Thursday, August 18, 2016

The A La Carte polls

If you go to the Google Sites page Nereffid supplemental, you can see the results of several months' worth of polls I conducted on TalkClassical last year and this.
TC users (some of them, at any rate) like to produce "recommended lists" that rank favourite works; just recently I hosted the Pre-1700 Works list. But the way these are done requires that participants have to choose which work to favour over another, and there's often going to be a clash between what you personally prefer and what you think should be on a list (for example, there's the desire to spread things round, and not let one composer dominate). When the Post-1950 Works list started, I was somewhat troubled - first because the voting system was terrible and second because some participants stated clearly that post-1950 music of a certain sort was not welcome (ie, Shostakovich). Round about this time I also started to become more interested in the notion of the classical "canon" and how one might go about quantifying it.
So I hit on the notion of a basic poll, where the voter is faced with a list of works and must simply pick the ones they like; putting all the results together would effectively produce a "recommended list" but without the complication of any individual having to rank anything. One interesting aspect of this is that a work that gets plenty of votes is not only well-liked but also well-known. There would no doubt be many works that might be seen as canonical by a handful of people but to the wider listening public they would be unfamiliar - and post-1950 works are a prime example. My original notion was that the polls would each focus on a particular year, so that bit-by-bit I could produce a list to reveal which post-1950 works people really liked. After a couple of dozen polls I got the feeling that some voters just didn't bother participating if it was an era they had no interest in (it's a curious thing; I added the "I don't know any of these works" option to overcome this, but it doesn't seem to encourage everyone), so I switched to themed polls and then, not wishing to put so much intellectual effort in if it wasn't going to pay off, just randomized lists of works. I got past 200 polls but they appeared to be running out of steam so I called a halt; but that was over 2,600 works, with at least 30 people (usually quite a few more) offering an opinion on each one.
There are the inevitable quirks you get when the polling population is different for each poll, and certainly the TC population overall has a few quirks too, but the collated results are largely what one might expect. Back in February, when I passed 2,000 works, I started a discussion thread on the topic.
It turns out that, yes, Shostakovich does seem to dominate post-1950 music!
One of the most fascinating discoveries was that - bearing in mind that TalkClassical's active members are by definition people who are enthusiastic about classical music - only 20% of the works were liked by at least half of the voters. Bear in mind too that the polls covered practically all of the "canonical" works (I didn't get all Beethoven's piano sonatas in, for instance, but that's the highest level of omission I'm talking about). And only 5% of the works (130 of them) were liked by at least two-thirds of voters. And of those 130, 43 are by Beethoven and Mozart! So what on earth is the canon? Surely, for instance, La Traviata and Parsifal are part of it? Well, they were liked by about 42% of voters in the A la carte polls, putting them well below Mendelssohn's 1st string quartet, Prokofiev's Scythian Suite, Chopin's op.41 Mazurkas, Bach's Toccata in C minor BWV 911... Clearly, the canon can't be defined by votes alone, and there are numerous other factors involved (vocal works generally are less popular than orchestral music in the polls; and some composers are so popular that even when I invented a fake Bach cantata it got enough votes to put it in the top three-quarters of the overall rankings!). But still, the undeniable implication of the poll results is that a work that is considered canon may well be unliked or unknown by a majority of self-professed classical music enthusiasts.
This post has gone on for a bit; if I remain in a posting mood there'll be plenty more analysis and vague thoughts to come...

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

A history of classical music in 64 names

I could list all the top 10 most-recorded composers born per decade since 1500, as discussed in the previous post, but that would be rather dull, I feel.
So instead here's the most-recorded composer born in each decade since 1400, plus a handful of earlier ones. Just because I can.

Warning: some birth dates are of course estimates!
11th century: Hildegard von Bingen
12th century: Perotin
13th century: Alfonso X, 'El Sabio'
14th century (first half): Guillaume de Machaut
14th century (second half): Guillaume Dufay
1400s: Gilles Binchois
1410s: Conrad Paumann
1420s: Johannes Ockeghem
1430s: Antoine Busnois
1440s: Alexander Agricola
1450s: Josquin Desprez
1460s: William Cornyshe
1470s: Clement Janequin
1480s: Ludwig Senfl
1490s: John Taverner
1500s: Thomas Tallis
1510s: Alonso Mudarra
1520s: Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina
1530s: Roland de Lassus
1540s: William Byrd
1550s: Giovanni Gabrieli
1560s: Claudio Monteverdi
1570s: Michael Praetorius
1580s: Girolamo Frescobaldi
1590s: Tarquinio Merula
1600s: Giacomo Carissimi
1610s: Johann Jakob Froberger
1620s: Johann Heinrich Schmelzer
1630s: Dietrich Buxtehude
1640s: Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber
1650s: Henry Purcell
1660s: Francois Couperin
1670s: Antonio Vivaldi
1680s: Johann Sebastian Bach
1690s: Giuseppe Tartini
1700s: Baldassare Galuppi
1710s: Christoph Willibald Gluck
1720s: Antonio Soler
1730s: Joseph Haydn
1740s: Luigi Boccherini
1750s: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
1760s: Luigi Cherubini
1770s: Ludwig van Beethoven
1780s: Carl Maria von Weber
1790s: Franz Schubert
1800s: Felix Mendelssohn
1810s: Giuseppe Verdi
1820s: Johann Strauss II
1830s: Johannes Brahms
1840s: Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
1850s: Giacomo Puccini
1860s: Claude Debussy
1870s: Maurice Ravel
1880s: Igor Stravinsky
1890s: Sergey Prokofiev
1900s: Dmitri Shostakovich
1910s: Benjamin Britten
1920s: Astor Piazzolla (or, as noted in the previous post, Gyorgy Ligeti if you prefer!)
1930s: Arvo Pärt
1940s: John Rutter
1950s: James MacMillan
1960s: Lowell Liebermann
1970s: Eric Whitacre
1980s: Nico Muhly

Classical music goes up, classical music goes down

I've been messing about with the big database (well, spreadsheet) of composers that I first started to keep about a quarter-century ago. Turns out it really needed updating... Joaquin Rodrigo's death in 1999 hadn't been noted, for example!
A more recent addition to the spreadsheet was a column for the number of recordings of each composer's music on Arkiv. I've found this to be a handy pointer as to a composer's "significance" (maybe someday I'll write a proper post on my thoughts regarding "great composers" and popularity). It's not a perfect measure, because of course it depends on the number of recordings in stock at Arkiv at a given moment, not to mention on Arkiv's ability to tag everything correctly, and the fact that browsing versus searching can give slightly different results. But anyway, on a broad level it works fine.
So then it occurred to me, why not see who are the most-recorded composers of a given birth cohort, let's say each decade, which was a matter of a few minutes' work. Interesting results, if you're interested in ranked lists of similarly aged composers, but could they be used to tell a bigger picture? The graph above says yes. (Double-click to enlarge it)
Let's look at the blue line first, which uses the left-hand y axis. What I've done here is looked at the 10 most-recorded composers born in each decade, added up all their recordings, and divided by 10 (i.e., it's the average number of recordings for those 10 composers). You can see it bobs up and down a bit, and when you know when the best-known composers were born it starts to make a lot of sense. The huge peak for the 1680s corresponds to Bach and Handel (and Telemann and D Scarlatti); the 1750s and 1770s peaks are due to Mozart and Beethoven, respectively, the 1790s are Schubert and Rossini, and the even huger peak for the 1810s is for Verdi, Schumann, Chopin, Liszt and Wagner (in that order). It bounces a bit, more, then after the 1870s (Ravel and Rachmaninoff) it drops again but this time doesn't really recover; the 1920s represents the lowest point since the 1760s. Who are the two most-recorded composers born in the 1760s? Cherubini and Danzi. And the 1920s? Piazzolla and Ligeti (if you don't wan't to include Piazzolla because tangos aren't classical enough, then it's Ligeti and Malcolm Arnold). And the decline continues, with the most-recorded composers born in the 1960s being about as well-recorded as those born three or four centuries earlier. 
(Caveat, though I don't think it's significant enough to affect the general picture: the closer we get to the present day, the less likely it is that my composers database reflects the overall state of classical music; for instance, most of the 1980s-born composers in the database are those I'm interested in. The reason I don't think this is a problematic issue is that my data-gathering involved finding "significant" composers via Arkiv, so while I may have omitted hundreds of worthy contemporary composers, they're not people with a large number of recordings. Obviously, that number of recordings is an acceptable proxy is something we're taking as read, but it's not unreasonable to say that for younger composers it's not as relevant).
But the red line on the graph adds more depth to the picture. This one, which uses the right-hand y axis, is simply a count of the number of composers who have 30 or more recordings listed on Arkiv. The 30 is somewhat arbitrary, I grant, but there's no particular "correct" number, so let's go with that. It corresponds to over 700 composers, so it covers a lot of ground. For instance, the composers born in the 1500s who fall in that group are Tallis, Luis da Milan, Luis de Narvaez, Gombert, Morales, Tye, and Arcadelt (but not Juan Vasquez, Hans Neusiedler, or Girolamo Cavazzoni) - comprehensive enough, I think.
So what are the results here? A quite differently shaped graph. Aside from the peak in the 1680s (which includes, it must be noted, such non-household names as Loeillet and Heinichen), the graph trends upwards from the beginning of the 19th century all the way to the generation of the 1890s (from Prokofiev down to Leifs and Sorabji) and despite a drop holds itself steady up to and including the generation of the 1930s (from Pärt to the geographically coincident Tormis)... and then it drops, then drops again.
What's happening here is that, whereas the blue line shows that the top composers active from the beginning of the 20th century have been less well-recorded than their 19th-century predecessors, the red line shows that many more composers active in the 20th century have been recorded compared with the 19th century. Not too surprising, I hope: the "great" composers of the past loom large, and resemble the true planets as defined by the IAU in as much as they've cleared the neighbourhood around their orbit, whereas there still hasn't been a full reckoning of the composers of the recent past, and as for today's composers - who knows?
But is that the sole reason for the drop over the course of the 20th century? The decline is rather swift, after all. If we reconvene in 100 years time, how will the graph have changed? Will the 20th century now show a similar pattern to previous centuries, with a greater focus on a smaller number of composers? Or will the thing people call "classical music" still refer to the period between Bach and Shostakovich, with the rest as interesting but relatively unpopular outliers? Depends on how optimistic or pessimistic you are, or for that matter how much you care for (or about) new music.

Monday, July 4, 2016

Classical Intros on 8tracks

I suddenly developed a desire to produce single-composer samplers of about 90-100 minutes' duration and inflict them on the world in the form of 8tracks mixes. So far there's a couple each for Beethoven and Mozart, and also some for Bach, Schubert, Brahms, Debussy, Mahler and Sibelius. You can find them on my profile page. Those are the composers that informally top the list of favourite composers from my TalkClassical polls, of which I have said nothing on this blog. I really should do a set of posts on those polls, shouldn't I, but in the meantime some findings are here.

So far, after a few weeks, the 8tracks nixes haven't quite set the world on fire - not quite the right audience, really - but I'm intrigued to find that Mahler's had the most plays and likes (25 and 5, respectively). Are people specifically looking for Mahler, or was it the "symphony" tag that did it? I've added that tag to the unsuccessful Sibelius mix (1 play, 1 like!) to see if that makes a difference. More mixes to come, hopefully.

In a post about 20 months ago, I examined the success or otherwise of the mixes accompanying my (alas, currently dead-in-the-water) History of Classical Music through Recordings. It seems like a good idea to see where things stand now:

The October 2014 listens/likes in parentheses are followed by the July 2016 figures.
Part 1. Gregorian chant - (2,971 / 211) - 4,002 /250
Part 2. From chant to polyphony - (1,227 / 126) - 1,812 / 167
Part 3. Troubadours and trouvères - (464 / 56) - 771 / 76
Part 4. Troubadour influences - (243 / 27) - 328 / 38
Part 5. The 13th-century motet - (432 / 38) - 915 / 55
Part 6. Ars nova - (1,478 / 74) - 1,953 / 95
Part 7. Trecento Italy - (1,745 / 108) - 2,392 / 147
Part 8. Medieval England - (447 / 44) - 576 / 49
Part 9. The Burgundian school - (205 / 10) - 271 / 21
Part 10. Into the Renaissance (not done) - 1,015 / 38

The final mix has done well; again, maybe a tagging issue? Fascinating how parts 4 and 9 in particular have fared so poorly relative to the others.

Friday, March 11, 2016

Nereffid's Best Albums of 2015

My best-of-the-year list was a little slow making it to Music is Good, and then somehow I never got round to posting the "awards" equivalent on this blog. But here we are now.
Some 201 new albums went through my ears in 2015, and those listed below are my 5 favourites in each of 11 categories. I've marked with an asterisk any runner-up album that was good enough to make my top 30 for MiG.

MEDIEVAL & RENAISSANCE
"Concert Celeste"
Ensemble Obsidienne/Emmanuel Bonnardot
[Eloquentia]

Runners-up:
* "Armarium". Amarcord [Raumklang]
"Anne Boleyn's Songbook". Alamire [Obsidian]
"Flow my Tears". Iestyn Davies [Wigmore Hall]
"Il Trionfo di Dori". The King's Singers [Signum]

BAROQUE INSTRUMENTAL
Bach: Harpsichord concertos
Andreas Staier; Freiburger Barockorchester
[Harmonia Mundi]

Runners-up:
Valentini: Oddities & Trifles. Acronym [New Focus]
"Les Sauvages". Beatrice Martin [Cypres]
"French flute concertos". Frank Theuns; Les Buffardins [Accent]
Vivaldi: I Concerti dell'Addio. Fabio Biondi; Europa Galante [Glossa]

BAROQUE VOCAL
Schein: Musica boscareccia
United Continuo Ensemble
[Pan Classics]

Runners-up:
Rameau: Castor et Pollux. Ensemble Pygmalion/Raphaël Pinchon [Harmonia Mundi]
Kuhnau: Sacred works, volume 1. Opella Musica; Camerata Lipsiensis/Gregor Meyer [CPO] 
"A Painted Tale". Nicholas Phan [Avie]
"Orfeo(s)". Sunhae Im; Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin [Harmonia Mundi] 

SOLO INSTRUMENTAL
Peyko: Complete piano music, volume 2
Dmitry Korostelyov
[Toccata]

Runners-up:
* "Postcard from Heaven". Susan Allen [New World]
"Capriccioso". Antonio Meneses [Avie]
Grieg: Lyric Pieces. Stephen Hough [Hyperion]
Sibelius: The Ainola piano. Folke Grasbeck [BIS] 

CHAMBER
Lilburn: Chamber music for strings
New Zealand String Quartet
[Naxos]

Runners-up:
"Cantante e Tranquillo". Keller Quartet [ECM New Series]
Ornstein: Chamber music. Marc-André Hamelin; Pacifica Quartet [Hyperion]
"The Franchomme Project". Louise Dubin et al [Delos]
Smetana: String quartets. Pavel Haas Quartet [Supraphon]

CONCERTO
Haydn & Mozart: Concertos
Arcangelo/Jonathan Cohen
[Hyperion]

