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.
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)
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.
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)
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)
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)
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.
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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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Hey, it’s almost hunting season! Time put on your camouflage gear, load up your rifle and … settle down by a crackling fire and listen to some music. Those poor animals never did anything to you, goddammit.
After all, we’re no longer living in the middle ages: a time when entertainment options were limited and killing animals was an acceptable pastime.
Pictured: medieval fun for all (except the deer)
The hunt was a major theme for artists in the middle ages: it’s the subject of countless tapestries and miniatures. Their musical equivalent is the caccia, which blossomed during the transitional period between medieval and renaissance music.
“A caccia should be served like a piece of venison meat: still a bit raw.”
Place and time: Trecento
If you were an art lover in fourteenth-century Europe, Italy was the place to be. Insanely rich rulers supported painters, sculptors and poets who added to their prestige. This Trecentowas also the time when it became acceptable to write literature in your own dialect – instead of Latin. Writers such as Dante, Petrarca and Boccaccio all jumped at that chance and earned their ticket to eternal fame.
And they’re not the only ones who did well. During the Trecento, the medieval craftsman was turning into the renaissance artist. This is the first era in music history for which we know so much important composers by name: Jacopo da Bologna, Niccolò da Perugia, … and the most famous of them all: Franscesco Landini. We even know what they looked like (sort of).
Unfortunately, only about twenty caccias survived. What’s more, most recordings are a bit too smooth for my taste. A caccia should be served like a piece of venison meat: still a bit raw.
This recording of Gherardello da Firenze’s masterpiece Tosto che l’alba is a great example.
That’s the way I like it: without gently plucking instruments in the background and with singers who are not afraid to thread the fine line between singing and yelling like a wild boar in agony (just listen at 1:10). After all, that’s the whole point of a caccia, isn’t it?
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