Posts Tagged ‘Johann Sebastian Bach’

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):

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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.

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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!

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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:

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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:

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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:

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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!

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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.

Favourites in 2021: Music

December 27, 2021

A good chunk of my listening this year has been related to David Hurwitz’s YouTube channel in which he surveys the discography of individual pieces, highlights rare but rewarding repertoire, and gives chats about various aspects of music. His focus is mostly on orchestral music, and his channel has helped me to rediscover, in a sense, the orchestral music in my collection, which has been a very good experience.

But my favourite music of the year has not been orchestral, but vocal, choral, and, in a few cases, pianistic. That’s the kind of music lover I am.

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This past year marked the 500th anniversary of the death of Josquin Desprez, and many ensembles made recordings to celebrate the occasion. I heard a number of excellent ones, but there was one that stood out above the rest, and that’s putting it mildly.

The adventurous Belgian group Graindelavoix put out a disc they called Josquin the Undead, devoted to songs on sombre themes: laments, dirges, and the like. Sounds appealing, no? It is fair to say that Josquin’s sacred music is the more popular side of his compositional personality, but this disc explores his secular chansons, a genre that I tend to think of as relatively light-weight, but is here anything but. I’m not a musician, much less an expert on the theory of early music, so I cannot tell you what Graindelavoix is doing that infuses this music with so much tension and passion and unsettling beauty, nor can I tell you if this is defensible on historical grounds, but I can tell you that whatever they are doing is mesmerizing. This music has never sounded like this before, and it’s something to behold.

Let’s take an example by listening to two performances of Nymphes, nappes. First, here is what I would consider a “standard” approach, from the King’s Singers:

Now let’s hear Graindelavoix tackle the same piece. Notice that it’s more than twice as long — dramatically slower — but especially notice how the harmonies have been juiced up and milked for all they’re worth. There’s a level of attention, and a depth of feeling, and an organic sense of improvisation even (though I doubt actual improvisation) that is simply missing from the other performance, which sounds strait-laced and perfunctory in comparison.

I think that’s extraordinary on every level, and this record is my favourite of the year.

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Another wonderful disc that approached Josquin’s music from a very different angle was The Josquin Songbook. On this recording a selection of Josquin’s motets, masses, and chansons have been arranged for one or two voices, with vihuela accompaniment. Instead of a dense polyphonic fabric, we hear one or two of the vocal lines in an intimate, chamber music ambiance. This sort of thing has been done before, preeminently by the counter-tenor Carlos Mena, many years ago, on a recording of music by Victoria, a disc that remains the gold standard for me. But this new record, with the splendid soprano Maria Cristina Kiehr and the fine (and new to me) tenor Jonatan Alvarado, and the vihuela played by Ariel Abramovich, is outstanding by any reasonable standard. The music takes on a limpid beauty that pierces the heart. Again, this is not “standard” Josquin, but it is another approach to his music that highlights its many beauties.

As an example, let’s hear the same chanson as we heard above, “Nymphes, nappes”:

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In the runner-up category of the Josquin Anniversary sweepstakes, there were a number of excellent recordings that I recommend. The Tallis Scholars completed a decades-long project to record all of Josquin’s Masses; the final volume included three Masses, and was awarded the Recording of the Year award from BBC Music Magazine. This is an ensemble that practically defines the “standard” approach to Josquin’s music, and indeed to all Renaissance polyphony, and they are very good at what they do. Another excellent record was Giosquino, from the ensembles Odhecaton and The Gesualdo Six, which was dedicated to music Josquin wrote in Italy; these are both very fine groups and I enjoyed this disc. The British ensemble Stile Antico recorded the Missa Pange Lingua and were up to their usual high standard. One of the oddest programmes came from the enterprising ensemble Theleme; they recorded a selection of the chansons, and sang them relatively straight, but added a variety of unusual musical interludes, including one for ondes martenot in which Josquin’s music was re-imagined as a video game theme song. Good stuff.

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Sometimes a certain artist and a certain piece of music just seem made for one another. Think of Glenn Gould and the Goldberg Variations, or Arthur Rubinstein and Chopin’s Nocturnes, or Kathleen Ferrier and Mahler’s songs. When I heard that Igor Levit had made a recording of Shostakovich’s Preludes and Fugues, I immediately sensed that same kind of hand-in-glove fit. Here is a pianist with exactly the right combination of sturdiness and finesse to bring these 48 little piano miniatures, which are tightly argued but expressively generous, to life. I’m happy to report that my instincts were sound: this really is the kind of music that showcases his many strengths as a pianist. I’ve got three or four versions of this music in my collection, including the two made by the dedicatee Tatiana Nikolayeva, and Levit is more than worth hearing alongside the others. On a technical level he is flawless (which can’t always be said for Nikolayeva!), and the sound is unimpeachable.