Runners-up:
* "Time Present and Time Past". Mahan Esfahani; Concerto Köln [Archiv]
* Vaughan Williams & MacMillan: Oboe concertos. Nicholas Daniel; Britten Sinfonia/James MacMillan [Harmonia Mundi]
Mozart: Horn concertos. Pip Eastop; Hanover Band/Anthony Halstead [Hyperion]
Kalliwoda: Violin concertos and overtures. Ariadne Daskalakis; Kölner Akademie/Michael Alexander Willens [CPO]

ORCHESTRAL
Bach arr. Sitkovetsky: Goldberg Variations
Britten Sinfonia/Thomas Gould
[Harmonia Mundi] 

Runners-up:
* Wagenaar: Sinfonietta, etc. Nordwestdeutsche Philharmonie/Antony Hermus [CPO]  
Fine: Orchestral works. Boston Modern Orchestra Project/Gil Rose [BMOP/sound]
"Suites and Overtures for the Radio". Orchester der Staatsoperette Dresden/Ernst Theis [CPO] 
Schnittke: Symphony no.3. Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra/Vladimir Jurowski [Pentatone] 

SOLO VOCAL
"If the Owl Calls Again"
Christianne Stotijn et al
[Warner]

Runners-up:
* "Yes!". Julie Fuchs; Orchestre National de Lille/Samuel Jean [Deutsche Grammophon]
Schubert: Poetisches Tagebuch. Christoph Prégardien; Julius Drake [Challenge]
"Green". Philippe Jaroussky; Jérôme Ducros; Quatuor Ebène [Erato]
"Fleurs". Carolyn Sampson; Joseph Middleton [BIS]

CHORAL
Messiaen: L'amour et la foi
Danish National Vocal Ensemble; Danish National Chamber Choir; Marcus Creed
[OUR]

Runners-up:
* "The Tempest". La Tempête [Alpha]
* David: Le Désert. Accentus; Orchestre de Chambre de Paris/Laurence Equilbey [Naive] 
* "1865: Songs of Hope and Home". Anonymous 4; Bruce Molsky [Harmonia Mundi]
Schubert: Choral works for male voices, volume 1. Camerata Musica Limburg/Jan Schumacher [Genuin] 

LIVING COMPOSER - INSTRUMENTAL
"Field Recordings"
Bang On A Can All-Stars
[Cantaloupe]

Runners-up:
* Vierk: Words Fail Me. various [New World]
* Adams: Absolute Jest; Grand Pianola Music. San Francisco Symphony/Michael Tilson Thomas [SFS]
* Glass: Etudes. Nicholas Horvath [Grand Piano]
* Dessner: Music for Wood and Strings. So Percussion [Brassland]

LIVING COMPOSER - VOCAL
Lang: The Difficulty of Crossing a Field
Beverly O’Regan Thiele; Jay O. Sanders; Harlem String Quartet; Douglas Kinney Frost
[Cantaloupe] 
Runners-up:
* "Render". Roomful of Teeth [New Amsterdam]
* Karpman: Ask Your Mama. various; San Francisco Ballet Orchestra/George Manahan [Avie]
* Wolfe: Anthracite Fields. Trinity Wall Street Choir; Bang On A Can All-Stars [Cantaloupe]
* Pärt: Tintinnabuli. Tallis Scholars/Peter Phillips [Gimell]

The big story this year is the triumph of new music. The plethora of asterisks above is one indicator, but in fact some 12 living-composer albums made it into my MiG top 30 (5 in the top 10), and David Lang's marvellous opera The Difficulty of Crossing a Field is my Album of the Year. I'm delighted to have finally found "my" new music; for years I'd been dutifully trying out the highest-placing releases in the Nereffid's Guide Awards without ever really being satisfied (some exceptions, of course). Once I started to follow my own instincts, the rewards increased, but the big breakthrough came in 2014 when I took a punt on John Luther Adams's Become Ocean and Wolfe's Steel Hammer (God, the agonising over whether, despite the apparently unpromising first movement, I should try it!) and then the floodgates opened once I attended the What? Wow! festival in March (a year ago now... and apparently there's no festival this year because all the arts money is being spent on 1916...). So 2015 saw me embrace post-minimalism with gusto - and a bunch of really good Philip Glass releases brought him back into my heart after too long feeling a bit dissatisfied with his more recent work (it turns out it was just me). 
The ironic thing is that I realised, while raiding the Cantaloupe back catalogue, that post-minimalism had been there all along in my collection, waiting. About 20 years ago I bought an Argo sampler called "Short Cuts" filled with new music; and one of the tracks - which I loved - was an excerpt from Michael Gordon's Yo Shakespeare. But I never followed up on it, or him. I finally heard the full piece last year! It's an intriguing "what if", but it's not like I regret the last two decades of classical listening. Perhaps the time just wasn't right, back then. After all, this year has thrown out a few other surprises in terms of things I didn't really think I'd ever have much interest in. Messiaen, for instance - I could never quite warm to him, but there he is, winning the Choral category. Or even to have two Mozart recordings in the Concerto category - a few years ago that might have seemed a bit too "safe" or even boring, but those Hyperion releases are a joy. So my tastes continue to evolve...
... and great musicians continue to release albums of great music...

Thursday, January 7, 2016

The best music of the past 20 years (says Q2)

Q2 Music's annual poll was different this year: previously, listeners have been asked to pick their favourite works from the last 100 years, but this time round the timeframe has been reduced to a more "new" 20 years. So farewell then, Music for 18 Musicians, which had come top for the last three years (The Rite of Spring won the inaugural poll).
Caroline Shaw. She won!
In fact, looking at last year's poll (which had 100 works rather than this year's 50), the highest now-eligible entry was John Luther Adams's Become Ocean, at #37. Six other post-1995 works appeared: the other John Adams's Dharma at Big Sur (#43), Thomas Adès's Asyla (#52), Caroline Shaw's Partita for 8 Voices (#53), David Lang's Little Match Girl Passion (#72), George Friedrich Haas's In Vain (#74), and Steve Reich's Double Sextet (#85). Other pieces had featured in previous years.
It's hard to know with any audience poll just how (a) large and (b) stable the voting population is. The latter can be answered by noting that the above seven works all appeared in this year's top thirteen. So either the list reflects the tastes of a tiny handful of people whose opinions haven't changed much, or (much more likely) it demonstrates that there are some definite crowd-pleasers that stand a chance of eventually becoming enshrined as classics.
You can see the countdown on Q2's site, but here it is as a count-up:

1. Caroline Shaw – Partita for 8 Voices (2012)
2. John Luther Adams – Become Ocean (2014)
3. Andrew Norman – Play (2013)
4. Anna Thorvaldsdottir – In the Light of Air (2014)
5. David Lang – Little Match Girl Passion (2008)
6. Donnacha Dennehy – Grá agus Bás (2011)
7. John Adams – Dharma at Big Sur (2006)
8. Thomas Ades – Asyla (1999)
9. Georg Friedrich Haas – In Vain (2000)
10. Meredith Monk – Songs of Ascension (2011)
11. Ann Southam – Simple Lines of Enquiry (2009)
12. Kaija Saariaho – Orion (2002)
13. Steve Reich – Double Sextet (2008)
14. George Benjamin – Written on Skin (2012)
15. Thomas Ades – Tevot (2010)
16. John Adams – On the Transmigration of Souls (2002)
17. Tristan Perich – Surface Image (2014)
18. Andrew Norman – The Companion Guide to Rome (2010)
19. Philip Glass – Songs and Poems for Solo Cello (2008)
20. Esa Pekka Salonen – Violin Concerto (2009)
21. Julia Wolfe – Anthracite Fields (2014)
22. David Lang – Love Fail (2012)
23. Peteris Vasks – String Quartet No. 4 (2003)
24. Gerard Grisey – Vortex Temporum (1996)
25. Jennifer Higdon – Violin Concerto (2008)
26. Osvaldo Golijov – La Pasión según San Marcos (2000)
27. John Luther Adams – The Wind in High Places (2015)
28. Michael Gordon – Decasia (2002)
29. Philip Glass – Suite from The Hours (2005)
30. Anna Thorvaldsdottir – Aeriality (2011)
31. Magnus Lindberg – Clarinet Concerto (2005)
32. Nico Muhly – Two Boys (2011)
33. Julia Wolfe – Steel Hammer (2009)
34. Ted Hearne – Law of Mosaics (2014)
35. Kaija Saariaho – D'om le vrai sens (2010)
36. Enno Poppe – Keilschrift (2006)
37. Missy Mazzoli – Vespers for a New Dark Age (2015)
38. Thomas Ades – Concentric Paths (2005)
39. Jefferson Friedman – String Quartet No. 2 (1999)
40. Hans Abrahamsen – Schnee (2008)
41. Sarah Kirkland Snider – Unremembered (2011)
42. Donnacha Dennehy – That the Night Come (2010)
43. Elliott Carter – Clarinet Concerto (1996)
44. Thomas Ades – Polaris (2010)
45. Osvaldo Golijov – Ayre (2005)
46. Jonny Greenwood – 48 Responses To Polymorphia (2012)
47. John Luther Adams – Dark Waves (2007)
48. Louis Andriessen – La Passione (2002)
49. Einojuhani Rautavaara – Harp Concerto (2000)
50. John Adams – Naive and Sentimental Music (1999)

