Posts Tagged ‘Richard Strauss’

Hither and yon

March 30, 2016

A few interesting items that came my way over the past few weeks:

  • Joseph Pieper’s wonderful book Leisure, the Basis of Culture merits whatever loving attention it receives, but I never thought I would see an admiring appraisal illustrated with pictures from children’s books.
  • My heart rose when I heard that Bob Dylan would be releasing another album later this year, rumoured to be called Fallen Angels … and then it fell when I learned it would be another batch of Sinatra songs.
  • Meanwhile, Dylan has made available a cornucopia of notebooks and paraphernalia for scholarly study. Time to book that flight to Tulsa?
  • Fr Paul Murray, O.P. delivers a very fine lecture entitled “Aquinas: Poet and Contemplative”, in which he considers the devotional life of the great philosopher saint, especially as manifest in his Latin poetry. This is a side of St Thomas which we don’t consider often enough.
  • Matthew Buckley has begun a series of articles explaining the physics under study at the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva, where the Higgs Boson was discovered a few years ago. I’ve not known of Matthew Buckley before, but the first instalment in his series is a superb example of popular science writing.
  • The largest ever exhibition of the paintings of Hieronymous Bosch has opened at the Noordbrabants Museum in the Netherlands. I do love Bosch! The highlight of my visit to Madrid some years ago was spending a few hours in the Bosch room at the Prado gallery, and were I to be in ’s-Hertogenbosch in the next few months I’d be there to see those paintings, and others, again. In this overview of the exhibition, Michael Prodger argues that Bosch is not best understood as a Renaissance artist, much less a modern (as he has sometimes been said to be), but as a medieval artist through and through.
  • Roger Scruton, in an excerpt from a forthcoming book, writes about the relationship between two post-war German masterpieces: Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus and Richard Strauss’ Metamorphosen.

For an envoi, let’s hear Metamorphosen, for 23 stringed instruments:

Great moments in opera: Der Rosenkavalier

July 16, 2014

Richard Strauss made an operatic name for himself with the dark and exotic dramas of Elektra and Salome, with their bloodthirsty heroines and tumultuous scores, so it was, perhaps, a surprise when his next project proved to be a genteel drawing-room opera with music based throughout on the Viennese waltz. Der Rosenkavalier (The Cavalier of the Rose) was a hit nonetheless, and has remained popular in opera houses in the intervening century.

There are four principal roles.  The Marschellin, an older woman, is carrying on an illicit affair with a young man, Octavian; meanwhile, a philandering older man, Baron Ochs, seeks the hand of a young woman, Sophie, in marriage. Over the course of the opera Octavian and Sophie fall in love, and their marriage is contrived with the help of the Marschellin and at the expense of the Baron.

That’s it, in a nutshell, but Strauss and his long-time librettist, Hugo von Hoffmannsthal, have made more of it than a brief plot sketch would suggest. Consider, for instance, the long monologue which the Marschellin sings at the end of Act I; in it, she reflects on growing old, the inevitable passage of time, and mortality. It’s a melancholy monologue, but Strauss has infused it with a delicate, beguiling beauty that resonates graciously in the ear. Here is Kiri Te Kanawa singing it, with English subtitles:

We can hear the same music sung by the wonderful soprano Elizabeth Schwarzkopf here, albeit without English subtitles. Live footage of Schwarzkopf is rare, so this is a treat. If you don’t know, she was one of the greatest Strauss sopranos of the ‘golden age’ of opera recordings in the 1950s and 1960s.

At the end of Act I, immediately prior to the Marschellin’s solitary ruminations we just heard, Baron Ochs had deputized the young Octavian to take a rose to the home of Sophie, presenting it to her on the Baron’s behalf. (Octavian is thus the titular ‘cavalier of the rose’.) At the beginning of Act II he arrives at her home, enters, and presents the gift — except that as he does so, he falls in love with Sophie, and she with him. This is a wonderful scene. The two of them sing a sprightly and ravishingly beautiful duet. Here are Anneliese Rothenberger (Sophie) and Sena Jurinac (Octavian); unfortunately I could not find a clip of this scene with English subtitles. You’ll notice that Octavian’s part is sung by a soprano; apparently it doesn’t prevent his being attractive to Sophie.

Strauss saves the best for last, however. As Act III draws to a close, and all of the machinations of the plot are winding down, he gives us two gorgeous ensemble pieces. The first is a trio, Hab’ mir’s gelobt, sung by the Marschellin, Octavian, and Sophie. This is one of the few triple-soprano pieces that I know of; one might have to go back to baroque opera to find another. Here are Anna Tomowa-Sintow (the Marschellin), Janet Perry (Sophie), and Agnes Baltsa (Octavian) in a 1980s-era Salzburg production, with English subtitles:

This is followed by the opera’s final number: a ravishing duet between Octavian and Sophie, which begins at about the 10 minute mark in the clip above, and is unquestionably one of the opera’s high points.

Der Rosenkavalier is over three hours long in performance, and, though the plot is slight, parts of it are truly excellent, as I hope this post has made clear.

Great moments in opera: Salome

May 20, 2014

Richard Strauss’ Salome is one of those pieces whose debut was accompanied by so much controversy and vitriol — it was banned in numerous jurisdictions — that its political aspects tend to overshadow its musical aspects. The opera is based on Oscar Wilde’s play, which in turn is based (of course) on the Biblical account of Salome and St. John the Baptist.

The most famously controversial aspect of the work is the “Dance of the Seven Veils,” Salome’s seductive dance before Herod. It was taken as lewd by many in the original audience, and over the intervening century there have been a not-insignificant number of singers who have refused the part on those grounds. To my mind, the more objectionable, because so gruesome, aspect of the opera is Salome’s long monologue with the severed head of St. John, which ends with a sickening kiss. Don’t plan to go for a late night meal after this opera.

Having said that, the subversive elements of the work don’t seem to me to dominate it. Instead, I was surprised at just how, in a sense, conservative the overall arc of the drama is. John the Baptist, in particular, is portrayed as a man of integrity and spiritual authority, towering over (even as he is literally sunk beneath, in a well) the weakly tyrannical figure of Herod and his posturing court. Salome’s numerous attempts to seduce him are met with thunderous rejections, and he dies bravely. There is no question but that Herod, Herodias, Salome, and everyone around them are wicked, and even if the opera wallows too luxuriously in that wickedness, there is at least never any attempt to call evil good.

The fame of Salome may rest principally on its sensational story elements, but the music does much to justify its place in the canon of twentieth-century opera. There was a reason why, one famous night in 1906, Schoenberg, Mahler, Puccini, and other luminaries attended a performance. The music is darkly lovely, coruscating at times, intensely dramatic, making effective and liberal use of dissonance without lapsing into formlessness. It is reasonable, I think, to pair it with Elektra, which followed a few years later; the two works occupy a similarly provocative aesthetic space (which Strauss was later to abandon for more genteel entertainments). It is true that there is little to nothing in the score that qualifies as tuneful or particularly memorable, but the opera was written not to be whistled in the street, but to produce an intense dramatic effect, and in this it largely succeeds, despite the evident thinness of the plot.

Alas, this same deficit of tunefulness impairs my ability to excerpt “great moments”. I shy away from the “Dance of the Seven Veils” because I’ve no wish to advertise lewdness, and that last great monologue by Salome, fine as it is, lasts over 20 minutes, which is surely enough to try the patience of even the most indefatigable and loyal reader.

But here is a happy solution to the problem of how to present the “Dance of the Seven Veils”; we can look at the score:

What does that do for you? I admit it doesn’t do much for me, but then the same could be said for much of Strauss’ strictly orchestral music.

Here is a clip of the final minutes of the opera, showing roughly the last third of Salome’s gory conversation with St. John’s head. It is sung by the wonderful Canadian soprano Teresa Stratas in a (relatively) famous film version of the opera made in the 1970s. She’s lip-syncing, but the voice to which she’s lip-syncing is her own. English subtitles. This gives a reasonably good idea of the “feel” of the opera, and is worth watching through if you’re interested.

To pluck any other “great moments” would be, in this case, to multiply cases to no purpose, for one moment is more or less as good as another. As I said, this opera is not a tunesmith’s workshop. But here is a nice little “Intro to Salome” video produced by Carnegie Hall. I wonder if it contradicts anything I said above?

Great moments in opera: Ariadne auf Naxos

September 27, 2011

Richard Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos has a special place in my heart: it was the first opera that I ever bought, and perhaps (I don’t quite remember) the first that I ever heard from start to finish. It was Herbert von Karajan’s well-regarded 1954 recording that I bought, with its starry cast of singers: Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Rita Streich, and Irmgard Seefried. It is a recording that I treasure still.

In some respects Ariadne was an odd place to make an entry into the world of opera; it is not a work that is widely sampled on ‘Opera Hits’ collections (though it does have one truly spectacular virtuoso aria; see below). I might have been better to start with Don Giovanni or Tosca. With hindsight, though, perhaps it was not so bad a beginning after all: the work is, to borrow a useful anachronism, a tragicomical ‘mash-up’ of operatic traditions, blending elements of the opera seria and opera buffa genres, and liberally spiced with Strauss’ own voluptuous hyper-Romanticism. I wasn’t able to hear all of those elements at the time, but I can hear them now.

The story, to a libretto by Hugo von Hofmannsthal, concerns the staging of after-dinner entertainments for a wealthy patron. Both a tragedy (an opera seria on the tale of Ariadne stranded on the isle of Naxos) and a comedy (a song-and-dance burlesque) are planned, but at the last minute the performers are instructed that, due to time constraints, they must perform simultaneously. Hence the mash-up. The backstage preparations are portrayed in a prologue, with some spoken sections, and then the performance — an opera within an opera — follows.

The music of Ariadne, as befits the story, is a mixture of styles, ranging from stately and elegant to jaunty and raucous. For this post I have selected two sections, one from the tragedy and one from the comedy. First up is Ariadne, singing “Es gibt ein Reich” (“There is a realm”). She has been stranded on Naxos by Theseus, and in this section she longs for death to deliver her from her endless torment. It is sung in this clip by Jessye Norman, in a production from the Metropolitan Opera. I don’t know about you, but Jessye Norman scares me: it doesn’t seem right that one human body should be able to produce that much sound. It is only slightly reassuring to see that she is working pretty hard here: watch her sweat. English subtitles included.

In response to Ariadne’s lament, Zerbinetta, a comic actress, bounces in with some advice: the best way to get over a man, she says, is to get another. It’s a darkly humorous clash of worlds: the passionate death-wish of a tortured soul answered by the sassy quips of a glamour girl. Zerbinetta’s aria, “Großmächtige Prinzessin“, lasts nearly 12 minutes and is one of the most difficult in the entire operatic literature: it is a taxing tour de force that defeats all but the greatest singers. My Kobbe’s Complete Opera Guide notes, rather dryly, that “the vocal writing parts company with what is normally considered advisable to write for a singer”. I’ll say. It is sung here by Kathleen Battle. The audience gives her a tremendous ovation at the end, as well they should. No subtitles, but you’ll get the idea.

Is that not amazing?

As an addendum, you might enjoy watching some short rehearsal clips from the same Met production. I have sometimes thought that James Levine, being the head of one of the world’s busiest opera companies, must be a figurehead, showing up for performances, but leaving the detail work to others. If these clips are any indication, that is wrong: he is working personally with his stars (Norman and Battle, as above), preparing the orchestra, and directing action on the stage as well. Impressive, and fascinating too.

Great moments in opera: Elektra

May 9, 2011

When I think of Richard Strauss as an opera composer, I tend to think of his civilized dramas and gentle comedies such as Der Rosenkavalier, Ariadne auf Naxos, and Capriccio. His early opera Elektra reminds me that there was another side to his art. Elektra is strident, fierce, saturated with dissonance, and drenched in blood. It maintains a tone of frenzied intensity almost from beginning to end. It is, I imagine, difficult to love — but, then again, so is the character whom it portrays.

The libretto is quite faithful to Sophocles’ tragic drama, apart from the fact that the Chorus does not appear. Elektra, determined to avenge the murder of Agamemnon, her father, is awaiting the return of her brother, Orestes. The murderess is, of course, their mother, Clytemnestra, who has since re-married. Elektra lives now in the shadows, haunting her father’s grave, consumed with anger and hatred for her mother. The central action of the drama is the long-awaited return of Orestes (disguised and bearing cunning tidings of his own death) and the brutal slaughter of Clytemnestra and her husband.

The great bulk of the stage time, here as in Sophocles’ original, is given over to speeches and one-on-one conversations. Elektra speaks first with her sister Chrysothemis, trying to persuade her to join in the revenge, and then with her mother, each threatening the other in a very horrifying exchange. (Interestingly, Sophocles allows Clytemnestra a persuasive defence — that she killed Agamemnon to avenge his earlier murder of their daughter, Iphigenia — but, unless I missed it, Strauss and his librettist Hugo von Hoffmannsthal deny her that comfort.)

The music of Elektra is, as I said above, harsh and frequently dissonant. Inspired, I assume, by Wagner’s example, the music flows like a bloody river, restless and often torrential. Strauss abuses tonality throughout, but, like Wagner before him, he honours it in the breach, for the expressive power of the music — its power to express horror, vengeance, and agony — relies on our having tonal expectations for him to violate. The result is not easy to listen to, and certainly not beautiful, but it does, if only by sheer force, make an impression.

This opera is unusual insofar as it is dominated by female voices: we are, I believe, well into the second half before the first male voice is heard, and that in passing. Further along there are extended passages for Orestes and for Aegisthus (Clytemnestra’s new husband), but the finale is reserved again for female voices only. I am not aware of any other opera which tips the vocal balance so far toward the women.

I have chosen two excerpts to highlight. I apologize in advance that they are both rather long; this is not an opera that moves quickly. Both are taken from a DVD performance that I watched this week, with Leonie Rysanek singing the lead role, and with the Vienna Philharmonic conducted by Karl Bohm.

The first excerpt begins when Elektra finally recognizes Orestes, who has been away from home for so many years, and for whom she has waited, longing for the day when he will help her to avenge their father’s death. Unfortunately there are no subtitles on this clip, but the acting is so good that I think the drama comes through anyway. (A rather bad English translation is available here; search for “List! No man stirreth!”) Orestes is played here by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau.

The other excerpt is the opera’s finale, which is substantially a duet between Elektra and her sister, Crysothemis. The murders of Clytemnestra and Aegisthus have been done, and their bloody, bloated, and hideous corpses lie on the stage. In the closing pages of the score Elektra begins a frenzied dance of victory that ends with her collapsing dead beside the bodies of those whose deaths she had so long sought. This clip does have English subtitles, so further words from me are superfluous.

Best of the Decade: Classical Music

December 17, 2009

This week I look back at my favourite classical music recordings issued between 2000-2009.   Though I have listened to hundreds of recordings, it goes without saying that there is a lot of music, much of it no doubt excellent, that I have not heard.

I have decided to structure this post according to genre.  For each genre I have selected two outstanding recordings, with a third “runner-up” sometimes slipped in.  The exception to this rule is the choral music category; my initial short list had about twenty-five recordings on it, and it was too cruel to cut that down to just two, or even three.  I compensate for this surplus by omitting an opera category altogether.

I have also included links to more thorough reviews and to streaming samples of the music when it was possible to do so.

Without further ado:

Choral

I have chosen six discs of choral music, plus a few runners-up.   They are arranged in rough chronological order.

Paolo da Firenze: Narcisso Speculando (Mala Punica, Pedro Memelsdorff) [2002; Harmonia Mundi]: This is music of the medieval avant-garde. Paolo da Firenze, who died in 1425, belonged to the ars subtilior school of late medieval composition.  The music is incredibly intricate, and must be exceptionally difficult to sing, but it is also marvelous to hear — in that respect, the medieval avant-garde consistently bested the modern.  The ensemble Mala Punica specializes in this music, and their awe-inspiring performances must be heard to be believed.  This is one of the most ear-opening recordings I’ve ever heard.  (Reviews: ClassicsToday)

I don’t know why this video is nine minutes long; the piece ends at 3:43.

Richafort: Requiem (Huelgas Ensemble, Paul van Nevel) [2000; Harmonia Mundi]: For sheer ravishing beauty, this is my choral music pick of the decade.  Richafort (c.1480-c.1550) is a mostly forgotten composer, but on the evidence here that forgetfulness is unjust.  His Requiem, which may have been written to commemorate the death of Josquin Desprez, is a thing of glories, with wave after wave of beautiful music spilling over the listener.  Just when you think it can’t possibly get any lovelier, it does.  The disc is filled out by a selection of motets, including a gorgeous Salve regina for five voices, and even a drinking song (rendered, it must be said, a little stiffly).  The singing of the Huelgas Ensemble, which is always excellent, is here focused and luminous to an uncommon degree.  (Reviews: ClassicsToday)

Here is the Introit of the Requiem:

In Paradisum (Hilliard Ensemble) [2000; ECM New Series]: The Hilliard Ensemble sing the Gregorian setting of the Requiem Mass and interpose motets by two of the grand masters of Renaissance polyphony: Victoria and Palestrina.  As is fitting, the music is dark-toned and somber.  The singing is as good as singing gets in this vale of tears: concentrated, responsive, inward-looking, and incredibly beautiful.  The richness of the sound is astonishing.  Part of the credit obviously goes to the four voices of the Hilliard Ensemble, and part to ECM’s superb engineers, but thanks must also be rendered to the walls and vaults of St. Gerold monastery in Austria, where the recording was made. (Reviews: ClassicsToday)

Bach: Missae Breves (Pygmalion) [2008; Alpha]: Before hearing this recording I had not known of the group Pygmalion, and I expect they are new to most listeners too.  I still don’t know anything about them — except that they sing Bach to perfection.  This disc includes two of Bach’s short Masses, BWV 234 and 235.  (A Missa Brevis includes only the Kyrie and Gloria.) This music has never sounded better.  The voices are confident, clear, and precise, with none of the raggedness or wooliness that sometimes plagues choirs who try to sing Bach.  The instrumental accompaniment is lively and vivid.  This is simply terrific music-making. (Reviews: AllMusic) (Listen to samples)

Bach: St. John Passion (Philippe Herreweghe, Collegium Vocale Gent, soloists) [2001; Harmonia Mundi]: Bach’s St. John Passion is not as well-known as his St. Matthew Passion, and with some justification, for it is not as ambitious as its more famous companion.  Its comparative modesty in scale makes it a tighter and more dramatic account of the Passion story, and I find that attractive.  This performance from Bach-specialist Herreweghe, with a starry cast of soloists and his usual crack choir Collegium Vocale Gent, is uniformly excellent.  This music was a great discovery for me this decade.  (Reviews: ClassicsToday) (Listen to samples)

Here is the final section of the work, Christe, du Lamm Gottes (an adaptation of the Agnus Dei):

Grechaninov: Passion Week (Charles Bruffy, Phoenix Bach Choir, Kansas City Chorale) [2007; Chandos]: The prospect of hearing Russian sacred music sung by a choir from the American Midwest does not immediately inspire confidence, but this disc upset my expectations.  The music, written in 1911, is inspired by the Holy Week services of the Orthodox Church.  The texts are in Old Slavonic, and the music communes with the long history of Russian Orthodox music.  It bears an obvious similarity to Rachmaninov’s Vespers, and, to my surprise, it does not suffer greatly in the comparison.  It is extremely well sung — all praise to the basses! — and the recording, though perhaps a bit boxy, still allows us to hear the music clearly.  I was very pleasantly surprised by this recording. (Reviews: AllMusic) (Listen to samples)

Here is the section of the work titled “The Wise Thief”.  (Sorry about the flowers.)

Runners-up:

  • La Bele Marie (Anonymous 4) [2002; Harmonia Mundi]: This is a collection of Marian songs from thirteenth-century France.  Some are in Latin, some in French.  As befits their subject, they are bright, lovely, and mostly joyful.  The four women of Anonymous 4 sing with their customary blend and luminosity.  A very heart-warming record.  (Reviews: ClassicsToday ) (Listen to samples)
  • A Scottish Lady Mass (Red Byrd) [2005; Hyperion]: This disc contains thirteenth-century music from St. Andrews, Scotland.  It includes polyphonic music (for two parts) that is not known elsewhere, and there are some real curiosities, including troped versions of the Kyrie and Gloria, as well as some unique sequences.  The record’s cover, which shows an old church at night across a foggy moor, perfectly captures the feel of this music.  The voices of Red Byrd are manly and resonant, creating a warm sonic blanket to wrap oneself in. This is my kind of singing. (Reviews: ClassicsToday) (Listen to samples) (Listen to a troped Kyrie: Rex, virginum amator)
  • Dufay: Quadrivium (Cantica Symphonia) [2005; Glossa]: Guillaume Dufay is my favourite medieval composer, and this collection of sacred motets serves his music very well.  Cantica Symphonia make the interesting decision to bring instruments, as well as voices, into the music, and although this necessarily involves some improvisation and guess-work, it sounds great.  The singing — just one voice to a part — is confident and idiomatic, and the music is dazzling.  (Reviews: AllMusic) (Listen to samples) (Listen to Anima mea liquefacta est)
  • Heavenly Harmonies (Stile Antico) [2008; Harmonia Mundi]: This disc is a superb collection of Elizabethan sacred music by William Byrd and Thomas Tallis, illustrating the parting of the ways between Catholic music (intricate polyphony, in Latin) and Protestant music (simple and strophic, in English).  As I have said before, the singing of Stile Antico is amazingly good.  (my Music Note) (Reviews: ClassicsToday, AllMusic) (Listen to samples)
  • Elgar: The Dream of Gerontius (Sir Mark Elder, Hallé Orchestra and Chorus, soloists) [2008; Hallé]: Elgar’s setting of John Henry Cardinal Newman’s poem about death and the afterlife has not really attracted me in the past.  I had heard a few recordings, but I found them stodgy and sluggish.  When this disc from the Hallé Orchestra began earning accolades in the British press, I thought it might be another case of patriotic fervour overwhelming sound judgment, but I decided to give it a try anyway.  I am glad that I did.  The sound is much clearer, with far better articulation from the choir than on previous recordings, and the soloists are tremendous.  There’s a real sense of occasion too.  (Reviews: AllMusic)   Here is the section “Praise to the Holiest”:

Solo Voice

Victoria: Et Iesum (Carlos Mena, Juan Carlos Rivera) [2004; Harmonia Mundi]: We naturally associate Victoria with the high Renaissance style of polyphony, of which he was a master.  Himself a priest, his music was intended to serve the sacred liturgy.  Yet, as this intriguing recording informs us, some of his music was adapted for performance on a more modest and intimate scale.  In such cases, one of the polyphonic vocal lines was given to a solo voice, and the other musical lines were put into the instrumental accompaniment.  The result is something like a madrigal or song, but with a sacred text.  The comparative simplicity of the music allows us to relish the beauty of the exposed vocal melody without interference.  Carlos Mena, my favourite counter-tenor (and yours?), has marvelous breath-control in the sometimes very long vocal lines, and his voice has a creamy richness that is very satisfying.  Counter-tenor singing has come a long way in the last few generations of singers, and Mena has it all.  He is tastefully accompanied by Juan Carlos Rivera on the lute and vihuela.  This is a very special recording. (Reviews: ClassicsToday, AllMusic)

Here is Carlos Mena singing Victoria’s adaptation of Salve regina.  If you enjoy this, consider clicking through to YouTube; the same person who posted this song has also posted several other tracks from this disc.