Had he recorded only the Preludes and Fugues it would have been a feast, but actually this only accounts for half of this new record — which runs, incidentally, to about 3-1/2 hours! The other half is Ronald Stevenson’s Passacaglia on DSCH, a long (90 minute) piece written in tribute to Shostakovich. Stevenson was a Scottish pianist and composer who passed away in 2015. I’ve heard some of his music here and there, but never anything like this gargantuan monster. The music is based throughout on the famous DSCH theme that runs through so many of Shostakovich’s own pieces. It’s a big, harmonically lush, and impressive piece, but I would need to hear it a few more times before I could say more.

Here is Shostakovich’s Fugue No.7, in A major:

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The idea to pair the music of Alfred Schnittke — thorny, knotty, and often fiercely dissonant — with the music of Arvo Part — serene, simple, and clear as a struck bell — is a good one. I was delighted this year, therefore, to see a new recording of Schnittke’s marvellous Concerto for Choir paired with Part’s Seven Magnificat Antiphons, and from the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir too, who would be near the top of my short list if I could choose a dream team in this repertoire. They don’t disappoint. The Concerto is hideously difficult, but this crew has no problems with it; they sing with wonderful beauty of tone and allow the dissonant textures to come through clearly. The text of this piece is based on thousand-year-old prayers of an Orthodox monk, and Schnittke’s supple music responds sensitively to them. We then get Schnittke’s brief Three Sacred Hymns, which are comparatively simple and consonant, and therefore a nice transition to Part’s Antiphons. The latter aren’t quite the masterpiece that the Concerto is, but they serve as a splendid contrast, and are beautiful in their own right. The disc is a great way to hear outstanding examples of sacred music from the late 20th century, and it could hardly be better sung or better recorded.

Here is the first of Schnittke’s Sacred Hymns, the Hail Mary:

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Although it was not, so far as I know, an anniversary year, it was nonetheless a banner year for the music of Arvo Part, with a half dozen very fine recordings of his music issued, among them new performances of his Miserere, his Stabat Mater, and his Passio, all of which had authoritative recordings decades ago by the Hilliard Ensemble, in the presence, or at least with the imprimatur, of the composer, and in the meantime, it seems, others have been afraid to try them. But the river thawed this year, and it is wonderful to have a raft of new recordings of these great pieces. I’ve flopped around trying to decide which to pluck for this list, and I’ve settled on the Passio, from the Helsinki Chamber Choir. It’s one of Part’s most monumental scores, combining strict compositional rigour with the starkest of stark beauties. It relies heavily on the voices of a clutch of soloists; they need to be solid and sombre, and a lack of personality is an asset. The Helsinkians carry it off very well. I’m not ready to say it matches the Hilliard Ensemble, but it is very good, and the sound is more immediate, with greater presence. The final peroration, on which so much depends in this piece, is wonderful.

Here is an excerpt from near the end that includes Jesus’ final saying: “Consummatum est”, which you’ll hear from the solo bass voice:

Other fine Part recordings this year, apart from those already mentioned, are a new recording of Lamentate paired with Part’s more recent piano music from the Lithuanian National Symphony Orchestra and Onute Grazinyte, and a disc of Part’s smaller-scale orchestral pieces from Renand Capucon and the Orchestre de chambre de Lausanne. All terrific, and well worth hearing if you’re an admirer of this music.

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It has been five years since I picked a disc of Bach’s motets for my year-end list, so the time was ripe for this new recording from Pygmalion, an ensemble that impresses me every time I hear them. This music needs fleet rhythms, clear textures, perfect timing, and joy! Pygmalion brings everything they have, and it sounds wonderful. They interleave between the motets a variety of pieces written a century or two earlier, in a Renaissance style, by composers like Praetorius (H., if you are wondering) and Gabrieli (G., if you are wondering). It’s an interesting programming decision that highlights the effervescent energy of Bach’s music, while also serving as a pleasant palate cleanser between courses. Excellent all around.

Here is a brief promotional video for the disc:

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The sensational young Icelandic pianist Vikunger Olaffson returned this year with a record built around the music of Mozart, Haydn, and their contemporaries. A couple of years ago I praised a recording of Bach by Olaffson, and this new repertoire once again plays to his strengths: rhythmic verve, perfect precision, marvelous clarity, and a singing musicality. We get to hear Mozart’s Sonata No.16 and Haydn’s Sonata in B minor alongside a variety of shorter pieces by lesser-known composers like Galuppi, CPE Bach, and Cimarosa. Olaffson has done these pastiche programmes before, and he does them well. (The disc ends with Liszt’s transcription of Mozart’s Ave Verum Corpus, which makes a perfect finish.) I’ve returned to this music often this year.