It's a good list, isn't it? I know most of the pieces - although some rushed listening was necessary in the last few days. Voters could pick five works, and three of mine got in - Become Ocean, Grá agus Bás and Steel Hammer (the other two were Per Nørgård's 8th string quartet and David Lang's The Difficulty of Crossing a Field). It's especially pleasing that the very Irish Grá agus Bás has proved so popular. Do I have quibbles? Not really. I like some things more than others, naturally, but nothing makes me go "really?". Of course probably the most significant thing about the list is that it very much reflects Q2's "downtown" New York audience. I can imagine some modern-music fans scratching their heads, or even tearing their hair, at all the minimalism, post-minimalism, and post-classical, or whatever we're calling it.
Something else that caught my eye is how the Pulitzer Prize-winning works have done: the last three winners have been Anthracite Fields, Become Ocean, and Partita for 8 Voices - they came #21, #2, and #1, respectively. We also see the winners from 2010 (Higdon, #25), 2009 (Lang's Passion, #5), 2008 (Reich, #13), and 2003 (Adams's Transmigration, #16). On the broader polls of previous years, older Pulitzer winners didn't do well (Appalachian Spring being an exception) - but then, would (for example) Stephen Albert's first symphony ever stand a chance in a field that included Bartók, Shostakovich, et al?
So, can we make any sweeping statements about contemporary music? Not quite - the specificity of the Q2 audience precludes anything too general. But certainly "this kind of music" has an audience, not just on an Internet radio station - you can see it in various end-of-year lists, which in 2015 have welcomed the new works from Julia Wolfe, Sarah Kirkland Snider, John Luther Adams, Andrew Norman, and Anna Thorvaldsdottir. Oh - that reminds me of another interesting thing about Q2's list. Notice how three of the five names I just mentioned are women? Things are changing. Almost a quarter of the works on the Q2 list (12 of 50) are by women. Last year's poll with 100 works from 100 years had... two (Shaw's Partita and Meredith Monk's 1979 Dolmen Music). So there's your sweeping statement about contemporary music: the gender balance is much better.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Hit or missa

Time for another trip to Did you even listen to the same CD?

Today we visit Bernard Haitink's recording of Beethoven's Missa Solemnis, recently released on BR Klassik.

Take it away, James A. Altena of Fanfare:
Rather surprisingly, Bernard Haitink added Beethoven’s Missa solemnis to his repertoire for the first time only a year or so ago. Unfortunately, whether that indicates a lack of elemental sympathy with the work, or whether the conductor simply has not had time to absorb the score with sufficient depth, this is a deeply disappointing reading that never rises above anodyne mediocrity.
Meanwhile on Musicweb, here's John Quinn:
This is an inspired and inspiring performance. We may have had to wait a long time for a Haitink recording of this great work but, my goodness, the wait has been worthwhile. His interpretation is distinguished from first note to last and, in summary, I come back to the word “wise”.
Altena:
Haitink here is the leaden Dutchman rather than the flying one; although the total time for the performance puts it a bit on the brisker side of the spectrum, it feels plodding, as the conductor dutifully moves from measure to measure with no greater vision or objective. There is no forming of larger arcs or units, no inflection or shaping of phrases, simply a largely lukewarm sameness of temperature. Any notion of building momentum, of creating and releasing dramatic tension, is absent. 
Quinn:
At the time of this performance he was 85 and while there’s absolutely no sign of age diminishing his energy what is abundantly evident is that we are hearing a performance into which the accumulated wisdom and experience of six decades of conducting has been invested. I found this a profoundly satisfying reading in which everything seemed just right.
Altena:
The orchestra and chorus do what is asked of them to professional standards, but one has the sense that their hearts are not in it.
Quinn:
the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks proves yet again that it is currently one of the finest of all European ensembles ... right from the start one is impressed by the warmth and depth of the orchestral sound and by the excellence of the choir.
Altena:
Even if there were stronger leadership from the podium, this performance would be sunk by the substandard work of its solo vocal quartet.
Quinn:
Haitink also benefits from the presence of a splendid quartet of soloists
Altena:
This one, alas, is a non-starter.
Quinn:
There are several fine recordings of Missa solemnis but this one has now to be counted as one of the leading recommendations.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Julia Wolfe wins Pulitzer Prize

OK, maybe your lives are really exciting and you have lunch with the Dalai Lama every other week, but some of us have empty meaningless existences and we're pathetic enough to experience a tiny thrill when the Number Of People I've Actually Seen In Real Life And Even Said A Few Words To Who Have Won Pulitzer Prizes goes from zero to one.
So, congratulations to Julia Wolfe, who's won the Pulitzer Prize for Music with "Anthracite Fields".
Recording to follow later in the year, hurrah!

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Let's speculate wildly about Anna Magdalena Bach

