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Troubadours and trouvères

By Stephen J. Nereffid. Posted in A History of Classical Music, Classical | 1 Comment »

A History of Classical Music through Recordings: Part 3

Dante & The Troubadours. Sequentia. Deutsche Harmonia Mundi (link)

The word troubadour is a Frenchified version of trobador, an old Provençal (or Occitan, or langue d’oc) word that derives from trobar, which may be translated as to compose or to find. The first troubadour whose work we know today was Guillaume (1071-ca.1127), count of Poitiers and duke of Aquitaine. We’ve encountered Aquitaine previously in this history, as home to some of the earliest examples of polyphony; this large region of southern and central France was nominally ruled by the French king but was essentially independent and by the 12th century a home to strong spiritual and artistic communities. This was a feudal society, and like Guillaume most of the troubadours were members of the nobility, although some were commoners whose talents brought them elevated status. High-born or low, the world of the troubadour was an aristocratic one – it was a rich person’s hobby, rather than a profession – and their lyric poems reflect lordly and knightly concerns: service to their master, political topics, self-aggrandisement, war (Guillaume was a leader of the Crusade of 1101, losing his entire army in a massacre before they had reached the Holy Land), but also – and mostly – what we might call courtly love and the troubadours knew as fin’ amors. The troubadours’ love songs usually spoke of a love that was unconsummatable, because the object of the poet’s affection (or worship, really) not only outranked him but was generally married too. Some 2,600 troubadour poems are known today, although music exists for only about one-tenth of these. The melodies bear similarities to those found in the chant repertoire, though some might be related to folk music of the time. As for the poetry, it was virtuoso work, admired for its technical ingenuity such as stanza structure and the relationships of rhymes. The various types of subject matter allowed the existence of numerous genres, such as the canso (a courtly love song), the pastorela (a mock-popular style of song involving a knight and a shepherdess), or the planh (a lament on the death of some important figure). Dante Alighieri discussed the qualities of the troubadours’ poetry in his treatise De vulgari eloquentia, and Sequentia’s album showcases the composers and music that Dante mentioned in his writings. Whatever their artistic merits, though, Dante in the Divine Comedy placed some of them in Hell: they were nobles, after all, and involved in the politics and intrigues of the time.

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This mixtape recipe is not just a collection of songs, but a collection of films with music, and the connection between the pieces is one of visual feel. Long gone are the days when a music video was strictly a promotional accompaniment to a new single release. A growing array of film makers choose existing musical material as a stimulus for creating loosely related short pieces of visual art. Other projects emerge in which film-making and music-making are parts of a larger artistic project, each carrying its own weight. In many cases the resulting film has little to do with showcasing a band or titillating with cavorting divas; the focus is rather on exploring another dimension of the aesthetics of a piece of music. Below are three recent videos that are worth a look and that share a common wintry palette and a certain captivating forlornness.

Pjusk – Sus
Pjusk are a Norwegian electronic duo who specialize in tense, icy soundscapes and have a new album due March 12 on the Glacial Movements label. A song from their 2010 album Sval was recently made the subject of a short film by Till Nowak, a German digital artist. The video works with snowy aerial footage of the Nordic landscape that indwells Pjusk’s music, but springs some visual surprises, taking things off-kilter enough to match the track’s uneasy ambience.

Pjusk – Sus on Vimeo.

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These are the best-reviewed discs in the latest issues of the three U.K.-based classical review magazines – Gramophone, BBC Music Magazine, and International Record Review.

International Record Review Outstanding Recordings, February 2012

“Music for a Time of War” – Adams: The Wound Dresser; Britten: Sinfonia da Requiem; Ives: The Unanswered Question; Vaughan Williams: Symphony no.4. Oregon Symphony/Carlos Kalmar. PentaTone PTC5186 393
“a compelling and inspired example of intelligent programme planning… remarkable performances” – Nigel Simeone

Britten: Violin concerto; Double concerto; Lachrymae. Anthony Marwood (vn); Lawrence Power (va); BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra/Ilan Volkov. Hyperion CDA67801
“performances which it would be difficult to imagine could be improved upon… For me, the greatest revelation on this disc is the Double Concerto… the performance on this disc by Marwood and Lawrence Power reveals it to be an astonishing achievement as a work of art on several levels” – Robert Matthew-Walker

Kinsella: Symphonies nos.6 & 7; Prelude and Toccata for strings; Cúchulainn and Ferdia – Duel at the Ford. RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra/Proinnsias Ó Duinn, Gavin Maloney. RTÉ Lyric FM CD134
“It’s rare to find a composer who manages to encapsulate both Apollonian spontaneity and Dionysian drama, but John Kinsella, born in Dublin in 1932, is one such: his orchestral writing has an appealing freshness, and yet there’s no sense that the music is dodging the larger issues that the symphonic form is wont to address. … This is, in short, a knock-out CD that deserves your swift attention” – Martin Anderson

