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29

Jan

2016

Favourite classical albums of 2015

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

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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Here is my top 20 music releases for 2015, with no claim that they are somehow objectively the best or that I listened to everything anyone else did. I have found things that delighted me on other people’s lists, and the point of the exercise is not to replicate or compete with those lists but to highlight some things you may not have found, things that might delight you. The sequence changed every time I made a shortlist, so take the numbers with a pinch of salt – all of them could be at least plus or minus 5 on a given day.

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facadeWhat 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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18

Jan

2015

Top 15 ‘Old’ Classical of 2014: Stephen J Nereffid

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

prohaskaFollowing 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.

#1.

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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26

Dec

2014

Top 15 New Classical of 2014: Stephen J Nereffid

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

allemeierThis 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…

#1.

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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I didn’t listen to everything this year. Neither did you. I have no objective way of knowing that these are (or are not) the 20 best albums released this year. Neither do you. But these are the ones I most loved and most want to spend more time with next year, and who knows, maybe you’ll find something special here too, something you missed but can connect with and find riches in, something off your usual menu that you might come to be thankful for. If that happens even once, the list will be worthwhile. And as always, if any of the musicians drop by, thank you for the work, care, commitment, and creativity represented below.

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31

Oct

2014

Into the Renaissance

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

A History of Classical Music through Recordings: Part 10

hcmr044artnethThe 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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23

Dec

2013

Top 23 of 2013: Stephen J Nereffid

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

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.

littleprince#1. Petitgirard: The Little Prince
Laurent Petitgirard conducting
(Naxos)

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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Any list implies criteria, but let’s eliminate some obvious candidates. This is not a list of the most original, or significant, or skilled, or successful releases of 2013. There is so much that I simply did not listen to that those kinds of judgments are out of reach (for me as for everyone else). Instead, I asked myself: if I were to be separated from my music for a month or two and could only keep 20 albums from my collection with me, all released in 2013, which would I choose? This approach keeps me from adding or skipping things because I somehow feel I ought to. Worthy or not in the ears of the world, this is what I liked most from this year’s releases. Listen in; who knows, you might like it too.

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1

May

2013

The Burgundian school

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

A History of Classical Music through Recordings: Part 9

BinchoisJoye: 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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