This has been another excellent year in classical recordings for me. I remain amazed at how much fine music of the past there is for me to discover, not to mention the brand-new delights that are increasingly catching my ear. This process of exploration means that, as usual, my list tends to avoid the standard classical repertoire but nevertheless covers plenty of ground.
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What good fortune! How many of us – whatever kind of music we listen to – ever get the chance to hear two of our favourite recent albums performed in their entirety, live, on the same evening, in a single venue? And this as just part of a two-day event with plenty more wonderful music, from brand-new pieces to beloved classics. Bang on a Can came to Dublin, and the weather improved too.
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Following on from my list of music by still-living composers, here’s one of older music. The usual caveats apply regarding how representative of the year’s releases this is, with the added proviso that I tend to avoid new recordings of repertoire that’s already in my collection, which brings the selection somewhat away from the mainstream. That said, I’ve covered a lot of ground and the 15 albums collectively serve to demonstrate just how broad the term “classical music” is—and how new centuries-old music can sound.
Anna Prohaska. Behind the Lines [DG]
The Austrian soprano marks the centenary of the First World War, with a selection of songs spanning several centuries and countries. From the opening folk song segueing into a piece from Beethoven’s “Egmont” music, through such varied composers as Roger Quilter and Wolfgang Rihm, to the final pair of Whitman settings by Kurt Weill, Prohaska is always at home. A superb, moving recital.
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This year I seemed to listen to a lot more new classical music; not just that, but a lot more really good new classical music, so much so that it deserves its own end-of-year list (an “old” music list will follow). I’m defining “new” music simply as music written by people who are still alive, though the bulk of what appears here is from the present century. If you know nothing about contemporary classical, let me assure you that my list is utterly unrepresentative of the overall state of the art. So, with that in mind…
John Allemeier. Deep Water: The Murder Ballads [Albany]
Ellen Smith, shot through the heart; Frankie Silver, who killed her abusive husband with his own gun and then dismembered him; and Omie Wise, seduced and drowned by a wealthy young man. Three folk songs from North Carolina inspired John Allemeier and choreographer E.E. Balcos to create a darkly lyrical trio of chamber works that together make a single piece of dance theatre. This is vivid music that doesn’t need to be seen to be believed.
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A History of Classical Music through Recordings: Part 10
“The Art of the Netherlands”. Early Music Consort/David Munrow. Virgin
While the Renaissance is regarded as having begun in Italy in the 14th century, convention has it that “Renaissance music” begins in the Low Countries and northern France in the 15th. Part of the reason for this discrepancy is that whereas the art and literature of the Renaissance and of the classical period that inspired it had long been studied, the same wasn’t true of music. Until the 19th century, the music of the past tended to stay in the past, unperformed, and it wasn’t until the 20th century that there was much general interest in “early music” (broadly, anything before about 1750). Such music had literally to be rediscovered, and the music of trecento Italy simply wasn’t known about when ideas of “Renaissance music” were first considered. So perhaps Landini and his contemporaries should be called the first Renaissance composers; but convention has sided with the theorist Johannes Tinctoris (c1435-1511), who was dismissive of all music prior to the 15th century and considered music to have been reborn in his time. Spearheading this apparent rebirth were the composers of what’s called the Franco-Flemish school, beginning with Dufay and Binchois and ending over a century later. Like Dufay, many of these composers spent at least some of their careers in Italy or other parts of Europe, and the widespread diffusion of their works (aided greatly by the invention of printing) helped to create an international style of music.
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Yes, top 23: this was a very good year of classical releases for me, and it turns out that the number of albums I want to mention doesn’t correspond exactly with the number of fingers and toes I possess. To buck convention even further, I’m not going to rank the albums, aside from my favourite of the year. The usual provisos apply; the list is some distance away from being representative of the year’s classical releases as a whole.
#1. Petitgirard: The Little Prince
Laurent Petitgirard conducting
A mysterious, sombre and beautiful ballet from 2010, based on the classic book. Petitgirard makes use of a choir and a handful of instrumentalists; if I describe the music as like a softer, French-accented Philip Glass, this doesn’t do it justice but at least might give you some idea of the sound-world.
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A History of Classical Music through Recordings: Part 9
“Joye: Les plaintes de Gilles de Bins dit Binchois”. Graindelavoix/Björn Schmelzer. Glossa (link)
Although the dukes of Burgundy were nominally vassals of the French king, in the late 14th and 15th centuries they grew in power thanks to useful marriages and land acquisitions, taking advantage also of France’s difficulties during the Hundred Years War. When Philip the Good became duke in 1419 he inherited not just part of northeastern France but also Flanders and its important commercial centers; over the course of his reign, he added much of the rest of the Low Countries and brought Burgundy to the height of its power. Philip was a great patron of the arts: he appointed the Flemish painter Jan van Eyck to his court, and his chapel of musicians was among the finest in Europe. Because Philip lived mostly in his northern possessions rather than in Dijon, most of his musicians came from Flanders and the Low Countries. One such musician was Gilles de Bins, known as Gilles Binchois, born probably in Mons around 1400, who joined Philip’s chapel in the 1420s, remaining there until 1453 (he died in 1460). He’s best known today for his secular French chansons; the dukes of Burgundy were carrying on the medieval courtly tradition, and Binchois’s chansons are on the continuum stretching back through Machaut to the trouvères. Binchois seems to have been particularly keen on composing by conventional rules: most of his chansons are in rondeau form, with four- or five-line stanzas and two-line refrains, most have lines of eight syllables, and almost all are in triple metre. What made Binchois stand out among his contemporaries were his graceful melodies, combined with a lack of rhythmic complexity. This simple and elegant music seems to lend itself to melancholic expression, as exemplified by Graindelavoix’s collection of plaintes, or laments. It seems odd to title such an album “Joye”—which comes from Johannes Ockeghem’s description of Binchois as “the father of joy” in his lament on the death of Binchois, included on the disc—but Björn Schmelzer explains that the “joy” in question is a more profound emotion that relates to “singing out one’s sadness”: a 15th-century form of the blues, if you like.
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A History of Classical Music through Recordings: Part 8
“Worcester Fragments”. Orlando Consort. Amon Ra
There’s not much extant music from the 14th century or earlier that’s specifically English. Under the Anglo-Saxons in the 10th and 11th centuries, a repertory of tropes for Gregorian chants was developed, with examples surviving today in manuscripts from Winchester and Canterbury. Among the changes brought by the Norman conquest of 1066 was the replacement of senior clergy by Normans, who imported their own liturgical traditions and introduced what is now called the Sarum rite. This rite was melodically similar (though not identical) to the Roman rite and included certain unique prayers as well as locally significant additions to the calendar. Thanks to the Normans and their successors the Plantagenets (who came to power in 1154 with the accession of Henry II), England was now closely linked to France, politically and culturally. We saw in Chapter 2 that Anonymous IV, the key source of information on Léonin and Pérotin, was an Englishman, and in fact the earliest surviving version of the Magnus liber organi of Notre Dame is one produced for the Augustinians of St. Andrews, Scotland. English composers seem not to have been especially interested in abstract theories of music compared with their French counterparts, however, and a distinctive English musical voice began to develop during the 13th century, one significant feature of which was a preference for thirds and sixths that may reflect an earlier Scandinavian influence. Unfortunately, the Reformation of the 16th century resulted in the destruction of many manuscripts, and the only records of English polyphony in the 12th, 13th, and 14th centuries survive in fragments. The “Worcester fragments” are individual leaves from manuscripts used in Worcester Cathedral; they survived only because they had been recycled for book-binding, and in the 20th century they were gathered together to represent what scholars believe to have been a very rich repertoire of polyphony.
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This is the first time I’ve compiled a personal best of the year, and I realise the resulting list says as much about my buying habits as about my taste in classical music. There’s little you might call the mainstream classical repertoire, because I don’t often look for more than one recording of a work, and a tight budget has meant some higher-profile releases never reached my ears; moreover, I’ve also been filling gaps in my collection with older recordings rather than buying new ones. So, give me a month and a couple of hundred euros and it might be a very different list. But let’s stick with the excellence at hand. The order of the list has changed repeatedly during the compiling, and would presumably continue to do so if I didn’t stop now.
1 John Adams: Harmonielehre – Michael Tilson Thomas, San Francisco Symphony (SFS Media). In the early 90s, I discovered the music of Gustav Mahler and Philip Glass at roughly the same time. What I didn’t know then was that a few years earlier John Adams had combined the two (and plenty more besides) in Harmonielehre. The title comes from the treatise of the same name by Schoenberg, but Adams’s music is a gleeful rejection of Schoenberg’s aesthetic, a grand mix of influences and references that constantly surprises.
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A History of Classical Music through Recordings: Part 7
Jacopo da Bologna: Italian Madrigals of the 14th Century. Ensemble PAN. Ars Musici
We’ve seen already in this history that Dante Alighieri (c1265-1321) was a great admirer of the troubadours, and this opinion held true among the Italian aristocracy generally. Troubadours and joglars, including those fleeing the Albigensian crusade in the early part of the 13th century, had been welcome at the Italian courts, and the local musicians who succeeded them not only imitated their musical style but also continued to set verses in Occitan. Aside from the spiritual laude there was no tradition of Italian song in the vernacular. Around 1306, Dante wrote his treatise De vulgari eloquentia, in which he cited the troubadours as well as classical poets as exemplars in his attempt to devise rules for the creation of vernacular poetry. He also suggested that poetry and music should be distinct – that profound poems of the high style shouldn’t be set to music because this would distract from the text, whereas pastoral, descriptive poetry would be ideal for those who wished to compose great music. It’s not until the 1330s that we see the flowering of vernacular Italian art song, in the form of a genre called the madrigale (which may be translated as meaning “in the mother tongue”), practiced most notably by Jacopo da Bologna, Giovanni da Cascia, and Maestro Piero in the northern cities of Verona and Milan in the 1340s and 1350s. In its formal structure, the madrigal comprised several three-line stanzas, each of them with the same music, with a short ritornello to conclude, this being one or two lines with new music and a different meter; madrigals invariably had a rustic subject, inspired by the bucolic images of classical poets such as Virgil. Unlike vernacular songs elsewhere, the madrigal was a polyphonic form from its inception, although it’s not certain whether it evolved from monophonic songs with accompaniment or had its origin in 12th-century conductus, which it in some way resembles. One notable musical feature of the madrigal is the presence of long melismas at the very start and very end, but not in between so that the text could easily be understood. Related to the madrigal was the caccia, written for two equal voices in canon, often with an accompanying instrumental part; although the caccia had the same poetic structure as a madrigal, musically it was quite different.
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