Honorouble mention: “Missa prolationum” by Johannes Ockeghem
Johannes Ockeghem was a major composer of early Renaissance, having served as singer and composer in Paris, at the court of three French kings in the second half of the 15th century. Complex polyphonies, emphasis on bass lines and freely composed melodies (the norm then was to borrow pre-existing songs) are the key elements that mark him as one of the most influential musicians of his time, and “Missa prolationum” encompasses all of them.
This is a four voice mass containing only prolation canons, hence the name. In this type of canon, the main melody is complemented by several imitations in other voices, sung at different speeds, the interval between the imitations increasing bit by bit with each movement. This feature makes the mass a fairly difficult technical composition, albeit one which absorbs the listener in its sacred tunes. I, personally, have discovered that choral polyphonic masses induce a somewhat spiritual experience for me, calming the senses with their clarity and elegance.
No. 3 – “Le carnival des animaux” by Camille Saint-Saens
In third place we have a comical work, “Le carnival des animaux” (The Carnival of the Animals) by the Romantic composer Camille Saint-Saens. This was only performed at private gatherings as Saint-Saens refused to have the work published during his lifetime, not considering it a proper meaningful composition. And after listening to it I can understand why one who’s keen on preserving a serious perception of himself wouldn’t want this available for the large audiences. However, I do think this was a loss for his contemporaries as this is a collection of miniature gems. The piece has fourteen movements, each of them dedicated to a certain animal, and these are my favourites:
- I “Introduction et marche royale du lion” (Introduction and Royal March of the Lion) – I like the “roar” effect
- II “Poules et coqs” (Hens and Roosters) – this one is just hilarious, despite the scratching effect
- V “L’Éléphant” (The Elephant) – that double bass is perfect for the heavy walking of the elephant and I can just picture a bunch of elephants clumsily walking in a straight line
- VII “Aquarium” – this is less of a musical parody and more melodically rich, reflecting the mysterious depths of the water and the creatures living in the darkness
- XII “Fossiles” (Fossils) – this one is fun to listen due to its “heavy use of the xylophone to evoke the image of skeletons playing card games, the bones clacking together to the beat” (source)
- XIV Final (Finale) – this rounds everything up like a circus finale, in an all animals parade
No. 2 – “Petite messe solennelle” by Gioachino Rossini
Landing in second place is a very special mass by Rossini, a master of opera buffa. After his premature retirement from the opera world, at the height of his glory, over thirty years would have passed until he composed this original mass, which exudes joy and has quite an “operatic” vibe to it. This is what he wrote at the end of the manuscript:
Dear God, here it is finished, this poor little Mass. Is it sacred music I have written, or damned music? I was born for opera buffa, as you know well. A little technique, a little heart, that’s all. Be blessed then, and grant me Paradise
What made me absolutely love the “Petite messe solennelle” is the soft but playful background piano, especially in the “Kyrie eleison”, “Gloria – Domine Deus”and “Gloria – Qui tollis peccata mundi”. The mass doesn’t sound as heavy and liturgical due to the contrast between the lightness of the piano and the more serious tone of the chorus. Speaking of which, the chorus is less so in the “Gloria – Cum Sancto spiritu”, singing in a more carefree and joyful manner, making this my favourite movement. (YT link for “Gloria”)
IDAGIO and Amazon for: dir. Romano Gandolfi, Coro del Teatro alla Scala di Milano, Mirella Freni (Soprano), Lucia Valentini Terrani (Alto), Luciano Pavarotti (Tenor), Ruggero Raimondi (Bass), Leone Magiera (Piano), Vittorio Rosetta (Harmonium)
No. 1 – “Carmen” by Georges Bizet
As expected, “Carmen” by George Bizet is the first pick of this week. Why as expected? Firstly because it’s opera, and secondly because this one is very nostalgic for me, being the one that really acquainted me with opera and with Jonas Kaufmann over ten years ago (Amazon). I’ve since then listened to several versions of it and I found myself liking it more and more each time. I’m not going to delve too much on it here, since I do plan to have a full post dedicate to this opera, but it is one of my all-time favourites.
IDAGIO and Amazon for: dir. Claudio Abbado, London Symphony Orchestra, Ambrosian Singers, George Watson’s College Boys’ Chorus, Yvonne Kenny (Soprano), Ileana Cotrubas (Soprano), Alicia Nafé (Mezzo-soprano), Teresa Berganza (Mezzo-soprano), Plácido Domingo (Tenor), Geoffrey Pogson (Tenor), Jean Lainé (Tenor), George Main (Speaker), Sherrill Milnes (Baritone), Richard Amner (Baritone), Gordon Sandison (Baritone), Leslie Fyson (Baritone), Stuart Harling (Baritone), Robert Lloyd (Bass)
Disclaimer: This is not an exhaustive list of all the works curated by Clemency Burton-Hill in the book “Year of Wonder: Classical music for every day”. To enjoy the full catalogue of pieces proposed by the author along with her comments on the composers and the music itself, feel free to pick up her awesome book here (not affiliated, nor sponsored).