Thursday, 31 December 2015

Bach - Motets - Herreweghe


Rating: 5/5

Review:
More excellent Bach from Herreweghe



I love this disc of Bach's six motets.  I already have a number of well-loved versions, but I think these are probably my favourites.

The motets themselves are varied and rich works, in continual performance at Leipzig while Bach was there (and since), and Philippe Herreweghe has based these performances on his research into performance practice there, to go alongside his two excellent discs of Leipzig Cantatas.  The result is a sometimes thrilling, sometimes deeply moving set of interpretations with simply beautiful sound throughout.

The opening of Singet dem Herrn, for example, has all Bach's most exultant joy with superb singing and radiant brass, while Komm, Jesu, Komm opens with a lovely, moving sense of yearning while preserving Bach's essential pulse.  Every motet is given an appropriate, thoughtful treatment.  Herreweghe often produces quite a mellow sound and that is especially effective here; it's perhaps gentler in feel than Gardiner or Koopman and not as hauntingly plangent as The Hilliard Ensemble, and it has an overall feel which I think fits these works perfectly.  Both choir and instrumentalists are simply excellent, and they do these fine works proud.

The recorded sound is excellent and the presentation very attractive, making this a very good disc all round.  It's a real gem, I think, and warmly recommended.

Wednesday, 30 December 2015

Bach - Leipzig Cantatas - Colleguim Vocale Ghent/Herreweghe



Rating: 5/5

Review:
Excellent recordings

I think both volumes of Bach's Leipzig cantatas conducted by Philippe Herreweghe are excellent. I have the complete JEG set which I love, but it's really good to get a slightly different take on some of the cantatas and this provides a delightful perspective.

These cantatas are generally more contemplative and atmospheric than blazingly joyous, and Herreweghe handles them beautifully. He somehow gets to the heart of each piece and allows its message to shine without resorting to lots of stylistic tricks. There is often a mellowness to Herreweghe's sound which I have loved for decades, which welcomes you in without ever obscuring the distinctness of the individual parts or blurring the overall sound. It works extremely well here, and I find these performances a genuine delight.

The recorded sound is excellent and the presentation is very attractive. Both these discs are very fine recordings all round, and I can recommend them very warmly.

Tuesday, 22 December 2015

Taverner - Missa Corona spinea - The Tallis Scholars


Rating: 5/5

Review:
Stunning



Even by The Tallis Scholars' stellar standards, this is quite outstanding.  It is a disc of extraordinarily beautiful and powerful music, sung to perfection, I think.

Taverner here epitomises the music of the early 16th Century in England, with the two distinctive elements of fabulous sonorities and soaring treble lines, and he does it with immense skill.  The result is music of exceptional spiritual depth and often simply spine-tingling loveliness.  It is varied in mood from the piercingly joyful to the quietly contemplative, and all of it is just wonderful.

I have loved this mass for over 20 years in a performance by The Sixteen, but I have to say that this is even better.  The Tallis Scholars are a magnificent ensemble of virtuoso singers with impeccable technique and a wonderful sense of engagement with the text.  There is a lovely balance of voices and a superb fluency and distinctness of line while preserving a beautiful blend and wholeness of sound.  The Tallis Scholars always sing at quite a high pitch which here makes the already difficult treble lines extremely demanding, but the sopranos (the excellent Janet Coxwell and Amy Haworth) make it all seem completely natural and unforced.  The effect is stunning in places with an aetherial, heavenly sound which moves me every time.  This, combined with the beautiful, sonorous lower parts makes for something really special.

The recorded sound is, as always with Gimmell, superb, Peter Phillips's notes are full and interesting and the presentation is very attractive.  This is without question one of my Discs Of 2015 and I cannot recommend it too highly.

Sunday, 20 December 2015

Ward - Fantasies & Verse Anthems - Phantasm


Rating: 3/5

Review:
Not up to Phantasm's usual standard



Phantasm are a superb ensemble who have made some quite brilliant recordings over the years, including their previous disc of consort music by Ward.  Although this is good, to my ears it doesn't quite come up to their usual phenomenal standard.

There's absolutely nothing wrong with the viol playing; it is as rich-sounding, technically brilliant and thoughtfully expressed as ever.  However, the vocal and choral pieces really don't do much for me.  This is partly due, I'm afraid, to the choir who, although technically perfectly competent, don't bring much in the way of expressiveness and have a rather distant, indistinct sound which doesn't make the music really shine and reduces the viol parts to mere background.

It's fine in its way, but for me this disc lacks the real depth and musical insight which makes Phantasm the world-class ensemble they are, and I find it just a slight disappointment.  I am sorry to be lukewarm about an ensemble whom I normally love, but I can only give this a very qualified recommendation.

Saturday, 19 December 2015

Dufay - Motets Vols. 1 & 2 - Cantica Symphonia



Rating: 5/5

Review:
Fine Dufay recordings



Both these discs of Dufay's motets by Cantica Symphonia are excellent, I think.  They are mainly isorhythmic motets and almost all have some instrumental accompaniment.  This doesn't always work for me, but here I think it is extremely effective.  Dufay's mid-15th Century polyphony can sound a little dry and forbidding to my ears when sung a cappella, and here the discreet fleshing out of the sound with period instruments gives it a warmth and depth which I find very satisfying and which adds to the music's spiritual feel.  (And I think the a cappella pieces, especially Salve Regina, sound very lovely, too.)

