Posts Tagged ‘James MacMillan’

Favourites of 2022: Music

December 30, 2022

Of all the many recordings I listened to this year, my ten particular favourites were, in no particular order (though with my “record of the year” at the end):


Busoni: Bach Transcriptions
Holger Groschopp
(Capriccio, 2014)

I have a weakness for transcriptions of Bach’s music. There’s a little cottage industry devoted to making them, and they range from the dubious to the delightful. Some years ago Hyperion did an entire series devoted to transcriptions for piano, and they are terrific. One composer, though, made so many piano transcriptions of Bach that he has the honour of actually having his name married to that of the great man. I refer, of course, to Bach-Busoni. Maybe the best known of his transcriptions is that of the Chaconne, and it is indeed magnificent, but he made many more, and here Holger Groschopp plays two hours’ worth of them. Many are transcribed from the organ; there is a set taken from the Musical Offering; there are chorale transcriptions; and an assortment of other things. All of the music is good, naturally, and it’s nice to hear it on a big, warm piano, and played so beautifully.


Romantic French Arias
Joan Sutherland, L’Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, Richard Bonynge
(Decca, 1970)

A golden oldie from Joan Sutherland. First issued in 1970, I only heard this classic record for the first time this year, and it is a knock-out. Sutherland lets loose her dazzling vocal pyrotechnics in a programme of nearly two hours of French opera that reaches as far back as Charpentier, but is focused on nineteenth-century music: Delibes, Meyerbeer, Bizet, Gounod, Massenet, and Offenbach. Singing doesn’t get any better.

Here is a very brief excerpt from Meyerbeer’s L’Etoile du Nord in which she sings a messa-di-voce trill (in which the dynamics are varied in the pattern piannissimo-fortissimo-pianissimo). Stupendous!


Chamber Music Arrangements
Linos Ensemble
(Capriccio, 2018)

Speaking of adapting music, here is a beautiful set: 8 CDs of orchestral pieces arranged for chamber ensemble. The music dates from around the turn of the twentieth century, give or take a few decades: we get several waltzes of Johann Strauss II, Bruckner’s Symphony No.7, lots of Mahler, healthy doses of the Second Viennese School, and a few pieces by Debussy, Reger, and Zemlinsky. Personally, I usually prefer the intimacy and clarity of chamber music over big orchestral pieces, so these transcriptions, scaled down to fewer than ten musicians, have been very enjoyable for me. They have a certain historical importance, too, as many (all?) of them were made for the Viennese Society for Private Musical Performances founded in 1918 by Schoenberg. Schoenberg himself made several of the transcriptions. Webern’s transcriptions of his own Op.6 Pieces are also here. It’s a delightful collection, full of fascinating details and wonderful music, that has given me many hours of enjoyment.

Here is the arrangement of Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, which I think sounds wonderful in this smaller, more transparent setting:


Mozart Momentum 1785
Leif Ove Andsnes, Mahler Chamber Orchestra
(Sony, 2021)

What I love here is the concept: it’s a two-disc set of music that Mozart composed in one calendar year: 1785, when Mozart was in his late-20s. (There is a companion set that focuses on 1786 as well.) He wrote 15 or 20 pieces that year, and 5 of them, suitable for this ensemble to play, are included: we get the famous piano concertos Nos 20-22, the Piano Quartet in G minor, a bit of Masonic funeral music, and the Fantasia in C minor for piano. It’s a nice mix of orchestral music, chamber music, and solo recital, with the piano part taken by Andsnes, who also leads the orchestra, just as Mozart would have done. We get a sense for how Mozart changed gears between pieces, or worked on things of quite different character simultaneously. The music is wonderful, of course, and the music-making is fleet, the sound is clear and warm, and it all works together marvellously well.

Here they are playing the final movement of the Piano Concerto No.21:


Shostakovich: Symphonies 1, 5, 6, 8, 10, 15
Kurt Sanderling, Berlin Symphony Orchestra
(Berlin Classics, 2006)

I embarked on a major Shostakovich symphony voyage this year, and of all the recordings I heard, this is the set that stood out to me. Kurt Sanderling and the Berlin Symphony Orchestra play fewer than half of the symphonies, whether for contractual or artistic reasons I do not know, but they are magnificent. Shostakovich’s music can be emotionally ambiguous — is this real feeling, or sarcasm? — but Sanderling goes straight to the heart, choosing to bring out the qualities of darkness, brooding menace, and, when appropriate, ferocity. The symphonies sound big and bad, in the best sense. It’s music-making to haunt your dreams.

If you have the time, here is the whole of Symphony No.5:


A Meditation: St. John Henry Newman
The Sixteen, Harry Christophers
(Coro, 2022)

John Henry Newman was canonized in 2019, and here the great British choir The Sixteen gives us a meditation on his spiritual legacy and ongoing influence. The disc features four new compositions based on texts by St. Newman by Will Todd, Anna Semple, Eoghan Desmond, and James MacMillan. (These latter two set the same text, which gives us a nice opportunity to compare their different approaches to it.) The disc also includes a few older Newman settings of “Leady, Kindly Light” (W.H. Harris) and “Praise to the Holiest” (R.R. Terry), and is filled out with a few classics by Elgar. It’s a truly lovely disc with a pleasing mixture of romantic and modern music, and it does honour to a great man. The singing, as always with The Sixteen, is beyond criticism.


Weinberg: Sonatas for Solo Violin
Gidon Kremer
(ECM New Series, 2022)

It wouldn’t be another year without another outstanding recording of the music of Mieczylsaw Weinberg. Gidon Kremer has emerged as one of his most eminent champions, and on this ECM record he tackles the three sonatas for solo violin. This music has been recorded a number of times in recent years, and I recall that in 2016 I picked Linus Roth’s recording as one of my favourites. My comments about the qualities of the music on that occasion still apply. Not having done side-by-side comparisons of the two, I’ll not venture to make comparisons between Kremer and Roth, but suffice to say that this newcomer is excellent in every respect, and maybe has the edge sonically. The ongoing rediscovery of Weinberg’s music is one of the most cheering subplots in the world of classical music today!


Sisask: Gloria Patri
Chamber Choir Eesti, Anne-Liis Treimann
(Finlandia, 1994)

Urmas Sisask is an Estonian composer, still active, whose music I had heard in bits and pieces over the years, but whom this year I began to explore in earnest. The jewel from those explorations is his Gloria Patri…, a collection of 24 choral pieces on sacred texts. There’s are Marian hymns (Ave Maria, Ave Regina Caelorum, O Sanctissima), Eucharistic hymns (O salutaris hostia, Ave verum corpus), almost an entire Mass (only the Gloria is missing), and a variety of other things, even a Stabat mater! It’s a cornucopia, and the music is glorious. Sisask is of a younger generation than Arvo Part, and I think I can hear the latter’s influence in the crystalline textures and directness of expression, though the music is Sisask’s own. It is unfailingly lovely. A real discovery. The disc is filled out by Sisask’s large-scale (35 minute!) setting of the Magnificat, which is equally splendid.


Josquin’s Legacy
The Gesualdo Six, Owain Park
(Hyperion, 2021)

At the start of 2022, it had been some years since I’d been to a concert, not just because of the Covid-related matters, but because, you know, babysitters and all that, but this year my wife and I ventured out to hear the Gesualdo Six when they visited our parish. What a great evening it was! The first piece was sung from the back of the church, and I’ll not soon forget that first chord, so perfectly tuned, that made the hair on my neck stand up. And the rest of the night was no less fine.

Anyway, the programme that night was not exactly what we find on this disc, but there was a good deal of overlap. The music is structured around a year that Josquin spent at the court of the Duke of Ferrara, one of the musical hubs of Europe at the time. The music was either copied and performed there, or was written there, or was written by composers who spent some time there, or otherwise had some sort of relationship to it. Highlights include Josquin’s lament on the death of Ockeghem, Nymphes de bois, and his lovely Marian motet O virgo prudentissima. Wonderful music, gloriously sung, and a fine souvenir from a memorable evening!


Josquin: In memoria mea
Rebecca Stewart, Cantus Modalis, Seconda Prat!ca
(Carpe Diem, 2021)

Last year (2021) was the Josquin anniversary year, and in last year’s review I highlighted my favourites of the records made to mark that occasion, but here is one that I missed at the time. Rebecca Stewart here leads two ensembles, Cantus Modalis and Seconda Prat!ca (yes, the exclamation mark is part of the name), in a selection of unaccompanied choral music of Josquin, centered around his Missa mater patris. I have praised Rebecca Stewart in the past, when she directed other ensembles, and I am happy to do it again. Here is a musician who brings a highly personal musical vision and sensibility to the music of this period, without any gimmickry. Under her direction, the music has space to breathe, and it develops an intense inwardness, a sense of attention and contemplation. You might think this describes much music of this period, but I’m pointing out that this is something special, not at all standard issue. It’s a treasure, and my favourite of the records I heard this year.

Easter Sunday, 2022

April 17, 2022

I got me flowers to straw thy way;
I got me boughs off many a tree:
But thou wast up by break of day,
And brought’st thy sweets along with thee.

The Sunne arising in the East,
Though he give light, & th’ East perfume;
If they should offer to contest
With thy arising, they presume.

Can there be any day but this,
Though many sunnes to shine endeavour?
We count three hundred, but we misse:
There is but one, and that one ever.

– George Herbert (1633)

Happy Easter!

Here and there

May 12, 2020

A few good things I’ve read of late:

  • With more time at home, I’ve been making an effort to read more to the kids. But I think I’ll steer clear of Tolstoy’s children’s stories.
  • If, like me, you enjoy looking at illuminated medieval manuscripts, perhaps you’ve wondered how they made the dyes that colour the images, and, in particular, perhaps you’ve wondered what made those blues so distinctive. The secret was lost for centuries, but a group in Portugal claims to have discovered the blue molecule. It’s 6′-hydroxy-4,4′-dimethoxy-1,1′-dimethyl-5′-{[3,4,5-trihydroxy-6-(hydroxymethyl)tetrahydro-2H-pyran-2-yl]oxy}-[3,3′-bipyridine]-2,2′,5,6(1H,1′H)-tetraone. I should have thought that was kind of obvious.
  • Roger Scruton’s last book, on Wagner’s Parsifal, has now been published. Sue Prideaux doesn’t care for it, mostly on the grounds that Wagner was such a prude. Good grief. I’ve long been circling around another book on this opera, by Richard Bell, but have yet to take the dive.
  • Continuing the theme of theologically-inflected music, James MacMillan writes about the fruitful encounter between modern music and Christianity in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries (of which his own music is a fine example).
  • A new biography of Kierkegaard — Philosopher of the Heart, by Claire Carlisle — has been recently published, and has received some positive notice. Both Adam Kirsch at The New Yorker  and Christopher Beha at Harper’s find its structure somewhat awkward, but not enough to overshadow its fascinating subject. It is always good to read about Kierkegaard — and even better to read Kierkegaard himself.
  • “Some people acquire foreign languages more easily than others. I, alas, am one of those others,” writes Joseph Shaw. Me too, Mr. Shaw. But he’s taking a stab at Latin nonetheless, and I’ve been doing the same, in a manner of speaking, as I help my daughter to prepare for a Latin exam. Facies reginae canes terrebit. Mali milites oppidum arserunt. Magnam puellam sum. But I still don’t know how to ask for the butter…

For an envoi, here is the prelude to Parsifal:

Tangled in the web

March 4, 2019
  • Art thieves are the aristocrats of the crime world, retaining something of the aura of a dashing gentleman. Michael Finkel writes about Stéphane Breitwieser, one of the most successful — until he was caught, and caught again. Meanwhile the story of Vjeran Tomic, an art thief whom the French press called “Spider-Man” for his dramatic techniques, is told at The New Yorker.
  • Randy Boyagoda is a Canadian author whose new novel, Original Prin, is both “deeply Catholic and deeply funny”, says André Forget in The Walrus. I’m reading the book now, and Forget is right; the book is delightful — except, perhaps, for my wife, who has to put up with my late night guffaws.
  • Speaking of guffaws, James Geary writes in The Paris Review in defence of puns.
  • Puns may be the highest form of literary comedy, but literary hoax cannot be far behind. J.W. McCormack digs into the history of such hoaxes at Literary Hub.
  • Meanwhile, perhaps perpetrating a hoax of his own, Robert C. Koons argues at First Things that T.S. Eliot was a populist. Actually, his argument is an interesting one.
  • At Catholic Herald, Michael White writes about the premiere of a new piece for tenor and orchestra by Sir James MacMillan, The Hills and Vales Along, based on the war-time poetry of Charles Sorley, who was killed in WWI. We’re MacMillan enthusiasts around here.
  • To wrap up: if you’ve ever wondered if your construction worker might be a well-disguised liberal, or whether your journalist friend might be a secret conservative, put your musings to rest. Business Insider breaks down the political biases of different professions based on campaign contributions in the US. They look about how you’d expect, although it is interesting that the liberal professions (journalism, tech, entertainment, academia) tend to be markedly more liberal than the conservative professions (farming, construction, mining) are conservative. Actually, maybe that is what you’d expect.

For an envoi, let’s hear James MacMillan’s Ave maris stella, beautifully sung by a local parish choir:

Cecilia virgo

November 22, 2017

In honour of the feast of St Cecilia, patroness of music and musicians, here is a very fine performance of James MacMillan’s Cecilia virgo, sung by the National Youth Choir of Australia.

Virgin Cecilia, all musicians celebrate your praises,
and through your merits, supplicants can be heard by God.
With one voice and with one heart, they call upon your name,
that you may deign to change the mourning of the world into the glory of paradise;
and be willing, O protecting Virgin, to look upon your wards,
calling upon the pious Lady, and always saying:
Saint Cecilia, pray for us.

MacMillan on musical modernisms

March 20, 2012

A couple of weeks ago, the wonderful Scottish composer James MacMillan gave a talk at the church of St. Mary Magdalene, Brighton on the topic “The Future of Music, Modernity and the Sacred”. The talk turns out to have relatively little to say about the future, but it does provide an illuminating overview of the music of the twentieth-century, and of the competing interpretations of what musical modernism means.

His basic view on this period is similar to that set forth in Robert Reilly’s splendid book: a radical, ideologically driven, anti-traditional movement dominated the narrative, and it sidelined those composers who resisted. Yet in MacMillan’s view the dominance of that group is slowly but surely being overturned, in part because of the ineliminable element of craft in musical composition.

If the thought of a cage match between Pierre Boulez and Charles Ives sets your heart racing, this talk is definitely for you. In any case, it’s a very enjoyable survey of what has been happening in music over the past century.

(Hat-tip: The Chant Cafe)

Favourites of 2011: Classical Music

December 29, 2011

After I had finished putting together this list of favourites, I noticed that the majority were of music for voices, with a few solo recitals and chamber music recordings thrown in, but no orchestral music. That reflects my own interests, and so is quite fitting. I didn’t make any attempt to go back and come up with something more balanced across genres.

Taverner: Votive Antiphons and Ritual Music
Alamire; David Skinner (Obsidian)

John Taverner died in 1545, which means that he lived and worked during a tumultuous period of English history. The pieces on this recording date principally from the early part of his career, when the Catholic consensus had not yet been disrupted. Consequently the music is sumptuous, complex, and glorious in the finest high medieval manner. The programme includes two large-scale works, Ave Dei patris filia and Gaude plurimum, each lasting about fifteen minutes, plus a handful of other pieces, including the well-known (or, at least, fairly well-known) motets Audivi vocem and Dum transisset sabbatum.

The interest here is not so much in the repertoire — all of this music has been recorded before — as in the performances. This is simply one of the best sounding recordings of choral music that I have ever heard; it is magnificent. The ensemble Alamire is relatively young, although its members, and in particular its director David Skinner, are veterans of the early music scene. Their experience shows: the singing is superbly balanced, the rhythms supple, and the textures clear. I love it when I can hear down through the strata, from soprano down to bass, as I can here. The recording was made at Arundel Castle, which not only has a superb acoustic, but the conditions under which the recording was made were unusual. In a BBC interview that I heard a few months ago, David Skinner described how the ensemble stayed in the castle for an extended period, rehearsing the music together, living with it, even memorizing it, until they felt they could sing it with full attention to expression and ensemble, rather than to mere technical difficulties. This approach paid off abundantly, to my ears.

I am pleased to note, as well, that this disc is an early installment in a projected 30-volume ‘Library of English Church Music’ from Alamire. If they all sound as good as this, it will be a great achievement. [listen]

Weinberg: The Passenger
Michelle Breedt, Roberto Sacca, Elena Kelessidi, Artur Rucinski
Vienna Symphony Orchestra; Teodor Currentzis (NEOS, 2011)

This is the world premiere recording of Mieczyslaw Weinberg’s opera Die Passagierin (The Passenger). Written in the Soviet Union in the 1960s, it had to wait until 2010, at the Bregenz Festival, for its first full performance, which was filmed for this DVD release. Weinberg himself died in 1996, never having seen it staged.

The opera is a Holocaust drama: some years after the end of the war, Lisa and her husband Walter are aboard an ocean liner crossing to America when Lisa encounters another passenger whom she believes to have been a prisoner at Auschwitz where she (Lisa) had been an SS guard. There is some uncertainty as to whether the passenger is or is not the former prisoner — her name was Martha, and Lisa had thought her dead — but in any case the encounter brings back a flood of anguished memories. The staging of the opera moves back and forth between the cruise ship and Auschwitz, the relationship between the two women becoming gradually clearer. Obviously particular sensitivities surround any art about the Holocaust, and Weinberg’s opera — based on a novel by Zofia Posmysz — is especially praiseworthy for its humane spirit. It treats its characters as real people, not as symbols, and there is a good deal of tenderness and understanding in it. It is definitely a drama, not a propaganda piece. This sobriety is all the more remarkable considering Weinberg’s own history: he was a Polish-born Jew whose family was killed at Auschwitz.

The music of The Passenger is very good. Some readers will know that Weinberg is a composer whose music, since I first discovered it a few years ago, has captured my heart and earned my admiration. His music is real music, all the way down, and the music of this opera is no exception. His vocal lines are singable — not always the case in twentieth-century opera — and the orchestral music is subtle and beautiful, even when it expresses (very aptly) violence and anguish. At a particularly dramatic point in the story he incorporates the music of Bach into the score, and the effect is electrifying. Weinberg was a friend to Shostakovich, who said, on one occasion, “I shall never tire of the opera The Passenger by M. Weinberg. I have heard it three times already [presumably at the piano] and have studied the score. Besides, I understood the beauty and enormity of this music better and better on each occasion. It is a perfect masterpiece.” Whether that judgment holds up or not is open to debate, but, speaking for myself, I can say that on first listen I liked The Passenger more than I like the operas of Shostakovich himself. In any case, thanks to the Bergenz Festival and the NEOS label, we now have the opportunity to hear the work for ourselves and make up our own minds.

MacMillan: Who Are These Angels?
Cappella Nova; Alan Tavener (Linn, 2011)

I count myself an admirer of James MacMillan’s music, particularly his music for choir, and I have collected a fair number of recordings. This is the best that I have yet heard. The music on this disc was mostly written between 2007 and 2010, and consists principally of a new set of ‘Strathclyde Motets’ (supplementing an earlier set recorded by the same ensemble) as well as MacMillan’s Mass of Blessed John Henry Newman, written for the papal visit to England last year. The motets are demanding, but breathtakingly beautiful, pieces; they will be too difficult for most choirs, and we are fortunate to have them sung as passionately and expertly as they are on this recording. The Mass, on the other hand, was written for liturgical use and would be within the grasp of many church choirs. This is, as far as I know, its first recording, and it would be good if it were to become popular. It is a fine setting (of the new translation). A little surprisingly, the Kyrie quotes the ‘Tristan chord’ from Wagner; MacMillan has given an interesting explanation for this in the CD’s accompanying notes. [listen]

A Worcester Ladymass
Trio Mediaeval (ECM New Series, 2011)

The Worcester Fragments are a set of surviving manuscripts from Worcester Cathedral, mostly dating from the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries, and consisting principally of three-part sacred polyphony. They are fragmentary because the books in which they were originally written were ‘recycled’: taken apart, cut up, and reused as raw material for other books. In some cases the parchment was erased and overwritten, or glued into book-bindings. Though much of the music was thereby lost, this recycling operation turned out to be a blessing in disguise, for precisely because the music was thus ‘hidden away’ it evaded the general conflagration that destroyed so much of England’s sacred music in the aftermath of the Reformation. Only in the twentieth century did musicologists piece together the music from Worcester again.

Thank God for musicologists, because this music is gorgeous. It has probably never been sung, much less recorded, as well as it is here. The three women of Trio Mediaeval have made a name for themselves on account of the purity and blend of their sound, and they give this music their pristine, ethereal best. The disc’s programme is a quasi-liturgical Ladymass (specifically for the Feast of the Assumption of the Virgin); they have therefore supplemented the polyphony with appropriate plainchant, and, because neither a Credo nor a Benedicamus Domino are found among the Worcester Fragments, they commissioned Gavin Bryars to write new ones for them. He did a good job: no-one would mistake them for genuine medieval works — spicy harmonic splashes give their provenance away — but they are clearly aware of, and respectful of, the context in which they are placed.

ECM’s sound is, as usual, immaculate. The recording was made in the celebrated acoustic of Propstei St. Gerold, and it shows. My only complaint about this CD is that, as they are too often wont to do, ECM prints only the Latin texts in the accompanying booklet, as though these pieces are mere objets d’art acoustique rather than musical settings of religious texts that have, you know, meaning. That aside, this is a wonderful recording. [listen]

This was a Liszt anniversary year — his 200th birthday — and there were quite a few Liszt records issued in consequence. Of those I heard, three stood out. Nelson Freire’s programme of moody, ruminative pieces works very well, and the playing is distinguished. This record won accolades from critics, and justly so. Marc-Andre Hamelin offered a disc that, having the mighty Fantasia and Fugue on B-A-C-H, the exquisite Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude, and the famous Sonata in B minor, fell just one Après une Lecture de Dante short of my ideal Liszt programme. As usual with this pianist, the playing is dazzling. But a late entry from Pierre-Laurent Aimard, called (rather pompously, in the manner typical of the major labels these days) The Liszt Project, was perhaps the most intriguing Liszt disc to appear this year. Over two CDs, Aimard interleaves Liszt’s music with pieces by later composers who were influenced by him. There are contributions from Wagner (writing for the piano!), Berg, Scriabin, Messiaen, and others. Sometimes the connections between the composers are not very evident, but it makes for fascinating listening nonetheless. [listen]

Chopin: Late Masterpieces
Stephen Hough (Hyperion, 2010)

There was a major Chopin anniversary in 2010, and there were quite a few recordings issued to mark the occasion. This was one of them, and I caught up with it in 2011. What a wonderful disc! Chopin is one of those composers who did not obviously evolve as he aged; he seems to have sprung from his mother’s womb with his compositional faculties fully mature. Nobody talks about “middle-period Chopin”. This is why Chopin recordings tend to focus, not on compositional period, but on genre: waltzes, nocturnes, mazurkas, ballades, and so on. That said, it is a fascinating idea to devote a recital, as Stephen Hough has, to his late works, regardless of genre. Thus we get some nocturnes, a barcarolle, a berceuse, a few mazurkas, and his Piano Sonata No.3. The music needs no superlatives from me. The playing is outstanding, as one would expect from this wonderful pianist, and the sound is above reproach. [listen]

Hamelin: Etudes
Marc-Andre Hamelin (Hyperion, 2010)

Marc-Andre Hamelin carved out a niche for himself playing the fiercely difficult music of composer-pianists like Alkan, Godowsky, Medtner, and Scriabin. On this 2010 recording he shows that he is a composer-pianist himself; the entire disc is devoted to his own music for piano. Included are a set of twelve etudes in all the minor keys, a suite, and a set of variations written for his wife. I had heard several of the etudes before (he sometimes plays them in concert), but the rest of the music was new to me. It is quite good music, written with wit and feeling, and of course it is brilliantly played. But this disc is most remarkable simply for the way it crosses the artificial divide between composers and performers that has come to dominate classical music in the twentieth century. Bravo! [listen] [video]

Bach: Goldberg Variations
Catrin Finch (Deutsche Grammophon, 2009)

The Goldberg Variations are almost indestructible: they have been arranged for organ, string trio, string quartet, orchestra, carillon, jazz band, accordion, saxophone, handbells, guitar, choir, and more, and they always come out sounding pretty good. Catrin Finch plays them on the harp, and they sound really good. This disc took me a little by surprise, insofar as I liked it more than I thought I would. There is something so pleasant about the sound of a harp, and, being, like the harpsichord, a plucked instrument, it makes a lot of sense to play this music on one. Catrin Finch is not one of those ‘New Age’ harpists (harpies?) either, who soak the music in reverb and dreamy languor. She’s a real virtuoso who plays with fleet fingers and a solid understanding of the music. This disc is delightful. [listen] [video]

Weinberg: Sonatas for Solo Viola
Julia Rebekka Adler (NEOS, 2010)

Another Weinberg recording, and a good one. Julia Rebekka Adler gives world premiere recordings of Weinberg’s four Sonatas for Solo Viola, which are all late works (the earliest being Op.107). A composer has to think twice about writing such exposed music, music that leaves him nowhere to hide if he doesn’t have good ideas, especially since the imposing figure of Bach will be watching over his shoulder as he writes. I listened to these sonatas many times this year, and they are fascinating, engaging, and moving. They deserve to be better known. The two discs are filled out with an arrangement for viola and piano of Weinberg’s early Sonata for Clarinet and Piano and with a Sonata for Solo Viola by another Russian composer, Fyodor Druzhinin (1932-2007). [listen][video]

Hildegard von Bingen: Sponsa Regis
La Reverdie (Arcana, 2009)

La Reverdie is an Italian early music ensemble that has been around for a long time now. Their recordings, which tend to focus on less traveled byways of the high medieval musical landscape, do not always appeal to me, but this one certainly does. Dedicated to Hildegard von Bingen’s music written for the Blessed Virgin, this disc, to my great surprise, has displaced my long-standing favourite to assume top spot on my Hildegard hit parade. La Reverdie strikes a fine balance between the ethereal (where most recordings of this music lean) and the earthy, and the result is something quite special. This music was actually recorded back in 1999, but reissued in 2009. Pity I didn’t hear it earlier. (It is perhaps also worth noting the late-in-the-year news that Pope Benedict apparently intends to name Hildegard von Bingen a Doctor of the Church in 2012. I do not know enough about her to know what the grounds for such an honour will be, but I am certainly interested to find out.) [listen]

Brahms: Handel Variations
Murray Perahia (Sony, 2010)

Almost everything Murray Perahia touches turns to gold for me, and this wonderful disc of Brahms’ piano music is no exception. He plays the relatively early (Op.24) Variations on a theme of Handel, the mid-career (Op.79) Rhapsodies, and the celebrated late (Op.118, 119) pieces. It’s a programme that works very well, and the playing is richly endowed with that whatever-it-is that appeals so much to me in Perahia’s art. Superb. [listen]

Dvorak – String Quartets
Pavel Haas Quartet (Supraphon, 2010)

This disc, which includes Dvorak’s string quartets No.12 (“The American”) and No.13, won the Gramophone Record of the Year honours for 2010, which accolade prompted me to hear it. I do not know Dvorak’s quartets well, and was pleasantly surprised by these ones. The “American”, in particular, with its allusions to American music, is wonderful. The recording quality doesn’t strike me as particularly noteworthy, but it is clear enough, and the playing of this young quartet has been justly lauded. [listen]

Machaut: In Memoriam
Ensemble Musica Nova (Aeon, 2010)

