchic music in hand and shown it who is master. She makes as good a case for it as is likely to be made.  But it is in the Sibelius concerto that she really shines.  I’ve heard three or four other recordings of this wonderful concerto, but none has gripped me as hers has.  Her playing is precise, with no wavering or wooliness in her violin’s tone, and she really gets inside the music, allowing it to speak for itself.  (Reviews: ClassicsToday, AllMusic)

Here she is playing the final movement of the Sibelius concerto:

Messiaen: Des Canyons aux Étoiles… (Myung-Whun Chung, Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio-France, soloists) [2003; DG]: This massive orchestral composition was written to celebrate the bicentenary of the United States, and it was inspired by Messiaen’s visit to Utah’s Bryce Canyon.  It celebrates in sound the canyon’s rocks, cliffs, and — of course, since this is Messiaen — its birds.   Scored for a large orchestra with piano, horn, xylorimba, and glockenspiel soloists, it is a colourful and essentially joyful composition, both weird and wonderful, and animated by Messiaen’s Catholic nature-mysticism.  The recording is sonically spectacular.  (Reviews: ClassicsToday)


The length of these symphonies prevents my linking to whole movements.  I hope the samples will give some idea of what is in store.

Bruckner: Symphony No.9 (Günter Wand, Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart des SWR) [2006; Profil]: This is a live recording made in 1979, but this 2006 disc was (I believe) its first commercial appearance, so it qualifies for inclusion on this list.  Günter Wand apparently said of this performance that it was “one of the most memorable of [his] life”, and I believe it.  It is tremendously beautiful music that seeks, as Bruckner said, to make the transcendent perceptible, and Wand leads his orchestra about as far in that direction as it is possible to go.  When called for, they play with thunderous power, and at other times with the most delicate sensitivity.  The sound is excellent.  (Reviews:  AllMusic) (Listen to samples)

Vaughan Williams: Symphony No.2 “London” (Richard Hickox, London Symphony Orchestra) [2001; Chandos]: This splendid recording of the “London” symphony was named Record of the Year by Gramophone Magazine in 2001, and it was a richly deserved accolade.  It is a wonderful symphony, and it has never sounded better.  The music glows on this recording.  It is a great interpretation too, with drama and presence.  (Listen to samples)


I have not seen any “Best of Decade” lists from major critics, but a number of “Best of 2009” lists have appeared: