Posts Tagged ‘Tomas Luis de Victoria’

Favourites of 2017: Music

January 5, 2018

It seemed this year that I was treated to an avalanche of excellent music — much more than I could listen to with adequate attention. Of those recordings I devoted the most time to, I have selected for praise an even dozen. I proceed roughly chronologically.


Ars Elaboratio
Ensemble Scholastica
(ATMA, 2017)

In his short story “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote”, Borges imagines a writer who has become so immersed in the style and the world of Cervantes that he is able to reproduce, as an original work, a word-for-word replica of Don Quixote. This story has been brought irresistibly to mind as I’ve been listening to this truly wonderful and extraordinary recording from Ensemble Scholastica. What this all-female ensemble, based in Montreal, has done is perform newly composed elaborations of medieval plainchant in an impeccably medieval style. These elaborations include adding new monophonic material to the original, or adding additional voices, or instruments. Something like this past-meets-present concept has been done before, but usually the past and present are distinguishable to the ear as modern dissonances or cadences wander into the frame. What makes the music on Ars Elaboratio so intriguing is that there really is nothing modern to hear; for all we can tell, these could be original medieval compositions.

I can imagine someone wondering about the point of doing this. Just as with Menard and his Quixote, context matters, and a modern medieval composition has different resonances than a medieval original. Such an experiment might, for instance, be a way of poking the eye of the notion, current in music circles as elsewhere, that originality is rooted in self-expression; or, to deny the idea that history moves and we have to move with it; or, as a spiritual exercise in humility, wherein musicians enter fully into the imaginative and aesthetic world of another time and place; or, as a way of honouring the beauty and wisdom of the texts by creating music that would have pleased and delighted their medieval authors; or, simply as an expression of love for the beauty of medieval music. In the notes accompanying the recording, the ensemble states their purpose as follows:

“We wish to share with listeners the true beauty and intricacy of medieval music, in particular medieval liturgical traditions, the very roots of Western music. Our audiences thus have the chance to experience the remarkable joy and complexity of medieval spirituality and culture.”

I, for one, thank them for their efforts, which have greatly delighted me.

Here is a brief advertisement for the disc, in which one can hear excerpts:


Matteo da Perugia: Chansons
(Olive, 2016)

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

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

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


Secret History: Josquin / Victoria
John Potter
(ECM New Series, 2017)

Years ago I drew up a list of my favourite music of the first decade of the 21st century, and near the top of the list I put a CD of music by Victoria, sung by Carlos Mena, in which the familiar intricate polyphony had been adapted for a single voice with instrumental accompaniment. I loved, and still love, everything about it — Mena’s creamy voice, the clarity of the musical texture, the limpid beauty of the vocal line. I’d never heard anything quite like it before — nor, for that matter, since.

But now this new disc from John Potter and friends revisits the same musical territory, with marvellous results once again. Potter tells us in his notes that it was a fairly common practice in the 15th and 16th centuries for sacred polyphony to be adapted into tablature for lutenists and vihuelists, and even that the music of some composers, including Josquin, survives mostly in these intabulated sources. He is here joined by three vihuelas and a viola da gamba, as well as by the soprano Anna Maria Friman (of Trio Medieval) in performances of these intabulated versions of Victoria’s Missa surge propera, a collection of motets by Josquin, a motet by Mouton and another by Victoria again, some Gregorian chant, and some preludes for vihuela by Jacob Heringman, one of the musicians.

It all sounds terrific. Once again, hearing the clarity of the vocal line pulled from what would normally be a dense polyphonic texture is a real delight, and there’s a wonderful intimacy about the whole affair, as though this sublime music were being re-imagined in one’s living room. For me, the recording as a whole doesn’t quite rise to the level of that earlier one by Carlos Mena, and this mainly because Potter, as good as he is (and, as a long-time member of the Hilliard Ensemble, he’s no slouch), simply doesn’t have the translucent voice that Mena does.

The recording was made at the famous monastery of St Gerold in Austria, long favoured by ECM’s engineers, and the sound is impeccable. It was recorded in 2011, so ECM sat on it for 6 years before releasing it. I can’t imagine why. This is my favourite recording of the year.


