2009: A Good Year for Music

As 2009 expires, music journalists and magazines rush to anoint their recordings of the year. I have no such list, but I did take note of the British Gramophone’s December selection of the Quatuor Ébène’s CD of the Ravel, Debussy, and Fauré String Quartets on Virgin Classics (519045-2) as the recording of the year.

I am not surprised. First of all, I was encouraged by the highly astute music critic Jens Laurson to go the Library of Congress last March to hear this group in concert with this very program. There, I listened to their nonpareil performances of these works. (You can read my enthusiastic review at the Ionarts blog.) Subsequently, Laurson picked the Virgin CD for his “Want List” in the December issue of Fanfare magazine, so it is nearly unanimous. All that remains is for me to buy the CD, which I shall do, because the Ravel is one of my favorite chamber works, and the Ébène played it better than anyone I have heard — and I had the privilege of hearing it twice in concert this past year.

As we bid 2009 farewell, I will share with you the best recordings I have heard in the past several months. Faithful readers know that I have a penchant for things outside the main repertory — as I trust just about anyone can find their own way to a good recording of Beethoven’s Fifth. But will you know to go to the works of Mieczyslaw Weinberg (1919-1996)? I suspect not, which is why I am here.

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

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I have been listening to three new CDs of Weinberg’s music that confirm in my mind (as if it needed confirming) that he was one of the neglected greats of the 20th century. A Pole who spent most of his productive life in the Soviet Union, Weinberg spoke the musical language of Shostakovich and shared in the harrowing experiences of that world. And yet Weinberg never embraced the acidic sarcasm and wild banalities that Shostakovich used to poke his fingers in the eyes of the authorities. Weinberg was gifted with a natural musicality that is expressed in everything he wrote. He used all the conventional forms — symphony, string quartet, piano sonata, etc. — but imbued them with a heartfelt directness and expressive power. If music is a language, one can always hear Weinberg speaking cor ad cor, sometimes of difficult things, but always with an enduring human spirit. Having seen some of the worst things the 20th century had to offer in its totalitarian brutality, Weinberg did not look away, but he did look up — which makes all the difference.

First off, the Danel Quartet continues its superb traversal of Weinberg’s complete string quartets with the CPO release of Vol. 3, containing numbers 6, 8, and 15 (777 393-2). At this point, I am ready to say that this cycle is comparable in quality to the Shostakovich quartets — which is saying a great deal, because Shostakovich’s quartets are his best music. This is intimate, private music: searing in places, ineffably sad and sweet in others.

CPO has also begun a cycle of Weinberg’s Violin Sonatas, Vol. 1 containing numbers 4, 5, and Three Pieces for Violin and Piano (777 456-2). Like most of Weinberg’s music, there is a marvelous feeling of spontaneity to these works, beautifully captured by violinist Stefan Kirpal and pianist Andreas Kirpal. These pieces lament, sing, and dance. They are, in turns, deeply ruminative and wildly passionate. If I were doing a list of the best chamber music CDs of the year, this would surely be on it.

Lastly comes Vol. 1 of Toccata Classics’ Complete Songs of Weinberg, with soprano Olga Kalugina, mezzo Svetlana Nikolayeva, and pianist Dmitry Korostelyov (TOCC0078). This is very approachable music that encompasses, as David Fanning’s liner notes say, Weinberg’s “favourite topics of childlike innocence and its violation, of night, nature and consolation.” I had not heard any of these songs before for the simple reason that this is their first recording.  They open another window onto this man’s genius, showing how deftly and expressively he could set texts. We are blessed to have more to come in these three cycles.

The Dacapo label has re-released its Asger Hamerik (1843-1923) cycle of seven symphonies, along with his Requiem, in an attractive four-CD box (6.20002) that can be found for substantially less than their original cost (some Amazon sellers are offering it at around $38). Hamerik was a Dane who moved to Baltimore to become the head of the Peabody Institute of Music, where he remained for 27 years.  In the 19th century, American music was very much a German-influenced enterprise, and Hamerik, as heard here, did not change that. His music is dramatic and big-boned with a heavy tread in some places. One can hear the influences of Beethoven, Mendelssohn, and Schumann.

