Posts Tagged ‘Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’

Favourites in 2021: Music

December 27, 2021

A good chunk of my listening this year has been related to David Hurwitz’s YouTube channel in which he surveys the discography of individual pieces, highlights rare but rewarding repertoire, and gives chats about various aspects of music. His focus is mostly on orchestral music, and his channel has helped me to rediscover, in a sense, the orchestral music in my collection, which has been a very good experience.

But my favourite music of the year has not been orchestral, but vocal, choral, and, in a few cases, pianistic. That’s the kind of music lover I am.


This past year marked the 500th anniversary of the death of Josquin Desprez, and many ensembles made recordings to celebrate the occasion. I heard a number of excellent ones, but there was one that stood out above the rest, and that’s putting it mildly.

The adventurous Belgian group Graindelavoix put out a disc they called Josquin the Undead, devoted to songs on sombre themes: laments, dirges, and the like. Sounds appealing, no? It is fair to say that Josquin’s sacred music is the more popular side of his compositional personality, but this disc explores his secular chansons, a genre that I tend to think of as relatively light-weight, but is here anything but. I’m not a musician, much less an expert on the theory of early music, so I cannot tell you what Graindelavoix is doing that infuses this music with so much tension and passion and unsettling beauty, nor can I tell you if this is defensible on historical grounds, but I can tell you that whatever they are doing is mesmerizing. This music has never sounded like this before, and it’s something to behold.

Let’s take an example by listening to two performances of Nymphes, nappes. First, here is what I would consider a “standard” approach, from the King’s Singers:

Now let’s hear Graindelavoix tackle the same piece. Notice that it’s more than twice as long — dramatically slower — but especially notice how the harmonies have been juiced up and milked for all they’re worth. There’s a level of attention, and a depth of feeling, and an organic sense of improvisation even (though I doubt actual improvisation) that is simply missing from the other performance, which sounds strait-laced and perfunctory in comparison.

I think that’s extraordinary on every level, and this record is my favourite of the year.


Another wonderful disc that approached Josquin’s music from a very different angle was The Josquin Songbook. On this recording a selection of Josquin’s motets, masses, and chansons have been arranged for one or two voices, with vihuela accompaniment. Instead of a dense polyphonic fabric, we hear one or two of the vocal lines in an intimate, chamber music ambiance. This sort of thing has been done before, preeminently by the counter-tenor Carlos Mena, many years ago, on a recording of music by Victoria, a disc that remains the gold standard for me. But this new record, with the splendid soprano Maria Cristina Kiehr and the fine (and new to me) tenor Jonatan Alvarado, and the vihuela played by Ariel Abramovich, is outstanding by any reasonable standard. The music takes on a limpid beauty that pierces the heart. Again, this is not “standard” Josquin, but it is another approach to his music that highlights its many beauties.

As an example, let’s hear the same chanson as we heard above, “Nymphes, nappes”:


In the runner-up category of the Josquin Anniversary sweepstakes, there were a number of excellent recordings that I recommend. The Tallis Scholars completed a decades-long project to record all of Josquin’s Masses; the final volume included three Masses, and was awarded the Recording of the Year award from BBC Music Magazine. This is an ensemble that practically defines the “standard” approach to Josquin’s music, and indeed to all Renaissance polyphony, and they are very good at what they do. Another excellent record was Giosquino, from the ensembles Odhecaton and The Gesualdo Six, which was dedicated to music Josquin wrote in Italy; these are both very fine groups and I enjoyed this disc. The British ensemble Stile Antico recorded the Missa Pange Lingua and were up to their usual high standard. One of the oddest programmes came from the enterprising ensemble Theleme; they recorded a selection of the chansons, and sang them relatively straight, but added a variety of unusual musical interludes, including one for ondes martenot in which Josquin’s music was re-imagined as a video game theme song. Good stuff.


Sometimes a certain artist and a certain piece of music just seem made for one another. Think of Glenn Gould and the Goldberg Variations, or Arthur Rubinstein and Chopin’s Nocturnes, or Kathleen Ferrier and Mahler’s songs. When I heard that Igor Levit had made a recording of Shostakovich’s Preludes and Fugues, I immediately sensed that same kind of hand-in-glove fit. Here is a pianist with exactly the right combination of sturdiness and finesse to bring these 48 little piano miniatures, which are tightly argued but expressively generous, to life. I’m happy to report that my instincts were sound: this really is the kind of music that showcases his many strengths as a pianist. I’ve got three or four versions of this music in my collection, including the two made by the dedicatee Tatiana Nikolayeva, and Levit is more than worth hearing alongside the others. On a technical level he is flawless (which can’t always be said for Nikolayeva!), and the sound is unimpeachable.