Palestrina: Missa Papae Marcelli
(Arcana, 2017)

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

Here is the whole of the Missa:


Monteverdi: Vespro della Beata Vergine
La Compagnia del Madrigale, Cantica Symphonia, La Pifarescha, Giuseppe Maletto
(Glossa, 2017)

2017 was a Monteverdi anniversary year, marking his 450th birthday. My plans to devote time to him largely failed, but I was able to hear this glorious new recording of his Vespers. This is a piece for which my appreciation has gradually grown over the years; it’s a sprawling, multi-faceted work that takes time to get to know, and as yet I feel that I’ve only begun to explore its many nooks and crannies. The musicians on this disc are an ace crew who will be recognized by early music aficionados. I must say that it is nice to have Italians performing the music of their countryman, and, quite in contradiction to the sometime-stereotype of period ensembles being rather dry and thin, they bring a stirring, full-bodied sound to their interpretation. The instruments, especially, are recorded with nice bloom, blending beautifully with the voices. I’ve long been fond of William Christie’s recording of this Vespers, with French forces, for its beauty and gentle tenderness, but this shows another side of this wonderful music.

This video takes us behind the scenes at the recording sessions:


Bach: De Occulta Philosophia
Emma Kirkby, Carlos Mena, José Miguel Moreno
(Glossa, 1998)

Here is a disc that would appear to have been produced just for me: my favourite soprano, Emma Kirkby, and my favourite counter-tenor, Carlos Mena, joining together to sing chorales of J.S. Bach, my favourite composer, over a performance of the Chaconne, my favourite composition (or, at least, having a fair claim), in an arrangement for the lute, my favourite obsolete instrument in the guitar family! You might remember the recording the Hilliard Ensemble made some years ago, in which they, following a purported “discovery” by musicologist Helga Thoene, did the same experiment: singing chorale fragments over the Chaconne, which was, allegedly, subtextually quoting them. I confess I don’t put any great faith in these musicological claims, but it hardly matters: as musical experiments go, this one is a winner. I liked the Hilliard’s performance, but I like this one even more: the intimacy of the lute, and the purity of the two voices, is entrancing. The Chaconne, mind you, only lasts a quarter-hour. The rest of the disc is filled out with Bach’s Sonata (BWV 1001) and Partita (BWV 1004), played on the lute by José Miguel Moreno. It’s all good, but it’s the chorale-laden Chaconne that is sublime.


Mozart: Don Giovanni
Music Aeterna, Teodor Currentzis
(Sony, 2016)

Like everyone else, I have long been wedded to Giulini’s 1959 recording of this, the greatest opera, so much so that I’ve never felt any real desire to acquire another. But nothing in this veil of tears is perfect in every respect, and there was always a possibility, however slim, that somebody might come along and do the thing well enough, and differently enough, to give us, not so much a rival, but an alternative reading. And then along came Teodor Currentzis and his mad cadre of musicians in a bid to do just that.

I say “mad” partly because of the conditions under which the recording took place: Currentzis had his singers and orchestra come to the Russian hinterland, where they stayed for weeks on end, living together, eating together, performing Don Giovanni hour after hour after hour, doing experiments, taking risks, going mad. The Guardian ran a nice feature that described the highly unusual working conditions.

And I say “mad” also because of the results. Currentzis plays this score with ferocious energy; the strings slash, the brass blares, the timpani thunders. There is nothing at all genteel about it. The sound engineering is impressively vivid. The singing is fine, but for me it is the orchestral playing that is the real draw. That might seem an odd position to take on an opera recording, but we are in the realm of the odd.

I understand the argument from those who say that this is an abuse of Mozart, who wrote at a time when elegance was prized and who could out-elegance anybody when we wanted to, but, on the other hand, this is Don Giovanni! If any opera can take this idiosyncratic, unrestrained treatment, it’s this one. An iconoclastic version could never replace Giulini, but considered as a compelling alternative view of this great music, this one is a success.

Here is a ten-minute featurette on the making of this recording:


Mozart – Piano Concertos 20 & 27
Evgeny Kissin, Kremerata Baltica
(EMI, 2010)

I admit I’ve had a prejudice against Evgeny Kissin, whose status as a child prodigy led me to suspect that there was more of sentimentality behind his fame than solid musical achievement. But this disc was recommended to me in glowing terms, and I decided to listen mainly because of the orchestra, Kremerata Baltica, whom I have long admired. It’s a corker! These concerti are old chestnuts, and they are often played with grace and politeness, but Kissin and his band tackle them with thunderous excitement. The sound is big, the orchestra plays with sharp attacks and tight rhythms, and Kissin is terrific at the keyboard. The performance has verve and sparkle. I don’t know if this is typical of Kissin or not, but, if so, I stand corrected.

Here is Concerto No.20:


Wagner: Arias and Duets
Birgit Nilsson, Hans Hotter, Philharmonia Orchestra, Leopold Ludwig
(Testament, rec.1957/8)

Birgit Nilsson has a claim to being one of the great Wagnerian sopranos of the twentieth century, and Hans Hotter can make a similar claim among bass-baritones. They were both in their prime for these recordings, made in 1957/58 in glowing sound that belies their age. Nilsson, especially, is majestic; her voice gleams, like a shaft of light penetrating the gloom. The sheer beauty of it is awe-inspiring. Hotter sings with tremendous gravitas as well, and he is a superb match for her in the long Act III duet from Die Walküre. The other selections are from Wagner’s earlier operas: Elsa’s Dream from Lohengrin, a long excerpt from Der Fliegende Holländer, and a soprano solo from Tannhäuser. This same music has been previously issued on EMI; probably this Testament release has been remastered but I’ve actually listened to both and I can’t hear any substantial differences. In either case, this is one of the best Wagner recordings I’ve ever heard. [review]

Here is the opening of Die Walküre, Act III, Scene III. Hotter is Wotan and Nilsson is Brünnhilde:


Brahms: Piano Works
Arcadi Volodos
(Sony, 2017)

If, like me, you love those last, late piano pieces Brahms left us in his Op.116, 117, and 118, then I cannot recommend more highly these superb renditions by Arcadi Volodos. Volodos is a pianist I haven’t followed very closely (though I love his account of Liszt’s virtuosic transmutation of the Wedding March!). His playing is muscular, and he makes a big, well-rounded sound. You might not think that would work all that well with these elegiac masterpieces, but these are winsome performances that I have greatly enjoyed. This is elite playing, not just technically but artistically, and this is a great disc. [review]


Messiaen: Turangalîla-Symphonie
Steven Osborne, Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra, Juanjo Mena
(Hyperion, 2012)

Messiaen described this gigantic musical explosion as “a song of love, a hymn to joy”, and the joyous feeling he sought to capture as “superhuman, overflowing, dazzling, and abandoned”. Perhaps no better description of the symphony is possible. It is among the biggest, boldest, most outrageous, wildest examples of musical excess in the repertoire, and, as such, not the kind of thing I would normally be drawn to, but it’s the symphony’s spirit of unadulterated, supercharged love of life that wins me over. I’ve a few recordings in my collection, but this one from the Bergen Philharmonic, with Steven Osborne handling the difficult piano part, has delighted me to no end. The orchestral sound, which is the be-all and end-all of this piece, is wonderfully alive and vivid. A ravishing sonic experience. [Audio excerpts]


Weinberg: Chamber Symphonies
Kremerata Baltica, Gidon Kremer
(ECM New Series, 2017)

For the past few years my year-end list of favourites has usually included something by Mieczyslaw Weinberg, and I have something this year too. Gidon Kremer has become a high-profile champion for Weinberg’s music, and in 2017 he, with Kremerata Baltica again, issued a two-disc set of Weinberg’s four chamber symphonies and the Piano Quintet. The Quintet is an early work (Op.18) that has become quite popular, having now been recorded more than any of Weinberg’s other music. Kremer and his crew give it a good hearing, and of course ECM’s sound engineering is outstanding. But for me the chamber symphonies are the real draw. They are late works (the earliest being his Op.145), and, as always with Weinberg, I feel they put me in touch with a man of great musical intelligence, overlooked for too long. Music to treasure.


In years past I have written twice about my favourite music of the year: first classical and then popular. This year there were pop music records that interested me from Bob Dylan, Joan Osborne, Van Morrison, Sufjan Stevens, Joe Henry, Josh Ritter, Justin Townes Earle, Taylor Swift, Lee Ann Womack, and Neil Young, and some others too, but I either didn’t get around to hearing them, or didn’t hear enough of them to form a judgement. Maybe next year.

