The Best (and Worst) Settings of the Stabat Mater

These are ranked in vague accordance with what my idea of what a perfect Stabat Mater is: introspective, painful, but ultimately beautiful. Of course, many are absent (Dvorak, Poulenc, A. Scarlatti, etc.) as I’m too unfamiliar with them. From horrendous to sublime:

Karl Jenkins (2008)

Hollywood does Baroque in Arabia. By far the worst Stabat Mater ever. Neither reverent nor introspective, with plain harmonies and child-like melodies, held together by Middle Eastern drumming. This is the kebab-pizza-burger kind of multiculturalism, where everything that is good about the separate cultural components is made cheap and sickly. Yet Jenkins is quite popular, which just might prove that collective madness is a genuine condition. Why are audiences so easily taken in? Are they so starved of contemporary melodious music that they’re happy to give in to this lacklustre kitsch?

Marco Rosano (2004)

Rosano is an obscure chap who has, in terms of classical music, seemingly spent much of his time programming Bach and Vivaldi onto an electric synthesiser. Otherwise, he has apparently been involved in ‘film composition, advertising jingles, children’s lullabies and popmusic’. Yet somehow he got the great countertenor Andreas Scholl to sing his setting of the Stabat Mater. Had it not alright been invented for another style, I would use the term Baroque Pop to describe this Stabat Mater. Song-length movements with accessible tunes but Baroque orchestration and, for the most part, loosely Baroque-like harmony and style, but with 21st century pop sensibilities. The movements vary greatly in quality, and the most complimentary thing I can say about any of them is, ‘huh, that’s a pretty nice tune’. This one is probably the nicest, and the orchestra in the video sounds much better than in the studio recording, which is incredibly boxy. Of course, Scholl sounds heavenly as always:

Rossini (1841)

This would be a really good piece if it weren’t a Stabat Mater. Bombastic and completely the wrong mood. Sounds way too much like one of his operas.

Vivaldi (1712)

From here on out the quality dramatically improves. This is a very lyrical, and very likeable Stabat Mater. It won’t knock your socks off, but you’ll find it impossible to not to be charmed. It’s also quite short, as Vivaldi only made use of the first half of the poem. Philippe Jaroussky’s understated version is my favourite. Here he is singing the Eia Mater:

Pergolesi (1726)

It might be over-exposure, but I’ve become a bit numb to this one. It has parts that still sound amazing, but I can’t listen to the whole thing without getting bored.

Domenico Scarlatti (1715)

Written a decade before Pergolesi’s, this is definitely my preferred Baroque Stabat Mater. Scored for ten voices, It’s more polyphonic and complex (in fact it can sound much older than it is) and utterly sumptuous. (Also, it’s much better than his father’s setting, I’d say.)

Haydn (1767)

A terrifically underrated work. It is unusually sombre and heavy for Haydn, and startlingly beautiful for it. But perhaps what holds it back is that it isn’t especially empathetic — one never really feels Mary’s suffering in it. However, he does the more more brilliant aspects of the poem, especially the end, very well.

Arvo Part (1985)

This is, not atypically for Part it must be said, a sparse work. It is haunting, especially when the vocals first enter on high and descend angelically (heard in the video extract below). It might be the most sorrowful Stabat Mater on the list. There’s a version for orchestra but I much prefer the intimacy of the double trio version, which is also the original version. Here’s the Goeyvaerts String Trio playing a section from it, and, interestingly, in just intonation.

Szymanowski (1926)

An underrated composer. In his late period he wrote perhaps some of the best works of the time: his fourth ‘piano’ symphony, the opera King Roger and this, his Stabat Mater. Syzmanowski wrote his Stabat Mater as much for Poland as for the sacred, incorporating into it Polish folk, as it was in this period that his music took a distinctively nationalist turn. It is a mesmerising, colourful work, and has the most radiant ending of any Stabat Mater I’ve heard, exactly what Paradise should sound like.

James MacMillan (2016)

MacMillan’s stands out for its anger. It is often quiet, and always reflective, but it is also tormented and furious, grinding its way towards glory. I love some of the vocal effects in it, the way the voices at one point blend and imitate such that they sound like a wash of tears — almost uncontrollably emotional — or an argumentative section which seems to see sections of voices pitted against one another. And the aggression of the music is often remarkable considering this just uses a string orchestra. Yet it’s no less beautiful for it, with the first movement ending on the most wonderful violin melody — which returns twice more in the piece, and each time more beautiful than the last. It’s worth noting that this piece begins where MacMillan’s Seven Words ended, with G and F# playing simultaneously at almost a whisper. So I’d strongly recommend giving that a listen too, if not first. Here’s the Spotify embed as it’s not available on YouTube:

Palestrina (ca. 1589)

I don’t want to at all spoil this one, in case you haven’t already heard it. It’s one of those pieces that when you first hear it, it’s obvious within the first five seconds that it’s going to be sublime. I don’t know what perfection sounds like, but this would be my best guess. The Sixteen again:

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My Favourite Music in 2016

This isn’t a best of 2016, which is kind of arbitrary, but something more indulgent: the best music I’ve happened upon this year. In other words, just an excuse for me to look back warmly on the music I’ve discovered.