I like the performances very much.  The singers and instrumentalists are technically very good, and the balance and overall sound is lovely.  They do cut between different singers on individual lines which I know annoys some people, but I find the effect very pleasing much of the time, and the choir seems to me to be up to the challenge of making this approach work well.

Overall I think these are my favourite Dufay discs – they are certainly the ones I find most accessible.  Glossa make their usual lovely job of both packaging and recording, which is warm and resonant without losing the distinctness of lines.  I can recommend both of these discs very warmly.

Sunday, 13 December 2015

The Frans Brüggen Edition


Rating: 5/5

Review:
Fantastic



This is a simply fantastic box of great music.  Frans Brüggen stopped making solo recordings over 30 years ago and many of these discs date back to the early 1960s, but they still sound great for the most part.  Brüggen was a real pioneer of the recorder and a great musician.  His sound is a little less sharply defined and crisp that some later virtuosi like Michala Petri or Pamela Thorby, for example, but it's still a real pleasure to listen to, and his interpretations remain fresh and insightful.  (There are a few exceptions for me, notably the Bach and some of the Handel recordings here which do seem a little stodgy in comparison to some more recent interpretations.) 

Frans Brüggen is now best known as a distinguished conductor of 18th Century music, but this box is a reminder of what a very, very fine player he was, too.  I have given a contents summary of the 12 discs below.  The recorded sound and digital transfers are good and this is a treasure trove of lovely music and great playing.  Very warmly recommended.


CD 1: Telemann - Recorder sonatas and fantasias

CD 2: Italian Recorder sonatas: Francesco Barsanti, Diogenio Bigaglia, Nicolas Chédeville, Archangelo Corelli, Benedetto Marcello, and Francesco Veracini

CD 3: English recorder ensemble music - William Babell, William Byrd, Robert Carr, Anthony Holborne, George Jeffreys, Thomas Morley, Andrew Parcham, Johann Christoph Pepusch, Henry Purcell, Thomas Simpson, John Taverner, and Christopher Tye

CD 4: Early Baroque Recorder Music - Giovanni Paolo Cima, Girolamo Frescobaldi, Giovanni Battista Riccio, Samuel Scheidt, and Jacob van Eyck;

CD 5: Late Baroque Chamber Music - Johann Friedrich Fasch, Jean Baptiste Loeillet, Johann Mattheson, Johann Joachim Quantz, Alessandro Scarlatti, and Telemann;

CD 6: French recorder suites - Charles  Dieupart and Hotteterre;

CD 7: French Recorder sonatas - François Couperin, Joseph Bodin de Boismortier, Philibert de Lavigne, Louis-Antoine Dornel, and Anne Danican Philidor

CD 8: Vivaldi - Chamber concertos

CD 9: Handel - Recorder sonatas

CD 10: Telemann - Concertos and overtures

CD 11: Bach - Concertos and sonatas

CD 12: Recorder concertos and sonatas - Jacques-Christophe Naudot, Giuseppe Sammartini, Handel, Loeillet, and Telemann.

Thursday, 10 December 2015

Hille Perl - Born to be Mild


Rating: 2/5

Review:
Not for me



I'm afraid I don't think this is very good.  It's well played and unobjectionable, but it doesn't seem to me to add up to much.

The programme is a mixture of reworked gamba pieces by great composers for the instrument like Marais, Sainte-Colombe and Hume, and more modern pieces (several composed by Santana himself), played on two amplified violas da gamba and electric guitar.  In principle, this sounds fine to me – modern interpretations can be very insightful and enjoyable, I have the greatest respect for Hille Perl's work and I have a lot of her discs which I play regularly and with great pleasure.  I have also enjoyed Lee Santana's recordings in the past, so I was hoping for something really good here. 

What I actually got was a rather unconvincing mish-mash of styles which didn't really do much for any of the music presented here.   Much of the character seems to have been leeched out of the early works and, I'm sorry to say, the contemporary pieces don't seem to have much character in the first place.  All of it just sounds to me like the sort of thing you'd hear in the background in a slightly over-earnest wholefood café; unchallenging wallpaper which thinks it's more profound than it really is.

I'm sorry to be so critical of musicians whom I respect, but this just doesn't work for me at all.  Others may find more in it than  do, but I really can't recommend it.

Tuesday, 8 December 2015

Armada - Fretwork


Rating: 5/5

Review:An excellent re-release 

This is another of Virgin Classics' really good re-releases of classic recordings. The music here is from 16th and early 17th Century England and Spain, beautifully performed by Fretwork - one of the very finest modern viol consorts - with the outstanding Michael Chance and other instrumental stars of this repertoire. It is fantastic music with great charm and variety, from Byrd's moving lament for the death of Sydney to lively dances. At this price you simply can't go wrong if you're the slightest bit interested in music of this period. It's a really first-class collection in unsurpassed performances and is very warmly recommended.

