Album review: Folk Songs by Ficino Ensemble & Michelle O’Rourke

For centuries, there were basically two types of music in Europe: (what we now call) classical and folk. And although they differed in almost every possible respect, they gladly invaded each other’s territories.

For classical composers, there were many reasons to borrow from, or imitate folk music. Often to express some meaning attached to the folk style. Like the noble simplicity/boorish stupidity of the lower classes, the raw magnificence of nature, or the glorious soul of the nation. Sometimes just because they liked the tunes.

The last seems to be true for Luciano Berio, who wrote his Folk Songs cycle in 1964. It contains 11 songs from different traditions. Some are not ‘real’ folk tunes at all, but composed by other composers, including Berio himself.

Though leaving the melodies intact, Berio – known as a ‘difficult’ composer – combined them with more adventurous accompaniments. On the album Folk Songs, the Ficino Ensemble gives the front stage to the voice of Michelle O’Rourke and relegates itself to a supporting role. A wise decision, because O’Rourke’s voice – classically trained but with clear folk sensibilities – magnificently brings out the beauty of these ‘simple’ melodies.

Folk Songs Ficino Ensemble

Medieval saints and barnyard animals

While Berio’s folk songs are always a pleasure to listen to, I doubt Ficino Ensemble’s interpretation is an indispensable addition to an already extensive discography. What I really like about this album are the four new compositions that are inspired by the folk style.

The works by Kevin O’Connell and Garrett Sholdice are more avant garde than Berio’s. They deconstruct the folk idiom and rearrange the barely recognize elements on a blank canvas. Doubtlessly interesting, but not really my cup of nettle tea.

The two remaining works tap into another vein: the British pop/rock folk sound that’s been with us since the seventies – with its mystical, faux-medieval atmosphere. Cronachdain Suil by Kate Moore is based on traditional and folkloric spells evoking Saint Brigid and Saint Mary for protection in times of danger. It’s a brooding piece underpinned with a steady pulse but constantly shifting meters. At the end, its settles upon a 7/8 groove and climaxes in pagan ecstasy. They made a video that nicely captures the atmosphere and contains some barnyard animals silently judging you.

Cronachdain Suil Kate Moore
She knows why you took so long in the shower this morning.

But for me, the high point of this album is its opening track: Judd Greenstein’s Green Fields of Amerikay. The lyrics talk about making the journey from Ireland to the United States. Around it, Ficino Ensemble weaves a tapestry of waves and flurries. After a quasi-improvisational start, the music gradually finds speed and direction until the journey ends in an eerie ‘farewell’. An impressive salute to a time when the US was still the promised land.

Review: John Williams – The Berlin Concert

There’s no shortage of cultural pessimists who complain about the dwindling societal status of classical music. Until the middle of the twentieth century, they say, classical music was part of popular culture. Today, it’s nothing more than a shrinking niche.

That might be true if you look at record sales and concert attendance. But dig deeper, and you notice how the classical music tradition influenced much of the culture that supposedly supplanted it. And the best example is the Hollywood blockbuster.

Wagner in space

What part of the success of movies like ET, Jurassic Park or Harry Potter would be due to their music? My guess is 60 percent. Up to 80 percent for the Star Wars movies. If they didn’t have the best soundtrack of all time, their attraction would be inexplicable.

Yoda Star Wars music
“Pseudo-profound Muppet, I am.”

The man responsible for the music in all those films is John Williams, a composer who brought the sound of late-romantic composers such as Wagner and early modernists such as Stravinsky and Holst to just about every cinema theatre and living room. And who – at ninety years of age – is now embraced by the classical music establishment. Both the Vienna and Berlin Philharmonic welcomed him for a concert and album devoted to his work. You can’t get more canonized than that.

John Williams Beethoven
John Williams (on the right). Beethoven (on the wall).

Goosebumps

If you needed one, listening to the recording of The Berlin Concert is a reminder that Williams wrote some of the most exciting music since World War II. And I mean that in an almost physical way. Doubtlessly nostalgia plays a part in it, but I get goosebumps every time I hear the Flying Theme from ET or the Throne Room & Finale music from Star Wars. The Berlin Philharmonic devotes all of its considerable forces to this project. The result is both a breathtaking musical experience and an opportunity to brush up on your knowledge of all the instruments in a symphonic orchestra. Not in the least the percussion and brass sections.

Winning formula

There’s one thing that Williams does better than anyone else: conveying immensity in music. Immensity of emotion, like in the heartbreaking music from Schindler’s List, which is inexplicably not included on this album. Or immensity of space, like in the theme from Jurassic Park, which immediately conjures up rolling planes with grazing brontosauruses – or whatever they are (ask your local six-year-old).

His themes often combine a strong rhythmic drive (hence the percussionists working overtime) and yearning melodies that quickly reach their climax – then start over again.

That’s it, that’s the formula. Oh, and trumpets. Lots of trumpets. Williams even asked for American trumpets to be used in this Berlin concert. Because they make more noise than European trumpets, apparently. Next time someone complains to you about the uniformity of modern global culture, hit them with this trumpet factoid to shut them up.

You can’t blame Williams for sticking to his winning musical formula. As a blockbuster composer, that’s what you’re paid to do. While George Lucas asked him to write something in the style of Gustav Holst’s The Planets for Star Wars, subsequent directors requested something in the style of John Williams. And that’s what he gave them. The Superman March, Raiders March, … all great pieces. But put them on the same record and it soon gets tedious.

That’s why the more ‘atypical’ pieces on this album are such a relief. Like the opening Olympic Fanfare and Theme, which shows an affinity with the populist music of Aaron Copland. The avant-garde sounds of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Or the folk tunes of Far and Away.

But the absolute high point is the Elegy for Cello and Orchestra. Because it seems to tell a story, rather than just support one.

On second thoughts …

Who am I kidding? Yes, the elegy is a fine composition. I’ll keep that in mind for whenever I need to sound sophisticated when discussing the oeuvre of John Williams (you never know where life takes you).

But the real high point of this album comes at the end: the Imperial March from Star Wars. Not since Mozart’s Queen of the Night did evil sound so terrifying and yet so alluring. If this is what the dark side sounded like, I would have joined them in a second.

And ended up as this guy.

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Are these the best classical albums of 2021?

Probably not. But out of the ones I’ve heard, I’ve enjoyed these the most. Listen to this playlist for a selection of some favorite tracks.

10. Saint-Saëns (Quatuor Tchalik)

Quatuor Tchalik Saint-Saëns

Not even the French made a big deal of the 100th anniversary of the death of Camille Saint-Saëns. But you can be sure of more exuberant festivities when his 200th birthday comes along in 2035. Because Camille’s star is rising. No longer the two-hit wonder of Carnaval des animaux and Danse macabre. No longer the old-fashioned opponent of progressives such as Debussy. But an exceptionally talented composer whose oeuvre is as bounteous as his beard.

Camille Saint-Saëns

These string quartets were written in 1899 and 1918. While the times were very much a-changin’ in the world of music, Saint-Saëns stuck to the principles he believed in: beautiful melodies, clear formal structures and neatly dosed pathos. All perfectly conveyed in this recording by Quatuor Tchalik.

9. Piazzolla Reflections (Ksenija Sidorova)

Piazzolla Reflections (Ksenija Sidorova)

Another composer we celebrated this year is Astor Piazzolla – who was born in the year Saint-Saëns died. During Piazzolla’s lifetime, the opinions about his work diverged. For some, he betrayed the authenticity of the tango. For others, he didn’t deviate from it enough to be taken seriously as a ‘classical’ composer. As time goes by, such considerations lose more and more of their importance. Which is why Piazzolla’s star is also on the rise.

Be that as it may, I think all that tangoing can get a bit tedious – especially for a whole album. That’s why it’s nice that Sidorova pairs Piazzolla’s compositions with works from other composers that are often a bit more adventurous. And that she gives plenty of room for musicians from different backgrounds (jazz, world music) to shine.

But the absolute highlight is an exhilarating performance of Piazzolla’s Concerto for bandoneon and chamber orchestra. Inevitably, this is one of those compositions where he veers more to the ‘classical’ side of his musical persona. But then comes the build-up to the big climax at the end of the third movement: a shy shuffle gradually turns into an outburst of pure passion. And you immediately grasp the unique position this man occupies 20th century music – and far beyond.

8. Verklärte Nacht – German Orchestral Songs (Edward Gardner, BBC Symphony Orchestra)

Verklärte Nacht - German Orchestral Songs (Edward Gardner, BBC Symphony Orchestra)

A woman and a man take a stroll through a dark forest. She confesses the child she’s carrying is not his. He says that’s fine. That, in a nutshell, is the story of Verklärte Nacht (transfigured night), a poem by Richard Dehmel.

Verklärte Nacht was famously translated into music (for string sextet – no voice) by Arnold Schoenberg before he turned atonal on us. This recording pairs that version with another one (with mezzo-soprano, tenor and orchestra) by Oskar Fried. They’re both beautiful examples of late German romanticism – pulling out all the stops regarding orchestration and daring post-Wagnerian harmony. You can easily understand why Schoenberg thought there was nowhere left to go – even if you don’t like his solution. The songs by Erich Wolfgang Korngold that round off this album demonstrate there were different roads to take.

But the big surprise on this record is Fieber by Franz Léhar. Yes, the Franz Léhar who wrote operettas like Die lustige witwe and was Hitler’s favorite composer (Adolf claimed it was Wagner, but Léhar was what he actually listened to).

Léhar’s contribution might be less sophisticated than those of Fried, Schoenberg and Korngold. It’s essentially a tearjerker about a dying soldier during the first world war (written in 1915). But that ending – “Herr Stabarzt, der Kadett vom Bette acht is tot” – sends shivers down my spine every time I hear it. I know I’m being emotionally manipulated but can’t resist reveling in it.

7. Otaka: Piano Concerto & Symphony “Au-delà du temps” (Live) (Junichi Hirokami, Japan Philarmonic Orchestra)

Otaka: Piano Concerto & Symphony "Au-delà du temps" (Live) (Junichi Hirokami, Japan Philarmonic Orchestra)

Atsutada Otaka died 100 years after the death of Saint-Saens and the birth of Piazzolla. If you’ve been paying attention, you realize that means he passed away this year.

Just like Saint-Saëns and Piazzolla, he studied in Paris. And that’s about all I can tell you – since the non-Japanese part of the internet I rely on for my musicological research doesn’t have a lot to say about him.

Luckily, his music speaks loud and clear. Especially the piano concerto is a tremendous example of the rhythmic vitality that characterizes so much of the best 20th and 21st century music. It mainly reminds me of Stravinsky, Gershwin and Glass. But that might be because I don’t know enough about Japanese music. This recording powerfully demonstrates why fixing that should be one of my new year’s resolutions.

6. Mozart Momentum – 1785 (Leif Ove Andsnes, Mahler Chamber Orchestra)

Mozart Momentum – 1785 (Leif Ove Andsnes, Mahler Chamber Orchestra)

This album consists of compositions:

  • written by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart …
  • during his most productive year …
  • performed by one of the greatest pianists of our time …
  • who also turns out be a wonderful conductor.

And that’s all I have to (need to) say about it.

5. En Albion: Medieval Polyphony in England (Paul Van Nevel, Huelgas Ensemble)

En Albion: Medieval Polyphony in England (Paul Van Nevel, Huelgas Ensemble)

2021 was also the year of The Beatles: Get Back – a valuable addition to the already mythic story about four British lads who changed the history of music. A similar thing happened about 600 years earlier, when the works of – largely unnamed – English composers became all the rage on the continent and catalyzed the transition from the musical Middle Ages to the Renaissance.

Commentators from that time praised English music for its ‘sweet sound’. British composers achieved it through an increased used of sixths and thirds instead of fifths and octaves. And by taking care that simultaneous notes always sounded good together – in contrast to medieval composers who concentrated on nice chords on the beginnings and endings of phrases and didn’t much care about what happened in between.

This panconsonant style was then picked up on the continent by the first generation of Renaissance composers and would be of fundamental importance for the development of Western music – from Beethoven to, yes, The Beatles. But especially during the Renaissance, the ever-greater insistence on frictionless harmony meant that music also became a lot more boring. It lost all the edge that medieval music had.

From that respect, this collection of 14th century English music represents a unique balance between medieval edginess and Renaissance sophistication. It’s performed by the Huelgas ensemble, one of the pioneering and still most respected ensembles of early music. I generally find them a bit too tame and reverent when performing renaissance music. But in this recording, Paul Van Nevel takes a looser approach – playing around with voice arrangements to build dynamic structures and adding some unusual embellishments.

4. And Love Said… (Jodie Devos, Nicolas Krüger)

And Love Said... (Jodie Devos, Nicolas Krüger)

Did the English produce any other music of merit between the 1300s and the 1960s? Some might argue that they didn’t, especially since their one ‘big name’ was a German import. They would, of course be wrong – as Jodie Devos demonstrates through this collection of wonderful songs by – mainly – English composers from the early twentieth century such as Ivor Gurney, Benjamin Britten and William Walton.

Most of all, this record distinguishes itself by containing the most beautiful note of 2021. It’s at 2:13 of track 12 – Let the florid music praise by Benjamin Britten. On ‘hour’, Devos produces a tone (I think it’s a blue note) that threatens to snap all your heartstrings at once.

Extra points for the cover of Freddie Mercury’s You take my breath away. It proves that pop interpretations by classical musicians don’t need to be cringeworthy.

3. Schütz: Musicalische Exequien. German funeral music of the 17th century (Johannes Strobl, Voces Suaves)

3. Schütz: Musicalische Exequien. German funeral music of the 17th century (Johannes Strobl, Voces Suaves)

One of the things we all know about J.S. Bach is that he made a synthesis of all the music that preceded him. Maybe that’s why I never paid much attention to 17th century music, thinking I could just as well listen exclusively to Bach instead.

Boy, was I wrong. Since I dived into the works of people like Purcell, Rameau, Biber, Schütz and Schmelzer, I realized there’s yet another treasure trove of music that I will never be able to fully unpack. This collection of German funeral music is full of the harmonic eccentricities that were ironed out by the time Bach and Handel wrote their choral masterpieces.

Schütz is the biggest name here, but I was especially blown away by the first track: Ich will schweigen by Johann Hermann Schein. It’s extraordinary to think that such a masterpiece was ‘Gebrauchsmusik’ – meant to be played only once and then, well, taken to the grave.

2. Summertime (Isata Kenneh-Mason)

Summertime (Isata Kenneh-Mason)

2021 was the year when identity politics – or wokeism if you like – fully entered the world of classical music. That leads to toxic debates such as the imaginary cancellation of Beethoven. But also to a long overdue reevaluation of composers from disadvantaged groups such as women and people of color.

From that last category, I especially like Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, a turn-of-the-century English composer who was actually quite popular during his lifetime – mostly for his oratorio Song of Hiawatha. Maybe his ‘fall from grace’ has more to do with his musical style than the color of his skin. He composed in the tradition of Dvorak and Brahms, without advancing it very much. But isn’t ‘progressism’ another noxious ideology that the classical music world should leave behind?

Some of Coleridge-Taylor’s biggest fans came from the African-American community. When he learned of the sorrows of his brothers and sisters across the ocean – and discovered their music – he was extremely touched. His version of the spiritual Sometimes I feel like a motherless child, so soulfully performed by Kenneh-Mason, is a heartbreaking testament to that.

That track alone would be enough to put this record in my top ten. What launches it to the second spot is the inclusion of an equally impressive – yet completely different – work: Samuel Barber’s piano sonata. This is an extremely complex work that even uses – yikes! – some 12-tone rows. And nevertheless I was completely sold after no more than two listens. Remarkable!

1. Eilífur (Viktor Orri Árnason)

Eilífur (Viktor Orri Árnason)

If you care about making classical music less white, Iceland probably isn’t the best place to look. But it’s undeniable that there’s something in the water of this volcano-ridden Viking hide-out that inspires musicians who effortlessly skate between pop, post-classical and avant-garde.

Not all of that music is to my taste. I love Björk, but never understood the attraction of Sigur Rós or Jóhann Jóhannsson. ‘Atmospheric’ is the word that’s most often used to describe their music. And while that makes for a perfect aural backdrop during sauna sessions, my attention quickly starts to drift away from the music. Which – I know – is probably exactly the point.

But once Árnason grabbed my attention, he never let go. He constantly plays around with his imaginary orchestra (different instrumental groups and voices were recorded during different sessions) to mix up the texture. Neoromantic strings and winds – sounding like Bruckner from under 15 meters of ice – are combined with an eerie avant-garde choir. In The thread a solo viola plays the saddest motif you can imagine. In The vision an ensemble of woodwinds weaves a brittle contrapuntal structure. There are ominous drones, syrupy fragments, impressive crescendos and sudden silences … Always something happening and yet beneath it all is a constant all-pervasive quality, a … – what should I call it – atmosphere!

Its booklet reveals that Eilífur – which means eternal – is a concept album. It conveys what life would be like if (when?) we all live forever. To me, it sounds like a state of limbo where we oscillate between hope and fear. A fitting tribute to 2021.

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Are these the best classical albums of 2020?

Probably not. But out of the ones I’ve heard, I’ve enjoyed these the most:

10. The Leipzig Circle, Vol 2. (London Bridge Trio)

The Leipzig Circle record sleeve

If I were making a list of silliest sentences in CD booklets, this one would take the top spot: “[the first movement of the featured Felix Mendelssohn trio] has both firmness and determination that immediately declare it to be a strong and masculine conception.”

Luckily, the performance is a lot better than the commentary. It demonstrates that Clara Schumann’s feminine conceptions didn’t stop her from writing music that was on a par with Mendelssohn’s. And that Robert Schumann surpassed them both. In imagination, not testosterone.

9. Miroir (Alexandre Collard, Jean Daufresne and Mathilde Nguyen)

Miroir record sleeve

If I were making a list of understatements in CD booklets, this one would take the top spot: “Rarely, in the history of music, have composers written for horn, saxhorn and piano.”

In fact, only one work on this album was originally written for that combination – after a special request from the performers. In any case, it sounds amazing. Moreover, this record brings to light some unfamiliar and underrated repertoire from Belgian and French composers from the 19th through 21st centuries.

8. Debussy – Rameau (Vikingur Ólafsson)

Debussy - Rameau record sleeve

This one will feature on many ‘best of 2020’ lists. And if the Icelandic pianist releases another record in 2021, it will probably end up on that year’s lists as well. Because he’s as good as the hype that surrounds him.

This record would have ended up higher on my list if Ólafsson wouldn’t have made the misguided decision of combining Rameau with Debussy. Not because they make a bad couple. But because I don’t like Debussy’s piano music. Or the unacceptable way he wears a hat.

7. Anna Clyne: DANCE – Edward Elgar: Cello Concerto (Inbal Segev, London Philharmonic Orchestra & Marin Alsop)

Clyne-Elgar record sleeve

Now here’s someone who knows how to wear a hat:

Anna Clyne
Perfect!

No melodies moved me more last year than the sentimental, folk-influenced themes that form the basis of the four dances – excuse me, DANCES – by Anna Clyne.

The expressive style of cellist Inbal Segev serves them well. Although it steals too much of the spotlight from the orchestra. That’s especially true in the Elgar concerto. If you’re a fan of that work – and who isn’t? – the 2020 recording by Sheku Kanneh-Mason is probably a better choice.

6. Blessed Art Thou Among Women (PaTRAM Institute Singers)

Blessed Art Thou Among Women record sleeve

One of the greatest pleasures in life is listening to the sound of oktavists, the ultra-low bass singers that feature in Russian music. They’re abundantly present on this record, rumbling their way through four centuries of enchanting orthodox choral music.

If, God forbid, 2021 turns out to be another year in which we need extra comfort, this album is guaranteed to provide it. Just let the sounds of those amazing human didgeridoos gently vibrate your worries away.

5. Bohemian Tales (Augustin Hadelich)

Bohemian Tales record sleeve

Some stuff that you know, some stuff that you don’t. That remains the perfect mix for a classical concert or album. Often, the unfamiliar work that you dreaded makes more of an impression than the well-known piece that you came for.

That was certainly the case with this recording of Bohemian violin music. I was lured in by Dvořák and Janáček, but it was the Op. 17 by Josef Suk that blew me away – less ‘romantic’ than Dvořák, more ‘popular’ than Janáček and with a unique approach to musical form.

Intrigued, I decided to seek out more music by Suk, especially his orchestral works. And I quickly decided that it wasn’t worth another second of my time. But it could have been the beginning of an exciting journey of musical discovery, is what I’m saying.

4. Beethoven: Songs & Folksongs (Ian Bostridge, Antonio Pappano)

Beethoven songs and folksongs record sleeve

For obvious reasons, 2020 will not be remembered as ‘the year we celebrated the 250th birthday of Beethoven’. But it was an excellent year to explore Beethoven with a small b. Confined to my home, an album full of ‘domestic’ compositions was exactly what the doctor ordered.

Apart from the visionary An die ferne Geliebte cycle, the Beethoven songs are generally considered of little importance. And that’s even more true of his settings of Irish, British, Scottish and Welsh folk songs that he purely made – gasp! – for money. It’s to Bostridge’s credit that he applies his otherworldly talent to these supposedly mundane compositions – and reveals that they are anything but that.

3. Proving Up (Missy Mazzoli)

Proving Up record sleeve

2020 was also the year in which we witnessed how the American democracy nearly drove itself off a cliff.

There are a lot of reasons for what happened during the last four years. One of them is the destructive idea behind the American dream. Missy Mazzoli and her librettist Royce Vavrek turned that into a wonderful opera. And I’m not going to repeat what I already wrote about it.

2. Not Our First Goat Rodeo (Yo-Yo Ma, Stuart Duncan, Edgar Meyer & Chris Thile)

Not Our First Goat Rodeo record sleeve

Wait, is this a classical album?

Well, on the one hand, it’s labelled by the record company as such. It includes Yo-Yo Ma and Edgar Meyer. And in what other category would you put a track like Not For Lack of Trying?

On the other hand, who cares? I don’t trust jazz or bluegrass fans enough to feel confident that they will include this record in their end-of-year lists. And this joyous display of musicianship and collaboration cannot get enough praise from every corner.

1. Adès Conducts Adès (Boston Symphony Orchestra)

Adès conducts Adès record sleeve

Of the contemporary composers on this list, Thomas Adès is probably the most ‘difficult’ one. And yet, if you listen to some connoisseurs, you’d think he’s one cowbell removed from becoming André Rieu.

That’s probably because Adès’ music packs an emotional punch that resonates with a lot of people. Which makes it suspect in the ears of some.

Yet you only need to listen to the second movement of his piano concerto to realize that this guy is something special. There are echoes from many traditions, but the language is unique. And underneath is a musical progression that you don’t need to fully understand to be overwhelmed by it. That’s something that only comes around, well, every 250 years or so.

Did I just imply that Adès is the new Beethoven? Must be the champagne talking. All I wanted to say is: some things that came out of 2020, are worth remembering. Happy New Year!

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Dive into my selection of favorite albums from 2021

Review: Proving Up by Missy Mazzoli

Many years ago, I shared a house with a friend who’s a fan of Richard Wagner. As proof of his devotion, he owned a box of all the Meister‘s recordings. The thing took up half a shelf in a CD cabinet that had to be shared by four music enthusiasts. As I recall, none of those music dramas was ever played.

And they never would be. With each move, that friend takes his Wagner box off the shelf and brings it to its new home. Never opening it ­­– as if it’s the urn with his grandmother’s ashes.

Richard Wagner CD box
And only slighly more jolly.

Opera recordings: why bother?

Of course, my friend is by no means an exception. Nor is this phenomenon limited to Wagner CDs. We think complete opera recordings are essential to our collection, but how often do we really play them?

After all, we didn’t need Wagner to know that opera is a gesamtkunstwerk – an indivisible union of music, stage design and acting. That means only listening to the recording is missing out on 66.66 % of the fun.

So usually I’m not bouncing with enthusiasm whenever a new opera recording hits the shelves. But recently, I was proven wrong. By Missy Mazzoli’s Proving Up.

Missy Mazzoli's proving up

Short and clear

With 80 minutes for the whole thing, Proving Up is shorter than the first act of Parsifal. And that’s the first thing I like about this opera: its brevity. Is that shallow of me? So be it. I really wouldn’t know where to fit in multiple listening sessions of five-hour dramas. So it’s nice to be able to hear a full story unfold while doing the laundry or riding the train.

The second amazing thing about this recording is its sound quality. That sets it apart from another contemporary opera recording that I highly anticipated: Prisoner of the State by David Lang. Being a Lang fan, I loved the music. But the awful live recording was a big disappointment. Live opera recordings are the worst: the sound of slamming doors and creaking floorboards that ruin your listening experience and remind you of the visual spectacle you’re missing out on.

Ghost story

Missy Mazzoli writes contemporary music of the accessible variety. But don’t count on skipping the recitatives and going straight to the arias and choruses. Proving Up is the real-deal through-composed opera stuff, where the music is not allowed to follow its own logic but must align on its course with the text and the action.

The action, remember, that you can’t see. So why didn’t I miss it while listening to this recording? I think it’s because of how Mazzoli’s music strikes the right balance between painting a general mood, so it sounds like a pleasing whole, and differentiating the consecutive events, so you don’t fall asleep.

Proving Up is a ghost story set in the age of the American pioneers. Everything revolves around the Zender family desperate to ‘prove up’: acquire the ownership of the land they’re living on. Just like Copland before her, Missy Mazzoli conjures the plains of the Midwest by using lots of open, wide-spaced chords. The many augmented and diminished intervals express the hardships of the characters and/or the horror that threatens their existence.

Against that solid background, every one of the characters gets a distinctive voice that borrows from a different musical style. My favorite one is the somewhat naive son Miles who sounds like he’d rather be in a Broadway musical. He serenates the pigs and his horse, and the moment when he passionately sings the line “What a beautiful day for a window delivery.” is without a doubt the funniest and most heartbreaking thing I’ve heard in a long time – at least in a contemporary opera.

Miles comes to his untimely end when he meets the sodbuster – a ghost who condemns him in a wonderful scene that reminded me of the parts with the ghost of Il Commendatore in Mozart’s Don Giovanni.

Just like in Don Giovanni, the closing scene that follows it feels like a bit of an anticlimax. That’s despite its beautiful music, this time dominated by the figure of the family’s mother who fittingly sings like the quintessential dramatic opera diva. The most clairvoyant figure in the piece, she mourns the passing of her children, and of the American dream.

Even better than the real thing?

It’s the succession of vivid, musically distinct scenes that kept me hooked to this recording. If I never missed the action, it’s because I had no trouble imagining it. I’m now so pleased with Proving Up’s staging in my head that I have almost no desire to see the real thing. Even though it does look wonderful:

Want to picture your own version of Proving Up? Check it out on CD, Spotify or Apple Music.

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More contemporary music

Review: Dag Wirén String Quartets

Apparently, Punxsutawney Phil predicts an early spring this year. That means you only have a few weeks left to enjoy the winter with its perfect soundtrack: the Dag Wirén string quartets by the Wirén Quartet.

Dag Wirén string quartets

Dag Wirén: not a man of words

Never heard of Dag Wirén? Neither did I before this record caught my attention. Some quick facts:

Wirén already stopped composing in 1970, stating: “One should stop in time, while one still has time to stop in time.”

Dag Wirén

Luckily, his music is more memorable than his aphorisms.

Timeless craftmanship

Wirén’s style, especially in his early years, can only be described as neoclassical. To my ears: very neoclassical. Actually, he sounds like Brahms with a pair of warm woolen mittens.

But who cares that he was not hip with the times? Especially if he managed to come up with compositions such as his third string quartet, my favorite one on this record.

Its first movement starts off with a softly rocking accompaniment. Like a flower from under a snow bed, the first violin rises to the surface with the basic melody. Gradually, the other instruments join in to start a fascinating dialogue based on that motif. And just when their disagreement reaches its climax, the conversation abruptly halts and begins anew.

The second, slow movement is a romantic piece based on a pining melody that I’m sure I’ve heard before but can’t quite place. Drop me a note in the comments if you can help me out.

After the short but stirring minuet, the quartet closes with a finale where Wirén waves a tapestry out of the basic melodies of the previous three movements.

None of this would have sounded innovative in 1941. And it sounds even less so today. But the way Wirén develops and combines his musical themes bears witness to a timeless craftmanship that engages your attention while still being easy on the ears. And sometimes that’s all you need during those darkest days of the year.

Pizzicati and … er … stuff

What’s left for a composer after writing a neoclassical masterpiece such as that third string quartet? Judging from his fourth and fifth quartets, also included on this record, Wirén chose to adopt a more modern style. Not Stockhausen or Ligeti modern though, more like Sibelius and Shostakovich modern.

One thing that remains constant is Wirén’s wonderful talent for string arranging. All the quartets are overflowing with plinky plonks and zings and fiiiieuws – or whatever the technical terms may be.

It’s all immaculately performed by the Wirén Quartet. A bit too immaculately, perhaps. I get the feeling that, if they would tone down their reverence towards the composer a bit – he’s in their name after all – and let their own musical personalities shine through, this music would sound even better.

But what do I know? Do make up your own mind by listening to Dag Wirén string quartets by the Wirén Quartet on CD, Spotify or Apple Music. You won’t regret it.

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David Lang’s The Little Match Girl Passion

Are you passionate about passions? Then you’ve probably spent Easter listening to Bach’s St Matthew Passion. Or, if you’re the kind of person who likes to impress people with his maverick musical taste, Bach’s St John Passion, Handel’s Brockes Passion or Beethoven’s Christ on the Mount of Olives.

And if you truly don’t care about what other people think of you: A Passion Play by British prog rockers Jethro Tull.

A Passion Play by Jethro Tull

Forgive them, for they know not what they do.

Me, I chose David Lang’s The Little Match Girl Passion this year. The piece is barely ten years old, but already a bit of a classic. I liked it so much, I’m ready to spread the word.

The story

You probably already know this fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen, about a little girl who is forced by her father to sell matches on the street, fails to do so, is afraid to go home and starts to hallucinate.

Don’t’ worry, there’s a happy ending: she’s reunited with her loving grandmother … by freezing to death.

The Little Match Girl

I never really liked this story, because I find it a bit too sentimental for my taste. Seeing as I cried when I first saw Jack die in Titanic, that’s saying something.

Of course, it wouldn’t be the first brilliant musical setting of a schmaltzy text. Besides, David Lang is a less shallow reader than I am. In the little match girl story, he sees a parallel with the passion of Christ. Not only do both Jesus and the girl suffer, they are also both scorned by the crowd and transfigured by death.

The music

This thematic parallel is why David Lang chose to compose the little match girl story as a passion, alternating between:

  • the telling of the story – an English translation of Andersen’s fairy tale text
  • poetic commentaries on the story – for which he mainly uses the libretto of Bach’s St Matthew Passion

The music is a minimalistic affair, with only four voices and percussion. Don’t expect dramatic timpani or excited drumming – we’re talking about a few accents by a lonely sleigh bell or glockenspiel.

Glockenspiel, used in David Lang's The Little Match Girl passion

Oh, wipe that smile of your face. There’s nothing funny about a glockenspiel.

The melodies and harmonies are just as sober. Lang builds his composition out of a few simple musical cells which don’t evolve but repeat themselves over and over again.

But it works. For me at least. And remarkably, the numbers where he recites the story make the biggest impression on me.

In a baroque or classical passion, oratorio or opera, these recitatives are the places where you can doze off for a moment – waiting for the next aria or chorus to come along.

In Lang’s The Little Match Girl Passion, these narrative fragments start out quite emotionless and monotonous. But soon Lang subtly raises the tension by introducing countermelodies, shifting the position of the voices so they create irregular rhythms, and so on.

To me, that echoes the girl’s descent into madness and despair. Until order returns when she’s found dead in the snow – definitely not rising again. A bitter, but beautiful climax.

Listen to David Lang’s The Little Match Girl Passion

Another great thing about this passion is that its story takes place on New Year’s Eve. So you can use it as a backdrop to your Easter and Christmas festivities. There are a few decent performances on YouTube. But the first and definitive version is the one by Paul Hillier’s Theatre of Voices, available on CD, Spotify and Apple Music. Enjoy!

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Gustav Holst: Composer of The Planets (and Not Proud of It)

Are you one of those people who gets upset when Radiohead doesn’t play Creep? First of all: get over it. Second of all: take comfort in the fact that Radiohead is part of a respectable tradition of composers who despised their most beloved compositions.

Saint-Saëns hated Le Carnaval des Animaux, Ravel hated Boléro, Tchaikovsky hated the 1812 Overture, Beethoven hated Wellingtons Sieg, …

And Gustav Holst (1874-1934) hated The Planets.

The Planets composer: Gustav Holst
At the very least, its success left him in a permanent state of slight bewilderment.

The Planets: an unlikely success

The fact that The Planets was despised by its composer is strange in two ways:

  1. The Planets is the only composition for which Holst is widely remembered.
  2. Unlike the 1812 Overture or Wellingtons Sieg, The Planets is not a god-awful piece of classical music.

Holst’s orchestral suite is anything but a cheap crowd pleaser. Its musical forms are unusual, its time signatures often irregular and its instrumental combinations unorthodox.

In fact, during the first performances of The Planets, a few of the seven movements of the suite were always omitted. The idea was that the public wouldn’t be able to handle the full fifty minutes of such challenging music.

So why was the composer of The Planets later ashamed of it?

“The Planets seems to lift you up and transport you to exciting new worlds that are – at the same time – strangely familiar.”

Holst: composer in times of war

Holst wrote The Planets between 1914 and 1916 – the first two years of the Great War. You would think that such an Armageddon would have influenced his composition, but Holst always denied that. His main inspiration did come from Germany, but it was a purely musical one.

A few years before WOI, the musical world was already in turmoil. Critics and public waged fierce battles over compositions that broke with musical laws that had held up for centuries. Suddenly, listeners were deprived of:

  • melodies they could sing along to
  • rhythms they could dance or clap to
  • harmonies that helped them to make sense of it all

In 1909, Schoenberg launched his Fünf Orchesterstücke, one of the first great examples of atonal music. Holst heard it, enjoyed it and bought the score. He liked it so much that he would name one of his next compositions Seven Pieces for Large Orchestra. Only later did he change the name of his suite to … The Planets.

Another ‘scandalous’ composition that influenced The Planets – just listen to the thumping irregular rhythms in Mars, The Bringer of War – is Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du printemps, which dates from 1912.

“Who wants to be remembered for an artistic anachronism – no matter how successful?”

Delicious mix of old and new

Holst was obviously excited by all these musical innovations. But that did not make him an avant-garde composer. In The Planets, he blended all these progressive elements and poured a generous helping of late-romantic sauce over it.

Or did he write a late-romantic composition and liberally spiced it with avant-garde elements? It doesn’t matter: the result is a perfectly balanced and extremely satisfying piece of classical music.

It was also exactly what the public needed after the horrors of the war: a composition that was new and exciting but also familiar and accessible. And with its more than fifty instrumental parts and two three-part choruses, it perfectly fitted the British love for pomp and circumstance.

Composing The Planets launched Gustav Holst into eternal fame

The emerging record industry also jumped on the success of The Planets. Jupiter was already recorded in 1922. A complete recording – conducted by the composer himself – followed in 1926. You can listen to it here. For comparison: Le Sacre du printemps had to wait until 1928 and Schoenberg’s Fünf Orchesterstücke even longer.

And in 1983, the author of this charming article about “the new compact digital players and disks (known as CDs)”, hoped that very soon the record companies would put out something else than predictable warhorses such as the 1812 Overture, Wellingtons Sieg and … The Planets.

The Planets record sleeves
The Planets also proved to be a godsend for record sleeve designers.

The Planets by Holst: artistic anachronism …

So that’s what The Planets had quickly become in the eyes of the public and critics: a warhorse of classical music in the late-romantic style. It’s a judgment that deeply offended its composer. After all, who wants to be remembered for an artistic anachronism – no matter how successful?

It’s also a judgment that’s very unfair, inspired by the idea that ‘popular’ equals ‘inferior’ and that the only acceptable version of music history is a straight evolutionary line.

… or unintentional essay in escapism?

When you listen to The Planets, it’s hard not to be impressed by the unique sonic universe created by its composer. Because of the massive orchestra involved, its sound is big and expansive. Yet thanks to of Holst’s incredible talent as an arranger, it’s also light and transparent.