Would you buy a used cello suite from this man?
There was this thing on the telly the other night... sorry, I mean, I watched a programme on BBC4 on Friday, in which musicologist Martin Jarvis put forward his theory that Anna Magdalena Bach was the true composer of the music we call "Bach's cello suites". He's been (controversially) saying this for some years now, but it was the first I'd heard of it. Written by Mrs Bach kicked off a little passive-aggressively with an epigraph from John Locke on the value of not being too quick to dismiss apparently crackpot ideas (I'm paraphrasing), but in fairness I did try to keep an open mind during the show. It's easy to have a knee-jerk reaction to this sort of claim, challenging as it does some sacred cows about music, and so yes, one should judge by the evidence rather than just assuming straight-off that he's wrong. Presenter Sally Beamish seemed to be coming at Jarvis's theory more from a "woman-composer" perspective, which is to say she didn't seem especially committed to the idea but was more like "well, why couldn't a woman compose this music?" A fair question, but at times I felt the attitude of the show (not necessarily Beamish herself) strayed a little close to "if you dismiss this theory, you're a hidebound conservative and sexist".
So, what of the evidence? There wasn't much there, really. A handwriting expert indicated that Bach met (and collaborated with) his future second wife when she was just 12, but aside from that there was little handwriting evidence other than hunches that Bach compositions long known to be in Anna Magdalena's hand looked a bit more composed-y rather than copied-y.
The bombshell evidence was supposed to be the title page of Anna Magdalena's copy of the cello suites. Bach pupil Georg Schwanberg had written in the corner "Ecrite par Madame Bachen, Son Epouse". Well, aside from the fact that the program avoided any musicological evidence that someone other than JS had written the music, this seemed to settle it. Until - in fairness to the program - a sceptical Ruth Tatlow showed up to point out that Jarvis had kinda missed the place on the same page where Schwanberg had written, in bigger writing because this was the actual title, "composée par Sr. J. S. Bach". Ahem. Jarvis insisted that "composée" just really meant "assembled" or somesuch, and "ecrite" really meant composed. Yeah.
Besides, he'd already pretty much blown his credibility with some unnecessary scandal in the form of the suggestion that - seeing as Bach already had known Anna Magdalena since she was 12 - when she came to Köthen as a singer and needed somewhere to stay, well, why wouldn't she stay with JS and Maria Barbara, which speculation escalated very quickly into JS having an affair with Anna Magdalena that was partially responsible for Maria Barbara's suicide. Historical note: there's no evidence whatsoever that she committed suicide.
What were the good things about Written by Mrs Bach? It was a useful reminder of just how male the world of classical music was. And yes, if a composer was married to a talented musician, she might very well come up with good ideas that add to his work, and I accept that assuming that Anna Magdalena made no contribution to her husband's work as a composer (other than copyist) is being too subservient to the idea of the "great men" view of history. So though there might not be convincing evidence that she came up with the aria for the Goldberg variations or the C major prelude from book 1 of the Well-Tempered Clavier (two other claims by Jarvis), I don't think anyone would be shocked or threatened if she had. The rather more substantial cello suites are a whole other matter though, and proper evidence is needed for such a bold claim; and there isn't any proper evidence. So if people dismiss Jarvis's theory, it's not because they're old-school misogynists whose God-like hero composer's reputation is threatened by a mere slip of a girl; it's because the theory's rubbish.
When Written by Mrs Bach was first presented to the world late last year it got plenty of breathless media coverage (though obviously not enough to attract my attention!). Some sceptical analysis that corresponds with my own thoughts can be found from Alex Ross and Steven Isserlis; there's a lengthy article in Musicology Now too, where the money quote comes from Christoph Wolff: "I am sick and tired of this stupid thesis". And most recently comes Ruth Tatlow's extensive rebuttal (PDF) in the journal Understanding Bach.

No doubt in centuries to come someone will claim that this blog post was written by Mrs Nereffid.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Henri Dutilleux: unforgiven?

Dutilleux on his first day at Mime School

According to a Gramophone blog post by James Jolly, the mayor of Paris's 4th arondissement is refusing to allow a commemorative plaque on the home of Henri Dutilleux. Is it because he didn't like Tout un monde lointain? No. Apparently all Dutilleux's achievements have been trumped by what he did as a 26-year-old, which was write a hack-work score for some Vichy propaganda film.
It's worth noting (if you enjoy irony) that Dutilleux regarded his 1946-8 piano sonata as his opus 1, renouncing most of his earlier works.
Anyway, pianist/composer Étienne Kippelen has organised a petition to encourage the mayor to change his (seemingly quite narrow) mind.



Friday, March 13, 2015

"What?... Wow" indeed

David Lang's Festival of Music at Dublin's NCH was a joy from start to finish. Go read my review on Music Is Good. And here's an exclusive photo!

Bang on a Can Brunch: Michael Gordon, David Lang, John Schaeffer, Julia Wolfe

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Nereffid's Best Albums of 2014

This isn't the Nereffid's Guide Awards, but it's my personal equivalent. Instead of collating thousands of reviews from many sources to produce some kind of critical consensus about the best releases of the year, I've instead just chosen my favourites. Apparently I heard 152 new classical albums in 2014, and enough of them were sufficiently good to allow me to separate them into categories along the lines of the old awards (I've dropped Opera because there were no entries and combined Opera Recital with Solo Vocal; and the Orchestral category now includes the Symphony category).
So here are the 11 awards:

MEDIEVAL & RENAISSANCE
Hildegard von Bingen: "Vox Cosmica"
Arianna Savall & Per Udland Johansen
[Carpe Diem]

Runners-up:
"Amorosi Pensieri". Cinquecento [Hyperion]
"Piffarissimo". Capella de la Torre [Challenge]
"Motets - the Cambrai manuscript A410". Graindelavoix [Glossa]
Oswald von Wolkenstein: "The Cosmopolitan". Ensemble Leones [Christophorus]

BAROQUE INSTRUMENTAL
 Rameau: "The Sound of Light"
MusicAeterna/Teodor Currentzis
[Sony]

Runners-up:
"Doulce Mémoire". Margaret Little; Sylvain Bergeron [ATMA]
"Perla Barocca". Rachel Podger [Channel]
"Jacobean Lute Music". Jakob Lindberg [BIS]
"The Proud Bassoon". Peter Whelan; Ensemble Marsyas [Linn]

BAROQUE VOCAL
 "Inspired by Song"
Stefan Temmingh; Dorothee Mields
[DHM]

Runners-up:
"Madrigals of Madness". Calmus Ensemble [Carus]
CPE Bach: Magnificat. RIAS Kammerchor; AAM Berlin; Hans-Christoph Rademann [Harmonia Mundi]
"A French Baroque Diva". Carolyn Sampson [Hyperion]
"A Purcell Collection". Voces8; Les Inventions [Signum]

SOLO INSTRUMENTAL
"Dance of Shadows"
Roman Mints
[Quartz]

Runners-up:
Bach: Inventions and Sinfonias. Simone Dinnerstein [Sony]
"Invocation". Herbert Schuch [Naive]
"In Dance and Song". Tom Poster [Champs Hill]
"East of Melancholy". Tara Kamangar [Delos]

CHAMBER
"New World Quartets"
Brodsky Quartet
[Chandos]

Runners-up:
"Wood Works". Danish String Quartet [Dacapo]
"Music from the Suitcase". Yevgeny Kutik; Timothy Bozarth [Marquis]
Sculthorpe: String quartets with Didjeridu. Stephen Kent; Del Sol Quartet [Sono Luminus]
Mozart, Schubert, Stravinsky: Piano duos. Martha Argerich; Daniel Barenboim [DG]

CONCERTO
Britten & Weinberg: Violin concertos
Linus Roth; DSO Berlin/Mihkel Kütson
[Challenge]

 Runners-up:
"Escape to Paradise". Daniel Hope [DG]
Schulhoff: Concertos. Frank-Immo Zichner; Jacques Zoon; DSO Berlin/Roland Kluttig [Capriccio]
Handel: Piano concertos nos.13-16. Matthias Kirschnereit [CPO]
Prokofiev: Piano concertos. Jean-Efflam Bavouzet [Chandos]

ORCHESTRAL

Beethoven: The Creatures of Prometheus
Armonia Atenea/George Petrou
[Decca]

Runners-up:
Mozart: Symphonies nos.39-41. Orchestra of the 18th Century/Frans Brüggen [Glossa]
Schubert: Symphonies nos.3-5. Swedish Chamber Orchestra/Thomas Dausgaard [BIS]
Rimsky-Korsakov: Scheherazade. Borusan Istanbul Philharmonic/Sascha Goetzel [Onyx]
Hartmann: Symphonies nos.1-8. Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra/various [Challenge]

SOLO VOCAL
"Behind the Lines"
Anna Prohaska; Eric Schneider
[DG]

Runners-up:
"Love's Minstrels". Philippe Sly [Analekta]
Mozart: Concert arias. Rolando Villazón [DG]
Schubert: Nachtviolen. Christian Gerhaher [Sony]
"Power Players: Russian arias for bass". Ildar Abdrazakov [Delos]

CHORAL
Jan Novák: "Testamentum"
Martinů Voices/Lukas Vasilek
[Supraphon]

Runners-up:
Orff: Carmina Burana. Anima Eterna/Jos van Immerseel [Zig-Zag Territoires]
"America". SWR Vokalensemble Stuttgart/Marcus Creed [Hänssler]
Mozart: Requiem. Dunedin Consort/John Butt [Linn]
"Sacred Love". Latvian Radio Choir/Sigvards Klava [Ondine]

