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!

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.

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.

 

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!

Want to keep up with my classical musings? Then you’re very welcome to follow me on FacebookTwitter or both.

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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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.