Had he recorded only the Preludes and Fugues it would have been a feast, but actually this only accounts for half of this new record — which runs, incidentally, to about 3-1/2 hours! The other half is Ronald Stevenson’s Passacaglia on DSCH, a long (90 minute) piece written in tribute to Shostakovich. Stevenson was a Scottish pianist and composer who passed away in 2015. I’ve heard some of his music here and there, but never anything like this gargantuan monster. The music is based throughout on the famous DSCH theme that runs through so many of Shostakovich’s own pieces. It’s a big, harmonically lush, and impressive piece, but I would need to hear it a few more times before I could say more.

Here is Shostakovich’s Fugue No.7, in A major:


The idea to pair the music of Alfred Schnittke — thorny, knotty, and often fiercely dissonant — with the music of Arvo Part — serene, simple, and clear as a struck bell — is a good one. I was delighted this year, therefore, to see a new recording of Schnittke’s marvellous Concerto for Choir paired with Part’s Seven Magnificat Antiphons, and from the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir too, who would be near the top of my short list if I could choose a dream team in this repertoire. They don’t disappoint. The Concerto is hideously difficult, but this crew has no problems with it; they sing with wonderful beauty of tone and allow the dissonant textures to come through clearly. The text of this piece is based on thousand-year-old prayers of an Orthodox monk, and Schnittke’s supple music responds sensitively to them. We then get Schnittke’s brief Three Sacred Hymns, which are comparatively simple and consonant, and therefore a nice transition to Part’s Antiphons. The latter aren’t quite the masterpiece that the Concerto is, but they serve as a splendid contrast, and are beautiful in their own right. The disc is a great way to hear outstanding examples of sacred music from the late 20th century, and it could hardly be better sung or better recorded.

Here is the first of Schnittke’s Sacred Hymns, the Hail Mary:


Although it was not, so far as I know, an anniversary year, it was nonetheless a banner year for the music of Arvo Part, with a half dozen very fine recordings of his music issued, among them new performances of his Miserere, his Stabat Mater, and his Passio, all of which had authoritative recordings decades ago by the Hilliard Ensemble, in the presence, or at least with the imprimatur, of the composer, and in the meantime, it seems, others have been afraid to try them. But the river thawed this year, and it is wonderful to have a raft of new recordings of these great pieces. I’ve flopped around trying to decide which to pluck for this list, and I’ve settled on the Passio, from the Helsinki Chamber Choir. It’s one of Part’s most monumental scores, combining strict compositional rigour with the starkest of stark beauties. It relies heavily on the voices of a clutch of soloists; they need to be solid and sombre, and a lack of personality is an asset. The Helsinkians carry it off very well. I’m not ready to say it matches the Hilliard Ensemble, but it is very good, and the sound is more immediate, with greater presence. The final peroration, on which so much depends in this piece, is wonderful.

Here is an excerpt from near the end that includes Jesus’ final saying: “Consummatum est”, which you’ll hear from the solo bass voice:

Other fine Part recordings this year, apart from those already mentioned, are a new recording of Lamentate paired with Part’s more recent piano music from the Lithuanian National Symphony Orchestra and Onute Grazinyte, and a disc of Part’s smaller-scale orchestral pieces from Renand Capucon and the Orchestre de chambre de Lausanne. All terrific, and well worth hearing if you’re an admirer of this music.


It has been five years since I picked a disc of Bach’s motets for my year-end list, so the time was ripe for this new recording from Pygmalion, an ensemble that impresses me every time I hear them. This music needs fleet rhythms, clear textures, perfect timing, and joy! Pygmalion brings everything they have, and it sounds wonderful. They interleave between the motets a variety of pieces written a century or two earlier, in a Renaissance style, by composers like Praetorius (H., if you are wondering) and Gabrieli (G., if you are wondering). It’s an interesting programming decision that highlights the effervescent energy of Bach’s music, while also serving as a pleasant palate cleanser between courses. Excellent all around.