LIVING COMPOSER - INSTRUMENTAL
Allemeier: Deep Water
Various performers
[Albany]

Runners-up:
John Luther Adams: Become Ocean. Seattle Symphony Orchestra/Ludovic Morlot [Cantaloupe]
Glass: String quartets (transcribed). Dublin Guitar Quartet [Orange Mountain]
Nyman: "Chasing Pianos". Valentina Lisitsa [Decca]
"American Vernacular". Nicholas Phillips [New Focus]
Perich: Surface Image. Vicky Chow [New Amsterdam]

LIVING COMPOSER - VOCAL
Wolfe: Steel Hammer
Trio Medieval; Bang-on-a-Can All-Stars
[Cantaloupe]

Runners-up:
Crumb: Voices from the Heartland. Ann Crumb; Patrick Mason [Bridge]
Dove: Song Cycles. Patricia Bardon; Claire Booth; Nicky Spence [Naxos]
Pärt: Choral music. Polyphony/Stephen Layton [Hyperion]
Kyr: The Cloud of Unknowing [Harmonia Mundi]

I decided not to put in any commentary on the individual categories because I'm worn out from putting together pithy statements for the two "best of" lists I did for Music Is Good (new music is here; "old" music to follow), and maybe it's OK to let the music speak for itself. I can say that some categories were easier to decide than others; I didn't get much Baroque Instrumental music or Choral music, and though I'm pleased with the five Living Vocal nominees it was only an end-of-year rush that provided me with that many true contenders. I was tracking my progress in the last few months to make sure there was good representation of every category; without that awareness, I'm sure the selection would have been rather less balanced. 
The most exciting category was Living Instrumental, which had to have an extra nominee. The John Allemeier, John Luther Adams, Julia Wolfe, and Philip Glass were four of my top 5 of the year, marking a triumph for new music, but the winner of Album of the Year is Anna Prohaska's magnificent reflection on war.
The 56 nominees came from 39 labels, and no label won two awards... well, really DHM and Sony go together, as do Decca and DG.
Also... ah, that's it. Nothing more needs to be said. Well done, classical albums of 2014: you were very good.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

The Thanksgiving Mix: A history

I can't actually remember when the tradition started, but in (for the sake of argument) 2001 I put together a CD of odd, kitsch, and terrible cover versions for entertainment at that year's Thanksgiving party, and then I did a couple more discs one other year, and then I didn't get round to another until 2008. I've done one every year since, so I suppose we could say the tradition per se must have begun some time after that, whatever year it was where doing a Thanksgiving mix had become essential. It was unstoppable! (see picture)
The basic idea of the first mix (conceived as a supposed soundtrack for my Nereffid the Taxidermist stories of long ago... Hero with a Thousand Excuses, it was called) was to have the listener say "what??!" in amusement and/or horror. So some of it was rubbish and not worth listening to again. Or once, really, though that was kind of the point of listening to it. Same with the second and third ones. There were also some likeable things, of course, such as a country version of "Purple Rain", or Richard Cheese's genius take on "Creep", or the cute lounge version of "Teenage Kicks". But then something odd happened in the fourth one, which was informally known to me as Nereffid IV By Crikey. After such dubious delights as the Swingle Singers' version of the Starsky and Hutch theme, Tony Christie's rendition of "Life on Mars", and a trumpet version of "Ebony and Ivory" that I don't actually remember at all, there came something I'd discovered not by simply poking around on eMusic like with everything else but by reading about it in (possibly) the Observer, Alpha Bondy's reggae cover of "Wish You Were Here". Which is really good. Well, it went into the mix because it met the criteria of not like the original, and that was as far as my thought process went for the moment. Still the focus was on kitsch/bizarre, so while we had the joy of John Otway's "House of the Rising Sun" ("Tell us about your mother!"), the less said about the Fish Brothers' cover of "Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" (with new lyrics, it was "Gerald Durrell's Spectacled Wanking Bear") the better...
The next couple of albums (Nereffid's Fifth and Nereffid 6 FFS) represent a transition as I gradually came round to the idea that saying "what??!" in horror is less entertaining than saying it in amusement. There aren't many genuinely dreadful things on those albums, and plenty of highlights, such as Victoria Vox's "Psycho Killer", Alice's old-timey "Black Hole Sun", Petra Haden's "Don't Stop Believin'", and David Lang's recomposition of "Born to be Wild", delivered with camp aplomb by Andrew Russo. 
I finally understood what was going on with Nereffid 7 As If. There were some nods to the old days—an uninteresting flamenco "Poker Face", a not-good-enough metal "Ghostbusters"—but as the running order fell into place I realised I had a really strong final sequence. This was the first time I'd considered the possibility that I could even have a proper final sequence, let alone one that was strong. "What??!" was giving way to "gosh!". So track 13 is Bjorn Berge's acoustic "Give It Away" (storming), followed by Cake's take on "Mahna Mahna" (amusing), and then suddenly we're off, as The Bad Shepherds turn "God Save the Queen" into a folk song and Cardova realises that "Enola Gay" is, astonishingly, a soul classic. Brief pause for breath with a more straightforward cover of "It's The End Of The World As We Know It" by Greg Allen (but wait! now we're doing straightforward covers?), and then holy Jesus: Gennaro Cosmo Parlato's version of "Don't You Forget About Me" is basically "Goldfinger" as a Spaghetti Western, and holy Jesus again: Mariachi El-Rocko finds a new kind of beauty in "Every Day Is Like Sunday", and before you've fully recovered we end with William Shatner snarling through "Common People". The evolution was complete: from bad music to good music.
So, for volume 8 we got serious. No more cringing, no more mere chuckling, this whole album would be one I wanted to listen to repeatedly. And actually it turned out even more than that, because it became a family favourite for car journeys. Who couldn't love The Town Pants' "Rasputin", an expert blend of disco and The Chieftains? Or The Four Of Us's slightly sinister "Sound of the Underground"? Or Lucky Uke's utterly charming "Sweet Child O' Mine"? Or—the middle track and emotional heart of the album—The Coal Porters' gorgeous folk "Heroes"? Yes, I said "emotional heart" and of course I'm exaggerating but the musical success of volume 8—now with a proper cover picture and called, inevitably, Nereffid Ate My Hamster—was going to my head. What would volume 9 be like?
It would be even better, is what. Have you never read a pompous recounting of a trivial subject before? The compilation of Nein, Nereffid, Nein! (it's not rocket science) was a new experience, because this would be the first time I used Spotify: no more 30-second eMusic samples and scurrying off to Youtube to see if the full version was there. This certainly made a more thorough search possible, although by now I was starting to realise that the available pool of music was not as large as I'd hoped. Anything on the mix had to be not only a song the small but dedicated audience might be familiar with (and some are better than others in that field), but also a musically different version of the original and a good version. There then followed a period of panic in which I was convinced I wouldn't be able to fill a CD.
But I did, and that one proved a family hit too. Running order became a big issue here when I found Triggerfinger's gorgeous "I Follow Rivers", which the kids already loved in Lykke Li's original: it would be a crowd-pleaser but not an up-tempo one and I was left with the feeling that it might be "too good" for this album. At which point I came across Diane Birch's extraordinary version of "Atmosphere", surely "too good". Well, I'd put The Coal Porters dead-centre of the last album, and although it's most enjoyable, it also stands out for what you might call its seriousness of purpose. It is "proper good music", so to speak. Same with these two new ones, but (I asked) are they "too much" for what is after all supposed to be a party album? So I gambled, and put them at the end, deciding to consider them as the cathartic reward for when the "fun" songs came to an end, and leading in to them with some more songs that aren't exactly singalongs. We had come some distance from "and now here's a funny cover version". And now we must have a portentous pause in the narrative before we talk about the 2014 mix and the philosophical conundrums faced by producers of compilation albums.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

A Madge made in...

