Here, it works even better. Because notwithstanding his many qualities, Leonard Cohen did not always make the best production choices. If you’re a pedantic fortysomething like me, you no doubt enjoy looking down on millennials who think Hallelujah was written by Jeff Buckley. But the simple fact is that the song would never have become a classic in Cohen’s album version – with less emotional delivery and many more cheap Casio bleep-blobs.
That’s why the sparse lute and viola da gamba arrangements on this record mostly come over like deliciously paired down versions of the originals – while adding interest through the addition of different countermelodies across the different verses. The exception is Famous Blue Raincoat, of which the Cohen album version simply cannot be improved.
Frederiksen’s voice, its range comfortably in between that of young and old Cohen, also feels right. He almost manages to completely eschew the schooled classical delivery that can make these kind of projects so cringy. Although the brittle voice of his partner in crime Emma-Lisa Roux fits the repertoire even better. And their ethereal harmonies are one of the big strengths of this album.
But Frederiksen’s ambitions for this album reach further than some tasteful rearranging. He also wants to set up a meeting between Cohen the “modern troubadour” and Renaissance chansonniers such as Orlando di Lasso and Josquin des Prez.
His procedure is to make old/new combinations based on shared textual and even musical motifs. The Cohen song is usually the bulk of each track, while the Renaissance bits are mostly used as intro/outros or interludes.
It’s a concept I very much wanted to like, but initially didn’t. The textual interrelations are very clever – excellently explained here. Musically however, the seams of this patchwork are showing a bit too much. Despite similarities between Cohen and his Renaissance colleagues, their musical language remains sea miles apart. In Suzanne/Susanne un jour, I actually flinch a bit every time the iconic Cohen guitar accompaniment comes in – it veers dangerously close to the stuff they used to do in the ‘70s and ‘80s to attract the youngsters to classical music. Same thing in A Thousand Kisses Deep/Un jour L’Amoureuse Sylvie.
Luckily, much like the aforementioned trifle/shepherd’s pie, this album gets better the further you advance into it. In the middle, there’s a delightful dance suite around Dance Me To The End Of Love – itself brought to the stately rhythm of a pavane.
But the two final tracks are where it finally all clicks together. In You want it Darker/Quand me souvient de ma triste fortune the two musical worlds impressively intertwine. My goosebumps moment of the album: the fragment where the Cohen song gets interrupted by some renaissance polyphony that beautifully resolves back to the bass riff. Listen for it around three minutes in.
The final song is, of course, Hallelujah. And, of course, rather the Buckley than the Cohen version. A hymn by Purcell provides the perfect inter- and postlude.
Final balance: if you’re the adventurous type, this album will not disappoint. Especially if you work your way through it backwards.
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.
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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)
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)
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)
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)
Now here’s someone who knows how to wear a hat:
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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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Last summer, I paid a short visit to London. In my backpack: a few biographies of – and a lot of music by – George Frideric Handel. My mission? To re-acquaint myself with Britain’s greatest composer. And to write a few articles about it, of course. First stop: Handel’s house in London.
a harpsichord player who sings the praises of George Frideric Handel (1685-1759)
an electric guitar player who raves about Jimi Hendrix (1942-1970)
But when the movie ends with these two jamming together, it’s a bit of an anti-climax. And that’s typical for the relationship between pop (or rock) and classical music: they have more in common than they think, but when they end up in bed together, it seldom leads to fireworks. The result is usually kitschy, pretentious or both. (Except when it’s awesome.)
So why would they force Handel and Hendrix to share a museum? Because fate brought them together.
Fate … and a timeless fashion sense
The story behind the Handel and Hendrix museum
You see, Jimi Hendrix lived in the attic of Handel’s house! Well, in the attic of Handel’s neighbour, to be precise. So they were divided by two centuries and a supporting wall. But that’s still a remarkable coincidence, right? (If you happen to be a statistician: I don’t really want to know.)
George and Jimi shared more than their rubbish collection day. They were both foreigners who made their fortune in London. They were both addicts – Jimi to heroin, George to food and wine. They were both musicians of course, and … that’s about it.
So I was curious to see how the Handel and Hendrix museum would fit these two musical giants together.
“I would have enjoyed rummaging through Handel’s opera score collection or finding a half-eaten bratwurst on his nightstand.”