Strauss: Lieder (Soile Isokoski, Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin, Marek Janowski) [2002; Ondine]: Finnish soprano Soile Isokoski turns in an unforgettable performance of Strauss’ great Vier Letzte Lieder (Four Last Songs).  She has a full-bodied, very expressive voice, and it suits these opulent late flowerings of Strauss’ muse perfectly.  Competition in this repertoire is stiff, but Isokoski has displaced Elisabeth Schwarzkopf as my favourite.  The disc is filled out by a selection of Strauss’ other songs.  They are not among Strauss’ greatest inspirations, but they are still beautifully sung. (Reviews: ClassicsToday) (Listen to samples)

In this live performance (not taken from the recording), Isokoski sings “Fruhling”, the first of the Four Last Songs:

Solo Instrument

Messiaen: Complete Organ Works (Olivier Latry) [2002; DG]: As I think I have said before, to a first approximation there has been only one composer for the organ, and that was J.S. Bach.  But if we broaden our vision just a little, Olivier Messiaen comes into view.  His music is nothing like Bach’s, of course, but in its own way it is perfect music for the instrument: immense, deep, ecstatic, glorious, and overwhelming.  It is a major body of work.  Olivier Latry plays the mighty organ of Notre Dame de Paris, where he is house organist, and the DG engineers have caught the sonics in spectacular fashion.  This set is a cornerstone for my collection of twentieth-century music. (Reviews: ClassicsToday)

Bach: Goldberg Variations (Murray Perahia) [2000; Sony]: Starting in the 1990s Murray Perahia began at last to record the music of Bach.  He started with the English Suites, and has since moved through the keyboard concertos, the Partitas, and, in 2000, he made this excellent recording of the Goldberg Variations.  It is a superb, finely calibrated performance that positively dances, and it has become my favourite recording of this inexhaustible music.  (Reviews: ClassicsToday)

Here is Perahia playing the opening Aria and the first three variations:

Chamber

Shostakovich: Complete String Quartets (Emerson String Quartet) [2000; DG]: One of the two or three greatest concert-going experiences of my life was hearing the Emerson String Quartet play Shostakovich’s devastating final quartet, No.15.  It left me reeling and exhausted, but deeply grateful.  Afterward I bought this complete cycle of Shostakovich’s quartets, on five well-filled CDs.  It is an incredibly rich collection.  Some consider his string quartets to be his greatest music, and I am among them.  I have since heard a few other cycles of these quartets, including the famous recordings by the Borodin Quartet.  I love them too, but they do not include the last two quartets, and the Emersons have the edge on precision and sound quality.  This is another cornerstone of my music collection. (Reviews: AllMusic)

Here is a short video I have posted before of the Emersons playing the third movement of String Quartet No.3.  Not one of my very favourite movements, but the only one I can find on YouTube:

Weinberg: Cello Sonatas (Alexander Chaushian, Yevgeny Sudbin) [2007; BIS]: Mieczysław Weinberg is not a well-known composer.  I had never heard of him until I heard this recording, and, now that I have heard this recording, I cannot understand why he is unknown.  His music is fantastic.  Weinberg (also sometimes called Vainberg, or Vaynberg) was born in Poland in 1919 and lived most of his life under the Soviets.  He was a close friend of Shostakovich — the two would play their new compositions to one another.  His music is in many ways quite similar to Shostakovich’s, and that is a very, very good thing!  It is tough and lyrical, full of interesting ideas and genuine feeling, and it sounds urgent and important.  These cello sonatas — two for cello and piano and one for solo cello — are almost unbelievably beautiful.  When I first heard this record I was struck speechless by it, and I hung on every note until it was over.  I have since heard several other recordings of Weinberg’s music, and I have not been disappointed.  He is a major discovery for me. (Reviews: AllMusic)  (Listen to samples)

Here is the first movement of his Cello Sonata No.2, Op.63.  I hope somebody likes this as much as I do.

