An Absolute Joy

Screen Shot 2019-11-21 at 6.56.08 PM.png‘Tis the season for annual performances of Handel’s Messiah, a magnificent oratorio notable for catchy melodies, high drama, and extreme reverence. It feels great to sit in a concert hall and listen to music composed in 1741–and it feels even better to stand up and sing along. The British novelist Jonathan Keates recaps the compelling story of Handel, oratorios, and the era’s version of what becomes show business in a 150-page book called Messiah: The Composition and Afterlife of Handel’s Masterpiece. It’s a wonderful starting place for a holiday adventure through what is variously called “early music” or “baroque classical music.”

I stumbled into the world of Henry Purcell, William Byrd, Josquin, Lassus, Monteverdi, and their contemporary counterparts, John Tavener, Arvo Pärt, and James MacMillan by watching free YouTube videos and listening to CDs by a wonderful choral group called The Sixteen led by the remarkable Harry Christophers. I would certainly apply the term, “an absolute joy” to the 4-and-a-half minute YouTube video “Monteverdi Vespers / Apollo’s Fire” from 1610. It’s played by a pair of orchestras–a small string group and a small brass group tied together with a continuo section consisting of a lute, an early keyboard, and a harp–and a choir that performs with beauty, grace and virtuosity.Screen Shot 2019-11-21 at 6.56.08 PM.png

I mentioned that I found this music rather by accident. Truth be told, when I started building an LP library, baroque music was, well, very inexpensive. I could buy the records, in fine condition, for about $3 each (as opposed to about $5 for other classical LPS, $10 for the jazz LPs I wanted, and more for the rock/pop recordings). So I bought a lot of them, figuring I would discard what I did not like. I loved it all, and now, I’ve got a problem with available shelf space. But I did not buy any music by The Sixteen because the material is not available on LP.

If I was just beginning to listen today, I would probably begin with a 40 track sampler entitled 40: The Anniversary Album

The number 40 refers to the age of The Sixteen–they began with a concert performance in May, 1979. The music on this 2-CD set reaches back much further–over 600 years. It’s an ideal holiday gift–for those who still listen to CDs in their home or car. (It’s also available on iTunes, etc.)

If you listen with your heart, it’s easy to fall in love. I would begin by darkening the room, and playing the Handel Coronation Anthems on a video screen connected to a good pair of loudspeakers. This performance, from the BBC’s popular PROMS, bursts into large-scale choral energy with wonderful conducting (fun to watch Harry Christophers at his best) and beautiful instrumental work. The CD is even better because the sound quality is extraordinary (true for all of their work, on their CORO label), and because there’s twice as much music.

While we’re on Handel… one of the newest recordings by The Sixteen is an opera called Acis and Galatea. It’s not a big opera–and you can watch the opera with its five singers and small instrumental ensemble to sense each individual musician’s magic. Watch the video promo, listen to Harry explain what they are doing and why, and you’ll want to buy the 2-CD set for the holidays as well.

It’s not all Handel and Monteverdi, of course. I loved a collection called The Earth Resounds featuring earlier music from three composers who started in Flanders: Orlande de Lassus (c. 1532-1594), Josquin Desprez (c.1452-1521) and Antoine Brumel (c.1460-1512 or so). Brumel worked as a church musician who wrote, notably, The Earthquake Mass, a truly moving experience in every sense. It’s difficult for me to imagine listening to music that was composed around the time of Christopher Columbus–and thoroughly enjoying the works as fresh, warm and winning here in the 21st century.

You’ll get a similar set of time and place by watching this video of Henry Purcell’s “Welcome Songs”–but the time is the latter half of the 1600s and the place is England. Once again, the video is tied into CDs, several that you’ll find on the CORO website.

The Deer’s Cry is a good starting place to experience sacred choral music, past and present. Begin with the short video on YouTube, then graduate to the hour-plus CD with its centerpiece, Miserere nostri by William Byrd (1540-1623) with help from another well-known composer whose work remains popular, Thomas Tallis (c. 1505-1585), known today for Spem in alium, a choral work you’ll find by several artists in record stores and on YouTube. The title of the CD comes from a work by Estonian composer Arvo Pärt (born 1935). It is stunning.

Screen Shot 2019-11-21 at 8.14.19 PM.pngSpem in alium is the final entry in a concert on YouTube that also features two other Tallis works, as well as compositions by Robert Carver and Robert Ramsey. The sound and performance are enormously affecting and well worth a good long, quiet listen. (The video  tallies 119,000 views–far more than most in this category.)

There are so many other CDs that I have already heard–and so many more than I wish to hear–but allow me to mention several other recommendations by contemporary composers: Stabat Mater by contemporary composer James MacMillan; a collection by Edmund Rubbra and another called Ikon of Light with works by John Tavener. In this video, Harry Christophers connects the dots between past and contemporary work.

To this awe-inspiring stack of listening for the holidays and well into 2020, I would add the variety of Eton Choirbook legacy CDs–there are several, and they celebrate the Eton College Chapel in England.

I have a great deal more listening to do–and reading, too. I have yet to listen to The Sixteen’s version of Messiah–more Handel operas (now that I’ve discovered how The Sixteen sings them, I want to hear them all), more from their choral pilgrimage series, and I’m sure I will discover even more delights (and I do mean to use that word in its most literal sense).

Along the way, I plan to read–and have in my hands–a good thick, well-researched book about Baroque Music by John Walter Hill, and the volume I should probably read first Screen Shot 2019-11-21 at 8.16.50 PM.pngRenaissance Music. So much music, so little time–but then, much of this music has been performed for half a millennium. Regardless of my pace, it will survive. Today, in the hands and hearts of Harry Christophers, and his peers including John Eliot Gardiner, and others, it may be fair to say that it thrives as never before. The secret: these magical musicians are more than that. They are teachers. And I am their most willing student.

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