Posts Tagged ‘Johann Sebastian Bach’

Here and there

March 10, 2017

A few interesting, art-related things I’ve seen in the past few weeks:

  • The Christian moral imagination of Cormac McCarthy.
  • Alex Ross writes, in one of his increasingly rare non-politically-inflected columns, about Bach’s religious music.
  • The wonders of digital signal processing recreate the acoustics of Hagia Sophia in a modern concert hall.
  • The cultured life is “an escape from the tyranny of the present”.
  • In a similar vein, Roger Scruton praises the virtue of irrelevance, with special attention to the art of music.
  • Finally, a group of mad animators have brought to life Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights:

 

Favourites in 2016: Classical music

December 29, 2016

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

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

***

psallentes

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

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

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

**

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

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

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

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

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

Here Diabolus in Musica performs Gloria Spiritus Et Alme:

**

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

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

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

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

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

Here is a promotional video for the choir:

**

Scattered Ashes Magnificat (Linn, 2016) 1h24m

Scattered Ashes
Magnificat
(Linn, 2016)
1h24m

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

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

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

**

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

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

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

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

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

**

Let’s move on now to baroque music.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

**

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

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

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

**

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

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

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

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

**

schubert-winterreise-vickers-cover

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

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

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

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

**

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

**

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

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

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

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

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

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

**

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

**

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

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

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

**

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

Favourites of 2014: Classical music

January 8, 2015

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

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

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

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

[Info] [Review]

*

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

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

*

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

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

[Info]

*

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

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

[Info] [Listen to samples]

*

podger-angelGuardian Angel
Rachel Podger
(Channel, 2013)

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

[Info] [Listen to samples]

*

invocation-schuchInvocation
Herbert Schuch
(Naive, 2014)

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

[Info] [Listen to samples]

Here is a promotional video for the disc:

*

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

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

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

[Info] [Review] [Listen to samples]

***

Honourable mention:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Goldberg Variations: Aria

July 28, 2014

Bach died on this day in 1750. Here is Daniel Barenboim playing the Aria from the Goldberg Variations. A few years ago, when we had an old piano in the house, I spent a good deal of time trying to learn to play the opening bars of this piece. I never did get very far.

Happy birthday, J.S. Bach

March 31, 2014

It’s Bach’s birthday, and, turning the tables, he has kindly offered us a gift. Here is the “Dona nobis pacem” section that concludes the Mass in B Minor:

That’s Jordi Savall on the podium, leading La Capella Reial de Catalunya.

Goldbergs, with commentary

January 14, 2014

In this short video Jeremy Denk talks us through one or two of the Goldberg variations. It’s an engaging little illustration of the simultaneous playfulness and formal structure of Bach’s music. I’d like to see more of this sort of thing.

Favourites of 2013: Classical music

January 8, 2014

My music listening this year was anchored by a few large listening projects: I marked the anniversary years of Verdi, Wagner, and Britten by dedicating a good deal of time to hearing their major works again — or, in some cases, for the first time. Given the composers involved, much of this music was opera, and I tried when possible to watch performances of their operas on DVD. I’ve written about some of that music in the consistently unpopular “Great moments in opera” series that I’ve been running (and a few more anniversary-related instalments will trickle out over the next month or two).

I had planned a bunch of other focused listening projects for the year too — Beethoven’s symphonies, Shostakovich’s symphonies and string quartets, Schubert’s piano sonatas — but I didn’t get to them. They are bumped to 2014.

In the meantime, I’d like to share notes on a few of the best recordings I heard for the first time this year. In most cases these are new or new-ish recordings, but not in all. The predominance of vocal music reflects my interests. The ordering of this list is capricious.

weinberg-violinWeinberg: Complete Violin Sonatas
Linus Roth, Jose Gallardo
(Challenge, 2013)

For the last few years music of Mieczyslaw Weinberg has figured in my year-end accolades, and the same is true this year. This three-disc set is the first complete recorded set of Weinberg’s music for violin and piano, and what a treasure it is! Weinberg wrote six very substantial violin sonatas that exhibit the same musical intelligence and emotional heft that I have admired in his string quartets. As I said of the quartets, this music is “music all the way down”: no pedantry, no gimmicks, no self-conscious preoccupation with the music or its manner of composition — just good, smart, heart-felt music that is full of variety and endlessly interesting. I am happy to see Weinberg’s star rising higher on the strength of recordings like this one. Move over, Prokofiev.

Here is a brief video with musical excerpts and interviews with the musicians:

Elgar: The ApostlesElgar_Apostles
Halle Orchestra, Sir Mark Elder
(Halle, 2012)

This recording of Elgar’s oratorio about the life of Christ, from the calling of the apostles to the Ascension, won BBC Music Magazine’s “Recording of the Year”; there may have been some Anglo-centric prejudice informing that decision, but this is a terrific performance of a piece that hasn’t been very well served on record (and which, I suspect, might not finally be top-shelf music). The great fear with Elgar is that amateur British choral societies are going to get their hands on him, serving up bloated and sentimental renditions of his music before the potluck. It is amazing to hear this music sung as crisply and clearly as it is here, with a cool glow and as much dramatic emphasis as the music can bear without buckling. The singing is really tremendous, especially in the choral sections, and the sound is as clear and vivid as one could hope for. This recording has made me reconsider the merits of this piece, and made the reconsideration a pleasure. [Listen to excerpts]

Wagner--Kaufmann-Jonas-Runnicles-Donald-ODOBWagner
Jonas Kaufmann
Orchester der Deutschen Oper Berlin, Donald Runnicles

(Decca, 2013)

Jonas Kaufmann, who glowers from the front cover of this CD, is considered one of the leading tenors in the opera world today, and he really is prodigiously gifted: a magnificent voice that rings from top to bottom, great power, and keen dramatic instincts. It is this last that has most impressed me on this disc of Wagner extracts. For all that Wagner was undoubtedly a great composer, it has nevertheless often seemed to me that his genius was principally manifest in his orchestral writing, and that his vocal lines were largely meandering eddies floating atop the surging currents, lacking dramatic shape and melodic interest in themselves. I won’t say that this recording has changed my opinion about his melodic gifts, but it has certainly made me reconsider my assessment of the dramatic shape of his writing. Never before have I heard Wagner sung in a way that brought out the taut dramatic energy, the sheer poise and responsiveness of the part as much as Kaufmann does. He has helped me to hear Wagner with new appreciation, and that is enough to get this recording onto this list.

Libera Nos: The Cry of the Oppressedlibera-nos
Contrapunctus, Owen Rees
(Signum, 2013)

The programme on this CD is a well-conceived one, gathering together a number of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century choral works on the themes of oppression and liberation by English and Portuguese composers. English Catholics in this period suffered persecution by the authorities, and Portugal was under the domination of the Spanish monarchy. Composers turned to these (mostly) liturgical texts to express their prayers for deliverance with a degree of personal feeling that is rare in public ecclesiastical music. The music is breathtakingly beautiful, of course, and the singing on this recording is very distinguished. Contrapunctus is a British choir formed in 2010; this is their first recording. They are a small ensemble of about ten voices, men and women, and they sing with astounding clarity and beauty; I don’t hear any problems anywhere. The multi-layered harmonic and rhythmic complexity of these pieces comes across sounding effortless (which it certainly is not) and, what is more important for this particular programme, there is nothing impersonal about the singing: it has a plaintive, striving quality that suits these pieces very well. Top shelf. [Listen to excerpts]

ockeghemOckeghem: Missa Mi-Mi
Cappella Pratensis, Rebecca Stewart
(Ricercar, 1999)

It was a year or two ago that I discovered the Dutch ensemble Cappella Pratensis. I liked them well enough to go searching through their back catalogue, and in this recording of Johannes Ockeghem’s Missa Mi-Mi I found a real gem. This Mass is one of Ockeghem’s most frequently recorded, and I have heard it many times, but never with this degree of translucence and calm repose. I tend to bristle at the common view that the music of this period is “relaxing” or “peaceful”, as though these frequently very difficult, intricate, and rigourously structured compositions were merely a kind of soporific. Yet in this case there would be something to that rough characterization, for this ensemble finds in this music a spaciousness and gentleness that lifts the eyes and touches the heart in a quite special way. The music breathes in long, slow rhythms, unhurried, as though content, at each moment, simply to be an expression of praise and a profusion of beauty. I don’t know that I’ve ever heard Ockeghem sung in this way before; I don’t know that I ever will again. The Mass is presented in a quasi-liturgical context, embedded within the Propers for the Mass of Holy Thursday, and the programme ends with Ockeghem’s magnificent motet Intemerata Dei mater.