Runner-up: Pärt: Alina [2000; ECM New Series]: ECM Records are known for their innovative and unusual programming, but, even so, it took a certain audacity to put this disc out.  It includes just two compositions: Für Alina for piano and Spiegel im Spiegel for piano and violin (or cello), together amounting to about 20 minutes of music.  Both pieces are devotedly minimalist, with very sparsely notated scores and absence of dramatic effects.  An uncharitable listener might say that “nothing happens” in either of them.  ECM, in their wisdom, interleaved on the disc two versions of the first piece with three versions of the second!  And, strangely enough, it works.  The record, by the very simplicity of the music, asks the listener to really pay attention to each note.  Close listening becomes a kind of meditative experience.  It’s a rather special disc. (Reviews: ClassicsToday)

Gus van Sant’s 2002 film Gerry used Speigel im Spiegel during the opening scene.  This five-minute clip includes roughly half of the piece.  The visual is perfect for this music.  (Incidentally, in the early days of our courtship I took my wife to see Gerry.  I am lucky that she was willing to see me again.)

Concerto and Orchestral

Schoenberg & Sibelius: Violin Concertos (Hilary Hahn, Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra, Esa-Pekka Salonen)  [2008; DG]: I confess with some shame that I had ignored Hilary Hahn’s recordings in the past.  I assumed that her success had more to do with her youthful attractiveness than the quality of her playing.  (Yes, sex sells even in the beleaguered marketing departments of classical music labels.)  After hearing this recording I am happy to say that this assumption was totally false: her playing stands firmly on its own merits.  She has chosen to couple the violin concerti of Sibelius and Schoenberg, which is a bit like having a meal of truffles and tacks.  To her great credit, she actually manages to find music in Schoenberg’s concerto.  She gives shape to the almost unremittingly angular musical line, and her tone is steely and firm, as though she’s taken this anarchic music in hand and shown it who is master. She makes as good a case for it as is likely to be made.  But it is in the Sibelius concerto that she really shines.  I’ve heard three or four other recordings of this wonderful concerto, but none has gripped me as hers has.  Her playing is precise, with no wavering or wooliness in her violin’s tone, and she really gets inside the music, allowing it to speak for itself.  (Reviews: ClassicsToday, AllMusic)

Here she is playing the final movement of the Sibelius concerto:

Messiaen: Des Canyons aux Étoiles… (Myung-Whun Chung, Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio-France, soloists) [2003; DG]: This massive orchestral composition was written to celebrate the bicentenary of the United States, and it was inspired by Messiaen’s visit to Utah’s Bryce Canyon.  It celebrates in sound the canyon’s rocks, cliffs, and — of course, since this is Messiaen — its birds.   Scored for a large orchestra with piano, horn, xylorimba, and glockenspiel soloists, it is a colourful and essentially joyful composition, both weird and wonderful, and animated by Messiaen’s Catholic nature-mysticism.  The recording is sonically spectacular.  (Reviews: ClassicsToday)

Symphonic

The length of these symphonies prevents my linking to whole movements.  I hope the samples will give some idea of what is in store.

Bruckner: Symphony No.9 (Günter Wand, Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart des SWR) [2006; Profil]: This is a live recording made in 1979, but this 2006 disc was (I believe) its first commercial appearance, so it qualifies for inclusion on this list.  Günter Wand apparently said of this performance that it was “one of the most memorable of [his] life”, and I believe it.  It is tremendously beautiful music that seeks, as Bruckner said, to make the transcendent perceptible, and Wand leads his orchestra about as far in that direction as it is possible to go.  When called for, they play with thunderous power, and at other times with the most delicate sensitivity.  The sound is excellent.  (Reviews:  AllMusic) (Listen to samples)

Vaughan Williams: Symphony No.2 “London” (Richard Hickox, London Symphony Orchestra) [2001; Chandos]: This splendid recording of the “London” symphony was named Record of the Year by Gramophone Magazine in 2001, and it was a richly deserved accolade.  It is a wonderful symphony, and it has never sounded better.  The music glows on this recording.  It is a great interpretation too, with drama and presence.  (Listen to samples)

***

I have not seen any “Best of Decade” lists from major critics, but a number of “Best of 2009” lists have appeared: