Imagine my delight upon perusing the Volokh Conspiracy earlier this week to find that Kenneth Anderson is a fellow early music fan! Not only that, but he also appreciates and plays the cello, my favorite non-percussion instrument. I listen to a lot of Baroque music, which of course means that I listen to a lot of J.S. Bach, especially the Brandenberg Concertos 1-3 and 4-6 performed by Trevor Pinnock and the English Concert, violinist Daniel Hope’s concertos recording, and Yo-Yo Ma’s cello suites recording. I’ve also had Ofra Harnoy’s recordings of Vivaldi cello concertos and Nigel Kennedy’s recording of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons in my short rotation for a long, long time. But other than the occasional Handel, that’s pretty much been the extent of my deep experience with Baroque music; I’ve long been a big Schubert fan, and have spent more time listening to classical and early romantic chamber music than digging into the Baroque and earlier periods.
For some reason, though, over the past year I’ve been fixated on Baroque and earlier music — completely and utterly fixated. About two years ago we saw Handel’s Giulio Cesare at the Lyric Opera, and it was just stunning musically and visually (it was the Glyndebourne production, available on DVD). And then late last winter I remember coming home from work one evening and walking in the door to find the KP Spouse listening to the Tallis Scholars performing William Byrd’s masses, and for some reason it bored into my brain. Thus two things converged for me — Baroque and earlier music, and my long-standing Anglophilic appreciation of sacred music, especially choral music performed by the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge (yes, I am that pathetic Anglophile who makes a point of listening to the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols every Christmas Eve day!).
As a result I’ve been exploring more music and more composers — Pergolesi, Palestrina, Scarlatti, Purcell — and finding a wealth of interesting music! My favorites right now are two that I bought in London in August: a new recording of Purcell’s Fairy Queen and The Prophetess, and a 1994 recording of Bach’s The Art of Fugue. I also have a two-volume recording of Palestrina from the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge that I got recently that is rocking my world.
Anderson’s post at Volokh reminds me of more composers to check out, choral and string — Corelli, Gabrieli, Gabrielli (yes, there are two), Caldara, Sainte-Colombe — and I am grateful for that. Another great place to look for recordings of early music is Magnatune, an outstanding label that has lots of pre-1800 recordings (and reminds me to listen to Rameau and Couperin). Coincidentally, on Wednesday in the Telegraph, Ivan Hewett asks if Purcell was the best English composer:
In short, he knew his worth, and didn’t suffer fools gladly (another similarity with Mozart). His technical facility was astounding. In a guide to practical music published in 1697, Purcell described composing a set of variations over a repeating bass as “a very easie thing to do, and requires but little judgment”. It’s actually really hard, especially when combined – as Purcell often did – with strict counterpoint. His wonderful fantasias for viol consort are full of amazing feats, such as combining a tune with itself at three different speeds.
That doesn’t make him great, of course, but it means he had the necessary craft to capture his own expressive world, which was both enormously wide and sharply individual.
Thanks to Tyler Cowen for the link. I’ve never been much of a Vaughan Williams or an Elgar fan (although I have Yo-Yo Ma’s recording of Elgar’s cello concerto, which is quite nice), so I’m open to the argument for Purcell as one of England’s unjustly underappreciated composers.
We’re fortunate in Chicago to have a lot of early music resources, including the Early MusiChicago portal to hear about concerts, lectures, and so on. We have several performance groups/consorts, including the outstanding Music of the Baroque (which will be performing Mozart’s Requiem in February), the Newberry Consort, and the Chicago Early Music Consort. We will also be having the debut Chicago Early Music Festival this April.
For all of these reasons, 2010 looks like a great year for exploring early music! I will be doing so as mentioned above, and I’ll also finally take the plunge and get Glenn Gould’s recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. Do you have any recommendations to share?