Regnart - Missa Super Oeniades Nymphae - Cinquecento


Rating: 5/5

Review:
A very fine disc

Cinquecento are now well-established as a very good vocal ensemble. This was the disc which introduced me to them, and made me an instant fan. One of Cinquecento's aims is to bring more obscure Renaissance repertoire to wider attention and they succeed brilliantly with this disc. The music here is exclusively by Jacob Regnart - a composer I'd never heard of before but whose music turns out to be beautiful and very rewarding. There is a very fine mass setting and some really excellent motets here and the whole disc was a delightful revelation to me.

The group sing superbly. They are technically excellent and sing at a low pitch in the tradition of the Low Countries, with countertenors taking the top lines. This gives a very a full, resonant sound, emphasised by the resonant acoustic, while Hyperion's usual excellent recording standard means that every line is clear while blending to give a fabulous overall sound and the effect is truly lovely.

This has been a favourite disc of mine ever since I got it and I recommend it very warmly to anyone who likes Renaissance polyphony or if you just want a really rewarding, beautiful musical experience

Monday, 7 December 2015

Rebel - Sonates pour violon & basse continue - Beyer et al


Rating: 5/5

Review:
An excellent recording

This is excellent. Beyer and her ensemble get this absolutely right, I think. There is a brisk freshness of approach which brings out all the music's depth, quality and variety while giving it real sparkle and beauty as appropriate. Beyer herself plays magnificently, with superb technique which makes light of the music's technical challenges and leaves it sounding utterly natural, often delightful and sometimes thrilling. Her ensemble match her in every way and the result is a pleasure from start to finish.

I think I actually prefer this to Andrew Manze's recording, which is really saying something. It's a joy, excellently recorded and nicely presented, and it has increased my respect for Amandine Beyer enormously. I love it, and recommend it very warmly indeed.

Saturday, 5 December 2015

Gabrieli - Venise sur Garonne - Les Sacqueboutiers


Rating: 5/5

Review:
Fabulous Gabrieli

I think this is an excellent disc. Gabrieli's music is a delight; written for the great cathedral of San Marco in Venice around the start of the 17th Century it is rich, complex and full of a wonderful array of harmonic and contrapuntal ideas.

What makes this so good is the playing of the musicians and the excellent recording. Les Sacqueboutiers play superbly on their period instruments and their ensemble playing is excellent, even when there are over 20 of them divided into 5 separate groups (or "choirs") as they would have been in San Marco. Their precision and balance is impeccable and the overall sound is incredibly satisfying.

Credit for this must be shared by the recording engineers. It is difficult to convey that huge, fat Renaissance brass sound while preserving the distinctness of instruments and the clarity of individual lines. I think they get it exactly right on this recording – it sounds ideal to my ears and it's a pleasure from start to finish.

In short, this is a fabulous recording of terrific music. If you have any interest in this repertoire, don't hesitate. Very warmly recommended.

Friday, 4 December 2015

Palestrina - Canticum Canticorum - Pro Cantione Antiqua/Turner


Rating: 3/5

Review:
Showing its age

This recording, like some other classic Pro Cantione Aniqua recordings, is beginning to show its age, I'm afraid.  They were a fine ensemble and Bruno Turner did a huge amount for early music, but performance practice has developed enormously in the two decades since this was made. This is now, for me at least, an historically interesting disc but not one I play very often now.

The music itself is fabulous.  These are Palestrina's settings of verses from the Song Of Solomon - celebrations of erotic love whose sense is beautifully evoked in Palestrina's music.  However, the approach of Pro Cantions Antiqua doesn't really reflect this – there is no real blend of voices and very little of the feel of Palestrina's sensual writing comes through.  The balance is reasonably good, but the vibrato in the voices rather wrecks the beauty of Palestrina's wonderful textures.  Emotionally, this does nothing for me, really.

I'm sorry to be so critical of a fine, pioneering ensemble, but as a recording I don't think this holds up well.  There are other fine recordings now – notably for me by The Hilliard Ensemble [[ASIN:B00008Y17C Palestrina: Canticum Canticorum]] – and I can't really recommend this in comparison.

Tuesday, 1 December 2015

Rachmaninov - All-Night Vigil


Rating: 5/5

Review:



I think this is a fabulous recording.  Rachmaninov's music is, of course, utterly beautiful and Paul Hillier and the Estonian Chamber Choir do it proud.

This is a deep expression of faith and spirituality and is some of the loveliest, most affecting choral music of the 20th Century in my view.  Rachmaninov employs the full depth of the traditional Russian bass which adds genuine profundity both literally and metaphorically and can be a technical challenge for some choirs.  Not here; these singers are excellent and sound as though they have been singing in this register all their lives – which they may well have been, of course.  The effect is stunning and Paul Hillier's experience, intelligence and scholarship makes this something really special, I think.  It is technically excellent, expressive and beautifully balanced, and the effect is quite spellbinding.

The recorded sound is excellent.  It is sufficiently resonant to bring out the wonderful sonorities in the music but never blurs into an over-echoey mush.  The presentation is very attractive and the notes are good.  This is an all-round excellent disc and I can recommend it very warmly indeed.

Friday, 27 November 2015

Bach - Partitas - Levit


Rating: 4/5

Review:
A little over-interpreted for me



I like this recording but I can't quite share the unbridled enthusiasm of many reviewers.  The music itself is fabulous, of course, but I have some personal reservations about Levit's approach.

In many ways this is brilliant.  Igor Levit is a superb pianist with impeccable technique and a real ability to bring music to life and it is plain that many people have responded with genuine enthusiasm to his playing here.  For my taste, though, it is a little on the over-expressive side at times.  Bach shouldn't be just mechanical by any means, but that great pulse which beats throughout his music should be respected, I think, and his magnificent musical architecture allowed to stand without too much being laid over it.  For me, Levit rather overdoes the interpretative flourishes and gestures sometimes in a way which detracts from the music rather than adds to it, so I'm hearing rather too much Levit and not quite enough Bach. 

(I have a similar problem with Pletnev's playing of Scarlatti.  Levit's Bach seems to me to be another example of a very fine pianist bringing a little too much Romantic interpretation into Baroque music where it doesn't quite fit.)

At this level of excellence these things are largely a matter of personal taste so don't let me put you off.  Many knowledgeable people whose judgement I respect greatly love this, and you may, too.  Personally, I'll be sticking to my loved piano recordings by Angela Hewitt and Murray Perahia and by Trevor Pinnock on the harpsichord, and I'll only be giving this a very occasional outing, I suspect.

Saturday, 14 November 2015

Purcell - Fantazias and In Nomines - Sit Fast


Rating: 5/5

Review:
Excellent Purcell



I wasn't sure whether to bother with this disc.  I already have excellent recordings of these works by Fretwork (twice) and Musica Amphion, and I also found the name of the ensemble rather off-putting…and I was completely wrong to worry.  This is excellent, and a very welcome addition to my collection.

These pieces are pretty well the last hurrah for the viol consort in England as tastes changed, but they are still quite fabulous works.  They are richly polyphonic and show Purcell's remarkable harmonic invention.  They are complex, beautiful and to me deeply satisfying pieces which I love – and that makes me very fussy about performance.

Fortunately, Sit Fast are excellent.  They are a young French ensemble who are all superb players who have the technical skill to make even the most demanding passages sound perfectly natural, and they bring a wonderful sound from their instruments.  They invest Purcell's music with real feeling and beauty, and I find myself quite spellbound in places on this disc.  They bring character to the music while always making it about Purcell rather than the performers and, to my surprise, I think this may become my favourite recording of the Fantazias and In Nomines. 

The recording is very nicely balanced and captures the lovely sound of the consort beautifully and there is an attractive booklet with good notes.  This is a very good disc all round and very warmly recommended

Thursday, 12 November 2015

Schubert - String Quintet & Quartets - Belcea Quartet


Rating: 5/5

Review:
Very good Schubert



This is a very good double CD – and very good value.  These are among Schubert's finest chamber works and they are all very well played by the excellent Belcea Quartet.

The music itself scarcely needs endorsement from me.  Death And The Maiden and the great last G major quartet are among the greatest of all string quartets and the quintet, of course is a pinnacle of the chamber repertoire.  They are all full of beauty, passion and sometimes turbulent confusion, all of which is very well expressed by the Belceas, who are established now as one of the world's leading quartets. 

The players' technique is impeccable, with faultless intonation and superb precision which also shows a real empathy between them.  They adopt quite a brisk, almost robust approach much of the time which works very well, especially in the more darkly emotional passages.  I think that in the famous Adagio of the Quintet that they perhaps lose a little of that trembling, aetherial beauty which makes it such an extraordinary piece of music, but that's a matter of personal taste and others plainly love it.  Certainly their darkly passionate approach to the opening of Death And The Maiden is perfectly suited and quite spine-tingling at times.

There are a lot of great recordings of these works and this won't supersede them in my affections, but it's a set which will sit proudly among them and which I shall play often.  The recorded sound is excellent, and I can recommend this warmly.

Friday, 6 November 2015

Bach - Violin Concertos - Ibragimova, Arcangelo, Cohen


Rating: 5/5

Review:
A terrific recording



This is terrific.  I wasn't at all sure I needed yet another disc of Bach violin concertos, but I was persuaded to try this because of Alina Ibragimova's magnificent performance of the Sonatas and Partitas at the 2015 Proms.  I am very glad I did.

These are works which exist in a great many recordings by some truly excellent violinists, and I already have dearly loved versions by Rachel Podger, Andrew Manze, Viktoria Mullova, Julia Fischer and several others.  This is an instant favourite and I suspect will remain so.  The programme here is the two "established" violin concertos in A minor and E, and three transcriptions from Bach's keyboard concertos, all of which probably started life as concertos for violin or oboe d'amore.  They all work very well in these excellent transcriptions and make for an interesting and varied programme.

The playing is just brilliant.  Ibragimova herself is wonderful, with a beautiful tone and a lovely feel for Bach's music.  She invests it with real warmth, depth and distinctive character while that essential pulse always beats strongly.  Tempi in the outer movements are generally quite quick, but there is never any sense of rush or strain and her solo parts skip along delightfully but never lose any of the music's intellectual weight.

