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].
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.
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.
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:
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:
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.
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:
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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:
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!