Critics reflexively sneer at releases like Fifty Shades of Grey: The Classical Album, an audio companion of sorts to E.L. James’ bestselling S&M novel that came out on CD September 18.
Often, the derision is deserved: The record industry loves to seize and exploit a media-powered phenomena, especially when it involves a simple re-release of music that’s lingered for years, neglected, in the back catalog.
Thomas Tallis’ “Spem in alium,” a motet for 40 voices composed around 1570, fits the profile perfectly: It turns up in a scene in the book, and ever since the Fifty Shades mania erupted, various recorded versions of the piece have surfaced on the classical charts. It’s become one of those rare “hits” a la Chant. So it was only a matter of time before some enterprising label partnered with the author to create an “official” audio companion to the books.
The unexpected twist here is that James selected some genuinely sparkling performances – if you’re looking for music to engage and (to borrow heroine Anastasia’s reaction to Tallis from the book) “overwhelm” the senses, you could do far worse than this 15-track anthology. In addition to the Tallis Scholars version of “Spen in alium,” which was recorded in 1965, there’s a sweetly melodic treatment of Heitor Villa-Lobos’ Bachianas brasileiras No. 5 from soprano Barbara Hendricks and the cellos of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, and several Chopin piano works played by Samson Francois. The English Chamber Orchestra’s treatment of the Faure Requiem Op. 48, beautifully recorded in 1969, conjures an unusual reverie -- contemplative grace underpinned by a sense of mourning.
And though there are plenty of competent versions of Ralph Vaugan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis out there, James’ choice – a 1976 performance by the London Philharmonic Orchestra under the direction of Sir Adrian Bout – is notable for its sharp extremes. The piece is an essay in tense, surging chords, and where some renditions wallow and brood, this one lives in a realm of majesty and nuance and slow, delightfully slow, sensuality. It was this work that flipped my default cynicism: OK sure, this release piggybacks on a craze. But at the same time, it offers music that can accurately be described as overwhelming -- whether you happen to be in a dungeon or on an airplane. Never anything wrong with that.