Here is a brief promotional video for the disc:


The sensational young Icelandic pianist Vikunger Olaffson returned this year with a record built around the music of Mozart, Haydn, and their contemporaries. A couple of years ago I praised a recording of Bach by Olaffson, and this new repertoire once again plays to his strengths: rhythmic verve, perfect precision, marvelous clarity, and a singing musicality. We get to hear Mozart’s Sonata No.16 and Haydn’s Sonata in B minor alongside a variety of shorter pieces by lesser-known composers like Galuppi, CPE Bach, and Cimarosa. Olaffson has done these pastiche programmes before, and he does them well. (The disc ends with Liszt’s transcription of Mozart’s Ave Verum Corpus, which makes a perfect finish.) I’ve returned to this music often this year.

Here he is playing Mozart’s famous Rondo (K.545):


Estonia, a small country, produces more than its fair share of composers and choirs, and it might be that Cyrillus Kreek had something to do with that. Born late in the nineteenth century, he belongs to an older generation of Estonian musicians who built up the musical culture of the country. The Suspended Harp of Babel is a fine tribute from the superb Estonian ensemble Vox Clamantis, who sing an assortment of Kreek’s settings of folk songs, hymns, and psalms, all of which are woven together with instrumental interpolations on unusual instruments like the nyckelharpa and kannel. The disc closes with an enterprising collision of Estonian folk music, a Lutheran chorale, and, of all things, a song of Guillaume de Machaut. It’s all very “ECM”, if you know what I mean, but in my books that’s a good thing more often than not, and I find it definitely a good thing here. The mood of the disc is generally serene and contemplative. As good as the music is, the biggest draw for me is Vox Clamantis, who are one of the world’s great vocal ensembles. Let them sing anything, and I will listen.


Another favourite pianist, Anton Batagov, was back this year with a two-disc set of Schubert’s music. It had to be two discs because Batagov plays the music so slowly. That’s his thing. I’ve an affection for him that is something like the affection one has for a true but socially awkward friend: one doesn’t wheel him out at a party, but afterward, when most everyone has gone home and the lights are low, he’s just the thing. I’ve discovered, with his help, that I quite like slowed down music. I like hearing the harmonies and the melodic lines without being hurried. On these discs he plays the massive Sonata No.21 — which, of course, is even more massive in his hands: where a canonical pianist like Kempff takes about 45 minutes, Batagov takes a little over 60. Andras Schiff gave us the Impromptu No.3 in about 5 minutes; Batagov takes 11. It’s not the last word on this music, not by any means, but it’s wonderful in its own peculiar way.


I’m a person who likes to be systematic, and so it’s fitting, I suppose, that St. Hildegard’s Ordo Virtutum, which is sometimes called the first opera, was also the first opera I ever went to. It’s not an opera in our later sense, of course, but it is a musical drama. She wrote it for performance in her abbey, and it tells an allegorical story about a soul tempted by the devil but defended by the virtues.  All of the singing parts are for women, of course, but the devil’s role, shouted instead of sung, is for a man. I saw it performed by Sequentia, who I think were the first to make a recording of it. In the intervening years another three or four records have been made, some quite good, and this year there was another: from the US ensemble Seraphic Fire. They say it is the “first complete recording”, but I’m not sure what that means; at just over an hour, it’s the shortest of the versions I have in my collection. No matter. It’s beautiful. This music was an interesting choice for Seraphic Fire because they are by no means medieval specialists. They sing the piece mostly a capella, though the different sections of the drama are introduced by bells, and the devil’s entry gets some crude, toneless percussion. It’s a relatively simple interpretation, but the singing is so fine, and the sound so good, that I’m happy to recommend it.

Here is a segment from early in the drama, “The Soul Invokes the Virtues”:


All in all, a great year for music, as it always is!

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.

Thinking on your seat

November 17, 2017

This is pretty great: Marie João Pires was scheduled to play a Mozart piano concerto with Riccardo Chailly and (I assume) the Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam. When the orchestra began to play, though, she realized that she had practiced a different concerto!

It’s difficult to hear the exchange between Chailly and her during the introduction. He seems to be rather enjoying her quandary. But his faith in her is not misplaced; taking a few moments to recollect herself, she finds her footing and begins to play.

When I see something like this, it helps me to realize what a wonderful and perilous thing music-making before a live audience is. It could collapse at any moment, and is only kept afloat, note by note, by superb musicianship and retentive memories.

