Such is the stigma surrounding classical music, many still regard it as stuffy and moribund, a relic from a museum culture.  To challenge that notion, here are five pieces that could have been written yesterday – including a few that sound like they come from the future.

1.  Einojuhani Rautavaara – Cantus Arcticus (Concerto for Birds & Orchestra) (1972)

Like that of his compatriot and mentor Sibelius, the music of Rautavaara is deeply evocative of the landscape of his native Finland.  In Cantus Arcticus, Rautavaara places the orchestra in dialogue with the cries of birds he recorded on tape near the Arctic Circle and in the marshes of Liminka in northern Finland.

There’s a plaintive, vulnerable quality to the birdsong, particularly in the second movement, which revolves around the slowed-down call of a shore lark, while the finale features the sound of whooper swans.

It’s a mesmerising piece with a fantastic sense of scale, the lush, brooding strings suggestive of epic migrations, vast open skies and the ebb and flow of weather patterns. Yet this isn’t ‘ambient’ or ‘new age’ music – it’s strange, tense and menacing, a bleakly beautiful meeting of modernism and mysticism.

Recommended recording:  Cantus Arcticus; Piano Concerto No. 1; Symphony No. 3 – Royal Scottish Orchestra, Hannu Lintu (Naxos, 1998)

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2.  Peter Lieberson – Neruda Songs (2005)

American composer Peter Lieberson wrote this orchestral song cycle – a setting of five sonnets by Chilean poet Pablo Neruda – as a gift for his wife, the soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson. Lieberson was one of the finest sopranos since the war, and the emotional intensity she brought to her performances has led to frequent comparisons with Maria Callas.

These songs of love and loss would come to bear a terrible poignancy; eight months after the singer premiered them with the Los Angeles Symphony Orchestra in May 2005, she lost her life to breast cancer.  The composer himself also succumbed to cancer in 2011.

The track featured here, “My love, if I die and you don’t,” is the last in the cycle – music which, the composer wrote, “is very sad and peaceful at the same time. There is the recognition that no matter how blessed one is with love, there will be a time when we must part from those whom we cherish so much…”

Recommended recording:  Neruda Songs – Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, Boston Symphony Orchestra, James Levine (Nonesuch, 2006)

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3.  Thomas Adès – Concentric Paths (2005)

This otherworldly violin concerto seethes with a tumultuous, cosmic energy. British composer Thomas Adès creates a colossal soundworld  that vacillates between violence and lyricism, the febrile, virtuosic violin part offset by chasms of growling bass and sudden stabs of orchestral power.

The concerto comes in three movements, titled ‘Rings’, ‘Paths’ and ‘Rounds’.  After the ethereal opening movement, ‘Paths’ (at 4.28) suggests the convulsions of some imploding, volcanic terrain, while ‘Rounds’, with its war-like drum beat and echoes of Stravinsky, is positively primordial.

Out of this dance between form and chaos, Adès fashions a beautiful and terrifying music of the spheres.

Recommended recording:  Tivot; Violin Concerto; Three Studies From Couperin – Berlin Philharmonic, Rattle;  Marwood, Chamber Orchestra of Europe, Adès (EMI, 2010)

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4.  Benjamin Britten – Piano Concerto (1938/1945) – Third movement: Impromptu

Britten, a pacifist, wrote his only Piano Concerto in the shadow of World War II. In 1945, the composer replaced the original third movement with a new passage, entitled Impromptu.

Beginning with a simple, haunting statement on the piano, it’s full of tension and foreboding, its thrilling sense of forward momentum suggesting the advance of unstoppable forces. Dark, massed cellos rise up from its depths, while the piano notes seem to fall away into vast, cold spaces.

In places, this music has more in common with electronica – the dystopian menace of Autechre, say – than anything from the classical world.

Recommended recording:  Piano Concerto; Violin Concerto – Richter, Lubotsky, English Chamber Orchestra, Britten (Decca, 1970)

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5.  Messiaen – Quartet for the End of Time (1941)

When France fell to the Germans in 1940, Olivier Messiaen was captured and imprisoned in Stalag VII-A. There he met a violinist, a cellist and a clarinettist among his fellow prisoners, and composed a quartet. With Messian himself at the piano, the piece was premiered on 15 January 1941, in freezing conditions and with snow underfoot, before an audience of prisoners and guards.

A Roman Catholic mystic, Messiaen was inspired by text from the Book of Revelation: “And the angel which I saw stand upon the sea and upon the earth lifted up his hand to heaven, and sware by him that liveth for ever and ever…that there should be time no longer…”

Messiaen composed the piece in eight movements – seven for the days of creation, and an eighth for the eternity that would come after.  After the seventh movement, entitled, “Tangle of rainbows, for the Angel who announces the end of time”, the quartet ends with “Praise to the immortality of Jesus”, for violin and piano.

Here time is suspended,  the music drifting in a cosmic stillness. It’s as if Messiaen has opened a window onto infinity.

Recommended recording:  Quartet for the End of Time – Tashi Quartet, Peter Serkin (RCA, 1976)

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2 Responses

  1. David Whistance

    Really excellent choices. I had only heard the Messiaen before but will now be purchasing all 5 suggested CD’s. David Whistance

    Reply

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