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.
Quick, what image springs to mind if I ask you to think about the ultimate German opera? Winged helmets? Slayed dragons? Heavyset blonds with harnessed bosoms and pigtails?
Well, you’re wrong. Curiously, the quintessential German opera doesn’t tick any of those boxes. And it’s not by Wagner. It’s Carl Maria Von Weber’s Der Freischütz, premiered in 1821 – more than 10 years before Wagner completed his first opera.
Der Freischütz was the last opera performed in Dresden’s Semper opera house during the Nazi regime – before the building was bombed to the ground. It was also the first opera staged in the makeshift theatre that the Dresdeners erected after the war. And when the opera house was properly rebuilt by the communist East-German regime, it opened with … that’s right.
So, Der Freischütz’s popularity bridges ideological divides. It’s considered a national treasure by all Germans from Aachen to Görlitz and from Flensburg to Oberstdorf. If they’re into opera, of course.
As creating a real German opera was one of his greatest ambitions, Weber would certainly be beaming with pride if he knew this. Or not?
Historical context: dreaming of a national German culture
An obsession with creating national styles was commonplace in the 19th and well into the 20th century. But none took it so seriously as the Germans. In fact, it was essential to the birth of the concept of classical music and its Germanic canon.
If you feel the need to affirm your identity, you’re often not happy with who you are. That was as true in the early decades of the 19th century as it is today. In Weber’s time, the quilt of miniature states that made up the German territory had been trampled numerous times. Contrary to ‘real’ countries like Great Britain and Russia, they were nothing more than a series of hors d’oeuvres for the ravenous armies of Napoleon.
It’s therefore no wonder that there were some who began to dream of a grand unification in order to be taken seriously on the European stage.
That dream was particularly popular with the middle classes. The nobility found a lucrative occupation in reigning all these miniature states. It was understandably less enthusiastic about the idea.
It was therefore still too soon to begin the political unification of Germany. But what about a cultural one? First, prove that all German people share the same character. Then it’s easier to plead that they belong under the same flag.
Unsurprisingly, it was Wagner who would push this nationalist opera to its extreme. The best illustration is Lohengrin. Henry the Fowler, the 10th Century Saxon king sings stuff like:
In a 10th-century context, that makes no sense. But for 19th-century audiences, the message couldn’t be clearer. And for post-mid-20th century audiences, it sounds downright menacing. Which is one of the reasons why Lohengrin won’t be crowned the ultimate German opera soon.
The protagonists of Der Freischütz are also in the presence of royalty: the Bohemian Prince Ottokar. He’s not particularly wise, just pompous. More importantly, he doesn’t have anything to say about a German empire.
In fact, the word ‘German’ isn’t mentioned once in the entire libretto. The story is wholly free of politics and might as well take place in a Game of Thrones-like fictional universe. Except for a few mentions of the thirty-years war, which is recently over when the narrative begins.
Prince Ottokar visits a small Bohemian village to preside over a shooting contest in honor of his revered ancestor Ottokar II, also known as the Iron and Gold king. The stakes are high, because the winner becomes the new head forester and marries the daughter of the current forester.
Yes, that does sound like a potentially uncomfortable arrangement. But thanks to a happy and typically operatic coincidence, Max (the town’s best shooter) and Agathe (the head forester Kuno’s daughter) are already madly in love.
You can see why they’re made for each other, being equally boring personalities. Max is whiny, insecure and displays an unhealthy sense of entitlement. Agathe is a drama queen and a religious nut. But the premise of the opera is that we root for their eternal love. And so we do.
Luckily, there are also a couple of exciting bad guys around: Kaspar, a war criminal, and Samiel, a servant of the devil who owns Kaspar’s soul. When Max hits an unlucky streak with his shooting, he seriously begins to doubt his chances at the contest. Kaspar helpfully steps in, persuading Max to use magic bullets that never miss their mark.
What Max doesn’t know, is that the seventh of these bullets belongs to Samiel who can aim it anywhere he wants. And what Samiel wants, is to kill Agathe. Why? Because he’s evil, that’s why. You know better than to ask for logic in an opera libretto.
Don’t worry, there’s also a wise old hermit who shows up just in time to save the day. He manages to deflect the seventh bullet to Kaspar. Kaspar dies, Samiel devours his soul, Max repents, Agathe and Max marry. The end.
Classic German jolliness
So what makes Der Freischütz the ultimate German opera – if it’s not the story? It’s not the music either. When Max and Agathe sing their typical primo uomo and prima donna arias, it’s in the style of Italian opera. And just like Beethoven before him, Weber uses mélodrame – a mix of spoken dialog and instrumental music – which he borrows from the French Grand Opéra. It’s the structural device behind the famously spooky wolf’s glen scene, where Max and Kaspar descend in a narrow forest valley at midnight to forge the magic bullets.
Some see this atmosphere of supernatural forces hiding in dark forests as typically German – linking the magic bullets to a certain magic ring, for example. My feeling is that Tolkien would like a word about that, not to mention 27,000,000 Scandinavians.
