Posts Tagged ‘Year in Review 2019’

Favourites of 2019: Music

January 1, 2020

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

Proceeding in chronological order:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Johann Sebastian Bach
Víkingur Ólafsson
(Deutsche Grammophon, 2018)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Favourites of 2019: Books

December 28, 2019

It is gratifying to arrive at year-end and discover that, against the odds, I have somehow managed to read quite a nice selection of books over the course of the past twelve months. Today I’d like to comment briefly on those I most appreciated.

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I have had three reading projects on the go this year: the first, a multi-year effort to read the complete surviving body of Old English poetry (in translation) I finished up in February. This was a very rewarding project that brought many delights and surprises with it, and I have written about it at some length in this space.

This was Year 3 in my on-going reading project in Roman history and literature. The entire year I passed in the company of the Augustan poets of the first century before Christ, reading the entire surviving poetic corpi of Horace, Virgil, Ovid, Propertius, and Tibullus. Of these, the work I enjoyed the most was probably Ovid’s Metamorphoses, but what most surprised me was the poetry of Propertius, a poet whom I’d heard little enough about but whose delightful, passionate, dramatic poetry strongly appealed to me. I am looking forward to continuing this project in 2020, when I plan to sojourn first with Seneca’s plays and letters before taking up the historical works of Tacitus.

A third reading project, launched in the latter part of the year, is focused on plays from the early modern period (roughly 1550-1800). I’ve started on the stage in Elizabethan and Jacobean England, and, of the half-dozen or so plays I’ve got under my belt so far, the most impressive has been John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi, a masterful tragedy that I found totally convincing.

I suppose a fourth, less formal, reading project has been my tour through the comic novels of P.G. Wodehouse. I began the year reading the annals of Psmith and close out the year mid-stream in the chronicles of Blandings Castle. But it seems churlish to deliberate about which of these choice morsels is most deserving of praise, so I’ll not try.

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I tackled two long novels this year, and mercifully they were both worth the effort. The Tale of Genji is an 11th century Japanese classic that inducts the reader into the hyper-refined world of the Heian court, where elaborate manners and self-control are the order of the day but, in subdued tones, all the passions and interests of human life are present under the surface. It’s a beautifully written (or beautifully translated) masterpiece that I found challenging but worthwhile.

The second was quite different: in Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo I found a gripping tale of injustice provoking a long and patient revenge, and I relished every page. It’s a story that seems tailor-made for the big screen, and somebody should really make a film about it. Hey!

I also read — well, finished — for the first time this year C.S. Lewis’ Space Trilogy, and, despite my mild allergy to science fiction, I found much to admire in it. Like the medieval authors whom Lewis so admired, he found a way to pack a good deal of “sound instruction” into his fiction, and I liked that these books grappled with weighty philosophical and theological themes.

The last fiction book I’ll highlight is Richard Adams’ Watership Down. This was a great favourite of my sister’s when I was growing up, but I, for whatever reason, never read it. I ought to have done so. The story is exciting, but Adams takes the time to develop his characters in rich detail, and I loved how he created for his rabbits an elaborate social and religous culture. The book is also a pretty thoughtful meditation on politics and the common good, for those — not me — with a talent for thinking about such things.

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I’ve been finding it increasingly difficult to find the time and mental energy to engage with substantial non-fiction, but I did finish a few good books. Two were re-reads: Lewis’ The Abolition of Man is an evergreen meditation on the foundations of moral judgment and on the probable consequences of the modern habit of pouring acid on those foundations; Josef Pieper’s Leisure the Basis of Culture is an essential book that excavates an ancient account of what a well-lived human life looks like, and what practices sustain it. These are two books to read again and again.

I spent a lot of time this year on David Hicks’ Norms and Nobility, a learned meditation on the nature and goals of education, especially as conceived prior to John Dewey; that was another country, and Hicks is an excellent guide. I also spent many a happy hour paging back and forth through Edward Feser’s Five Proofs of the Existence of God, a volume that I can confidently recommend to readers in search of an accessible and concise treatment of the basics of philosophical theology. Finally, I enjoyed reading Jacques Barzun’s analysis of Romanticism as a cultural and intellectual movement in European history, and in human society more generally, in his Classic, Romantic, and Modern.

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That’s the kind of year it’s been for me. As usual, I’ve made a histogram of the original years of publication of the books I read this year, and it looks like this:

Not a bad spread this year, helped, of course, by the Roman, medieval, and early modern reading projects. Interesting that the 18th century almost got missed entirely.

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Trivia:

Longest book: Dumas, The Count of Monte Cristo (1240 p.)

Oldest book: Horace, Satires (c.30 BC)

Newest book: Harts, The Mystery of Castle MacGorilla (Oct 2019)

Multiple books by same author: Thornton Burgess (11), Shakespeare (10), Wodehouse (6), Ovid (5), Horace (4), C.S. Lewis (4).