Here is the Kyrie of the Missa Mi-Mi:

Bach: Cantatas, Vol.55Suzuki-Bach_Cantatas_55
Bach Collegium Japan, Masaaki Suzuki
(BIS, 2013)

This disc is on this list not so much for its own merits — although it is exceptionally good — but for what it represents: the completion of Masaaki Suzuki and Bach Collegium Japan’s twenty-years-long project to record all of Bach’s surviving cantatas. Should I be ashamed to admit that I have collected all fifty-five volumes? Maybe so, but think of all the beer I didn’t buy. Japan might not be the country we think of first when we think of Bach (quite wrongly, perhaps), but the proof is in the pudding: the performances on this disc and across the whole set have been consistently excellent. Suzuki’s approach to the music is “historically informed”, which means in practice that the choir is small and lithe, the textures light, and the rhythms sprightly. It’s Bach played and sung just the way I like it. Here is the Bach Collegium Japan performing one of the cantatas on this final disc. Bravo!

sainte-chapelleWhitacre: Sainte-Chapelle
Tallis Scholars
(Gimell, 2013)

Eric Whitacre is one of the more successful young composers working today. As far as I know, he writes mostly choral music, in an accessible idiom within the reach of amateur choirs, and quite a few recordings of his music are now available. He was commissioned by the Tallis Scholars to write a piece to celebrate the 40th anniversary of their founding, and he came up with Sainte-Chapelle, a piece which imagines the stained-glass angels in that beautiful church singing the Sanctus. The piece was premiered early in 2013 and recorded shortly thereafter. It must be said that it is a gorgeous piece, growing in energy and luminosity as it goes. I had never before heard the Tallis Scholars sing anything other than Renaissance polyphony, but Whitacre’s writing respects their area of specialization, growing out a plainchant melody just as so many Renaissance pieces do. I’ve played this recording so frequently this year that I cannot but include it on this year-end list.

***

Honourable mentions:

ludfordLudford: Missa Regnum mundi
Blue Heron
(Blue Heron, 2012)
[Watch] [Listen]

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schubertSchubert: Nacht und Traume
Matthias Goerne, Alexander Schmalcz
(Harmonia Mundi, 2011)
[Listen]

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howells-requiemHowells: Requiem
Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge; Stephen Layton
(Hyperion, 2012)
[Watch] [Listen]

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yoffe-songofsongsYoffe: Song of Songs
Rosamunde Quartett, Hilliard Ensemble
(ECM New Series, 2011)
[Listen]

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philippe-herreweghe-victoria-officium-defunctorumVictoria: Officium Defunctorum
Collegium Vocale Gent, Philippe Herreweghe
(Phi, 2013)
[Listen]

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mahler2-zanderMahler: Symphony No.2 “Resurrection”
Sarah Connolly, Miah Persson
Philharmonia Orchestra, Benjamin Zander
(Linn, 2013)
[Listen]

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praetorius-adventPraetorius: Advent and Christmas Music
Bremer Barock Consort, Manfred Cordes
(CPO, 2007)

 

Happy Birthday, Glenn Gould

September 25, 2012

Glenn Gould was born this day in 1932, which means that we are marking (what would have been) his 80th birthday. Gould is one of the few truly great musicians to have come from my country. He was a fascinating man, a complex man, with a winsome, if eccentric, manner, who had the gift of playing the piano like a — well, like both an angel and a fiend. Not everyone liked his playing, of course, but no-one could ignore it.

Gould is especially associated with Toronto, the city in which I live, and for those who know where to look the place is haunted by him still. His piano sits just outside the performance hall in the CBC building downtown — the hall itself is called the “Glenn Gould Studio”, for that matter. I remember walking one day, a few years ago, in the Beaches neighbourhood and being surprised by a commemorative plaque in the front yard of one of the houses noting that it had been Gould’s house. My wife went into labour with our first child while we were eating in a diner which was a favourite of Gould’s.

As a pianist, he played almost everything, from Gibbons to Webern, but of course he is especially known for his way with Johann Sebastian Bach. I will not claim to be especially enamoured of his Bach playing; he is not the pianist I go to first when I go to Bach; yet I cannot deny that when I do hear him playing this music, it is an absorbing and fascinating experience.

And so: happy birthday, Mr. Gould. Here is a film of him, as a fairly young man, playing the Contrapunctus IV from The Art of Fugue:

(I do not know what is going on with the piano in this film. It is clearly a piano, but it has a jangly quality that is reminiscent of a harpsichord. A prepared piano?)

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]

The beauty of Bach

November 2, 2011

A beautiful visualization of the Prelude from Bach’s Suite No.1 for solo cello, made by Alexander Chen. It takes a few seconds to find its feet:

(Hat-tip: Alex Ross)

This is not the first such thing that I have seen: a couple of years ago I found a Mobius strip visualization of one of Bach’s canons.