Posts Tagged ‘Music’

Favourites of 2019: Music

January 1, 2020

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

Proceeding in chronological order:

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

***

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

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

***

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

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

***

Johann Sebastian Bach
Víkingur Ólafsson
(Deutsche Grammophon, 2018)

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

***

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

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

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

***

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

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

***

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

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

***

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

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

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

***

Flagstad in spring

March 12, 2019

Sad songs about spring are something of a niche item, but have you ever heard one sadder or more beautiful than Grieg’s Våren? I recently heard this performance by Kristen Flagstad and it stopped me in my tracks. What a song, and what a voice!

Schnittke via Riga

October 16, 2018

It’s that time of year again: it’s the season of the International Baltic Sea Choir Competition!

Performances from wonderful young choirs are piling up; views are trickling in. Here are the choristers of the Riga Cathedral Choir School singing Schnittke’s brief but beautiful Gospodi, gospodi Iisuse, one of his Three Sacred Hymns.

Bouteneff: Out of Silence

October 29, 2017

Arvo Pärt: Out of Silence
Peter C. Bouteneff
(St Vladimir’s, 2015)
250 p.

Of the books written about the life and music of Arvo Pärt, this is the first to focus specifically on the way in which his life and work are rooted in Orthodoxy, to which Pärt converted in the early 1970s. Given the obvious importance of sacred texts and religious tradition for Pärt, the book fills an important gap.

Bouteneff is a musician and an Orthodox theologian, and is co-director of the Arvo Pärt Project based at St Vladimir’s Seminary. If he is not the ideal person to write this book, I don’t know who is. He writes with an eye to how Orthodoxy has influenced Pärt’s life, and also to how Orthodox theology and devotion has affected the subject matter of his music and, in important ways, his musical approach.

Writing about Pärt almost invariably gets around to describing his music as “spiritual”, but it is less common to find it described as “religious”. Bouteneff welcomes the testimony of those listeners who, though not religious themselves and not particularly interested in Pärt’s religion, find something valuable and “spiritual” in the music, but the point of his book is largely to remind us that, however spiritual it may be, the music is definitely religious:

“To a person conversant with biblical, liturgical, and/or theological themes, locating the spirituality of Pärt’s music requires no great excavation: it is right there in the words, addressed to God, to Jesus, to Mary or another saint.”

Pärt’s compositional career falls into three main phases: an early period, in which he experimented with a variety of avant-garde techniques; a silent period, during which he immersed himself in Gregorian chant and polyphony but published few compositions; and, beginning in the 1970s, his tinntinnabulation period, when he wrote the music for which he is best known. Bouteneff is interested in all three periods, which he sees as closely related. Roughly speaking, the early period culminated in a compositional crisis in which Part did not know how to proceed; the silent period was the remedy for the crisis, during which he discovered both musical and religious sources that opened up, as the title of this book suggests, the artistic pathway that he has followed ever since.

The process by which he found his compositional voice again through contact with the ancient tradition of sacred music was more than just a musical one, but also a religious one. Pärt has said that sacred polyphony — the music of Palestrina, Josquin, Ockeghem, and the other great masters — can, he believes, only be fully received by someone who has learned to pray, for the music itself arises out of a life of prayer: “Only through prayer is it possible. If you have prayer in your hand, like a flashlight, with this light you see what’s there.” This was his own experience, and his learning to pray went hand in hand with his learning to compose again.

There is something odd about describing a composer’s years of silence as a phase in their artistic career, but for Pärt it seems apt. It is, at least, no odder than describing his music by talking about silence, which is nonetheless a pretty common response to it. His music seems to many listeners, myself included, to be in a kind of dialogue with silence. He allows silence to slip in between the notes — his scores often look mostly empty — and sometimes give the impression of having arisen out of silence in a way that most music does not. And, as Bouteneff’s book makes clear, there is a genuine truth in this impression, for Pärt has been greatly influenced, in his own inner life, by that stream of Christian devotion, often ascetic and monastic, in which silence plays a key role. Silence, in this tradition, is not emptiness, but fullness; not poor, but rich; for it is in silence that we hear God speak. Silence fosters prayer, and prayer, in its turn, fosters silence.

The book has many good things to say about silence in the Orthodox tradition; a parallel account of silence in the Catholic tradition would not be radically different. Bouteneff also brings in a few contemporary voices who speak specifically about the kinship of music and silence, such as Manfred Eicher (the founder of ECM Records, the label by means of which most listeners have come to know Pärt’s music) who once said that music bears the greatest hope of expressing the inexpressible, save only silence; or George MacDonald’s description of heaven as “the regions where there is only life, and therefore all that is not music is silence“. Even Screwtape knew that there is a special relationship between the two, and Pärt’s music seems to capture and convey this closeness to an unusual degree.

Since the 1970s Pärt has, with rare exceptions, written music with a text — sometimes even his instrumental works are “texted”, although the text is not sung; this I did not know before reading the book — and the text has usually been a sacred text. Words are critical to Pärt as a composer; “the words constitute the skeletal structure on which his music is hung and which gives it its form”. This attention to integrating words with music has for him theological roots, being ultimately grounded in the prologue of St John’s Gospel: words are rooted in the Word, and all meaning is finally rooted in God. He has said,

These mystic words of the Gospel according to John, “In the beginning was the Word,” lie at the heart of it all, since without the Word, nothing would exist. I believe that this concept should not only be conveyed in the text, but in every note of the music as well, in every thought, in every stone. The roots of our skill lie in this thought: “In the beginning was the Word.”

His compositions, therefore, are intended to convey the meaning of the text, which at least suggests that listeners who are indifferent to the meaning of the text are missing something.

The final principal theme which Bouteneff draws on as being particularly pertinent to Pärt’s music and important in the Orthodox tradition is what he calls “bright sadness”: a kind of interpenetration of joy and sorrow that characterizes our lives, an acknowledgement that “there is no joy not tinged with grief, and no suffering beyond redemption”. Theologically, the Crucifixion is the exemplar of this conjunction, but Bouteneff discusses many sources, Biblical and otherwise, that highlight this mixed quality of experience. He notes that Pärt’s music is a particular favourite in hospices and palliative care wards, for it is music that has a sad quality (most of his compositions are in minor keys) but seems nonetheless infused with light and hope. It speaks to people who are suffering. This, too, I did not know, but can well believe.

*

There are now a number of good books about Pärt. I think the best is still Paul Hillier’s; for analysis of the music he is pre-eminent. But this book exploring the religious sources and character of Pärt’s art needed to be written, and I very much appreciated reading it. Bouteneff has not only helped me to better understand the music, but also encouraged me to listen more closely to several of Pärt’s recent compositions, such as In Principio and Adam’s Lament, to which I have not, for whatever reason, devoted much time. For this, I am grateful.

Screwtape on music and silence

July 6, 2017

Infernal ambitions:

Music and silence — how I detest them both! … no square inch of infernal space and no moment of infernal time has been surrendered to either of those abominable forces, but all has been occupied by Noise — Noise, the grand dynamism, the audible expression of all that is exultant, ruthless, and virile … We will make the whole universe a noise in the end. We have already made great strides in that direction as regards the Earth. The melodies and silences of Heaven will be shouted down in the end. But I admit we are not yet loud enough, or anything like it. Research is in progress.

And, I daresay, a bad deal of progress has been made since Screwtape wrote these words in 1942.

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:

 

Books briefly noted

July 17, 2013

Busy times, but here are brief notes on a handful of books I’ve read recently:

ciabbatoni-danteDante’s Journey to Polyphony
Francesco Ciabattoni
(University of Toronto Press, 2010)
264 p.