Here he is playing Mozart’s famous Rondo (K.545):

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Estonia, a small country, produces more than its fair share of composers and choirs, and it might be that Cyrillus Kreek had something to do with that. Born late in the nineteenth century, he belongs to an older generation of Estonian musicians who built up the musical culture of the country. The Suspended Harp of Babel is a fine tribute from the superb Estonian ensemble Vox Clamantis, who sing an assortment of Kreek’s settings of folk songs, hymns, and psalms, all of which are woven together with instrumental interpolations on unusual instruments like the nyckelharpa and kannel. The disc closes with an enterprising collision of Estonian folk music, a Lutheran chorale, and, of all things, a song of Guillaume de Machaut. It’s all very “ECM”, if you know what I mean, but in my books that’s a good thing more often than not, and I find it definitely a good thing here. The mood of the disc is generally serene and contemplative. As good as the music is, the biggest draw for me is Vox Clamantis, who are one of the world’s great vocal ensembles. Let them sing anything, and I will listen.

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Another favourite pianist, Anton Batagov, was back this year with a two-disc set of Schubert’s music. It had to be two discs because Batagov plays the music so slowly. That’s his thing. I’ve an affection for him that is something like the affection one has for a true but socially awkward friend: one doesn’t wheel him out at a party, but afterward, when most everyone has gone home and the lights are low, he’s just the thing. I’ve discovered, with his help, that I quite like slowed down music. I like hearing the harmonies and the melodic lines without being hurried. On these discs he plays the massive Sonata No.21 — which, of course, is even more massive in his hands: where a canonical pianist like Kempff takes about 45 minutes, Batagov takes a little over 60. Andras Schiff gave us the Impromptu No.3 in about 5 minutes; Batagov takes 11. It’s not the last word on this music, not by any means, but it’s wonderful in its own peculiar way.

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I’m a person who likes to be systematic, and so it’s fitting, I suppose, that St. Hildegard’s Ordo Virtutum, which is sometimes called the first opera, was also the first opera I ever went to. It’s not an opera in our later sense, of course, but it is a musical drama. She wrote it for performance in her abbey, and it tells an allegorical story about a soul tempted by the devil but defended by the virtues.  All of the singing parts are for women, of course, but the devil’s role, shouted instead of sung, is for a man. I saw it performed by Sequentia, who I think were the first to make a recording of it. In the intervening years another three or four records have been made, some quite good, and this year there was another: from the US ensemble Seraphic Fire. They say it is the “first complete recording”, but I’m not sure what that means; at just over an hour, it’s the shortest of the versions I have in my collection. No matter. It’s beautiful. This music was an interesting choice for Seraphic Fire because they are by no means medieval specialists. They sing the piece mostly a capella, though the different sections of the drama are introduced by bells, and the devil’s entry gets some crude, toneless percussion. It’s a relatively simple interpretation, but the singing is so fine, and the sound so good, that I’m happy to recommend it.

Here is a segment from early in the drama, “The Soul Invokes the Virtues”:

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All in all, a great year for music, as it always is!

The contrapuntal wonder of Bach

March 31, 2020

Today, by some reckonings, is Bach’s birthday. Here is a wonderful video (from someone called gerubach) that takes us, step by contrapuntal step, through 14 canons which he wrote on the Goldberg Variations theme. These are not the Goldberg Variations themselves, but rather some exercises Bach jotted down on the back of his personal copy of the Goldbergs. They are, I suppose, mere chips from the workman’s bench, but they are marvellous.

All of Bach

February 27, 2020

This world is full of wonders, and here’s another: the Netherlands Bach Society has undertaken a massive project to record high quality video of performances of all of Bach’s music, and then to make it all available for free online. I’ve only just learned about this effort in the past few weeks, but it’s been going on in earnest for 4 years now, with a new video every few days. It’s marvellous, the truest of treasure troves!

As a sampler, here is the Cello Suite No.5 in C minor, played by Hidemi Suzuki on a 16th century cello:

 

Favourites of 2019: Music

January 1, 2020

It was a very good year in music, with dozens of excellent recordings crossing my path. Of the many good things I heard, I’d like to highlight today the ten records that meant the most to me, offering, at the same time, my very sincere thanks to the musicians who brought them to life.

Proceeding in chronological order:

Tinctoris: Secret Consolations
Le Miroir de Musique, Baptiste Romain
(Ricercar, 2017)

Johannes Tinctoris is best remembered as a late medieval music theorist, but he composed as well, and his pieces show up from time to time on recordings, usually as bon bons ornamenting the music of others. It was nice, therefore, to see the French ensemble Le Miroir de Musique (whose name is a reference to one of Tinctoris’ treatises) devoting an entire album to exploring his music. We get a mix of instrumental and vocal pieces, some sacred and some secular. It’s not an especially cohesive programme, but it’s tied together by the intimate, small-scale feel of the music-making. Most worthy of note is Tinctoris’ Missa sine nomine (the “no name” Mass); it is, hands down, one of the most beautiful things I heard all year, and earned this fine recording a place on this list.

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Cueurs desolez
Carlos Mena, Iñaki Alberdi
(IBS, 2019)

Josquin: Adieu mes Amours
Dulces Exuviae
(Ricercar, 2019)

Some years ago Carlos Mena — the world’s greatest countertenor, in my books — made a record in which he sang adaptations, for solo voice and instrumental accompaniment, of Victoria’s polyphonic masterpieces. This approach, following historical precedents, involved plucking one of the vocal lines from the polyphonic web, and had the effect of highlighting the incredible beauty of the line within an intimate setting. I loved it then, and my admiration has not flagged in the meantime.

He’s returned to this idea on this new record, made with accordianist Iñaki Alberdi, though this time the lucky recipient of the treatment is Josquin Desprez. Best to listen sitting down, because your knees are likely to buckle at the sheer beauty of it. Mena’s voice is still as creamy and pure as ever it was, and the music, of course, is exquisite — mostly. The catch on this record is that Josquin’s music is interlarded with several pieces by modern composers. Your mileage may vary; mine was poor.

If the thought of picking daisies in a minefield doesn’t appeal, there was another record this year in many respects similar but without the risk. On Adieu Mes Amours the duo Dulces Exuviae also focus on Josquin, also adapting him for solo voice and accompaniment (this time lute). Baritone Romain Bockler isn’t Carlos Mena — who is? — so this record doesn’t soar into the seventh heaven as the previous one does, but neither does it descend to the eighth circle, and it is superbly enjoyable on its own merits. Taken together, these two records make a fantastic Josquinian double-bill.

Here are Mena and Alberdi with the closing section of Josquin’s Inviolata:

And here are Dulces Exuviae singing his In te Domine speravi:

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Dowland: First Booke of Songes
Grace Davidson, David Miller
(Signum, 2018)

Dowland’s songes have a certaine delicious melancholie aire, and they can be sunge in a melancholie waye, and to wonderful effect, but to my ear they worke even better when the voice is brighte and cheeringe. The contraste between the luxurious sorrowe of the sentiments and the beautiful, sunny claritie of the voice heightens the artistic effect. On these groundes, this recital by Grace Davidson is splendide. She is a British singere who has sunge for yeares with ace British choirs: the Tallis Scholares, Tenebrae, and The Sixteene, and she is blessed with a voice that is pure and cleare, like freshe water, or a strucke bell (but not at alle like a strucke bell in freshe water). This recital puts me in minde of that marvellous disc Emma Kirkby made yeares ago of the same songes, and that is highe praise indeed. I cannot recall when laste I enjoyed a collection of Dowland’s songes as muche as I have enjoyed this one, and I hope she makes a recordinge of the other bookes too.

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Cardoso: Requiem
Cupertinos, Luis Toscano
(Hyperion, 2018)

Manuel Cardoso, who lived from 1566-1650, is one of a relatively small stable of Portuguese composers whose work has caught the ear of the wider music-loving world. His music turns up here and there, and I have a few discs in my collection devoted to him, but none of them makes a more convincing case than this one from Cupertinos, a young Portuguese choir who have taken the polyphony of their native land as their specialty. The centrepiece of the programme is Cardoso’s Requiem, which, though perhaps not in the very top tier of settings of the funeral Mass (an exalted realm inhabited by Faure, Mozart, Ockeghem, and Gregory), is nonetheless very beautiful, and is here given a lush, poised treatment. We also get to hear a Magnificat and a variety of shorter motets. Even more attractive than the repertoire, fine as it is, is the quality of the singing and the sound, which together vault this recording into a distinguished class. Cupertinos is a small (10 voices) choir and they sing with breathtaking clarity and transparency; you can hear everything, top to bottom. This disc won Gramophone’s “Early Music” award this year, and quite justly. I look forward to hearing more from this choir.

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Bach: Partitas Nos.4 and 6
Anton Batagov
(Melodiya, 2017)

There may be no composer whose music stands up better to adaptation and experiment than Bach. Play his music on an accordion, or transcribe it for string quartet, or share it out to a group of saxophonists and it still sounds pretty good. Push it here, pull it there, and it bounces back. The Russian pianist Anton Batagov (of venerable age) has evidently become interested in what happens when you pull, and pull, and pull. On this recording he plays Bach at roughly half the normal speed, stretching each of these two partitas for piano out to nearly an hour in length! He thus stakes out an extremal point in Bach interpretation. And, perhaps to the surprise of nobody, the result is pretty great. I, at least, have kept coming back to Batagov’s Bach all year as a meditative, ruminative remedy, a gracious shelter from the hurly-burly, an entrancing slow-motion dance. There is so much going on in Bach’s music that playing it ritardandissimo actually allows for a different register of appreciation, and, somewhere deep down, I think I am also dreaming that if it were slowed down by a further factor of three or four, maybe I could play it myself? A fantasy brought tantalizingly near.

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Johann Sebastian Bach
Víkingur Ólafsson
(Deutsche Grammophon, 2018)

I was initially wary of the flashy young Icelandic pianist Víkingur Ólafsson. He had a big contract with Deutsche Grammophon, who (these days) often seem more interested in style than substance, and his past musical projects have been with folks like Bjork and Philip Glass, which didn’t inspire confidence. However, when this record won BBC Music Magazine’s “Record of the Year” honours last year, I ventured to give it a try. It is terrific! Ólafsson is his own man, but he belongs to the Glenn Gould school of pianism: fleet pacing, staccato tone, and perfect rhythmic precision. He plays with tremendous momentum and a playfulness that suits Bach’s counterpoint admirably. The programme is also worthy of comment, for it appears at first to be a dog’s breakfast: we get the whole of the Aria variata (BWV 989) and the Concerto in G minor (BWV 974), but beyond that it’s a mixture of preludes and fugues, chorales, inventions and sinfonias, and individual movements of other works — Bach as pastiche. But on acquaintance this Bach Collage (heh) has been thoughtfully put together, flowing nicely from one step to the next, and adding up to a satisfying immersion in Bach’s art. DG’s sound far outstrips anything that Gould ever had. It’s a truly exceptional Bach recital.

***

Bruckner: Symphony No.9
Manfred Honeck, Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra
(Reference, 2019)

You might not expect Steel Town to be a bastion of high culture, but Manfred Honeck and the PSO are stellar together. A few years ago I cheered their recording of two Beethoven warhorses, and this year it’s Bruckner’s mighty Ninth. I have over a dozen versions in my collection, but this one vaults to the top of the heap (where it shares space, cheek by jowl, with Gunter Wand and the Stuttgart RSO). The pacing is excellent — a little brisker in the immense final adagio than is typical, but it works fine. As has been the case in all the recordings from this orchestra in recent years, the sound engineering is spectacular: the strings are majestic and the brass is searing. To be played loudly.

It’s hard to excerpt Bruckner symphonies, but here is the shortest movement. Give it one minute and you’ll be hooked:

***

Einsamkeit: Songs by Mahler
Marianne Beate Kielland, Nils Anders Mortensen
(LAWQ, 2018)

The title means something like “loneliness”, and I suppose it is apt, though these wonderful songs have a much broader emotional range. Marianne Beate Kielland sings the big three cycles: the Ruckert-Lieder, the Kindertotenlieder, and the Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, all of which have been recorded hundreds of times, usually in full orchestral dress, but often enough, as here, in a piano reduction. What is special about this disc is the singing: Kielland has a modestly sized voice, very well suited to the chamber-scale intimacy of these settings, and she sings with intelligence, feeling, and great beauty. The proof, as they say, is in the pudding: I’ve returned to this disc many times over the year under the allure of that voice, and I consider this one of the most interesting and enchanting presentations of these inexhaustible songs known to me. A treasured discovery.

***

Messiaen: L’Ascension
Paavo Järvi, Tonholle-Orchester Zürich
(Alpha, 2019)

Messiaen’s orchestral music is marvellous in its variety and strangeness: great, luscious blocks of sound, amazing tone colours, exotic percussion, and spine-tingling harmonies aplenty. It is sometimes played in a broadly majestic manner, shimmering but soft-edged. Not here. On this disc it fairly crackles with electricity: attacks are tight and crisp, the complicated rhythms are precisely executed, and the sound, though perhaps slightly on the dry side, is full and immediate. I’ve never heard Messiaen presented with so much energy, and even ferocity, and I really like it. The centrepiece of the Tonholle-Orchester of Zürich’s programme is the mighty L’Ascension (which I think of as an organ piece, but I’ve now learned the organ version is a derivative from this orchestral original), and it is joined by several other pieces from the 1930s, Les Offrandes oubliées and Le Tombeau resplendissant, and then rounded out by one of his last pieces, Un sourire. Recommended listening for lovers of Messiaen, but only when wearing rubber-soled shoes.

