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5

Mar

2013

Medieval England

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

A History of Classical Music through Recordings: Part 8

Worcester fragmentsWorcester 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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23

Jan

2013

Top 20 of 2012: Stephen J. Nereffid

By Stephen J. Nereffid. Posted in Analysis and Opinion, Classical, Reviews | 3 Comments »

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.

Adams Harmonielehre1 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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Here it is finally, my list of the best of what I found among 2012’s new releases. (I found a lot of great jazz from before I was born too, but that’s another story.) I no more listened to everything out there than anyone else did, but these are releases from 2012 that I listened to repeatedly and expect to be returning to in 2013 and beyond. The exact order is arbitrary and could change on any given day, though albums are probably roughly in the right quarter of the list. I’ve included at the end an honor roll of another 20 that did not quite make my list but were also greatly enjoyed. After all, I think the main function of lists like this is help folk find things (at least that’s how I use all the other lists out there).

Pjusk300x300
#1 Pjusk – Tele
Norway’s Pjusk have become one my favorite ambient/electronic artists on the strength of three stellar releases. Tele (full review here) takes us deep into the glacial cold of northern Norwegian landscapes – the tracks are themed around layers of rock and ice. Deep in the earth, we are taken on a dark and resonant atmospheric journey that ends in light and life. Creation is not all sunlit beaches, and this release gives us a masterful aural tour of its frozen recesses.

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14

Nov

2012

Trecento Italy

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

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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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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Various Artists - Hidden Landscapes 2

There are so many compilations of electronically or classically tinged ambient music appearing these days, many of them for free, that it would be reasonable to wonder: why should I pay particular attention to this one? Let me answer that in two ways.

If you are already familiar with the recent outpouring of music that melds electronic, found sound, and classical elements into gentle, emotionally evocative instrumental vignettes, then there is a fairly simple answer to the question. You should get this one because you already know about the rewards to be found in giving yourself to the music of Marsen Jules, Talvihorros, Danny Norbury, Lawrence English, Konntinent, Pjusk, offthesky, Field Rotation, Ian Hawgood, and the like. Each of these, together with a few perhaps less familiar names, offers a strong contribution here; it’s an album full of very enjoyable pieces from folk who know what they are doing. You also already know that Hibernate and Audio Gourmet, the labels collaborating on this release, have a strong pedigree in this area and aren’t going to waste your time. In sum, if you like this genre, this is one of the good ones.

If the above names mean little to you, and you are a newcomer to the genre, this album would serve very well as an entry point. It showcases a representative range of approaches, and they are sequenced wisely, beginning with material that most will find tuneful and gradually moving to slightly more challenging sounds. If you’re open to exploring a little, here’s what I suggest you should do.

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“It’s breathtaking…The achievement here is enough to make the stars weep.” – Sarah Liss, cbc.ca

Heavenly – that’s a concise but accurate description of Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra’s newest release, The Galileo Project: Music of the Spheres – a fusion of the arts, science and culture in the 17th and 18th centuries captured in an imaginative DVD and CD soundtrack commemorating Galileo’s first public demonstration of the telescope. It’s not only heavenly in its subject matter, but it’s pure heaven both visually and in an aural sense.   With the recent January launch of their very own recording label, Tafelmusik Media, the Toronto-based ensemble (touted by Gramophone as one of the world’s top baroque orchestras) place themselves at the very cutting edge of what they describe as the “classical online recording revolution” of the 21st century.   The new label’s first releases hit shelves on March 27, 2012, and include the debut of The Galileo Project.  It is Tafelmusik’s ace card and playing it now assures their new label gets off to an impressive running start.

The Galileo Project was conceived in 2007 and brought  to fruition in 2009 with its premiere performance at The Banff Centre in Alberta.  Since that time, Tafelmusik has been touring the world with performances before awe-struck audiences.  Now, for the first time ever, listening audiences everywhere can experience this one-of-a-kind production through DVD and an accompanying studio-produced CD of the gorgeous baroque music featured in the concert.  The DVD/CD set was co-produced by Tafelmusik and The Banff Centre and is being distributed by Naxos USA through the Americas and by Naxos Global Logistics in the rest of the world, as well as through most digital retail outlets.

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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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