Maybe Der Freischütz is at its most German when it’s in folk mode. When hunters are blowing, peasants are drinking, bridesmaids are giggling. Take this hunters’ chorus for instance:
Gemütliche moments like those are sprinkled throughout Der Freischütz. They’re necessary to make the bombast of the main characters palatable. And together with the supernatural hocus-pocus, they’re no doubt primarily responsible for the opera’s enduring popularity – with Germans and non-Germans alike.
Weber realized that, and didn’t like it one bit. In his next opera Euryanthe, which he officially labeled a “big romantic opera”, he decided to improve his operatic concept by weeding out the fun stuff. The reaction of the public was a resounding ‘meh’. Weber wrote:
Apparently, there’s a big difference between the German opera the bourgeois elite had in mind and the opera actual Germans liked.
Unfortunately, it’s probably this beer-and-sausage Germanness that hurt Der Freischütz’s popularity in the second half of the 20th Century. Remember, when we were all way too sophisticated to enjoy simple stuff? And a bit suspicious about all things German, that too.
Luckily, those days are over. Der Freischütz has retaken its rightful place on our stages and in our record collections. Be sure to check out the version from René Jacobs and the Freiburger Barockorchester from 2022. I’m usually not a fan of opera recordings, but Jacobs’ way of treating them like radio plays diminishes the feeling that you’re missing out on two thirds of the operatic experience.
To achieve his goal, Jacobs takes a lot of liberties with the source material. Like adding sounds effects and modernizing the spoken lyrics. And he expands the role of Samiel. In Weber’s opera, this demonic creature has very little to say. In Jacobs’ version, he’s constantly adding his cynical commentary to the proceedings. Actor Max Urlacher does this so bone-chillingly well that I honestly can’t imagine listening to some pieces (like the wolf’s glen scene) anymore without his contribution.
Jacobs also restores the original concept of Der Freischütz by reinstating the opening scene that introduces the hermit – so the finale makes more sense. And by adding a choir – for which he borrows some music from a Schubert opera.
This might all be a bit much for you if you’re a purist. But I think it’s an appropriate presentation of an opera that’s a mish-mash of sometimes contradictory styles and ideas – just like the country it so perfectly embodies.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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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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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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.
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.
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.
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:
Jean-Philippe Rameau and Claude Debussy were both French.
In my mind, that’s about the only thing they have in common. You’ll soon find out why.
But in Víkingur Ólafsson’s mind, Rameau and Debussy have an intimate connection – despite the almost 200 years between them.
And Ólafsson is one of the hottest new piano virtuosos right now. So his opinion is worth a lot more than mine. Moreover, he enforced it by recording an album that illustrates that connection.
Apart from illustrating that you’re never too old to enjoy finger painting.
Debussy – Rameau is not the most imaginatively named record of the year. You wouldn’t suspect that this is a ‘concept album’: Ólafsson carefully chose and arranged the tracks so the whole would be greater than the sum of the parts.
“make [Rameau and Debussy] into musical friends and create a dialogue that might show Rameau in a futuristic light, and find Debussy’s deep roots in the French Baroque”
Does he succeed? Certainly, his interpretation of Rameau was an ear-opener to me.
Maybe it’s because I only knew his keyboard works from harpsichord performances. Maybe because he literally wrote the rule book of tonal harmony. Maybe because of the schoolmasterish air that exudes from his portraits.
The fact is I never realized how emotional and intense Rameau’s music can be.
Jolts of pleasure
This intensity of Rameau’s music is exactly what Ólafsson makes clear. Not by adding pathos or making grand gestures. But by charging the music with palpable tension.
From the very first note of every one of these little pieces, you get the feeling that there’s a massive amount of sadness, joy, melancholy, rage … bubbling beneath the surface.
Sometimes it makes a ripple in the neatly woven musical canvas: an ornamental figure drawing attention to itself, an accompanying melody in one of the middle voices making a bold statement.
Thanks to Ólafsson transparent and sensitive style, none of these details go unnoticed. And each one rewards the listener with a little jolt of pleasure.
I like it, is what I’m trying to say. And I understand how this ‘impressionistic’ Rameau would pair well with his compatriote from almost two centuries later.
Even if that’s a connection I don’t feel …
Moments of irritation
I can only assume that Ólafsson’s interpretation of Debussy is just as good. Because I’m convinced that the only thing a skilled pianist needs in order to give an adequate Debussy performance is a functioning sustain pedal.
You see, I’m not a big fan of Debussy’s piano music. To put it mildly. From his dull pentatonic melodies to his endless ‘dreamy’ scales up and down the keyboard – they irritate me to no end.
And in what universe is that an acceptable way to wear a hat?
There’s only one Debussy track on the album that doesn’t make reach for the skip button: Jardins sous la pluie is a lively piece in the style of a baroque toccata. It fits in perfectly with the Rameau pieces and makes me realize that Ólafsson’s concept works. Even if I can’t fully enjoy it.
Fortunately, on this album, there’s a lot more Rameau to enjoy than Debussy to be irritated by. And if you like them both, you will no doubt be swept away from the first note to the last.
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Wirén already stopped composing in 1970, stating: “One should stop in time, while one still has time to stop in time.”
Luckily, his music is more memorable than his aphorisms.
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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