***

Weinberg: Symphonies
Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
Gidon Kremer, Kremerata Baltica
(Deutsche Grammophon, 2019)

2019 marked the centenary of the birth of Mieczyslaw Weinberg, a composer whose music I have come to love over the past 10 years as it has finally found a hearing in the West. Quite a few labels put out recordings of Weinberg’s music to mark the occasion, and notable among them was Deutsche Grammophon, which thereby became the first of the major labels to devote attention to this wonderful composer. And they did a good job of it too: the young conductor Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, with Weinberg champion Gidon Kremer as sidekick, give us excellent performances of an early symphony (No.2, written in 1946) and a late (No.21, written in 1991). The Symphony No.2 is one of my favourite of Weinberg’s orchestral works; written for strings only, it is tightly argued, inventive, and brimming with unimpeachable musicality. The later symphony is a tougher nut to crack; about an hour long, it sprawls across six movements, and even features an extended solo for soprano voice — which, thrillingly and capably, Gražinytė-Tyla sings herself. Both symphonies are plausibly meditations on the Holocaust, for the first was written immediately after the war, a war in which the Nazi machine claimed the lives of Weinberg’s entire family, and the second, subtitled “Kaddish”, is as close as Weinberg ever came to writing a religious work, dedicating it to the victims of the Warsaw Ghetto. It is fascinating music that has richly rewarded the attention I gave it this year.

Here is the final movement of the Symphony No.2:

***

Easter Sunday, 2019

April 21, 2019

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!

Favourites in 2018: Music

January 3, 2019

I had another great year of listening to music, and I’ve selected, from the many that I enjoyed, ten recordings that I found particularly excellent. I’ll review them in rough chronological order, moving from medieval to modern.

***

Boethius: Songs of Consolation
Sequentia
(Glossa, 2018)

Boethius’ The Consolation of Philosophy has for centuries been read with profit, but would it not, like most things, be even better if sung? Several dozen poems are sprinkled through the text, and there actually is manuscript evidence from the ninth to the twelfth centuries that these poems were sometimes converted into songs. A Cambridge scholar, Sam Barrett, working with the musicians of Sequentia, with their many years of experience in early medieval song, have here attempted to reconstruct those songs, or at least, as the liner notes say, “to arrive at realisations informed by both scholarly insight and practical experience,” which is an admirably modest way of putting it. There is necessarily some guesswork involved, and I am not in a position to judge the merit of the scholarly argument. All I can say is that I have greatly enjoyed listening to the results. Here is a video describing the process the scholars and musicians went through, with some performance excerpts as well; it is well worth watching, as the disc is well worth hearing, not only for the music, if I can put it that way, but also for the novelty and interest of the project. Early music is so often a blend of scholarship and musicianship, and this is early music at its best.

**

En seumeillant
Dreams and Visions of the Middle Ages
Sollazzo Ensemble
(Ambronay, 2018)

The Sollazzo Ensemble was founded in 2014, in Basel, and now has two recordings to its credit, both tremendously good. This disc, bearing a nearly unspellable title (try it!), is built around the theme of “reveries, fantasies, trances, visions, [and] nightmares”. The music is fascinating: the group reconstructs, from medieval descriptions, a “discordant litany” in which a plainchant melody is harmonized dissonantly; they sing an apocalyptic “Song of the Sibyl” that was, for centuries, sung in Catholic churches during Advent; we get a Florentine lauda, which would have been sung in procession through the streets of the city; and we hear a simply splendid performance of the oft-recorded but ne’er-tamed Fumeux fume, which, if it was not actually inspired by a hallucinogen, might serve as one. This is fantastically difficult and intricate music, often, and just as often exceptionally beautiful and alluring. The Sollazzo Ensemble seems to have absorbed the refined idiom of this music into their bones.

**

Ockeghem & La Rue: Requiems
Diabolus in Musica, Antoine Guerber
(Bayard, 2018)

About 25 years ago Ensemble Organum made a recording of Ockeghem’s Requiem that was like nothing on earth: a big, bass-heavy sound, wild dynamics, and pervasive ornamentation of the vocal lines gave the piece, which can sound polite when done in the best English choral tradition, an alien cast. It was glorious — radical, yes, but defensible, because the truth is that we don’t really know what this music sounded like at the time it was written; the notated sources only tell us so much.

This new disc of Ockeghem’s Requiem from Diabolus in Musica seems, to my ears, to have that earlier recording in mind. It is sung, as before, by an all-male choir, giving it a rich, visceral sound, and the style is craggy rather than smooth, as though great blocks of sound, like tectonic plates, are moving around. It is not as radical as Ensemble Organum’s version of the piece, but is still very much off the beaten track. I confess I love it. They give the same treatment to Pierre de la Rue’s Requiem, a piece that I do not know nearly as well, and it sounds terrific too.