Probably my most listened to recording this year would have to be Riccardo Chailly’s Beethoven cyclewhich is a brisk, exciting account of the Beethoven symphonies. I know some think it’s too fast, and I’ll concede that the funeral march in Eroica could be slowed down a tad, but the sheer force — not unrestrained energy but piercing, precise blows — plus the crisp sound quality has made me fall in love with this set. (Worth noting the inclusion also of Beethoven’s overtures.)

An equally brisk performance is L’Arpeggiata’s 1610 Vespers. I have found so much happiness in this recording, and it was the first to prompt an interest in early music. Other early music highlights include The Sixteen’s Palestrina recordings, Nigel North’s Dowland set, William Christie’s Purcell operas, a load of Julian Bream recordings, Cantica Symphonia’s Dufay recordings, and a bunch of other things I’ve surely forgotten. The Julian Bream Consort playing Can She Excuse?:

I listened to a lot of sacred music this year, actually. Very much recommended is Sofia Gubaidulina, who mystified me at first with her simple-sounding music, often laden with glissandi and almost naked harmonies, intensely spiritual and strenuous. The performance by Ann Sophie-Mutter of Gubaidulina’s In Tempus Praesens is something special, a tremendous battle between violin and orchestra. I also have been somewhat fascinated by Repentance, a work for guitars, cello and double bass, that sounds like nothing else I’ve ever heard for guitar. Not a single superfluous note is ever used — the Webern influence is obvious, in that sense.

Messiaen has been a totally new discovery. I’m working my way through Jennifer Bate’s excellent recording of his organ works, and I blogged about him briefly for the last post. Penderecki‘s music has interested me a lot (his Seventh Symphony,say) though parts of it just befuddle me. Arvo Part‘s been something of a rediscovery — believe it or not, I’d never listened to his choral works! Someone somewhere described his choral works as like a organ made up of human voices. It really is that powerful and that beautiful. Here’s The Woman with the Alabaster Box:

James Macmillan‘s work has been the most fun to explore. I’d actually known about him long before I liked his work or classical music (we ‘studied’ — I say that loosely — The Confession of Isobel Gowdie at school, can you believe it?). But it wasn’t until this year that his music grabbed me, thanks in particular to his absolutely radiant MiserereIt was a great thrill to see it performed live along the premiere of his new Stabat Mater, which is set to be released on CD in the coming months and should be a required purchase for all music lovers. His chamber work on the Resurrection, Since it was the day of preparationwhich I wrote a little review praising, is probably the one I’d most recommend, though. That work did more than anything else to convince this erstwhile atheist of the beauty of the Resurrection story. But as that’s not on YouTube, here’s the nonetheless great Seven Last Words from the Cross:

While on the topic of new music, Han’s Abrahamsen’s snowy Let Me Tell You with soprano Barbara Hannigan has been a hit all around, and with good reason. Gerald Barry’s new opera, Alice’s Adventures Underground, is a relentless, high-octane 50 minutes of totally bonkers music (to be broadcast on Radio 3 at 10pm on the 14th January for those interested). I was also quite fond of Reinbert De Leeuw’s Der nächtlige Wanderer, which had its UK premier at the Proms last year. An utterly frightening work. And it was conducted by Oliver Knussen, whose 2006 requiem for his ex-wife, Songs for Sue, was an incredible discovery for me.

Because of the death of Peter Maxwell Davies early this year I found myself exploring his work, and surprised to find that the first video that came up was his simple folk-like piano piece Farewell to Stromness (though I like the guitar version best). It wasn’t exactly what I expected from this (in)famous radical. Then of course the second video was that jubilant show-stopper of a piece An Orkney Wedding with SunriseFinally came the more meaty compositions and to my surprise again, they were colourful and fascinating and very enjoyable. First I came across his excellent Strathclyde Concerti, a series of works commissioned, unbelievably, by Strathclyde local council! Then his symphonies. Then the insane Eight Songs for a Mad King. I actually enjoy attempting to sing (or shout?) this one in the shower (particularly the rendition of Comfort Ye My People):

Outside contemporary music, it’s been great fun exploring Mitsuko Uchida’s recording of Mozart’s Piano Sonatas. I found myself quite obsessed with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra’s recording of Ives’s Third Symphony, a work I previously found lacking — a curious half-way point between the Second and Fourth Symphony. They brought this little work to life for me. The Mravinsky recordings of Tchaikovsky’s last three Symphonies are dynamic, joyous, wonderful and all that. Igor Levit has put out a load of recordings that have been widely praised. His late Beethoven sonatas are especially interesting — as was pointed over at The Music Salon (great blog, by the way), they sound almost atonal. Must add to this list the Simon Rattle recording of Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms. Oh and Korngold’s Violin Concerto — let’s end with that:

I’m sure I’ve forgotten something or other, and it’ll keep me up thinking about it. But nevertheless, if I’m just going by all the great music I’ve heard, 2016 has been bloody great.