The Hendrix flat
Surprisingly, the Hendrix part of the museum made the biggest impression on me. His bedroom is decorated exactly as it was when he lived there from 1968 to 1969. Right down to the packet of Benson & Hedges and box of Quality Street next to his bed.
Rock and roll!
It was here that Jimi woke up one night to find Handel’s ghost walking in: “an old guy in a nightshirt and a grey pigtail”. Did I mention drugs were involved?
You can also browse through Hendrix’ stunningly diverse record collection. And yes, there’s some Handel in there. After hearing about his illustrious downstairs neighbour, Hendrix said: “I haven’t heard much of the fella’s stuff. But I dig a bit of Bach now and then.” He later went out to buy a copy of Messiah and Belshazzar.
The Handel house
Compared to that, the Handel portion of the Handel and Hendrix museum is a lot more, well, classical. You know what I mean: harpsichords in the middle of empty rooms, portraits on the walls, manuscripts in glass cases, …
Nothing wrong with all that, of course, but after the Hendrix experience (clever pun totally intended), I would have enjoyed rummaging through Handel’s opera score collection or finding a half-eaten bratwurst on his nightstand.
Of course, that’s not the museum’s fault. We just don’t know enough about Handel’s life to recreate his private quarters with any degree of historical accuracy. But it does threaten to confirm the image of classical music as a stuffy affair. Especially when fragments of psychedelic guitar sounds keep reminding you of the cool kid living in the attic.
Visit without prejudice
Fortunately, Jimi Hendrix wasn’t so narrow-minded. Visitors to his flat remembered him playing along to his Handel records. And during the Winterland concerts, in Francisco in 1968, he inserted a musical quote from Messiah.
I’m pretty sure Handel would have returned the compliment, since at least half of his genius was due to cleverly stealing other people’s music.
So there’s at least one excellent reason to visit the Handel and Hendrix museum. It proves that – awkward bedfellows or not – pop and classical music make excellent neighbours.
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In my last post about Tartini’s devil’s trill, I made a joke about crossover artist Vanessa-Mae. This amused me so much that I decided to fill a whole article with hilariously disastrous attempts to make classical music look cool.
Sounds like fun? Well, too bad. I changed my mind and will now serve you a distressing insight into my sometimes weird musical taste. Do stick around, though.
“You don’t need to be cool to win an audience.”
Good, bad, brilliant
Why did I change my mind? Not because of a lack of material, that’s for sure. For hilarious examples and an intelligent argument about why classical music shouldn’t even try to be cool, read this article.
Anyway, as I was mining the internet for some more ‘good bad’ stuff, I stumbled upon this video.
That guy is Michele “Dr. Viossi” Vioni, Italian guitar virtuoso, composer and producer, playing the finale of Beethoven’s Moonlight sonata. The video went viral a couple of years ago, but I somehow missed it. And now I can’t stop watching it.
Blended to perfection
I know, I know, … ‘Beethoven meets metal’ sounds like a terribly tasteless idea. Just like ‘Schubert meets metal’. But in this case, I think it actually works. Thanks to Vioni, who not only seems an incredible virtuoso but also an intelligent musician. He strikes a balance between remaining faithful to Beethoven’s score and imposing the typical metal mannerisms upon it. In fact, to me, the backing track is even more interesting than Vioni’s finger acrobatics you see in the video.
Of course, Beethoven deserves some of the credit. Vioni tried this trick on a few other classical compositions, but the result isn’t nearly as good. It’s the amazing drive of that third movement of the Moonlight sonata that blends so well with the metal style.
Acquired metallic taste
Metal is a peculiar musical genre. People who claim to like ‘good’ pop or rock music, usually look down on it. Yet it surprisingly often touches a nerve with jazz or classical enthusiasts. Maybe not that surprising, since metal partly grew out of progressive rock.
Anyway, I recently developed a taste for metal music – at least some of it. This earns me a lot of looks of disbelief. Understandably, since I was once a teenager who preferred Beethoven over Black Sabbath. (Yes, I did get beat up a few times, why do you ask?)
Partners in being uncool
Sure, metal is often needlessly loud and aggressive. But it can be surprisingly adventurous as well, or delightfully silly. Maybe that’s because a lot of metal musicians don’t take themselves too seriously – despite all the tough posturing. They do whatever they want to do, even if it’s playing a Beethoven piece note by note on an electric guitar. Not cool? As 11 million YouTube views prove: you don’t need to be cool to win an audience.
And isn’t that an uplifting thought for fans of metal and classical alike?
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