Classical home listening: Beethoven, John Sheppard – and Komitas

Fiona Maddocks
·2-min read

• Suffering from Beethoven anniversary fatigue? The British pianist Paul Lewis has the ideal tonic. His album Für Elise: Bagatelles, Opp 33, 119 & 126 (Harmonia Mundi) brings together the three sets of bagatelles, written across Beethoven’s career. These punchy, gleaming miniatures, hardly unknown – some are popular with amateur players – tend to be overshadowed by the towering piano sonatas, in themselves a lifetime’s listening (as Lewis’s own account has shown).

Beethoven referred to the bagatelles as “trifles”, defining their one-movement structure, rather than their musical insignificance: aural sonnets, though without the strict form that comparison might suggest. Each is a model of compression, one lasting a matter of seconds, others barely half a minute. Combining expressive variety and technical ease, Lewis delights in the wit too. Even Für Elise, beaten to death by every would-be and would-not-be learner, becomes tolerable in his hands.

• Two new discs explore sacred choral music within, and beyond, a liturgical context. David Skinner and his vocal consort Alamire have produced a digital EP of Media Vita (Inventa) by John Sheppard (c1515-58). After meticulous research and consultation, Skinner suggests how this six-part masterpiece, sometimes considered lopsided in structure, might have been performed originally (explained in depth in the album booklet). The liturgical minutiae may well escape the listener. Yet the performance, dark-hued and beautifully balanced, compels and convinces.

If Media Vita has become a bit of a Tudor hit, music by the Armenian composer-priest known as Komitas (1869-1935) is surely unknown to most of us. A pioneer ethnomusicologist, he incorporated Armenian church and folk traditions into his own work, and completed his Divine Liturgy in 1915 just before his arrest as part of the Armenian genocide in Ottoman Turkey. The aim of Komitas: Divine Liturgy (Delos), sung by the Latvian Radio Choir, conducted by Sigvards Kļava, is to make this haunting, radiant music performable in concert, as well as within ritual.

John Tavener’s The Protecting Veil, premiered in 1989 by cellist Steven Isserlis and the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Oliver Knussen, was an instant hit that went on to secure a Mercury Prize nomination. Repeated in this season’s archive Proms, listen now on BBC Sounds.