Hmmm... Geoffrey Douglas Madge plays Busoni's piano music on 6 CDs. I wonder is it any good? Time for the latest "Did you even listen to the same CD?", which comes to you from 1988!

Here's Adrian Corleonis in the May/June '88 Fanfare:
Madge's credentials for this project derive from his performance and recording of Sorabji's stupendous four-hour-long Opus Clavicembalisticum ... The surprise, however, is not that Madge plays Busoni as he does Sorabji, but that this more familiar fare cruelly exposes a remarkable clumsiness. His weaknesses begin with the difficulty of maintaining a steady pulse, hesitations posing as rubato, and huge ritards stifling many of the codas ... The near-stammer and feeble tone of “Turandots Frauengemach“ are incredible—and unacceptable—from a pianist of Madge's pretensions. ...  the overall impression remains labored, literal, and disappointing.
And Kyle Gann in the Nov/Dec '88 issue's Want List section:
Madge's stunningly intelligent performances made the Sonatinas' logic perfectly clear for the first time. I hate to think that, had it not been for this incredible pianist, I might have died not knowing such charming works as the Macchiette Medioevali. Heaven on a disc. 

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Agents of Zappa

...because someone on TalkClassical used the phrase "agents of Zappa"...


Monday, October 13, 2014

What the kids are listening to these days

Astonishingly, I might have a new chapter in A History of Classical Music through Recordings pretty soon, so I thought I'd have a look on 8tracks and see who's been listening to the various mixes I've posted there. http://8tracks.com/nereffid if you don't know already. Obviously the first ones have been there longer so have had more exposure, but it's interesting to see the stats:

Part 1. Gregorian chant - 2,971 listens - 211 likes
Part 2. From chant to polyphony - 1,227 listens - 126 likes
Part 3. Troubadours and trouvères - 464 listens - 56 likes
Part 4. Troubadour influences - 243 listens - 27 likes
Part 5. The 13th-century motet - 432 listens - 38 likes
Part 6. Ars nova - 1,478 listens - 74 likes
Part 7. Trecento Italy - 1,745 listens - 108 likes
Part 8. Medieval England - 447 listens - 44 likes
Part 9. The Burgundian school - 205 listens - 10 likes

It's not surprising that Gregorian chant should prove the most popular - chillout music, study music, etc - though the fact that the following chapter is so much less popular suggests that many listeners don't bother exploring further after they've found this one mix they like. Similarly with the troubadours and their influences. But why do the Ars nova and Trecento Italy get so many plays? Perhaps it's the fact that "France" and "Italy" are tags?
The next chapter is titled "Into the Renaissance", so there may well be a whole new audience!

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Oh my God they killed Mozart! (or something)

Good evening and welcome to a special Heavyweight Death Match edition of Did You Even Listen To The Same CD?! Our lucky/unlucky album this time round is John Butt and the Dunedin Consort's new recording of Mozart's Requiem, released by Linn earlier this year. And folks do we have a battle royale tonight! In the blue corner we have Fanfare's Jerry Dubins, and in the red corner it's Fanfare's Lynn René Bayley. Oh yes indeed. They've been here before: you know what they can do. No holds barred. Hide under your seats for this one.

Dubins: "Happily, I can report that this new Mozart Requiem is both terrifying and terrific. The performance is distinguished by exceptionally well-defined, crisp, and transparent articulation in both the orchestral playing and the choral singing, with the result being clarity of textures and diction seldom heard even in other slimmed-down period instrument performances. The effect is further enhanced by a recording of atmospheric openness and luminous lucidity."

Bayley: "I will give conductor Butt this much credit: In the dramatic passages, he does kick some energy into his orchestra, but as soon as you reach any sustained passage the strings and winds sound like a MIDI, likewise the chorus. In the Recordare, the singers approach their task as if they were warbling madrigals."

Dubins: "Butt achieves his results with four excellent vocal soloists..."

Bayley: "I defy anyone to put this recording on and tell me that any of the four singers heard here “move” you. Perhaps contralto Rowan Hellier, who is the only singer here with an inadvertently tremulous flutter in the voice? Well, perhaps, if you are “moved” by tremulous flutters. From the standpoint of expression, her singing is as neuter sounding as that of soprano Lunn (who sounds like a young girl), tenor Hobbs (who sounds like a pre-pubescent teen), and bass Brook (who has a “nice” voice, but no more than that)."

Dubins: "I will now state unconditionally that this is the Mozart Requiem to have, and I won’t even qualify it by saying “among period instrument versions.” It simply goes to the very top of the list of any performance of the work I’ve heard. Urgently recommended."

Bayley: "If you need a drink coaster, this one will do the job."    

Friday, April 25, 2014

Now he's got a graph


What on earth is this? I quickly ran through the list of all the pieces of music that have appeared on the Classic FM Hall of Fame since 1996, and tagged any that I considered "Classic FM music", the stuff that's not "classical" in the strict sense. So this is a graph of the number of such pieces in each chart, beginning with 0 in 1996 and rising all the way to 47 in 2014.
The 3 pieces that appeared in 1997 were Jenkins's "Adiemus", Zipoli's "Elevazione", and Nyman's "The Piano" soundtrack. The following year, Nyman dropped out, and Paul McCartney's "Standing Stones" stormed in at no.76 (it's only been seen once since 2002). 1999 saw the first of the movie Johns, Williams's "Star Wars" music, then 2000 gave us Ungar's "Ashokan Farewell", Einaudi's "Le Onde", and the other John (Barry)'s "The Beyondness of Things", as well as Williams's "Schindler's List". I could go on like this all day, but anyway, the point is: from about 1% in the early days, "non-classical" now constitutes about 15% of the Hall of Fame.
What's important to note is that a lot of the "non-classical" music is actually new music, which gets into the HoF not long after being written or recorded. (I find it interesting that the once-ubiquitous Myers "Cavatina" has only been in the HoF once, at no.299 in 2003!).
I should also point out that "non-classical" seems to account for much less than 15% (I'd say, at a rough guess, below 10%) of the station's output.



Now go draw your own conclusions.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Fun with the Classic FM Hall of Fame

OTOM, as Cicero might have texted. Yes, it's just gone Easter, and time for another Classic FM Hall of Fame for the serious classical music lover to bemoan!
(Previous Les Introuvables cover available here: 2010, 2011, 2012. Hmm, the absence of a 2013 comment shows the parlous state of this blog, doesn't it?)

So the news is that VW's Lark is back on top of the chart, thanks in large part (if one is to believe the bumf, and why wouldn't one?) to its use in the much-watched death scene of Hayley Cropper on Coronation Street (I didn't know this; I read it).
Yeah, that's not the news is it? Because the most important news is that Tchaikovsky's Capriccio Italien is at no.140. No, wait, that's not it either. Oh yes: video games. Lots of game music - music from 8 games to be exact, according to Digital Spy. The trend began two years ago with a couple of suspiciously high new entries, but Classic FM seems to have embraced the concept now, informing us:
This year's chart also revealed a huge rise in popularity in orchestral music used in video games, with eight entries in the top 300 including two in the top 20.  Since Classic FM started playing video game soundtracks regularly last year, the station has attracted a significant number of new, younger listeners.  In the last year alone, the number of 15 to 24 year olds listening to Classic FM each week has grown by 27 per cent. 
Ah, it was all part of a cunning plan, or something. Well sure lookit, if it gets the young folk off their mopeds and their heroin and starts them listening to Beethoven instead then it must be a good thing. Though the scientist in me wants to know, "27 per cent of what?" of course.

