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Ludwig Van
Toronto Montreal

PLAYLIST | A Deep Cuts Classical Listening List For Those Tired Of Christmas Carols

By Hye Won Cecilia Lee on December 6, 2018

Eleven selections for those solitary moments, where one may peer into the heart of the winter, along with its icy beauty.

The end of the year can be such a funk.  Even with the blinding flash of Christmas lights, constant chatter and boisterous squeals over the blaring pop carols that overfill our brains, the truth of the winter cannot be denied: it is the time of solitude and reflection.  After all, nothing burns like the cold.

The long, dark winter nights have fascinated people through the centuries, and even in the bustle of the holidays, we may feel that sharp fang of winter in our hearts.  It is perhaps the most complex of the four seasons, and definitely the darkest.

Here are a few selections for those solitary moments, where one may peer into the heart of the winter, along with its icy beauty. It can be unforgiving, unrelenting and ruthless, burying all in extreme dark and blinding blizzard: “the gaunt limbs, and stark, rigid, death-like whiteness of winter.”

1. Valse Triste, Op. 44, No.1, Jean Sibelius

Sibelius wrote a few incidental music pieces for the 1903 production of Kuolema (Death), a play by his brother-in-law, Arvid Järnefelt.   It quickly became a signature Sibelius piece, as it brought much melancholy and sense of irreversible loss, all within a mere five minutes.  This particular performance is quite dry, and without the usual sugar icing of rich rubato and schmaltz, the wistful twist of the scene pierces like a dagger:

“It is night. The son, who has been watching beside the bedside of his sick mother, has fallen asleep from sheer weariness, gradually a ruddy light is diffused through the room: there is a sound of distant music: the glow and the music steal nearer until the strains of a valse melody float distantly to our ears. The sleeping mother awakens, rises from her bed and, in her long white garment, which takes the semblance of a ball dress, begins to move silently and slowly to and fro. She waves her hands and beckons in time to the music, as though she were summoning a crowd of invisible guests. And now they appear, these strange visionary couples, turning and gliding to an unearthly valse rhythm. The dying woman mingles with the dancers; she strives to make them look into her eyes, but the shadowy guests one and all avoid her glance. Then she seems to sink exhausted on her bed, and the music breaks off. Presently she gathers all her strength and invokes the dance once more, with more energetic gestures than before. Back come the shadowy dancers, gyrating in a wild, mad rhythm. The weird gaiety reaches a climax; there is a knock at the door, which flies wide open; the mother utters a despairing cry; the spectral guests vanish; the music dies away. Death stands on the threshold.”

2. “Der Leiermann”, Winterreise, D. 911, Franz Schubert

In Winterreise, the stranger is making his journey out of the village.  He once found beautiful spring and love here, but now he walks away empty-handed, out into the cold, lonely unknown.   In “Im Dorfe,” he glances into the house where people sweetly dream on their lovely pillows; yet, as the dogs bark and their chains rattle, he who is no longer dreaming, is compelled to leave.
The last person he sees on his way out is the hurdy-gurdy man, ”Der Leiermann.” The old man stands there, with frozen fingers.  No one listens, hounds snarl at the old man, and the stranger wonders:

Curious old fellow, shall I go with you? When I sing my songs, will you play your hurdy-gurdy too?

Here, Thomas Quasthoff delivers one of the most vulnerable, sincere interpretations of Winterreise, with Daniel Barenboim at the piano. If you are intrigued, please check out the Ian Bostridge-Julius Drake project with David Alden Directing: Winterreise/Over the Top with Franz

3. In a Landscape (1948), John Cage

In 1946, Cage met Indian musician Gita Sarabhai, and they exchanged lessons – him, teaching counterpoint and contemporary music, and her teaching him about Indian music and philosophy. One of the core ideas Sarabhai shared with Cage was a purpose of music: “… to sober and quiet the mind, thus rendering it susceptible to divine influences.” During these eight minutes, Cage instructs the player to sustain both the damper and the sustain pedals together, till the very end:  ‘… play without sounding, release pedals (thus obtaining harmonics).’ In essence, percussive piano becomes one long resonance — and for years, this shimmering piece has always reminded me of the magical northern lights.

The sight filled the northern sky; the immensity of it was scarcely conceivable. As if from Heaven itself, great curtains of delicate light hung and trembled. Pale green and rose-pink, and as transparent as the most fragile fabric, and at the bottom edge a profound fiery crimson like the fires of Hell, they swung and shimmered loosely with more grace than the most skilful dancer. — Philip Pullman, The Golden Compass

4. Winter 3, Vivaldi Recomposed (2012), Max Richter

Vivaldi’s Four Seasons is one of the earliest and most successful examples of program music.  In 2012, Max Richter released a new take on the Four Seasons with Daniel Hope and André de Ridder, and his re-composition is convincing and striking in its subtle minimalist transformation from the original.  Here’s the end of the album, Winter 3.

Caminar Sopra il giaccio, e à passo lento
Per timor di cader girsene intenti;
Gir forte Sdruzziolar, cader à terra
Di nuove ir Sopra ‘l giaccio e correr forte
Sin ch’ il giaccio si rompe, e si disserra;
Sentir uscir dalle ferrate porte
Sirocco, Borea, e tutti i Venti in guerra
Quest’ é ‘l verno, mà tal, che gioja apporte

We tread the icy path slowly and cautiously,
for fear of tripping and falling.
Then turn abruptly, slip, crash on the ground and,
rising, hasten on across the ice lest it cracks up.
We feel the chill north winds course through the home
despite the locked and bolted doors…
this is winter, which nonetheless
brings its own delights.
— Accompanying Sonnet for Allegro from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons: Winter

5. G Song (1985), Terry Riley

Terry Riley and the Kronos Quartet have a long-standing relationship, and this particular work was the very first work Riley wrote for them.  Written with Riley’s keen ears for purity of sound and awareness of resonance in string instruments (especially noticeable on the Cadenza of the Night Plain, which became the title for the first all-Riley recording for Kronos, released in 1985), the quartet pulses and sings, with such openness and sincerity, like the silent cold winter morning, after a night of white blizzard, where everything has been covered, the air speckled with floating snow dust.

6. Sonata for Solo Cello (1948/1953), György Ligeti

The first part, Dialogo, was written for a fellow student at Ligeti’s school. The recipient, Annuss Virány, was unaware of Ligeti’s feelings, didn’t think much of it, and it was left to dust, unplayed, till Ligeti added the Capriccio movement for another cellist, Vera Dénes, a few years later. Unfortunately, the Hungarian Composers’ Union deemed the work unfit to publish, as it was ‘too modern,’ so it wasn’t performed again till 1979.  Since then, it quickly became a standard, and the emotional and technical challenge of the work has drawn many listeners into its haunting, dark world.

… some winters
will never melt
some summers
will never freeze
and some things will only
… live in poems
— Sanober Khan, Turquoise Silence

7. “Sleep,” from Five Elizabethan Songs (1913-14), Ivor Gurney

Winter, in its silent yet restorative way, is often compared to sleep.  And in the deep of the night, often, we are left to our own voices and thoughts, and the sleep, elusively, stays just a touch away.  Could it be sorrow? A flee, a retreat?  One tosses back and forth in bed, in search of peace as the night flows. Gurney sets John Fletcher’s text masterfully, the yearning for quiet, with a heartfelt plea.

…We that suffer long annoy
Are contented with a thought
Through an idle fancy wrought:
O let my joys have some abiding!

8.  Allegro ma non troppo (1998), Unsuk Chin

Sometimes when the light changes, even a familiar place can feel so different. The winter light differs from the summer light, and the absence of light in the long dark winter night can bring out many thoughts that may have been kept quiet, because they are unusual, demanding and difficult.