**

Antoine de Févin: Masses and Motets
The Brabant Ensemble, Stephen Rice
(Hyperion, 2018)

Everyone has their short list of favourites when it comes to medieval and Renaissance polyphony; yours, like mine, probably includes Machaut’s Messe de Nostre Dame, Ockeghem’s Requiem, Byrd’s Ave verum corpus, and the entire surviving corpus of Benedictus Appenzeller, but at the top of my heap sits Josquin’s gorgeous motet Ave Maria … Virgo serena. I’ve never sung it for an audience, but I’ve frequently sung it in the privacy of my car, or late at night, muffled, into a pillow, and I know it pretty well. Imagine my delight, therefore, to discover that Antoine de Févin, a little-known French composer active around 1500, wrote an entire Mass, his Missa Ave Maria, in which the music is based on Josquin’s motet. This practice, of basing a Mass setting on pre-existing music, was common at the time; Masses were written based on chant fragments (as in Josquin’s famous Missa pange lingua, for instance) or on popular songs (as in the rash of Masses based on the song “L’homme armé'”) or on pieces written by other composers, and Févin’s Mass falls into the latter category. What is special about it is simply that it is based on a piece that I particularly love. It is wonderful to hear Josquin’s original music adapted to its new setting, like seeing a familiar picture turned to a new perspective and recoloured. I have a new appreciation for the art involved in writing these homage Masses, and I think no single piece of music has given me greater pleasure this year.

**

Bach: Magnificat
Handel: Dixit Dominus
Vox Luminis, Lionel Meunier
(Alpha, 2017)

From the Belgian group Vox Luminis come marvellous performances of two Baroque masterpieces: Bach’s Magnificat and Handel’s Dixit Dominus. Vox Luminis has been going from strength to strength in recent years, making a series of excellent discs of early music, and being justly showered with praise — including having Gramophone magazine’s “Recording of the Year” honours bestowed upon them. There is a luxurious quality to their music-making; they have an unusually rich sonority, both instrumentally and vocally, that gives nice body to these two joyful works. I am especially impressed by Dixit Dominus, which I’ve never heard done better.

**

Life
Igor Levit
(Sony, 2018)

The programme on Life is one Igor Levit crafted in response to the sudden death of a friend, and consists mainly of melancholy, quiet pieces expressing, naturally enough, his sorrow. We get some old chestnuts: Liszt’s transcription of Isolde’s Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde and of the solemn march from Parsifal, Brahms’ left-hand transcription of Bach’s mighty Chaconne, and Schumann’s Ghost Variations. But there are also some rarities, like Busoni’s Fantasia after Bach, and some pieces entirely new to me, such as a substantial excerpt from Frederic Rzewski’s Dreams and, most notably, a half-hour-long transcription of an organ piece by Liszt (!). The recital closes with a meditative piece by Bill Evans, the jazz pianist, and even this does not ruin it. Some of this music might not be of the very highest quality, but it works together well as a programme, and the playing is simply magnificent. Levit’s playing seems to come from a place of profound stillness and attention. He is a very wonderful pianist indeed.

There’s more!

**

Mahler: Symphony No.6
Teodor Currentzis; MusicAeterna
(Sony, 2018)

It has been a long time since a disc of orchestral music has thrilled me as has Teodor Currentzis and MusicAeterna’s recent recording of Mahler’s Symphony No.6. I praised Currentzis last year for his way with Mozart, and the same passion and intensity are all over this Mahler recording. The opening march rhythm, which usually puts me in mind of an army on the move, here becomes the tread of an army of ferocious beasts, snarling and snapping, and this intensity continues through essentially the entire work. What is amazing is that Currentzis has been able to amp up the music, infuse it with quivering excitement, without also flattening it out. It is as though he went over every phrase, every bar, and thought about orchestral colour and balance, and found a way to clarify the texture while simultaneously amplifying weight and presence. Certainly I have heard details on this recording, especially from the low strings, that I have never heard before. It’s magnificent.

In fact, I’ve enjoyed it so much that I have begun to second-guess myself. Currentzis is an iconoclast. His orchestra goes to 11. My worry is that perhaps I am being seduced by a debased aesthetic: orchestral music for rock ‘n’ rollers, which is to the main tradition as Charles Atlas is to you and me — basically the same, but exaggerated. I am also a little wary of the unusual vividness and clarity of the sound: is this really the sound of an orchestra, or a sound collage made possible by close-micing and a sound board? I’m not sure, nor do I know what to make of my aesthetic concerns. I suppose that I will just keep listening, and trust my judgment. In fact, I think I’ll put it on again now.

**

Stravinsky: Music for violin, Vols 1-2
Ilya Gringolts, Peter Laul
(BIS; 2017, 2018)

I’m cheating a bit by grouping together two discs. The first volume narrowly missed making my year-end list last year; this year, in combination with the fine second volume, it makes the cut easily. Ilya Gringolts, accompanied by Peter Laul, tackles the music Stravinsky wrote for violin and piano. I recall that Robert Craft, Stravinsky’s amanuensis, once said that all of Stravinsky’s music is happy music, and that judgment is borne out by this collection, which is unfailingly delightful and interesting. Many of these pieces are minor, mere chips from the workman’s bench, but Stravinsky’s imagination did not run in dull channels. Some of the pieces are arrangements of his ballet music (including excerpts from The Firebird, Petrushka, and the “Suite Italienne” from Pulcinella). Gringolts plays them with poise and wit, which is exactly what they need, and he has superb sound.

The major work (appearing on Vol.2) is the Violin Concerto, surely the most amiable violin concerto of the twentieth century. Everybody and his dog have recorded it. Gringolts, supported by Orquesta Sinfónica de Galicia, does not, perhaps, give us a performance for the ages, but it’s a creditable, perfectly fine performance that I have enjoyed. It sits somewhat awkwardly alongside the smaller-scale chamber works that otherwise fill the discs.

**

Messiaen: Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant Jésus
Jean-Rodolphe Kars
(Piano Classics, 2017)

I have in my collection several recordings of Messiaen’s feature-film-length piano masterpiece Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant Jésus, surely the least catchy Christmas-themed music ever written — but wonderful music all the same. I might not have heard this one but for a laudatory review from a reputable source, and then another, and another. The recording has an interesting background story: the pianist, Jean-Rodolphe Kars, calls Messiaen his spiritual father, and in fact converted to Catholicism shortly after the recording was made. He then entered the seminary, and has served as a priest in France ever since.

That interesting story would be little more were it not matched by artistry of a high order, but it is. There is a wonderful spaciousness to Kars’ playing; Messiaen’s music can be extremely complex and multifaceted, but never sounds hectic or laboured in Kars’ hands. The claim that one can hear the difference between a world-class pianist who plays with devotion and one who merely plays as if with devotion is probably false, but nonetheless over the course of this long concert Kars’ musicality does cast a contemplative spell over the listener that I, at least, have not experienced with other pianists. This recording, made live before an Amsterdam audience in 1976 and reissued in 2017, is now my first-choice for this music.

**

Schnittke: Psalms of Repentance
Pärt: Magnificat and Nunc dimittis
Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir
Kaspars Putnins
(BIS, 2018)

Several years ago I highlighted a recording of Schnittke’s Psalms of Repentance that, to my ears, wasn’t quite up to the expressive standards set by my reference version of this work, but that had superior sound and therefore a claim to serious consideration. In 2018 we got this new recording that takes the palm in both the artistic and technical categories, and therefore becomes the obvious first choice for a recording of a work that, I would argue, belongs on a short list of the greatest choral works of the 20th century. It’s a harrowing piece in some ways, the music an often thorny and agonized stew of dissonances, but it is very beautiful in its way, without gimmickery or self-indulgence. It is music that I love, and it is given here, by one of the world’s best choirs, the performance of a lifetime. After those haunting sounds, it is sweet relief to fall into the still pool that is the music of Arvo Pärt, Schnittke’s contemporary, fellow subject of Soviet power, and fellow convert to Christianity. Pärt’s Magnificat and Nunc dimittis have been recorded many times, including previous recordings by this choir, but he has rarely sounded better. This is my record of the year.

***

Addendum on popular music

The big box of outtakes from Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks sessions brought me great pleasure this year, but is not something I’m likely to listen to very many times, if only because it takes so long to get through it. My favourite new album this year was Sam Phillips’ World on Sticks; I usually find her characteristic combination of flint-dry voice, precise manner, and enigmatic lyrics beguiling, and this new record is no exception.

I have an appetite for melancholy in song, and this year I grew fat and juicy feeding on Patty Griffin’s “Rain”, from her 2002 record 1000 Kisses.

Oh Patty, where have you been all my life?

A missed opportunity

November 11, 2018

This weekend Hilary Hahn was in town for a concert. Despite my best efforts, I was not able to go; six or eight hundred people were better organized, and all the tickets were sold.

It had the potential to be a memorable night: one of the great musicians of our time, and certainly my favourite living violinist, playing nothing but Bach’s music for solo violin. A dream come so nearly true. The pain of regret is slightly alleviated by looping this short video, in which she plays the Presto from Sonata No.1:

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
Tetraktys
(Olive, 2016)

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

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

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

*

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
Odhecaton
(Arcana, 2017)

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

Here is the whole of the Missa:

*

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.

Easter Sunday, 2017

April 16, 2017

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!