Ibragimova is superbly complemented by Arcangelo whose virtuosity and almost chamber scale give them a lovely suppleness and balance.  And I don't know how historically accurate the inclusion of a lute (played by the excellent Thomas Dunford) in the continuo may be, but it gives the overall sound a delightful richness – I think it's a masterstroke.

I seem to be gushing a little, but I do genuinely love this recording.  It's beautifully realised and played to perfection, Hyperion make their usual excellent job of capturing the warm, clear sound and Richard Wigmore's notes are full and informative.  Even if, like me, you already have several fine recordings of Bach's violin concertos, I would strongly recommend that you make room for this disc as well.  It's a gem.

Thursday, 5 November 2015

Bach On The Ukulele - King


Rating: 5/5

Review:
Hugely enjoyable



I have to say that, against my initial expectations, I think this is brilliant.  It sounds like a joke - I mean, Bach on the ukulele? Come on! - but it really works.

John King is a genuinely fine musician and a ukulele virtuoso, so Bach's music is safe in his hands.  He plays a selection of movements from the Cello Suites and the entire E major Violin Sonata here, and it just sounds great.  The musicianship is remarkable; King really gets Bach, so that rhythmic pulse beats throughout and the lines skip and dance along beautifully.  Just try the Prelude to BWV1006 and you'll see what I mean, but the slower movements have some real solidity and meaning to them as well.

This is a different experience from hearing these pieces played on the cello or the violin.  I don't play this as often as any of my cello or violin versions, and when I do I confess that I break into a smile rather more often than might be seemly.  It is hugely enjoyable, principally because it is such superb music, genuinely very well played in spite of the apparent incongruity of the instrument.  Recommended.

Wednesday, 4 November 2015

Biber - Mystery Sonatas - Podger


Rating 5/5

Review:
An outstanding recording



This is simply wonderful.  Biber's Mystery Sonatas are extraordinary works in themselves, and Rachel Podger produces something really special in her performances here.

The music is a series of sonatas for violin which Biber wrote to represent key events in the life, death and resurrection of Christ.  Biber was a very fine violinist and composer and in my view these sonatas are among the very best music he wrote.  It is expressive, emotionally intense and often very beautiful. He demands that the violin be retuned in unusual ways for each sonata (a technique called scordatura) which produces some extraordinarily atmospheric effects.  It's amazing music which I have liked and admired for years in excellent recordings by both John Holloway and Andrew Manze, but I have always found it slightly forbidding music somehow.  This performance by Rachel Podger has changed all that.

Technically, of course, she is superb and is rightly regarded as one of the world's leading baroque violinists. She has the skill and technique to make these extremely difficult pieces sound completely natural, with no sense of strain anywhere – just a deep involvement in what the music is saying.  Her tone is beautifully warm and she has a way of making the music accessible and welcoming without ever losing any of its intensity or intellectual weight.  She is beautifully matched in this by an excellent group of continuo players and the whole thing is an absolute delight.

Ten years ago, Rachel Podger transformed the Bach Sonatas and Partitas for me in her recording of them by showing me a way into the heart of the music and what it is really about in a way no-one else had managed.  She has done the same here with the Mystery Sonatas.  This is an absolutely outstanding recording (there will be something seriously wrong if it is not a strong contender in the next Gramophone Awards) and I can recommend it extremely warmly.

Monday, 2 November 2015

Bach - Sonatas & Partitas Vol. 1 - Thile


Rating: 4/5

Review:
Virtuosic playing of great music

This is a fascinating and enjoyable take on some of Bach's solo violin works, played quite brilliantly on the mandolin.

Chris Thile has recorded largely folk- and jazz- based music hitherto, and the first thing to say is that this is no gimmick or novelty record: Thile is a serious musician and a real virtuoso on his instrument, and this is a genuine interpretation of Bach and not a "re-imagining" or "re-working."  Thile really respects and loves Bach's music and brings genuine thought, insight and musicianship to his playing of it.  There are some very affecting moments (the opening Allemande of Partita No.1 is lovely, for example) and full-on rollicking dancing Bach where appropriate.  I very much enjoyed the interpretations.

Thile's virtuosity is quite breathtaking in places (like the Double of the Corrente in Partita No.1) and his technique is so good that he can really let the music blossom under his fingers.  My reservation about this disc is not to do with the playing, which is superb throughout, but with the limitations of the instrument itself.  However good the player, the mandolin doesn't have the expressive capability of the violin and although I cannot imagine it being better played than this, to me it still lacks the emotional depth of a really good violin performance.  (I felt much the same about Avi Avital's excellent playing of Bach on the mandolin. )

You may not share my reservations, and even if you do I suggest you give this disc a try.  It's fascinating and enjoyable and, whatever the limitations of the instrument, it's a disc of fabulous music, beautifully played by a very fine musician and I can certainly recommend it.

For another brilliant non-violin version of some of the Bach Partitas and Sonatas, I warmly recommend Suzanne Heinrigh's recording on viola da gamba.  It's fantastic.

Saturday, 31 October 2015

Vivaldi - Concertos - English Concert/Pinnock


Rating: 5/5

Review:
An excellent set



This is an excellent set.  There are now many, many fine recordings of Vivaldi's concertos but I think these classic versions still sit among the very best.

Whether you like this will depend really on how you like your Vivaldi.  Pinnock takes his usual vigorous but scholarly approach; a great deal of thought has gone into every concerto here and there is no sense of churning them out just to make a saleable disc.  The quality of the soloists is fantastic: Simon Standage, Michaela Comberti, Jaap ter Linden, Lisa Beznosiuk…the list goes on.   It's a wonderful group of virtuosi but there is never any sense here of self-aggrandizing pyrotechnics; there's plenty of amazingly virtuosic playing but it's all done to the service of the music, and it serves it excellently.

So, this isn't flashy, it's just very, very good and to me, deeply satisfying.  As a bargain box set I don't think you'll do much better; the recorded sound by DG is excellent, the notes are good and the presentation is attractive and I can recommend this set warmly.

Wednesday, 28 October 2015

Purcell - Ten Sonatas In Four Parts - Retrospect Trio


Rating: 5/5

Review:
An excellent recording

This is an excellent disc of some of Purcell's finest chamber music.  There are already several very fine recordings of these sonatas (including a recent disc by The King's Consort, which is quite outstanding) but this stands very well with them.

The music itself is wonderful: intricate, intimate and extraordinarily evocative much of the time, it is a fine example of why Purcell is still regarded as a genuinely innovative genius.  The Retrospect Trio do it full justice, I think. They are technically superb, with a remarkable precision and a palpable rapport between them which allows this fine music to shine.  The balance between the instruments is very well done, and I think it's an exemplary chamber performance.

The recorded sound, as one would expect from Linn, is excellent.  The notes are full and very interesting and the presentation is extremely attractive.  It's a  really good disc all round, and warmly recommended.

Monday, 26 October 2015

English Royal Funeral Music - Vox Luminis


Rating: 5/5

Review:
Fabulous

This is a fabulous disc. I tried it because I loved Vox Luminis's excellent disc of Schütz and if anything I like this better.

The programme is a musical reconstruction of the funeral of Queen Mary in 1695. It includes, of course, Purcell's wonderful music for the occasion, some very fine works by Thomas Morley and Thomas Tomkins, and a short piece each by James Paisible and Thomas Tollett. It makes a beautiful and affecting programme and the combination of the very familiar and the unknown (to me, anyway) is excellent. It isn't a reconstruction in the Paul McCreesh sense, in that it is simply a musical sequence and includes none of the other elements of the ceremony, but I like this very much and think it works excellently.

Vox Luminis's performances are uniformly excellent. They create a wonderful, full sound and the balance of voices with minimal accompaniment is ideal. The use of original "flatt" or side trumpets works very well and the singing is excellent. Recorded in a warm, resonant acoustic the larger choral pieces sound just fabulous, and smaller-scale pieces and so on are just as good. I get a real tingle in the spine from the soprano duet O dive custos, for example.

This is an absolutely top-class disc of wonderful music, beautifully performed. With excellent recorded sound, excellent notes and lovely presentation it's an all-round cracker and very warmly recommended.
(In April 2015. This disc has been chosen by Radio 3's Building A Library as the best available recording of Purcell's funeral music. Given the excellent and very distinguished competition, that's a high accolade but very well deserved in my view.)

Sunday, 25 October 2015

Mozart - Piano Quartets - Leopold Trio, Lewis

Rating: 5/5

Review:
Simply fantastic

This is a fantastic disc, I think. It is chamber music playing at its finest in two masterpieces of the repertoire, and was chosen by Hyperion as one of its "Thirty Seminal Recordings" to mark the label's 30th birthday. It fully deserves the accolade.

Mozart's two piano quartets are fabulous works. They are intricate and complex in places and also have a delightful joy and beauty about them. I think they are among Mozart's finest works, and this is the recording which finally opened them up fully for me.

Paul Lewis and the Leopold String Trio are now players of true international standing and even in 2003 when this was recorded they had established themselves in the front rank of chamber playing. They all have that effortless virtuosity which allows the music to shine rather than focusing attention on the skill of the player and there is a fine understanding between them. The whole thing has a wonderful balance and poise, and also a lovely grace and elegance about it so that you are drawn into Mozart's magnificent music and carried along with it. I absolutely love it: it is four superb musicians putting themselves wholly at the service of the music and relishing both it and the experience of playing together.

I don't mean to gush, but I truly think that this is an exceptional recording. Hyperion's recorded sound is up to their normal excellent standard (Kate Gould's cello sounds wonderful!) and the notes are interesting and well-written. Don't hesitate - this is a fantastic disc and very warmly recommended.

Thursday, 22 October 2015

Bach - Flute Sonatas - Oliva/Hewitt


Rating: 5/5

Review:
Excellent Bach

I think this is an excellent CD. I approached it with caution because even though I love Angela Hewitt's solo Bach recordings I have always thought that a piano sounds plain wrong in the keyboard concertos and thought that the same incongruity might apply here. It doesn't - the combination of piano and modern flute is wonderful and brings a life and wholeness to the music which I have not heard before.

The programme is of three of Bach's flute sonatas (BWV1030, 1034 and 1035) and three attributions whose authorship is less certain. The B minor Sonata BWV1030 especially is a true masterpiece, I think, but all are excellent and very rewarding chamber works. What makes this disc special is the playing of Angela Hewitt and Andrea Oliva, which is quite outstanding. They both have a wonderful feel for the music and there is a terrific understanding between them. They judge things like rubato and ornamentation perfectly and Bach's lines are distinct but perfectly meshed together.

This is true of other recordings I have, too - notably the great Ashley Solomons and Terry Charleston on wooden baroque flute and harpsichord. What struck me forcibly in this recording, though, was how beautifully the tones of the piano and Oliva's modern silver flute combine, giving a wholeness to the sound which I hadn't heard before. Taken with the superb musicianship, this makes for something very special, I think.

As always from Hyperion, the recorded sound is excellent and the notes and presentation are very good. If you have a rooted objection to Bach on modern instruments you won't like the disc, but I'd strongly urge the slightly dubious like me to give it a try - you might be as surprised as I was by how well it works and how very good it is.

Friday, 16 October 2015

Bach - Goldberg Variations - Tharaud


Rating: 3/5

Review: 
Rather disappointing



Alexandre Tharaud is a fabulous pianist. I own and love his recordings of Scarlatti, Couperin, Rameau and others, and I also love his Bach keyboard concertos.  I was looking forward to his interpretation of the Goldberg Variations very much, but I'm afraid I'm a little disappointed.

The Goldbergs form a magnificent, varied work and it's one which I love but I am very aware that I am just a thoroughly amateur listener, so my criticisms may be just personal and even misguided, but for me this recording doesn't quite capture the essence of the Goldbergs or, in places, of Bach.  The essential pulse of Bach seems to falter in places – in parts of both the sublime, slow opening Aria and in the more dancing Variation VII, for example – and there isn't quite the sense of flow the pieces need.  In the very heart of the recording, Variation XV's sequence of trills seem a little forced to me, and Variation XVI lacks that sense of searching and mystery which it seems to me to hold.  And so on.

Others may disagree – I rather hope they do, in fact – but this isn't a very successful recording for me.  This is a personal sense rather than anything I can analyse technically, but it is my honest response after trying quite hard to like it.  For Goldberg Variations on the piano I'll be sticking to Angela Hewitt's sublime recording, and I'm afraid I can't see this getting many outings on my CD player.

Thursday, 15 October 2015

van Wilder - Complete Works - Cantores/Allinson


Rating: 4/5

Review: 
Interesting and worthwhile

This is a disc of music by an almost-forgotten composer at Henry VIII's court, who was extremely influential in his day. It is very good music and David Allinson deserves great credit for ensuring that his surviving music – all of which is on this disc – is available. I do have my reservations about the performances, however.

The music itself is very distinctively Tudor with its emphasis on resonant sonority, and is very lovely in places. It doesn't have the real inventiveness and power to move that composers like Taverner, Ludford Sheppard and others do, but it is well worth hearing and preserving and I am very glad to have it.

I don't think the music is done full justice by the choir. They are perfectly competent, with good intonation and a decent blend, but I don't find a lot of engagement with the text or sense of spirituality here. They EMPHasise the FIRst SYLLable of a PHRAse rather too much, for example, and the overall sound is just a little indistinct and mushy, so that it becomes all a bit samey after a while. It's not bad, but it lacks the real expressiveness and depth that the music deserves.

I don't want to be too critical because this is a very worthwhile project and it's decently executed on the whole – it just could have been significantly better, I think. Nevertheless, I can still recommend this as an interesting release which has significant merit

Wednesday, 14 October 2015

Ludford - Missa benedicta etc. - New College/Higginbottom


Rating: 4/5

Review:
Very good Tudor polyphony

This is a very good disc of some lovely polyphony from Tudor England. Ludford was a very fine composer who forms a sort of bridge between Fayrfax and Taverner, and the mass and antiphons here form a good sample of his work.

Ludford's music is typical of the English style of the period, with wonderful, rolling sonorities and ætherial high treble lines. The effect is very beautiful and quite stunning at times, and Ludford had the skill to write in an individual, distinctive way which never becomes samey or mediocre.

Edward Higginbottom has made many, many fine recordings with his New College choir over the years and this is very good, too. The choir have excellent technique and blend and a fine sense of the text. This is a full liturgical setting of the mass with plainchant propers, so you need to like your polyphony set in a plainchant base. I do, very much, and the chant is a strength of this disc. The choir is at its best when really rolling out the sonorous lower register parts, and these are exceptionally good. I found the sound on some of the higher passages a little thin and uncertain for my taste, but this may just be me. I prefer the more precise sound of a small ensemble rather than a cathedral or chapel choir in this repertoire, but if you like a churchy sound, this will suit you very well - and the recording quality is excellent.

My taste is more for The Cardinall's Musick's superlative recording of this mass and of Ludford's other three Festal Masses but this is a very good disc with some sublime highlights and I can recommend it very warmly.