Solomon: Mozart

December 5, 2011

Mozart: A Life
Maynard Solomon
(HarperCollins, 1996)
640 p.

These notes originally written 4 February 2006. Mozart died 220 years ago today, on 5 December 1791.

The basic outline of Mozart’s life is well-known: he was a child prodigy who began playing the violin at age 3, began composing at age 5, wrote his first symphony at age 8, and spent much of his childhood giving celebrated performances in the major courts of Europe; as a young man a fractious relationship with his father and with the archbishop of Salzburg drove him to Vienna where he achieved a certain amount of fame, but not enough to stay afloat financially; at age 35, while working on his great Requiem Mass, he fell ill and died; he was buried in an unmarked grave outside Vienna. As a simple sketch, this is fairly accurate.

There are other traditional elements to the Mozart story as well: he wrote music effortlessly, the purity and beauty of his music being the natural expression of his personality; he was misunderstood and neglected by his contemporaries, whose philistinism contributed to his poverty and illness; his sudden death was due to his having been poisoned by a jealous rival composer (this latter theory was popularized by the film Amadeus). On these points, Solomon aims to correct or, at least, complicate the tradition.

For instance, he finds little truth in the poisoning theory, arguing instead that Mozart died from an acute rheumatic fever, from which he had suffered intermittently throughout his life.

By looking carefully at Mozart’s income during his later years — and he traces each florin with a determination that borders on the obsessive — he is able to challenge the callous-neglect theory as well. It is true that in 1790 (the year before his death) Mozart’s income suffered a major decline, but Solomon is able to account for it by other means: an outbreak of war naturally led the aristocracy to be a little more conservative in their spending, Mozart’s major patron, the Emporer, passed away, and Mozart himself wrote almost no new music in the latter half of that year, all of which neatly accounts for a depressed income without needing to invoke the romance of a genius struggling against his benighted times. On the contrary, argues Solomon, Mozart was well-beloved by his countrymen, and his sudden passing was mourned throughout Europe. Interestingly, the tradition that he was buried in a common grave is true, but the tradition neglects to add that in Vienna at the time about 70% of burials were of this sort, and it was considered unremarkable by their standards. I admit this seems incredible, but it is apparently so.

Finally, to learn that Mozart went for six months without writing anything of consequence challenges the tradition that the music flowed from him as readily as water from a well. This is a difficult one to handle, because although he professed that he laboured hard over each piece, by any common standard he really was staggeringly prolific, and he really could write astonishingly quickly, and the beauty and clarity of his inspirations really does leave one with the impression that he sang as easily as the birds and the angels. What, then, are we to make of this anomalous period of silence? Here Solomon digs deep into the surviving letters, arguing that, owing largely to the death of his father and the unresolved tensions in their relationship, Mozart experienced a period of depression, confusion, and interior struggle in which he was unable to work creatively. This portrait is necessarily quite speculative, but Solomon is not reckless, and in the end his is a plausible and admirably serious attempt to understand his subject from the inside.

In fact this psychological probing is a recurring element of the book: Mozart’s relationship with his father, his love life, his Masonic involvement, his enduring joy in scatological humour, and, yes, even his music all take extended sessions on the couch. I don’t mind this, and it can even be enlightening — most of the time. I have written before about the peril of penning commentary on the meaning of music, and Solomon doesn’t always skirt the temptation. For instance, writing about the opening bars of the String Quartet in C major, K 465, he says:

Without knowing precisely where we are, we know that we are in an alien universe. Laocoon is in the grip of the writhing serpents. Reality has been defamiliarized, the uncanny has supplanted the commonplace.

I don’t know about you, but my eyes become defocusized and roll backward if I read too much of this sort of thing. I get the impression, too, that Solomon has a rather different view of Mozart’s music than most. That impression was strengthened when I came upon this passage:

Mozart is one of those rare creative beings who comes to disturb the sleep of the world. He was put on earth, it seems, not merely to provide an anodyne to sorrow and an antidote to loss, but to trouble our rest, to remind us that all is not well, that neither the center nor the perimeter can hold, that things are not what they seem to be, that masquerade and reality may well be interchangeable, that love is frail, life transient, faith unstable… Mozart’s universe is itself uncertain, a maze of doorways to the unknown and the unexpected. Everywhere there are dislocations, fissures, tears, and weak spots; cynicism and disillusionment now permeate his resolutions, corrupt his happy endings.

