February 2015 playlists

Gramophone Sun 1st February 2015

We all love sharing our musical enthusiasms with friends. Here, three music lovers allow you to glimpse some of their favourite music. Gramophone’s Reviews Editor Andrew Mellor has selected 10 recordings which illustrate the range and richness of polyphonic music from 16th-century Spain and Portugal. Reviewer Pwyll ap Siôn explores the music of a group of American composers who refused to join the mainstream and remained steadfastly ‘maverick’. And the harpsichordist and conductor Christophe Rousset reveals some of the musicians who have inspired him with their music-making and whose artistry is there for all to enjoy thanks to their recordings.

Iberian polyphony  

Andrew Mellor chooses 10 pieces which celebrate the rich outpouring of choral music in 16th-century Spain and Portugal

It might be so that the wealth of sacred polyphony to emerge from Spain and Portugal in the 16th century represents slightly more ‘easy listening’ than its varying counterparts in the Low Countries and Italy. But the beauty of Iberian polyphony is not only in its directness – so often built of short musical paragraphs of cumulative intensity, each draped with long, arching phrases and rounded off with a pronounced cadence – but also in its sense of heat and sweat: words more clearly and straightforwardly set (hence the ‘polyphony lite’ reputation) and a listening experience that’s never short on scent and poetry as a result. 

Victoria stands heads and shoulders above the top of the heap in terms of reputation and recording activity, even if his music fits the above description least when he’s placed against some of his most interesting contemporaries. The long breath of Victoria’s Masses can seem a long way from the immediacy of Tenebrae settings by Morales, Lobo and Cardoso – an immediacy that sometimes borders on the secular. Either way, both styles delivered music as ravishing as it is nourishing. 

And speaking of easy listening, polyphony like this is particularly adept at cutting consistently through the whir of plane, train and automobile engines – while also providing food for thought on how specific styles emerged in specific territories, and then travelled.   

American Mavericks  

Pwyll ap Siôn on a handful of US composers who went their own way

The idea of the American maverick composer is by now so deeply engrained that it has almost become part of tradition. Therein lies the paradox. By definition, the maverick is a fearless innovator and iconoclast, a figure who – to paraphrase conductor Michael Tilson Thomas – composes ‘outside the lines’. Yet, despite flaunting its beliefs and values, the maverick still has to engage with tradition in order to be understood, hence perhaps the surprising amount of orchestral music contained on this playlist.

Charles Ives is in many ways the most obvious starting point (although some may choose to look further back), and his ‘Fourth of July’ movement from the Holidays Symphony builds up to an exciting climax with its unpredictable collage of quotations.

A sense of place can sometimes shape the outlook of a maverick, as found in the music of Conlon Nancarrow and John Luther Adams, both of whom spent significant parts of their creative lives working in relative isolation. Others have remained for many years right at the centre, such as Moondog and La Monte Young, yet have lost none of their non-conformist attitude.

The maverick is still a very male/macho construction but there have been a number of highly influential women too, among them Pauline Oliveros and Meredith Monk, and more recently Julia Wolfe. Not every maverick is loud and confrontational, although Glenn Branca’s symphonic electric guitar music almost inevitably is. 

A completely different take is to be found in Harold Budd’s benign, placid but equally revolutionary Madrigals of the Rose Angel. And, of course, any playlist would not be complete without the arch-maverick himself, John Cage.

Influential musicians 

Christophe Rousset on the musicians whose recordings have most inspired him and broadened his horizons

Some recordings have been very important in my musical life; some for just a few inspired moments while others have been played thousands of times for the fascinating colour of a voice or for the dancing rhythm of a piece of music. Now everything is so accessible on the internet, I hardly know in what direction I should look to find the artist, the repertoire, the beauty I am seeking. It’s the same feeling I had 10 years ago when record shops still existed, but now with even more choice: impossible then to trust any instinct or desire for the ‘right’ choice of the day. 

Unless a music-lover follows a particular artist, it is quite difficult for them to be adventurous in their choices. Often I’ve bought recordings of a performer instead of just the repertoire. I discovered the violinist Sergey Khachatryan at the Festival of Menton in 2013: his very sober and highly sensible interpretation of the Beethoven Violin Concerto moved me to tears. Isabelle Faust often plays in the same venues I perform in: that’s how I came to love her solo Bach. Going to opera houses from a young age helped me discover the greatest singers, but only a few touched my heart: Edita Gruberová in The Magic Flute, Natalie Dessay in Lakmé or Hamlet, Christian Gerhaher in Bach’s St John’s Passion. These are artists I have to follow on recordings, as I don’t often have the time these days to go to concerts as a member of the audience! 

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