I praised another recording by this ensemble a few years ago; this one is excellent as well. The focus here is on late fourteenth-century ars nova composers, including famous names like Guillaume de Machaut and Philippe de Vitry as well as more obscure figures such as Johannes de Porta and Francois Andrieu, of whom I had not heard before. The music is fantastic: intricate, subtle, beautiful, and wonderfully expressive. The principal reason to hear this CD, however, is for the performance of Machaut’s Messe de Nostre Dame. This is one of the great masterpieces of sacred music, and many, many recordings have been made, but I am ready — well, almost ready — to give the palm to this version. I maintain a strong affection for Ensemble Organum’s eccentric vision of the piece, but for a “straight” reading Ensemble Musica Nova is marvellous. There is a spaciousness about their performance that draws the listener in, and their singing is beautiful without being “pretty”, which suits this robust music very well. [listen]

Combattimenti! Music of Monteverdi and Marazzoli
Le Poème Harmonique (Alpha, 2011)

A bit of a curiosity here, perhaps, but a delightful one. Le Poème Harmonique is a wonderful French group that has made something of a specialty of producing fascinating programmes of little-known early music. This disc is more in the mainstream than is typical for them, consisting mostly of music by Monteverdi. Two madrigals from his Il Ottavo Libro of 1638 lead off the programme, and are followed by the famous Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda, a dramatic cantata on an episode from Tasso’s Gerusalemme liberata. But for me the chief pleasure on this recording, and undoubtedly the chief surprise, is a half-hour long dramatic piece by an obscure figure named Marco Marazzoli, sometime member of the papal choir in Rome and evidently a bit of a humorist. His La Fiera di Farfa is a dramatic piece, with sung and spoken parts, that is hard to describe. There is a hilarious section portraying a town fair, complete with cow and chicken noises, and the whole thing plays out like a deranged improvisation. It’s a real treat. Most impressive are the spontaneity and subtlety of the performances: if early music specialists were once a little stilted and four-square in their interpretations of unfamiliar music, the finest of the current performers seem completely comfortable with the idiom, and I can think of no better example of that facility that what one hears on this disc. [listen]

Sacred Music on the BBC, II

June 23, 2010

About six months ago I wrote words of praise for a BBC television programme called Sacred Music, which was exploring, with the capable assistance of Harry Christophers and his crack choir The Sixteen, the history of Christian sacred music.  Those first four shows began with Gregorian chant and ended with the music of J.S. Bach.  I remarked at the time that there was plenty of later sacred music worthy of consideration, and I wished for another set of episodes.  My wish has come true.  Four new episodes have been produced, and over the past few weeks I have watched them all.  With a few reservations, I enjoyed them.

The first episode examines the music of Anton Bruckner and Johannes Brahms; in the latter case the focus rests on his Ein Deutsches Requiem, which is not really sacred music in the strict sense — not liturgical music — and which seems to have been written from doubt as much as from belief, but which exists within that penumbra of sacred music where the personal and eccentric rub up against the firm and enduring voices of Scripture and traditional Christian faith.

A similar comment could be made about Gabriel Faure’s Requiem, which, together with Poulenc’s sacred works, are the subjects of the second episode.  The third takes us behind the late twentieth-century’s Iron Curtain to hear the courageous sacred music of Arvo Pärt and Henryk Górecki.  I have admired Pärt, in particular, for a long time, and the brief interview segments in this episode have caused my admiration to wax greater still.

The fourth and final episode returns to the United Kingdom, and brings us up to the present day.  Three composers — James MacMillan, John Rutter, and John Tavener — are interviewed.  I haven’t got much use for the latter two, but MacMillan is terrific, and I found the interviews with him fascinating.  I learned, what I did not know, that he regularly writes new music for the choir at his parish church in Glasgow, whereupon I kicked myself in an uncomfortable spot for not attending that parish when I was in Glasgow a few years ago.  Bad tourist, bad.

Here is a clip from the final episode.  The segment on James MacMillan begins at about 2:45.

Given that this batch of episodes brings the music to the present, I doubt there will be any more seasons.  Too bad.  It has been an excellent series, all things considered.