Unsuk Chin, current darling of international contemporary classical music, wrote ‘Allegro ma non troppo’ in the winter of 1993-94.  The first version was an electroacoustic piece (1994), then the second extended version was presented in 1998.  All the sound sources are things that were once familiar, such as a piece of paper, alarm clocks, grains of rice, etc. However, these things are transformed into a new reality.  It’s a rather magical, if haunting way to look into one’s own world, in a different light — perhaps, no light.


9. Let Me Die Before I Wake for Clarinet (1982) Salvatore Sciarrino

One topic that is forever associated with winter is Death.  We are horrified, scared and terrorized by the idea of death, and the particular topic of euthanasia has always been controversial.  Written a year after Derek Humphry’s book of euthanasia case studies (from which Sciarrino took the piece’s title), the piece explores the thin last minutes of the body before dying.  The elusive and flickering sound of the clarinet is haunting yet gentle, as if there is nothing to be afraid of. It’s a gentle, beautiful breath into the silence. Perhaps, just like the dusk into the longest night of the year on the winter solstice.

“…C’est ce qui émerge d’une polyphonie qui se liquéfie, au moment où les transparences affinent la perception, et que l’éclat des reflets l’exténue — mystérieux liens avec les ténèbres – en distille chaque fragment de lumière. L’approche de la nuit, les moments de marée de la conscience sont les plus féconds pour la pensée. Ils ont l’évidence immatérielle d’une ligne, la brûlante clarté de l’horizon — près de ces frontières alors, des rappels qui éloignent — le grouillement des échos de la pensée. Une mouche parcourt les bords du miroir : c’est un ornement sur l’éternité.“
— Sciarrino, from Klangforum Wien Program Notes, 22 September 2018

10.  Praise to the eternity of Jesus, from Quartet for the End of Time, Olivier Messiaen


Once death happens, does time happen? Messiaen wrote this while serving time as a prisoner-of-war in Zgorzelec, Poland.  Its premiere was in the rain, outside (Zgorzelec’s average temperature in January hovers around 0°C — it is the coldest month of the year for them), and instead of the Christmas glory and glitz, here, Jesus is a different figure, a figure encompassing eternity:

Jesus is considered here as the Word. A broad phrase, “infinitely slow”, on the cello, magnifies with love and reverence the eternity of the Word, powerful and gentle, “whose time never runs out”. The melody stretches majestically into a kind of gentle, regal distance. “In the beginning was the Word, and Word was with God, and the Word was God.” — John 1:1, King James Version,  Messiaen.

11. “Der Abschied,” Das Lied von der Erde, Gustav Mahler

Consolation. Disintegration. Silence. Initiation. A funeral and ascension.

After the tragic year of 1907,  he lost his daughter Maria, and having been diagnosed with the heart condition that would kill him four years later, Mahler left for New York to conduct at the Metropolitan Opera. When he came back for the summer in 1908, he wasn’t able to compose — but he found a collection of Chinese poems translated by Hans Bethge. And slowly, he started to write songs, which eventually became Das Lied von der Erde, his penultimate opus.

In this last movement, he clears the table with tamtam and harp. And this heartbreaking mixture of callings, funeral march, and the last text, Ewig [Forever], all added to the Chinese poem finally releases… What is being released, and where does it go? The listener will rip out one’s own answer from the heart, but the poignancy of this golden glory always touches the centre of this very heart.

…Ich werde niemals in die Ferne schweifen.
Still ist mein Herz und harret seiner Stunde!
Die liebe Erde allüberall blüht auf im Lenz und grünt
Aufs neu! Allüberall und ewig blauen licht die Fernen!
Ewig… ewig

…Still is my heart, awaiting its hour.
The dear earth everywhere blossoms in spring and grows green
anew! Everywhere and forever blue is the horizon!
Forever … Forever …



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Ludwig Van Toronto


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