In other words, Mozart is a spiritual progenitor of Nietzsche and Kafka. It hardly needs saying that this is the opposite of what is normally said about Mozart: a casual sampling of historical commentary will turn up many ‘divine child’ and ‘sweet beauty’ references, but few dark intimations of his destructive power. Of course, it is possible that Solomon finds these things in Mozart’s music, and I won’t presume to rule them impermissible, but in the end I suspect that this image is just as fanciful and romantic as the conventional one, salted according to taste.

Despite those criticisms, however, this is an excellent biography. It is thorough, takes its subject seriously, makes an honest and competent effort to understand Mozart as a complete and complex human being, and is well written and engaging.

Great moments in opera: La Clemenza di Tito

January 7, 2011

La Clemenza di Tito is something of a black sheep among Mozart’s late operas.  It premiered just a few months before his untimely death, and so is a mature work, but it has not won the hearts of audiences in the way that the other late works have.  This may be due, in part, to the haste with which it was written: just three weeks elapsed between Mozart’s receiving the commission and the date of the first performance.  But I think the reason is principally because Mozart returned to the opera seria genre, and, as a general rule, opera seria, with its polite formality, stock characters, and moralizing tone, has not had much appeal after the eighteenth century.  The likable characters, wit, and dramatic urgency of the other late operas are almost completely absent from La Clemenza di Tito.

Having said that, it was still written by Mozart, and there is lovely music in it.  An interesting bit of trivia is that this was the first of Mozart’s operas to be performed in London.  If you had been a Londoner with not enough money to go abroad, and just enough money to gain admittance to the city’s opera house, La Clemenza di Tito would have been your first impression of Mozartian opera.

The basic story concerns a plot against the life of the Emperor Titus, and his magnanimous clemency toward the perpetrators.  As a musical highlight, I have selected the finale of Act I, which is unique in Mozart’s oeuvre for the manner in which it brings together both a choir and a group of soloists in a finale.  The conventions of opera-plotting required that Act I end in a state of general confusion, it being the task of Act II to draw order from the disorder.  In this case, the act ends with a botched attempt on the life of Titus.

Here is a clip from a 1980 film version of the opera. There are no subtitles, and it is probably not very easy to follow what is happening, and that’s ok.  (The libretto is here, starting at “Deh conservate”, if your Italian is good.)

Great moments in opera: Così fan tutte

December 2, 2010

One’s view of a piece of music can be strongly affected by a live performance.  A few years ago I saw Così fan tutte sung by the students at our local faculty of music, and it was such a terrific night that, ever since, Così has been the opera that I always think of first when I think of Mozart.

I love it for three principal reasons.  First, of course, is the fact that Mozart poured out a gorgeous river of song; Così does not have as many famous solo arias as Le Nozze di Figaro, but Mozart filled it with wonderful ensemble numbers, which I prefer, and for sheer enjoyment it is hard to beat.  Second, I like the neat symmetry of the story: we begin with two pairs of young lovers, plus a third buffo pair who tamper with their romances, and we end with the same structure but with the lovers having traded partners.  Third, it has a genial and gentle comedic spirit.  Some, I know, contend that the opera is cynical, or fraught with ambiguity and tension, but I do not agree with them.

Which brings me to a fourth, minor, reason why I have a special affection for Così: it is politically incorrect.  One often hears (although it is not really true) that Mozart’s two previous da Ponte operas (Le Nozze di Figaro and Don Giovanni) were politically “revolutionary” because they depicted the aristocratic characters as buffoons and the lower class characters as admirable and intelligent, thereby offending the sensibilities of the original aristocratic audience.  All too often, this putative observation presents an occasion for modern audiences to feel smugly self-satisfied, for we cannot but note that we are not offended in that way, and that, of course, is because we are more open-minded, generous, and better than they were.  Then along comes Così fan tutte, which pricks at one of our sincerest pieties.  The title of the opera is not straightforward to translate, but All women behave thus would be a reasonable English rendering, and the entire story is premised on the idea that women are fickle and inconstant. In other words we have here a sexist Mozart, and that is, I confess, quite cheering.