But there is more: Hamerik studied with Berlioz, and some of the master’s panache, as well as his predilection for the idée fixe, rubbed off. This makes for a distinctive combination. If occasionally rhythmically square, the music is very well structured and gets progressively better as the corpus grows. Indeed, by Symphony No. 7, Choral Symphony, Hamerik had reached the masterpiece level. This is thrilling, gripping music. It is paired with his Requiem on the fourth CD, the obvious model for which is the great Berlioz Requiem.  Hamerik’s work is symphonic in conception and spectacular in effect. The contrapuntal writing is almost unbelievably brilliant, the grandeur and majesty overwhelming. Thomas Dausgaard and the Danish National Symphony Orchestra and Choir have these two magnificent works well in hand. Dausgaard conducts the earlier symphonies equally well with the Helsingborg Symphony Orchestra. This set is a revelation.

I have covered the earlier releases in the Dominion Quartet’s traversal of Alfred Hill’s complete string quartets on Naxos. We now have Vol. 3, with Quartets Nos. 5, 7, and 9 (8.572446). They confirm my impression that Hill (1869-1960) was the Australian Dvorak. Yes, this is old-fashioned music for its time. So what? The melodious geniality and complete unpretentiousness of this music makes these works very endearing. They are the equivalent of a musical hearth in the home: Pull up a chair and warm yourself by them. This CD is never far from my player.

At first I blanched at the idea of Roberto Sierra’s Missa Latina “Pro Pace.” Spare me, I thought, from yet another musical vulgarization of the Mass to show how “street”-current or sensitive to ethnic sensitivities it can be. I was wrong. Yes, there are some Latin rhythms in this Missa, but they are not what make it such a good work. First of all, Sierra takes the text seriously: He is not writing a high school musical (which is about the level of the church music I regularly hear intoned by overly earnest teenagers.) He brings a dramatic seriousness to the texts and, importantly, radiant vocal lines to the soprano and baritone. In fact, this Missa is almost a throwback to the era of high Romanticism. Latin rhythms do enliven things, but they are never pushed to the show-biz level. If only Osvaldo Golijov, the highly vaunted composer of the Latino-flavored Passion according to St. Mark, were writing pieces like this, I would know what all the excitement is about. The performance by the Milwaukee Symphony Chorus and Orchestra is inspiriting (Naxos 8.559624).

By the time William Schuman (1910-1992) was composing, no one mistook American for German music. We had our own idiom by then, a trail blazed by Roy Harris and Aaron Copland. In its “American Classics” series, Naxos is filling out its recordings of Schuman’s eight symphonies — with the Seattle Symphony, under Gerard Schwarz — with the new release of No. 6, along with Prayer in a Time of War and New England Triptych (8.559625). Although I am critical of Schuman’s later symphonies, which I find desiccated, my reservations do not extend to the Sixth, which keeps continuity with his landmark, marvelous Third. New England Triptych truly is an American classic, and the Prayer is nearly one, and very moving. This CD is indispensible for any collection of American music.

I don’t want to bid the year farewell without recognizing another enterprising “American Classics” CD from Naxos.  This one contains String Quartets Nos. 1, 5, and 6 by Benjamin Lees (b. 1924), rivetingly performed by the Cypress String Quartet (8.559628). I do not know much about this man’s music, which is why I am so deeply grateful to Naxos for the introduction. Now I want to know more. These are extraordinary, deeply thoughtful, intellectually intriguing, intense chamber works that so fit their medium that they seem quintessential. I am not at all surprised that Chamber Music America chose Quartet No. 5 as one of the 101 Great Ensemble Works. If you have made it past the Britten and Shostakovich quartets, here are works that will fully engage you. Lees does not offer sensuous surface appeal, but the depth is there. The latter two quartets were written in the 21st century. Obviously, Lees is working full steam ahead at the top of his game.

I also need to mention that Toccata Classics has released a new CD of Lees’s piano music (TOCC 0069), played with a combination of steel fingers and delicacy of touch by Mirian Conti. This music displays a high level of imagination and a sense of mischief. On a personal note, I was delighted to read that the second of the three Odyssey pieces played here was commissioned by the U.S. Information Agency in 1986. That happened to be from the Artistic Ambassadors Program, which I helped begin in 1982 with pianist John Robilette. Although I left USIA in late 1983, how nice it is to see — or, rather, to hear — the exceptional fruit it bore.

Happy New Year!


  • Robert R. Reilly

    Robert R. Reilly has written for many publications, including The Wall Street Journal, Reader’s Digest, The American Spectator, and National Review, and is the author or contributing author of over 20 books. His most recent book is America on Trial: A Defense of the Founding (Ignatius Press).

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