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Gareth Dickson - Quite a Way Away

When approaching Gareth Dickson’s new record it seems almost obligatory to dwell for a moment on the fact that it is released on 12k records, a label that does not usually deal with music that has lyrics, let alone releases by singer-songwriters. Dickson has toured extensively as a guitarist with folk singer Vashti Bunyan. His own music combines acoustic guitar finger-picking with an attention to atmosphere, resulting in what one might call ambient folk songs. (You can stream one of his previous albums, the lovely Collected Recordings, here.) Quite a Way Away is certainly something new enough in 12k terms to catch the eye, but it is less of a radical break than it might seem. Listen to the acoustically oriented ambience of Illuha’s recent gem Shizuku, and its inclusion of the spoken word in the form of Japanese poetry, trace the gentle contours of Ballads of the Research Department by The Boats, which also included some singing, and focus on the gently plucked guitar of Kane Ikin’s Contrail (review here), and it will be clear that while Quite a Way Away is something of a shift of genre for 12k, it has a great deal in common with its immediate predecessors in terms of aesthetic. All share a careful hush, a gentle attentiveness to delicate, small, mostly acoustic sounds. Listening back over these releases brought to mind a haiku that appeared on the sleeve of Tetsu Inoue and Carl Stone’s 2001 collaboration pict.soul on the Cycling ’74 label:

The soft breeze that stirs
this vast undulating field
deafens the spider.

Those lines capture for me 12k’s approach to music, music made for the spider rather than for the stadium, inviting the listener to find expansive worlds of sound in the rustle of a soft breeze through grass.

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This is part of a series suggesting ingredients for mixtapes or playlists on a variety of themes.

Whether you have a special someone to be your valentine this year or not, we’ve got you covered with this genre hopping “two-fer” mixtape of old and new songs ranging from easy listening to rock, pop, R&B, and lesser known indie singer-songwriter folk stuff.   Side A is just the thing for happy couples to play while celebrating Valentine’s Day with a romantic evening alone – or, if the love affair’s over, flip it to Side B and let the music keep you company this Valentine’s Day.  Either way, it’s a night spent with some great music.

Links to artist websites are provided for each track – a good way to learn more about the artists or to catch up on their latest news.  Many of them are working on new recording projects for 2012.


1. Galileo (Someone Like You) – from Since Kyabram by Declan O’Rourke

When Irish troubadour Declan O’Rourke wrote this song, he thought no one would want to hear it. But he liked it and says he only finished it because he thought his family might enjoy it.  He was more than a little surprised when he learned Josh Groban picked it up for inclusion on one of his albums – and a little sad to say goodbye to “his little song.”  Since then, it has been covered by numerous artists and is destined to become a romantic standard.

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The best-reviewed classical albums of 2011

By Stephen J. Nereffid. Posted in Classical | No Comments »

Mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato’s aria collection “Diva Divo” is the best-reviewed classical album of the year. How can anyone make such an apparently definitive claim? Well, one way – which is the way I did it and therefore for the purposes of this article is the way – is to gather together all the reviews of all the past year’s albums that have been published in the major classical CD review magazines, combine them with reviews posted online, assign a score to each review, perform some calculations, and produce an average review score for each album. It’s the sort of thing Metacritic does, only applied to classical recordings. 2011 marks the fifth year I have been doing this and, because when I first started it I was running a site called Nereffid’s Guide, the results go under the moniker of the Nereffid’s Guide Awards. The year’s releases (because the world of classical reviews is sometimes slow-moving, “the year” covers August 2010 through July 2011) are divided into 16 categories. And here are the winners, the best-reviewed albums in each category:

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Burlap to Cashmere: A Triumphant Return

By Kezzie Baker. Posted in Folk, Rock | No Comments »

I was never more surprised than when I saw the self-titled album Burlap to Cashmere on a recent list of Top 100 best albums of 2011. I knew this band. Discovered by an agent who heard them playing in a New Jersey coffeehouse, Burlap to Cashmere had independently released a live record in 1997 and the following year signed with A&M to release their major label debut, Is Anybody Out There? (an award-winning unconventional Christian music album). Within a few years, they had disappeared without a trace. They were a high-energy folk/rock band with a unique sound, thanks to the band’s talented songwriter and lead singer, Steven Delopoulos, and his cousin’s (John Philippidis) quick-fingering flamenco guitar riffs. That combination created their one-of-a-kind Mediterranean-influenced folk/rock sound of Greek rhythms and world beats that reflected their Christian Greek Orthodox heritage.

That was 13 years ago. Now an album bearing their name appears on a 2011 best albums list and I’m thinking it must be a re-issue or something. But, no. It is indeed a brand new album with 11 brand new songs. And it is creating quite a stir:

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