The first highlight I have selected is the Act I trio Soave sia il vento.  It is sung by the two young women, Fiordiligi and Dorabella, and the prankster, Don Alfonso, as they bid farewell to the two young men who are allegedly departing to serve in the war.  (They will shortly return, disguised as “Albanian gentlemen”, to woo one another’s beloved.)  The trio is one of those sections of melting beauty that Mozart’s muse dreamed up.  It is sung here in a recent Glyndebourne production.  English subtitles are included.

The second section I’d like to highlight is the opera’s finale, beginning with the hilarious entrance of the maid Despina disguised as a notary to solemnize the marriages of the two women to the “Albanian gentlemen”.  Despina’s little song is the funniest operatic moment that I know of.  The deed done, the men depart and return undisguised to confront their faithless lovers.  Things come to a head before finding a happy resolution, and in the meantime we get to hear how Mozart handles having five or six singing characters on stage at once.  These two clips, which take us right to the end of the opera, are from the same Glyndebourne production as above, and have subtitles.

Great moments in opera: Don Giovanni

October 26, 2010

It is time for Don Giovanni.  Let’s jump right to a couple of highlights.

Leporello tells us that the Don’s powers of seduction conquer all resistance, and the lovely duet La ci darem la mano confirms it.  This has got to be one of the downright prettiest things Mozart wrote.  Note how the Don introduces the main tune, which Zerlina (on whom his roving eye has lit for the time being) takes up in her turn, but hesitatingly (“Vorrei, e non vorrei”).  But just a few minutes later they are singing in unison, “making beautiful music together”, as the saying goes.  It’s a nice musical illustration of the dramatic development. Anyway, here is Samuel Ramey and Dawn Upshaw in a production from 1990, with English subtitles.  (The duet begins at 2:00.)

My other favourite moment in this opera is the finale of Act II, in which the statue of the Commendatore, whom Don Giovanni has slain in the opening scene of Act I, appears as a supernatural dinner guest at the Don’s party, ready to avenge his death.  The Commendatore’s part, though small, is simply magnificent when sung by a bass with sufficient power.  Here is a 2001 performance from Zurich, senza subtitles.  Don Giovanni is sung by Rodney Gilfry, Leporello by László Polgár, and the all-important Commendatore by the Wagnerian bass Matti Salminen.  This is just great:

Damn you, Don Giovanni!

Great moments in opera: Idomeneo

August 9, 2010

Idomeneo, written when Mozart was 24 years old, is the earliest of his operas to be regularly recorded and performed today. It is an opera seria, and so inherits the rather formal (and, some might say, drama-quenching) conventions of that genre.  Certainly it is nowhere near as engaging as his later da Ponte operas.  Still, there are beautiful things in it, and it is worth hearing.

The story is drawn, as was standard for opera seria, from mythology.  Returning from the Trojan war, Idomeneo, the king of Crete, is imperiled at sea.  He makes a vow to Neptune that if he is saved from death he will sacrifice the first person he sees on shore.  He is saved, but, tragically, the unlucky man is Idomeneo’s own son, Idamante.  There is also a romance between Idamante and Ilea, the daughter of Priam.  Anyway, despite the ominous premise of the story, everything works out in the end.

One of my favourite bits of this opera is the chorus Placido è il mar, sung to celebrate the auspiciously calm seas.  It has a gorgeous and relaxed melody with a gently rocking orchestral accompaniment.  Here it is, from a French performance given last year in Aix-en-Provence, with Les Musiciens du Louvre conducted by Mark Minkowski.  The two instances of the chorus are separated by a brief aria for Elettra, sung here by Mireille Delunsch.  To my ears she sounds out of tune, but the chorus sounds fine.

One of the show-stopping pieces in Idomeneo is the quartet Andrò ramingo e solo, sung by Idomeneo, Ilia, Idamante, and Elettra.  At this point in the story Idamante is preparing to leave Crete in order to evade the merciless justice of Neptune, and Idamante and Idomeneo lament his going. (Elettra, for her part, is meditating on revenge, for reasons that would be too complicated to explain.) Here is a performance with Nicolaus Harnoncourt leading Concertus Musicus Wein.  There are no subtitles, but an English translation can be seen here (scroll down to “No.21 – Quartet”).  In this clip, the quartet begins at about 2:05.

Listening to Mozart has been so refreshing that I am going to continue to do so.  I hope to turn my attention to the da Ponte operas, starting with Le Nozze di Figaro, sometime soon.