The result is music that seems to lift you up and transport you to exciting new worlds that are – at the same time – strangely familiar. It offers you a temporary escape from everyday life.

And that was not lost on an industry that specializes in such flights from reality.

The Planet’s satellites: from Death Star to Middle-earth

In case you were wondering, The Planets isn’t about space travel. Its inspiration is astrological rather than astronomical: Mars, Venus, Mercury, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune are character studies, not descriptions of big rocks in space.

George Lucas did not know that. Or, he didn’t care. Compiling the soundtrack for his Star Wars movies, he gave The Planets a spin. He particularly liked this fragment from Mars as the leitmotif for his main villain:

But he had no intention to pay any money to Holst’s descendants. So he asked composer John Williams to write something similar:

And John Williams wasn’t the only film composer inspired by Holst’s masterpiece. Echoes of The Planets also pop up in Braveheart and Battlestar Galactica.

And can you listen to this fragment from Jupiter without Middle-earth popping into your mind?

What would Holst himself have thought about all these bastard offspring versions of The Planets? Not much, probably. Though it’s safe to say it wasn’t the way he envisioned his legacy – if he had any vision of that at all.

But, as an almost contemporary of Holst – whose work suffered a similar fate – wrote: “Even the very wise cannot see all ends.”

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Can Classical Music Heighten Men’s Attractiveness? A Scientific Experiment

A couple a of weeks ago, this news came out:

Does classical music make you seem more attractive?

And it immediately drew my attention. I was particularly intrigued by this statement in the article:

“High-arousing (i.e., more complex) music affects the perception of male facial attractiveness.”

In other words, complex music is like alcohol: it will make you seem prettier than you actually are.

The researchers came to this conclusion after an experiment involving photographs and surveys. In the name of science, I decided to test this in a real-life environment. And I’m happy to share my findings with you.

Testing conditions

For this test, I first invited three blind dates over for dinner (never you mind where I got them from). As background music, I chose the most complex classical music I could find: a piano piece by Brian Ferneyhough. Mister Ferneyhough’s music is categorized as New Complexity, because – I guess – the old complexity wasn’t nearly complex enough. It looks and sounds like this:

Scientifically speaking, if this doesn’t put the ladies in the mood, I don’t know what will.

Of course, no experiment is reliable without a control group. So the next evening I invited three other blind dates (never you mind where I got them from). And his time I played piano music which is significantly less complex, by Ludovico Einaudi. It looks and sounds like this:

Good to know: to rule out any fluctuations in attractiveness, I wore the same outfit on both evenings.

Nerdy classical music T-shirt

I think it says: ‘nerdy, yet confident’.

The results

Are you ready to be surprised? The women whom I treated to my tofu-tournedos Rossini with Ferneyhough playing in the background, did not seem impressed by my attractiveness. The reactions I recorded were:

  • What the hell is that noise?
  • Maybe we could listen to some music?
  • Oh my God, you’re a serial killer, aren’t you?

The Einaudi control group, on the other hand, made encouraging comments such as:

  • Maybe we could listen to some music?
  • What the hell am I eating?
  • I think you and I could be great friends.

Still got it

Conclusion?

Best stick with alcohol.

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Table music by Thierry De Mey: music as movement

One of my many unproven theories is that there are two kinds of people, depending on the way they respond to music:

  1. by dancing
  2. by playing an air instrument

Me, I belong to the second group. Through the years, I’ve mastered the air guitar, air piano, air drums, all the instruments of the air string quartet, … even the air marimba on occasion.

Marimba
A 5-octave concert model, no less

Either way, music and movement are intimately connected. And there’s one man who devoted his life’s work to that idea: Thierry De Mey, composer of the fabulous Musique de table or Table music.

“One of the main reasons we make music is the simple pleasure of using or bodies to make sounds.”

Table music for three

Table music is a composition for six hands on three tables. Performing it looks like immense fun:

As you probably guessed, none of this is improvised. De Mey developed a special notation system to prescribe exactly what each hand should be doing at any moment.

Thierry De Mey Table music score
No longer seems so much fun, does it?

Table dance

Would I enjoy this music as much if I just listened to it, without watching the performance? No. But that seems to be the point. De Mey is not interested in making ‘absolute music’. In fact, he is best known for his collaborations with dance choreographers such as Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker and Wim Vandekeybus.

“Music is just as much art as handicraft.”

To be honest, I’m not a big fan of modern dance – or classical ballet for that matter. Maybe that’s because I’m one of those air instrument people. But Table music does speak to me. It reminds me that one of the main reasons we make music is the simple pleasure of using or bodies to make sounds. Just look at the moment when the middle guy can no longer hide how much fun he’s having.

Performance of Thierry De Mey's Table music
“Stay cool, stay cool, … Oh, forget it.”

The take-away from Table music

In the end, there’s no such thing as absolute music. Most of the fun of attending a live concert is watching the players work their magic and sharing in their enjoyment. Even when I’m listening to a pure stream of sound through my headphones, I can’t help imagining the movements that produced it. Until I start making those moves myself, in endlessly ridiculous ways.

Maybe that’s why the dance people were the first to really appreciate electronic music. And yet, even DJ’s feel the need to visibly but – as many suspect – pointlessly fidget with buttons and sliders. As De Mey’s Table music literally illustrates, music is just as much art as handicraft.

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