The games thing is part of a broader trend in the Hall of Fame, though, Back in 2010 I speculated on whether one could draw any grand conclusions from the many years of data. I wasn't so sure at the time, but looking at it now - there have been 19 charts - I notice one clear change over the years. Let's put on our nerd goggles!

Comparing the first Hall from 1996 with the latest version reveals that they have 196 works in common. Not all of these works were in every single chart; about 40 of them disappeared at some point and then returned. We can look at a few changes in fortune here. Borodin's In the Steppes of Central Asia started off at no.221 and has showed a general upward trend, peaking this year at 47. Schubert's Trout quintet has gradually sunk from no.27 to no.154, while his String quintet has had an even greater fall, from 56 to 215. Why, I wonder? I suppose the Borodin fits better into the overall "sound world" of today's Classic FM, and anyway chamber music has never been a significant feature of the Hall of Fame.
But Nereffid, I hear you grunt, what is this "sound world" of which you speak? Well. Let's look at the pieces that were in the Hall of Fame in 1996 and aren't in the 2014 one, and vice versa.

Here's what's been lost:
Beethoven Fidelio
Beethoven Triple Concerto (Violin, Cello and Piano)
Beethoven Violin sonata no.5, Spring
Bellini Norma
Berlioz L'Enfance du Christ
Boccherini String Quintet (Minuet)
Brahms Symphony no.2
Chopin Fantaisie-Impromptu in C sharp minor
Delius Walk to the Paradise Garden
Donizetti Lucia di Lammermoor
Dvorak Serenade for Strings in E
Elgar Coronation Ode, op.44 no.6, Land of Hope & Glory
Elgar String Serenade in E minor
Elgar Violin Concerto
Franck Panis Angelicus
Gluck Orfeo and Euridice
Gounod St Cecilia Mass (Sanctus)
Hummel Trumpet Concerto in Eb
Mahler Symphony no. 3
Mahler Symphony no. 4 in G
Mendelssohn Elijah
Mendelssohn Symphony no.3, Scottish
Monteverdi Vespers
Mozart Horn Concerto no. 4 in Eb
Mozart Mass no.18 in C minor, Great
Mozart Piano concerto no.27
Mozart Sinfonia Concertante in Eb
Mozart Symphony no.39 in Eb
Offenbach The Tales of Hoffman
Paganini Violin Concerto no. 1 in Eb
Pergolesi Stabat Mater
Prokofiev Symphony no.1 in D (Classical)
Puccini Turandot
Purcell Dido and Aeneas
Ravel Daphnis et Chloe
Rossini Barber of Seville
Saint-Saëns Intro and Rondo Capriccioso
Saint-Saëns Piano Concerto no. 2
Schubert Symphony no. 8 in B minor (Unfinished)
Strauss R Der Rosenkavalier
Vaughan Williams Symphony no. 1 (A Sea Symphony)
Verdi La Forza del Destino
Verdi Rigoletto
Vivaldi Mandolin Concerto RV425
Wagner Siegfried

That's a pretty solid list of standard classical repertoire, isn't it?
OK, brace yourself.
Here come the works that appear in 2014 but not in 1996:

Addinsell Warsaw Concerto
Armstrong Romeo and Juliet
Bach Cantata BWV208 'Sheep may Safely Graze'
Bach Cello Suites
Bach The Well-Tempered Clavier
Badelt Pirates of the Caribbean
Barber Violin Concerto
Barry Dances with Wolves 'John Dunbar Theme'
Barry Out of Africa
Beethoven Coriolan Overture
Bernstein Candide overture
Binge Elizabethan Serenade
Binge Sailing By
Brower World of Warcraft
Bruch Adagio appassionato for violin & orchestra, op.57
Coates Dambusters March
Debussy Arabesque no. 1
Debussy The Girl with the Flaxen Hair (Preludes)
Delius Florida Suite
Dvorak American Suite, op.98b
Einaudi Divenire
Einaudi I Giorni
Einaudi Le Onde
Elgar Pomp and Circumstance 4 in G major
Elgar Salut d'amour
Finzi Clarinet Concerto in C minor
Finzi Eclogue
Finzi Five Bagatelles
Gershwin Walking the Dog
Glass Violin Concerto
Godfrey The Mirror of Love
Gold Doctor Who
Grieg Lyric Pieces (Wedding Day at Troldhaugen)
Handel Sarabande
Hawes Fair Albion
Hawes Highgrove Suite
Hawes Quanta Qualia (Blue in Blue)
Haydn Cello Concerto no.1 in C
Hess Ladies in Lavender
Hess Piano Concerto
Jenkins Adiemus (Songs of Sanctuary)
Jenkins Palladio
Jenkins The Armed Man - A Mass for Peace
Khachaturian Masquerade
Kirkhope Banjo Kazooie
Kirkhope Kingdoms of Amalur
Kirkhope Viva Pinata
Lauridsen O Magnum Mysterium
Litolff Concerto Symphonique no. 4 in D minor
Long Embers
Long Porcelain
Long The Aviators
Long To Dust
MacCunn The Land of the Mountain and the Flood
Marquez Danzon no.2
Maxwell Davies Farewell to Stromness
Mitchell Seven Wonders Suite
Morricone The Mission (Gabriel's Oboe)
Mozart A Musical Joke
Mozart Adagio for Violin in E, K261
Mozart Bassoon Concerto in B flat
Mozart Piano Concerto no.11 in F
Parry I Was Glad
Parry Jerusalem
Pärt Spiegel im Spiegel
Piazzolla Libertango
Rachmaninov Piano Concerto no. 1 in F# minor
Ravel Piano concerto in G
Satie Gnossiennes (No.1)
Schubert Impromptu no.3 in G flat (Impromptus, op.90)
Shimomura Kingdom Hearts
Shore The Hobbit
Shore The Lord of the Rings
Shostakovich Assault on Beautiful Gorky (The Unforgettable Year 1919)
Shostakovich Jazz Suite no.1
Shostakovich Jazz Suite no.2
Sibelius Andante Festivo
Soule The Elder Scrolls (Skyrim)
Stopford Do Not Be Afraid
Stopford Irish Blessing
Stopford Lully, Lulla, Lullay
Strauss, J II Die Fledermaus
Sullivan The Yeomen of the Guard
Tavener Song for Athene
Uematsu Final Fantasy (Aerith's Theme)
Ungar The Ashokan Farewell
Vaughan Williams Five Variants of Dives and Lazarus
Vivaldi Concerto for 2 Mandolins RV532
Wagner Gotterdammerung
Walton Crown Imperial
Whitacre Lux Aurumque
Whitacre Sleep
Whitacre The Seal Lullaby
Williams & Doyle Harry Potter
Williams E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial
Williams Jurassic Park
Williams Saving Private Ryan
Williams Schindler's List
Williams Star Wars
Wintory Journey
Wiseman Wilde
Zimmer Gladiator
Zimmer Inception
Zipoli Elevazione

Yes, we've lost Vivaldi's Mandolin concerto and gained his 2-Mandolin concerto. We've lost Siegfried and gained Gotterdammerung. We've lost one Strauss's Rosenkavalier and gained another Strauss's Fledermaus. And, yay, Bach cello suites!
But observe the presence not just of the games composers but also of John Barry, Howard Shore, John Williams, and Hans Zimmer; Ludovico Einaudi and Karl Jenkins; Patrick Hawes, Nigel Hess, Helen Jane Long; Philip Stopford and Eric Whitacre.
We can call this a trend, can't we? A gradual evolution from a list full of what you might call regular classical music, towards something rather more like... well, I tend to call it "Classic FM sort of music". And so Classic FM's listeners are, increasingly, not "people who like classical music" but "people who like the music on Classic FM". Perhaps in another 10 years the change will be so great that it won't make sense for a classical music blogger to write about the Classic FM Hall of Fame!