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25

Jun

2012

Ars nova

By Stephen J. Nereffid. Posted in A History of Classical Music, Classical | No Comments »

A History of Classical Music through Recordings: Part 6

Philippe de Vitry and the Ars Nova”. Orlando Consort. Amon Ra (link)

In the 1320s, two Paris-trained mathematicians who were also musicians published similarly titled treatises that pointed to a new direction for composition: Jehan des Murs’s Ars novae musicae and Philippe de Vitry’s Ars nova. The essence of this “new art” – Ars nova has become the name given to the general compositional style of the 14th century in France – was a move beyond the idea of “perfection” associated with the number three. Where the Franconian system divided the perfect long into three breves and divided breves into semibreves worth one- or two-thirds of a breve, Vitry and Jehan argued that it was fine to have an imperfect long comprising two breves of equal length, or a breve divided into two equal semibreves, and a semibreve divided into two shorter notes (the minimum note length, or “minim”). Moreover, a composer could mix-and-match between the use of two or three subdivisions, so that a long might be split into three breves but the breve might comprise just two semibreves. The first compositions demonstrating these ideas are some by Vitry that appeared in a 1316 edition of the Roman de Fauvel, a satirical poem attacking the moral state of France at the time; this particular edition included some 169 musical items, both old and new, providing a kind of soundtrack to accompany events in the story. By freeing the rules of composition from the ideology of “perfection”, the Ars nova opened up a wide range of possibilities for rhythms, not least of which was duple time (one-two one-two) – not that duple time didn’t exist in music until then, but now there was a formal system for writing, and composing, in it. With shorter note values being used, the music could move at a faster pace, and the tenor part of a motet became relatively longer, such that it ceased to provide a recognisable melodic component and instead formed a structural foundation for the polyphony. This structure is reflected in a feature of the Ars nova motet called isorhythm, the use of repeated statements of one rhythmic pattern that didn’t necessarily correspond to melodic patterns. Initially, isorhythm was used only in the tenor, but it soon spread to the upper voices also, giving greater organization to the composition as a whole.

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The releases highlighted below are just some of the best-reviewed albums in the latest issues of International Record Review (May), Gramophone (June), and BBC Music Magazine (June).

Four string quartets by “Danish maverick” Rued Langgaard (Dacapo 6.220575) are a Choice of both Gramophone and BBC Music. In the latter, Stephen Johnson praises the Nightingale Quartet for understanding “the provocative vitality, the fragile romantic sensitivity and the striking intellectual independence behind it all”, while in Gramophone David Fanning notes that the quartet “throws itself into the music with a vehemence and sense of purpose”. Both of these magazines also praise pianist Yuja Wang’s “Fantasia” (DG 479 0052GH), a collection of her favourite encores; BBC Music’s Michael Church says that “Given that these bonnes bouches were never designed to be consumed in bulk, this young virtuoso has pulled off a remarkable feat”, and Bryce Morrison in Gramophone says “Wang is clearly one of the major talents of our time and her playing throughout is of an astonishing verve, style and dexterity”. Morrison also finds plenty of praise for the latest from Olli Mustonen, a disc of Scriabin (Ondine ODE1184-2): “This is Scriabin as you have never heard him before, played by one of music’s most formidable and compusive free spirits… The music is made to leap flame-like and uncontained from the page”. Guitarist David Russell, too, is a Gramophone Choice with a disc of transcriptions entitled “The Grandeur of the Baroque” (Telarc TEL33223-02) in performances that William Yeoman calls “revelatory”; for instance, Russell’s performance of four three-part Sinfonias by Bach “is the epitome of clarity, grace, humour and melancholy”.

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7

May

2012

The 13th-century motet

By Stephen J. Nereffid. Posted in A History of Classical Music, Classical | No Comments »

A History of Classical Music through Recordings: Part 5

“Motetus”. Clemencic Consort/René Clemencic. Stradivarius (link)

Over the course of the 13th century, the main polyphonic forms, organum and conductus, declined in popularity to be replaced by a new form, the motet (this name being a diminutive form of mot, the French for ‘word’). To understand how the motet came about we must look back at a particular aspect of the polyphony developed by Leonin and the Notre Dame school: the clausula. This was a segment of organum in which a short piece of text, usually just a word or two, was sung melismatically using many notes while the tenor voice slowly sang the text once. Musicians began to replace the melismas with new texts that had some relevance to the words of the organum and that were sung syllabically. Clausulas were regarded as separate modules that could be inserted into an organum as needed, but this independence meant that over time they began to be sung on their own as a composition called a motet (which, you may remember, is what happened with the sequence in Gregorian chant). The new text and its music was referred to as the duplum or motetus, and there could also be another, separate but topically related, text on top of that, called the triplum, and there could even be a quadruplum. As the Clemencic Consort demonstrates on its album, new motet texts weren’t necessarily in Latin: while the tenor text remained a Latin phrase, the duplum (and triplum, if there was one) could be in French. And once the language switched to the vernacular, it shouldn’t be surprising that the topics should change to more secular concerns, and the lyrics resemble the poetry of the trouvères.

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23

Mar

2012

Troubadour influences

By Stephen J. Nereffid. Posted in A History of Classical Music, Classical | No Comments »

A History of Classical Music through Recordings: Part 4

Rosa de las Rosas: Cantigas de Santa Maria”. Música Antigua/Eduardo Paniagua. Pneuma (link)

Troubadours fleeing Provence in the aftermath of the Albigensian crusade would have found welcome at the court of King Alfonso X of Castile and Léon in northwestern Iberia. Alfonso, known as El Sabio or ‘the Wise’, gathered together Christian, Muslim, and Jewish scholars and artists during his reign from 1252 to 1284. He introduced various social and legal reforms and encouraged the work of astronomers and astrologers, but his great contribution to music was his commissioning – and possible co-authoring – of a vast collection of songs called the Cantigas de Santa Maria. Compiled over three decades and now surviving in four manuscripts, the Cantigas comprises some 420 poems pertaining to the Virgin Mary; the songs are grouped in tens, nine of each group being narratives describing miracles attributed to Mary (one song recounts how Alfonso himself was healed), with the tenth being a hymn of praise. The poems are in Galician-Portuguese, the forerunner of modern Portuguese, and the music is related to popular songs of the day as well as troubadour and trouvère melodies. The Cantigas manuscripts come with numerous miniatures depicting musicians playing more than 40 different kinds of instruments, a boon to modern academics and performers seeking inspiration for how the music might have been performed. Given the presence of Arabs and Moors at Alfonso’s court, not to mention some Moorish instruments shown in the miniatures, musicologists have been tempted to speculate on an Arabic influence on the music.

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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, March 2012

Nørgård: Helle Nacht; Borderlines; Spaces in Time. Peter Herresthal (vn); Ida Mo (p); Stavanger Symphony Orchestra/Rolf Gupta. BIS CD1872
“Both of the violin concertos [Helle Nacht and Borderlines] have been recorded previously, but to have them performed by the same musician is an ideal way to get to know two works, which, written 15 years apart, shed revealing light on the evolution of a composer whose determination not to repeat himself with each major work has helped make him one of the most significant figures in contemporary music.” – Richard Whitehouse

Ó Riada: Orchestral works. Cathal Breslin (p); RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra, RTÉ Concert Orchestra/Robert Houlihan. RTÉ lyric fm CD136
“the music on this CD dates from a mere five years, 1955-59, and its sheer quality rubs lemon juice in the wound left by Ó’Riada’s ridiculously early death… I urge you to investigate this splended release with uncommon haste.” – Martin Anderson

Ruders: Symphony no.4; Trio Transcendentale; Songs and Rhapsodies. Frode Andersen (accordion); Flemming Dreisig (org); Nicholas Wearne (org); Athelas Sinfonietta Copenhagen; Odense Symphony Orchestra/Robert Minczuk. Bridge 9375
“It contains an exhilarating range of emotions, from whimsical humour to barnstorming grandeur, and the sheer craftsmanship of Ruders’s writing is a joy in its own right… Bridge has managed to release this CD while much of the music is still damp on the page, and the sense of freshness attends also the performances and the works themselves.” – Martin Anderson

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29

Feb

2012

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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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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9

Feb

2012

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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Of the 500 or so albums examined in the latest American Record Guide, here are those that received the best reviews:

Borodin: Symphonies nos.1-3. Seattle Symphony/Gerard Schwarz. Naxos 572786

“Here are all the splashes of color and soulful Slavic melody anyone could ask for at a price I know you can afford, and this is a treasurable introduction to the music of Borodin.” – Steven J Haller

Delius: Life’s Dance; Poem of Life and Love; Irmelin suite; A Village Romeo and Juliet suite. Royal Scottish National Orchestra/David Lloyd-Jones. Dutton 7264

“David Lloyd-Jones has established himself as one of the prime Delius interpreters. His dedication to the composer’s music has also brought forth treasures few of us would have believed possible a decade or so back.” – Alan Becker

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22

Dec

2011

From chant to polyphony

By Stephen J. Nereffid. Posted in A History of Classical Music, Classical | No Comments »

A History of Classical Music through Recordings: Part 2

Hildegard of Bingen: “A feather on the breath of God”. Gothic Voices/Christopher Page. Hyperion (link)

It’s ironic that the first featured composer in this history should be a woman, given the regrettable absence of women from the ranks of the “great”, or even the “reasonably well known”, composers. Hildegard (1098-1179) was a remarkable woman of her time: an abbess and visionary who corresponded with rulers and popes, toured Germany as a preacher, and produced numerous literary works on religion, medicine, and natural history. She has been an inspiration for feminists and the New Age movement, as well as the subject of four attempts at canonization in the two centuries after her death. In the 1150s, Hildegard collected several dozen of her poems in the work Symphonia armonie celestium revelationum (Symphony of the harmony of celestial revelations), which survives today in two manuscripts that also provide monophonic musical notation. The compositions are mostly antiphons and responsories for the office, as well as some sequences for the mass and a few hymns. Hildegard’s music isn’t based on plainchant and makes use of a small number of melodic patterns that show up in many pieces; it also tends to have a high ambitus (the range of notes in a given piece), which gives it a soaring quality that matches well with the visionary nature of the poems. Hildegard’s fame as a composer is only a recent phenomenon: Gothic Voices’ hugely successful 1982 release was one of the first recordings of her music, though there have been many more since then. Her popularity may give the wrong impression that Hildegard was the only significant composer of her day; the reality of course is that she was just one among many others who weren’t so fortunate as to have their names and biographies preserved for future centuries.

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