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I confess to being a skeptic regarding best-of-year lists, though I suspect I am far from alone. The general arbitrariness of the exercise (my own list might look different if you asked me in a different week*) combines with inevitable comparison of apples and oranges (is it really possible to say that a given ambient release is slightly “better” than a given rock album?). What’s more, I usually fail to find my own listening reflected in most published lists (this year I trawled several prominent top 50 and top 100 lists and found almost zero overlap with my own personal list). Adding another may well be simply adding to the futility.

I’m going to go ahead though, largely because of the small chance that as a result someone might discover one of the titles listed below and come to love it. After all, I discovered several of them through the gratefully received recommendations of others. Moreover, each of these releases deserves to be noted on a list somewhere. I make no claim to judge cosmic significance, attribute enduring worth, or arbitrate taste. The following albums are simply 2011 releases that I’ve played many times each and that have left me delighted or fascinated and wanting to keep hearing them in 2012.

[*Addendum – as if purposely to prove this correct, two days after posting this list I discovered the album Hoping for the Invisible to Ignite by FareWell Poetry; had I heard it a week earlier it would have made my top five.]

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Christina Pluhar & L’Arpeggiata (Photo by Marco Borggreve)

Such a scenario suggests chaos, the very antithesis to the highly structured form which defines baroque music.  Yet the early music group, L’Arpeggiata, manages to turn the baroque world on its head without disintegrating into a chaotic clamor.  On the contrary.  This Parisian-based group of highly skilled musicians and their director, lutenist and harpist Christina Pluhar, intimately know the music they perform and when they blend their specialty of 17th century early baroque music with characteristic forms of ground bass patterns inherent in ancient folk traditionals (the ciacconia, tarantella, folia, passacaglia, bergamasca, jácaras, fandango, etc.), magic happens.  To understand L’Arpeggiata’s repertoire, a little background on some of these forms is in order:





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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This is part of a series on music that has influenced contributors to Music is Good.

I was a bona-fide “grown-up” before I realized there were all kinds of good music hidden away in a vast array of genres I never took the time to investigate. I suppose I am not unique. During our teen years, while some adventurous listeners may follow the beat of their own individual drum, most of us at this stage of life are typically influenced by what the airwaves are playing from the latest top-40 charts. None of the music from that early part of my life was, however, what I would call influential in defining my lasting musical preferences. It was only much later that some albums  began to seep into my ears and, in hindsight, I see how they proved to be landmark albums for me – albums which encouraged me to branch out into other genres, and once on that unbeaten path, find all those undiscovered treasures that awaited me. Here’s the ones that did it for me:

Fisherman's BluesI received this CD as a gift from a friend many years ago and, while I had vaguely heard of The Waterboys, I was not at all familiar with their music. From the moment I popped this CD into my player and heard those riotously glorious fiddle notes that open the first song, “Fisherman’s Blues,” I was hooked. This was a sound very different from anything I had been musically exposed to previously. It was my springboard to the discovery of a whole new world of folk-rock with touches of traditional-sounding material by performers outside the U.S., which in turn, led me to more traditional folk tunes recorded by the likes of Fairport Convention, Richard Thompson, Steeleye Span, etc. Fisherman’s Blues is still a CD I play often.

Amazing Things

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Snippets from the latest issue of Fanfare. These are the best-reviewed discs for November/December, in the order in which they appear in the magazine.

Liszt: Piano sonata; Fantasy and fugue on “Ad nos, ad salutarem”. Garrick Ohlsson (p). Bridge 9337

“As skillful as Busoni’s 1897 transcription is, Ad nos is not an easy piece to pull off on the piano. Ohlsson does it brilliantly, using a dynamic palette with huge fortissimos that never sound forced and a pianissimo spectrum of infinite gradation. … This B-Minor Sonata is so unlike any other I can think of, it comes dangerously close to beggaring description. … an interpretation of profound wisdom and almost excruciating beauty” – Patrick Rucker

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Gregorian Chant

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

A History of Classical Music through Recordings: Part 1.

Chant. Benedictine Monks of Santo Domingo de Silos. EMI

In May 1994, something extraordinary happened: a compilation of recordings made a decade or two earlier by a group of monks in a monastery in northern Spain reached #3 on the Billboard album charts, having already been a big hit in other countries. The Gregorian chant sung by these monks and their brethren for well over a millennium is the oldest music in the classical tradition, and it remains alive in Catholic rituals today. Listeners to the Chant album were drawn by the music’s promise to, as the sleeve notes put it, “bathe the weary, worldly, unsuspecting soul in its blessing”. Certainly there’s no denying the soothing effect of those long, rhythm-free melodic lines, but this somewhat misses the point that chant’s original intended audience was as much God Himself as exhausted yuppies or their medieval equivalent. Although Gregorian chant gets its name from Pope Gregory I, who reigned from 590 to 604 C.E., the music had its origins in earlier centuries. Psalmody was a key feature of Jewish worship, but not of early Christianity, and it wasn’t until the development of monastic life in the fourth century that Christian psalmody appeared, in the monks’ and nuns’ night vigils. Later, psalmodic chanting was reorganized to be spread across the entire day, in a series of seven “offices”, as well as in the daily mass. Chant has a rather arbitrary track listing, so to get a better picture of chant being sung in its proper devotional context we must look elsewhere.

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Hieronymous Bosch, via Wikimedia CommonsFor a long time I’ve wanted to create some sort of beginner’s guide to classical music, but I was never quite sure how. Part of my hesitation has been uncertainty over where the beginner should start. I came to classical music as a teenager through accessible orchestral works such as Holst’s The Planets and Grieg’s Peer Gynt, but others will testify to the power of Vivaldi, or Pärt, or a particular instrument. The sensible approach seemed to be to develop a long list of recordings and let the beginner pick where to start, rather than say “start here”. The most straightforward approach to such a list would be a roughly chronological one, or at least one divided into the major periods of classical music – Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque, and so on. But then, of course, the question is what to put on the list.

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The Musical Christmas Rescue Mission

By David Smith. Posted in Classical, Folk, Jazz | 5 Comments »

Bruce Cockburn - Christmas

Canadian singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn comments in the liner notes to his 1993 album Christmas about the realization that numbingly familiar seasonal standards “are still songs, written by songwriters, with lyrics that often make sense and are beautiful.” He refers to his own creative process of retrieval in terms of discovering that “a little nudge in one direction or another would help to revive their ‘songness’.” The notion of reviving their “songness” stuck with me, and he’s clearly not the only artist who has felt this while listening to Christmas music. The combination of curiosity, lament, and hope that is implied in his comments strikes a chord with me at this time of year. It may well be some defect in me, but the fact is I struggle to appreciate Christmas music. Much, perhaps most of it evokes for me neither warm nostalgia nor childlike faith, but something more akin to the taste of plastic. To my ear, a lot of what I hear at Christmas is testimony to the tragic fact that it is possible to take a memorable and enduring tune, combine it with a lyric deserving of profound meditation (no, I’m not thinking of Rudolph here), and through a potent witches’ brew of forced jollity, mall marketing, kitchsy, schmaltzy arrangements, and sheer over-exposure kill it deader than the slow-moving squirrels whose remains I occasionally pass on my walk to work. For Christmas music to work, it has to contain a hint of resurrection. Here are a few recordings that I think meet the mark – not new releases, but rather musical friends old and new that continue to make Christmas musical.

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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.

Gramophone Choice, December 2011

[Recording of the month] Schumann: String quartets, op.41. Doric String Quartet. Chandos 10692

“here, at last, is a seriously recommendable version of all three [quartets]” – Harriet Smith

Ireland: Piano concerto; Legend; First Rhapsody; etc. John Lenehan (p); Royal Liverpool PO/John Wilson. Naxos 8.572598

“a splendid new recording of what is undoubtedly the finest of all British piano concertos… A CD not to be missed by all lovers of English music” – Ivan March

Saariaho: Clarinet concerto, ‘D’om le vrai sens’; Laterna magica; Leino songs. Kari Kriikku (cl); Anu Komsi (sop); Finnish Radio SO/Sakari Oramo. Ondine 1173-2

“As Kaija Saariaho approaches her 60th birthday, her music continues to extend in range and depth” – Guy Rickards

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About 450 releases and rereleases were reviewed in the September/October 2011 issue of American Record Guide. These are the ones that generated most enthusiasm:

Johann Christian Bach: Symphonies opp.6, 9, 18. Netherlands Chamber Orchestra/David Zinman. Newton 8002065

“These recordings, made from 1974 to 1977 and originally released on Philips, made me ask, “Johann Christian Bach, where have you been all my life?” Here’s wonderful, incredibly inventive music in performances that are simply the best” – Gil French

Blow: Venus and Adonis. Amanda Forsyth, Tyler Duncan, Boston Early Music Festival/Paul O’Dette, Stephen Stubbs. CPO 777614

“This is a beautiful release in every aspect… a topnotch production, and I would not hesitate to recommend it for a first choice or only one for people who are less than die-hard collectors” – Ardella Crawford

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