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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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Sebastian Plano (Picture by May Xiong)

Have you ever been moved by the yearning blends of classical motifs with electronic atmospheres composed by the likes of Max Richter, Ólafur Arnalds, Jóhann Jóhannsson, Nils Frahm, and Peter Broderick? Does the thought of what their aesthetic might sound like if relocated to warmer climes and infused with the passion and counterpoint of the tango sound intriguing? If so, then you need to listen to Sebastian Plano’s debut album.

The Arrhythmical Parts of Heart was released last year with little fanfare, but is an album that should not be allowed to slip quietly by. Across seven short tracks Plano, a young San Francisco-based composer and multi-instrumentalist who plays everything on the album himself, weaves together an array of sounds including cello, keyboards, bandoneón, wordless vocals, and electronic effects and percussion into a compelling and emotive suite of compositions charged with tantalizing twists and turns.

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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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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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There seems to have been a recent flurry of new creative partnerships between established solo artists working in the generous borderlands between neo-classical, electronic, and ambient music. In fairly quick succession we’ve been treated to lovely debuts from A Winged Victory for the Sullen (Adam Wiltzie and Dustin O’Halloran) and Oliveray (Nils Frahm and Peter Broderick), with the first Orcas release (Benoît Pioulard and Rafael Anton Irisarri) on the horizon. Now add to that list Aaron Martin and Dag Rosenqvist (who has most commonly recorded as Jasper TX). Their debut album as From the Mouth of the Sun is to be released at the end of January on Experimedia, and is recommended listening.

Sitting in a Roofless Room

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Bang on a Can turns 25

By Craig McManus. Posted in Classical, Free Music, Neo-Classical | No Comments »

Bang on a Can, founded in 1987, is a classical music collective based in New York City.  They are likely best known for their live performances (and recordings) of Brian Eno’s Music for Airports or Terry Riley’s In C, but they have also performed the operas of Harry Partch and provided grants to newer artists like David Longstreth of Dirty Projectors.

Now as Bang on a Can turns 25, they are offering their new album Big Beautiful Dark and Scary for the cost of a memory, or simply letting them know how you heard about them.  Can’t beat that price whether you’re already a fan or haven’t heard of Bang on a Can until this very moment.  Just go here, enter your name, e-mail, and memory, download, and enjoy!

Thanks to Doofy over at for pointing this out.


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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