A Proms Alternative

In my frustration with much of the BBC Proms programme, I keep devising my own dream concerts. This one I’m rather fond of:

Gloria Coates — Symphony No. 4

This is dark, slow, minimalist music. It is highly complex – buts its complexity masquarades as simplicity. She bucks the 20th century trend, where despite the growing complexity of works, they seemed ever less designed and ever more chaotic. Coates’ symphony is the opposite: comprehensible, ingenious, microtonal majesty.

George Tsontakis — Violin Concerto No. 2

Tsontakis’ Violin Concerto is a pretty concise work at just under 20 minutes long. But it is an immense and poignant battle between violin and orchestra. One of the remarkable musical achievements of this century. (However, this video of the third and fourth movements, the only one around, does not do it justice, sadly.)

Pyotr Tchaikovsky — Symphony No. 6 (‘Pathetique’)

I’m sure a million other people feel this, but pathetique is my symphony. How everything is ruined by an anxious state of mind, how one goes through extreme bouts of energy accompanied by much more prolonged periods of doubt, how – just like the waltz in the second movement – while everyone else dances to three, I dance to five, nearly tripping up at the end of each bar. This symphony changed all symphonies that came after. Symphonies became even more introspective. Instead of festive celebrations of the world around us they became worlds in themselves. It is so heartening to see that this performance has been watched two and a half million times.

7 Works of Classical Music from the 1920s

I’m sorting through my iTunes library, and naturally got the urge to make a list. I was struck by the number of 1920s classical music I had. Was there something about the interwar period that’s special — new social values? new media? post-1WW nationalism? Bolshevism? a nascent American universalism? Whatever it is, here are my favourites:

[A note on the youtube videos: most are not my preferred recordings at all, but are the best I could find.]

1. Szymanowski — Stabat Mater (1926)

My favourite Stabat Mater, a sublime blend of religious beauty and Polish folk, and it was powerful enough to make me rethink religion. Many are Szymanowski’s later works, of which this is one, are unacknowledged masterpieces.

2. Carl Ruggles — Angels (1921)

An example of dissonance being beautiful (or of beauty being dissonant). This might be the piece I want played at my funeral. Ruggles was a curmudgeonly New Englander who wrote even less than Ravel, and hung around with Lou Harrison, Charles Ives, Henry Cowell and the like — though he seemed to have alienated everyone but Ives, who he uniquely respected. He was undoubtedly a thorny character, but a masterly composer, one whose method of ‘dissonant counterpoint’ is much superior to the serial music that came after.

3. Ravel — Violin Sonata No. 2

This is probably the piece that is most obviously affected by its era, full of blues-inspired melodies and rhythms. The second movement — unambiguously titled ‘Blues’ —  is the most interesting in this regard, with its pulsating rhythm and mimicking of guitar slides and its playful melodies.

4. Bartok — String Quartet No. 4 (1928)

I never will entirely understand Bartok’s string quartets, except in knowing that they’re highly modal, inspired by Hungarian folk, and spectacularly exciting to listen to. This one I liked long before I had any great fondness for classical music. I discovered it during my King Crimson phase. The band’s guitarist, Robert Fripp, said Bartok’s string quartets were a major influence on the Larks’ Tongues in Aspic works, a set of four exhilarating and clever ‘prog rock’ pieces (I hate the term ‘prog rock’, a genre I usually loathe). I had to look up the string quartets, and found them thoroughly inaccessible but fascinating, listening over and over again until I in some way understood them. Your turn:

5. Ruth Crawford Seeger — Music for Small Orchestra (1926)

I’ve written about her here. Her innovative uses of dissonant counterpoint (alongside Ruggles) and serialism are unparalleled. In that sense, this may be one of her tamer works, but also one of her more accessible.

6. Ives — Psalm 90 (1923-24)

Psalm 90 was apparently one of the few pieces Ives was ever wholly satisfied with. It is a magnificent work, one that sounds powerfully cosmic, much like The Unanswered Question and his unfinished Universe Symphony. It is both tranquil and frightening, aggressive with every mention of ‘destruction’ and ‘anger’ but calmly beautiful towards its end. As with Szymanowski’s Stabat Mater, it is hard not to be compelled towards belief.

7. Puccini — Turandot (1926)

Not quite up there with the rest, but my goodness is it some fun, lyrical stuff. I can’t help but love it.