A scholarly monograph examining the place of music in the architecture of The Divine Comedy. Ciabattoni, a professor at Georgetown, sees Dante using references to music to deepen and enrich the political, moral, and religious themes of the poem. The basic claim can be briefly stated: in Inferno music is heard as a perverse parody of sacred liturgy, cacophonous and ugly; monophonic chant dominates Purgatorio, where it is a balm for wounded souls and an expression of spiritual solidarity; Paradiso enters the realm of polyphony, where the music of the spheres and a harmonious chorus of blessed souls express the unutterable beauty of beatitude. Speaking as a casual admirer of Dante, none of this strikes me as particularly surprising or controversial, but it is certainly valuable and interesting. Most intriguing was Ciabattoni’s observation that the cascading, intertwined vocal lines of polyphony serve Dante well as he approaches the highest heavens precisely because the complexity obscures the sung text, for the music is thus able to carry the soul beyond the limits of rational comprehension and into the realm of boundless love and beauty. Take that, Council of Trent! Ciabattoni develops his full argument in great detail.

hahn-signsSigns of Life
40 Catholic Customs and their Biblical Roots
Scott Hahn
(Doubleday, 2009)
288 p.

Catholics are sometimes accused, by their separated brethren, of importing a lot of non-Biblical baggage into their practice of the faith; I won’t say that Scott Hahn set out specifically to counter that accusation (though, given his background in evangelical Protestantism, it might have been in the back of his mind), but he has countered it nicely all the same. He examines forty aspects of Catholic religious and devotional life, ranging from broad thoroughfares like “the Mass” and “Baptism” to nooks and crannies like “Novenas” and “Scapulars”, devoting five or six pages in each case tracing it to Biblical sources. Quite apart from whatever apologetic value the book may have, it also serves as a helpful primer on the wonderful variety and richness of Catholic faith and life. What would life be like without pilgrimage, the Church calendar, sacred images, and the tabernacle? I don’t want to think about it. The book would make a suitable gift for a Catholic convert, for a non-Catholic curious about Catholic practices, or for a cradle Catholic who wants to deepen their understanding of the tradition. Written in an accessible, even conversational, tone, it is the sort of book one can pick up now and then, read a few pages, and then set down again. It would serve well as a basis for family catechesis, or (as I can personally testify) as occasional bedtime reading.

kelly-musicEarly Music
A Very Short Introduction
Thomas Forrest Kelly
(Oxford University Press, 2011)
130 p.

The designation “early”, in this context, refers to music that was rarely or never heard prior to a revival of interest in the mid-twentieth century — namely, music of the medieval, renaissance, and baroque periods, covering the years from roughly 1000 (coinciding with the invention of musical notation) to about 1750 or thereabouts. Bach is “early music”; Mozart, just a few decades later, is not. The book gives a nice introduction to the music of these times, pointing out the distinctive characteristics on the basis of which we carve it up into separate periods, and helpfully highlighting the performance challenges of the music, some of which survives only in ambiguous notation or assumes that players will improvise on the basis of the written score. Kelly, a professor of music at Harvard and long involved in early music circles, also devotes a substantial part of the book to a brief history of the “early music movement” of the past fifty years, which aimed to revive the repertoires, styles, and instruments of the past. He doesn’t shy away from skeptical questions about this quest for musical “authenticity” — after all, “period instruments” and “period playing” are all very well, but where shall we find a “period audience”? — but in my opinion the proof is in the pudding: without this music, and the dedication of those who try to bring it back to life, the world would be a much drabber place. The book is a pleasant little primer for those who love this music.

hurley-southSouth with Endurance
Shackleton’s Antarctic Expedition, 1914-1917
The Photographs of Frank Hurley
(BCL Press, 2001)
244 p.

A couple of years ago, during an Antarctica-themed blogging blitz, I wrote about Ernest Shackleton’s ill-starred Endurance expedition to the South Pole, which ranks as one of the great survival tales in the annals of exploration. (See here.) Frank Hurley was the expedition’s photographer, and this beautiful coffee-table book gathers together the photographs that he was able to save from the hazards of ice and ocean. There is some background information given on the expedition and on Hurley, but naturally the pictures are the main attraction, and spectacular they are. Readers who want a good, detailed telling of the story should look elsewhere (specifically, to Lansing’s Endurance), but I would argue that this pictorial volume is an indispensable companion.