Remembering Victoria

August 27, 2011

Today marks the 400th anniversary of the death of Tomás Luis de Victoria. Unquestionably one of the great figures in late Renaissance music, he also happens to be one of my favourites. A Spanish priest during the Counter-Reformation, he wrote (so far as I know) exclusively sacred music, and is probably best remembered today for his Holy Week music, a Requiem Mass, and a handful of gorgeous motets, principally O quam gloriosum, O magnum mysterium, and a lovely Ave Maria.

His music, while being broadly in the style of contemporaries like Palestrina and Byrd, often has a special quality that is hard to describe, but which makes it somehow especially alluring. I have had the privilege to sing his music on a few occasions, and I can testify that it is just as beautiful from within as from without. Harry Christophers, director of the British choir The Sixteen (which has itself recorded some of the most attractive performances of Victoria’s music), summed him up in this way:

“Scholar, mystic, priest, singer, organist and composer – six persons all rolled into one and that is, quite simply, why Victoria is the most outstanding composer of the Renaissance. He devoted his life to the church, and his works reveal such heartfelt passion that there are times, in performance, when we are almost overwhelmed by their intensity.”


Here are a few of the best Victoria recordings of which I am aware, with samples where available:

Victoria: Cantica Beatae Virginae
Jordi Savall; Hesperion XX; La Capella Reial de Catalunya

This collection of a dozen or so Marian motets is a gem. Instruments are used to fill out the aural background, giving the music a lush, rich texture. The singing is robust and warm, not at all the cool, bloodless kind of singing one sometimes associates with polyphony. Here is the Ave Maria:


Victoria: Officium Hebdomadae Sanctae
La Colombina

A big (3+ hours) collection of Victoria’s music for Holy Week, superbly sung and evocatively recorded. Passion narratives, Tenebrae music, motets, antiphons, and hymns are all included, intermixed with some Gregorian chant. It’s a beautiful experience to hear it. I have written about this recording before.


Victoria: Et Iesum
Carlos Mena; Juan Carlos Rivera

This disc was on my best of the decade list last year, and I haven’t changed my mind about that. The concept is unusual: Victoria’s polyphonic sacred music is arranged for solo voice and instrumental accompaniment, a practice that was apparently current in Victoria’s own day. The simplicity of the settings brings out the beauty of the vocal line, and the singing, by counter-tenor Carlos Mena, is ravishing. As far as I am concerned, music does not get much better than this. Here is the Salve regina:


In Paradisum: Music of Victoria and Palestrina
The Hilliard Ensemble

This disc includes only four pieces by Victoria, but it warrants inclusion on this short list because of the absorbing and exalting singing. Victoria’s music is heard alongside that of Palestrina, and both are interwoven into the Gregorian Requiem. It’s a special recording. Here they sing Peccantem me:

Holy Saturday: Lamentation of Jeremiah

April 23, 2011

The Tenebrae used to be sung (or said) on each day of the Triduum, either in the early morning hours before sunrise or late on the previous evening. The texts were drawn from the epistles of St. Paul, the writings of St. Augustine, and, most famously, the Biblical book of Lamentations (attributed to Jeremiah). The Tenebrae service was marked especially by the gradual extinguishing of candles in the church as the service proceeded, giving it a wonderfully dramatic structure. The observance of this office was, I understand, deleted in the liturgical reforms of Vatican II, so that it is rarely encountered today. I have experienced it only once, and that at an Anglican church.

Many composers set the Lamentations of Jeremiah to music. Here is Victoria’s setting of the first reading for Holy Saturday (which is the only one I can find in decent sound).

Misericordiae Domini,
quia non sumus consumpti:
quia non defecerunt miserationes eius.

Bonum est viro
cum portaverit iugum ab adolescentia sua.

Ierusalem, Ierusalem,
convertere ad Dominum Deum tuum.


It is of the LORD’s mercies
that we are not consumed,
because his compassions fail not.

It is good for a man
that he bear the yoke in his youth.

Jerusalem, Jerusalem,
return unto the Lord thy God.

(Lam. 3: 22, 27)

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:


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.)


  • 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:


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)


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: