Probably not. But out of the ones I’ve heard, I’ve enjoyed these the most.
10. Qui ne regrettoit le gentil Févin, lamento à 4 (Jean Mouton)
Featured on: The landscape of the polyphonists (Huelgas Ensemble)
“He who did not mourn the gentle Févin, must surely be a rogue.” When renaissance folks honored their dead, they didn’t do it half-heartedly. Not in their texts, but also not in their music.
The gentle Févin was a colleague of Jean Mouton (1459-1522), who wrote this piece. It’s only 33 bars long in modern editions. Tenors and sopranos sing the exact same melody in canon. Basses and altos do the same with a complementary tune.
Paul Van Nevel and his Huelgas ensemble draw this out to three-and-a-half minutes by allowing the tenor and soprano to present the first part of the main melody by themselves and then bringing in the other voices. That gives you the chance to take in that beautiful line before getting engulfed by the full polyphonic jumble of notes – which can make listening to renaissance music such an ordeal.
The singers strike a tone which is fittingly plaintive without crossing into kitschy pathos. That drawn-out accent on the ‘Fé’ of the first ‘Févin’ alone was enough to land this track a spot on this list.
9. Yis’mechu (Benjamin Till)
Featured on: Letter to Kamilla – music in Jewish memory (Mosaic Voices)
While we consider all Christian liturgical music a part of the Western classical tradition, Jewish music (often equally ‘Western’) is almost totally ignored. The kindest explanation is that Jewish music was often performed covertly and hardly ever written down. Still, there’s a lot left to be discovered and enjoyed.
Mosaic Voices is the ensemble that sings at London’s New West End Synagogue. Judging by their debut album, those services must be among the best shows in town. Apart from the basic melodies, there’s nothing ‘authentic’ about this music: the arrangements range from the typical ‘oom-pahs’ to close harmony, classical polyphonic techniques and hand-clapping. All very artfully done and with plenty of variety.
Yis’mechu is a celebration of the Sabbath, and the music fittingly bubbles with joy, even silliness – including some spicy modulations (like at 1:49). At the same time, there seems to be an undercurrent of sadness in this song, with sobs in the melodies and frictions in the harmonies. Hard to describe what exactly is going on, but it works.
8. Piano Quintet in F minor, Op. 34 – Scherzo. Allegro – Trio (Johannes Brahms)
Featured on: Brahms: Quintets Opp. 34 & 111 (Pavel Haas Quartet, Boris Giltburg/Pavel Nikl)
Brahms is sometimes branded a conservative because he wanted to out-Beethoven Beethoven. But there’s no denying that precisely that ambition led him to compose – especially in his younger years – some of the most tempestuous music out there. This scherzo is as close to heavy metal as you can get without adding distortion and double bass drums.
The Pavel Haas quartet, supplemented with Boris Giltburg on piano, nail their performance with a vehemence and rhythmical precision that is out of this world. Strictly speaking, this is chamber music. But it’s pointless to imagine it in any other room than a concert hall. And impossible to listen to at home without cranking the volume all the way up to eleven.
7. Concert champêtre for harpsichord & orchestra, FP 49 – Andante (Francis Poulenc)
Featured on: Poulenc, Schreker & Zimmermann: Orchestral works (Justin Taylor – Duisburg Philharmonic Orchestra – Axel Kober)
According to the booklet that accompanies this wonderful recording, Francis Poulenc (1899-1963) styled his ‘pastoral concerto’ after baroque composers such as Couperin and Rameau. But my feeling is that he was mainly channeling one of his other musical heroes: Mozart.
This movement, in a gently rocking siciliana rhythm (just as Mozart used in his KV 488 concerto), is as much about the rich wind section as the solo instrument. In fact, when the harpsichord first enters, it is to give a sort of accompaniment to the melody that just preceded it – as if it’s late for the party.
The whole piece is a grandiose display of Poulenc’s greatest talent: melodic invention. One charming tune flows into the next. Sometimes it seems you are listening to Mozart, until a peculiar detail or bold turn reminds you that this is 20th-century music. Indeed, some of the best music that the 20th century had to offer.
6. Variation from violin sonata V in e minor, C. 142 (Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber)
Featured on: Biber violin sonatas (Lina Tur Bonet – Musica Alchemica)
Isn’t it high time for another revival of baroque music? Only this time, let’s not make it about historical authenticity, but about doing whatever you want. Because that’s the freedom that baroque composers gave us. On paper, the beginning of this Biber variation looks like this:
Only the solo violin is written out in detail. The notes below are the bass notes of the accompaniment that can be worked out freely. Put a cello and a harpsichord or organ there, and you get the typical sound of many a baroque album that’s excellently suited to not distract you during dinner parties. Put it in the hands of a varied ensemble (including theorbo, harp and lute) of inventive musicians and you’re up for an engrossing listening experience that demonstrates the genius of Salzburg’s second-greatest composer.
5. Imperial march (John Williams)
Featured on: John Williams: The Berlin Concert (Berliner Philharmoniker – John Williams)
Apparently, Vladimir Putin is a fan of Tchaikovsky. (Who wants to be the one to tell him?) But I think there’s a good chance that he’s strutting in front of the Kremlin mirrors to this John Williams tune every night. Because pure evil never sounded so cool.
4. The hazelnut tree (Gabriel Kahane)
Featured on: How do I find you (Sasha Cooke – Kirill Kuzmin)
Like so many of us, mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke was cooped up inside because of the corona virus in 2020. She decided to ask a bunch of composers to send her songs inspired by their experience during that period. That resulted in the album ‘How do I find you’, a nice sampling from what you could call the ‘indie classical’ scene.
The hazelnut tree was the song that I immediately liked most. The lyrics hint to the desire – very common during that period – to disengage from the “fresh threats of doom” that are filling the papers. The music ripples nostalgically, with a piano that steadily moves the flow along while subtly commenting on the lyrics – the hallmark of good song writing since Schubert.
I admit that I never heard of Gabriel Kahane before this song. Apparently he’s also a singer-songwriter cut from the same high-quality fabric as Sufjan Stevens and Rufus Wainwright. He performs this song himself on his 2022 album Magnificent bird.
3. Ka Bohaleng/On the sharp side (Abel Selaocoe)
Featured on: Where is home/Hae ke kae (Abel Selacoe)
Remember how baroque music allows you to do whatever you like? Well, Abel Selacoe takes this opportunity to couple a theorbo and a kora to add improvisational accompaniment to a Platti cello sonata. He also hums along with Bach’s cello sarabandes. If you adhere to delusional concepts such as historical authenticity or cultural appropriation, please go to the next item on this list.
Ka bohaleng/On the sharp side would not be out of place on a pop album – another cultural divide Selacoe bridges effortlessly. The song is dedicated to mothers everywhere. Its text is based on the Sesotho saying that a woman holds a knife on the sharp side. Meaning: never underestimate her powers.
The music is a wild orgy of different influences: a typically African web of constantly shifting rhythms, meters, accents and tempi, paired with Western classical harmonies in the strings. Presiding the whole thing with his cello and amazing voice, Selacoe keeps everything on the rails towards a delirious climax that makes you go straight to the repeat button.
2. Fantasia in F minor for a mechanical organ, K.608 (arr. for 2 pianos by Feruccio Busoni) (Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart)
Featured on: J.S. Bach & Beyond: A well-Tempered conversation (Julien Libeer – Adam Laloum)
The self-playing mechanical organ was something of a marvel in the late 18th century. When Mozart was asked to write music for it, he no doubt reacted like the professional freelancer he was, “welcoming the challenge”. In truth, as he wrote to his wife, the commission bored him to death. And yet, the end result is one of his last great masterpieces.
Julien Libeer chooses this work as the halfway point of his journey through the history of keyboard music since J.S. Bach. A great choice, because Mozart’s fantasia looks back as well as forward. An opening in baroque French overture style flows into a Bach-like fugue and then an adagio overflowing with Mozartian charm. A slightly more complex and faster recapitulation of the fugue leads to the climactic ending.
At the same time, like a lot of late Mozart, the music looks forward to early romanticism, particularly – especially in this arrangement – to Schubert’s four-hand fantasia in the same key.
1. Ciacona seconda (Francesco Tristano Schlimé)
Featured on: On early music (Francesco Tristano Schlimé)
Of course, the history of keyboard music does not start with Bach. For his record On early music, pianist and composer Francesco Tristano focuses on 16/17th century pioneers such as John Bull, Orlando Gibbons and Girolamo Frescobaldi.
Tristano alternates faithful renditions of these renaissance/baroque pieces with his own compositions that are inspired by both the general style and particular details of the early music that surrounds them. Ciacona seconda is a chaconne based on an inconspicuous fragment lifted from a Frescobaldi piece that’s looped into infinity.
Like others on this lists, this is a composition that telescopes various styles and periods of music: from early baroque to jazz and minimalism. The end result is a hypnotic display of virtuosity that grabs you from its very first notes and never lets go.