Louis Couperin - Complete Keyboard Works - Egarr


Rating: 5/5

Review:
An outstanding set

This is a terrific recording of the whole of Louis Couperin's output for keyboard. It is wonderful music which has been somewhat unfairly overshadowed by that of his nephew, Francois. The pieces here have been arranged into the form of suites by Richard Egarr and form a delightful and very rewarding programme. It is some of the best and most inventive keyboard music of the 17th Century, and Richard Egarr does it proud.

Egarr is now well established as a giant of baroque performance as a conductor, in his wonderful partnership with Andrew Manze and as a keyboard player in his own right. This will only enhance his reputation: his playing is controlled, elegant and full of thought and insight. His ornamentation is perfectly judged and the whole effect is wonderful. It is helped by his careful choice of instruments of which he uses two here, both plucked by quills. Egarr explains in his excellent notes that quill is "so much more sensitive, flexible and musical," and you can hear this here. The effect is to make the instruments sound rich and often delicate - qualities not always evident in harpsichords. The sound is beautifully captured by Harmonia Mundi's recording.

I have a much-loved set of these works by the great Davitt Moroney and this is at least its equal - I may even prefer it. This is an outstanding set, in my view, and very, very warmly recommended.

Tuesday, 13 October 2015

Lully - L'Orchestre du Roi Soleil - Le Concert des Nations/savall


Rating: 5/5

Review:
One of Savall's best

I confess that I find quite a lot of the Lully I have heard on disc to be a little laboured and over-courtly, but this excellent disc from Jordi Savall and Le Concert des Nations is an unalloyed delight from beginning to end. It consists of Suites compiled from some of Lully's works for the court of Louis XIV and it is packed with melody, harmonic invention and a wonderful range and variety of styles and instrumental colour.

What makes it really special is the playing of the ensemble. Savall judges the mood and tempo of every movement beautifully. There is terrific verve in the dancing and military movements, and the slower movements are very beautiful and often genuinely affecting. Savall has made dozens of really good recordings but I think his is one of his best - which is really saying something.

The recorded sound is excellent, the presentation is of Alia Vox's usual beautiful standard and the notes full and interesting. It's a really terrific disc all round and very warmly recommended to anyone with even the smallest interest in music of this period.

Monday, 12 October 2015

Mozart - Flute Quartets - Hurel, Quatuor Voce


Rating: 5/5

Review:
Excellent Mozart



I really like this disc.  I already have a very fine recording of the Flute Quartets by Philippa Davies and the Nash Ensemble which I have loved for years, but this stands very well beside it, I think.

Considering that Mozart professed to dislike the flute, he wrote some lovely music for it and these quartets, while perhaps not among his greatest chamber works, are delightful, varied and with real substance, too.  I don't play them that often, to be honest, but this disc has reminded me why I should listen to them more.

Juliette Hurel is a very fine flautist with a lovely warm tone and immense technical skill.  She really shines here, I think, bringing a lovely freshness to the quartets while preserving all their fine musicality, and she is perfectly partnered by Quatuor Voce.  I hadn't heard them before and I am very impressed.  They are technically excellent and show a lovely engagement with the music and each other, making this very good chamber playing all round.

Alpha make their usual excellent job of both sound recording and packaging, and I can recommend this disc in the warmest terms.  It's a real beauty.

Sunday, 11 October 2015

Lully - Petits Motets - Les Arts Florissant/Rousset


Rating: 4/5

Review:
Decent music and performances but rather unexciting

This is a disc of Lully's "Petits motets," a group of small scale settings for three voices and continuo. Presented here are the eleven motets which have been firmly established as being by Lully, excluding a number which were probably wrongly ascribed to him.

The music is enjoyable although to me not truly great. There is a fluency and deftness in Lully's handling of his small forces and the effect is pleasing, so individually these motets are quite rewarding. They vary in scale from the nine-minute Omnes gentes to the sub-two-minute Dominum salve regum - but I have to say that as a programme it does begin to get a bit samey rather quickly. This may be a personal thing, because I do find that, with a few noble exceptions, I often find Lully's music rather stodgy. This, I'm afraid, is not one of the noble exceptions.

Les Arts Florissants under William Christie are an excellent ensemble and these days have a world-wide reputation. This recording dates from 1987 and although the performances are good (of course they are from Christie), to me they lack some of the bounce and inner glow which marks their more recent work.

A qualified recommendation, then. The music and performances are both good if not great and they are well recorded. If you want a recording of these rather out-of-the-way works this will serve you well, but for a disc of Lully which is an unalloyed pleasure I'd recommend Jordi Savall's L'Orchestre du Roi Soleil.  It's different repertoire but for me a much more enjoyable experience.

Monday, 5 October 2015

Caldara - Trio Sonatas Opp. 1 & 2 - beyer et al


Rating: 5/5

Review:
Terrific stuff



I think this is terrific.  I wasn't very familiar with Caldara, having just heard a few oddments on the radio from time to time, and these pieces were entirely new to me.  They turned out to be a delight.

These are sonatas for two violins and continuo, and they are full of very fine, varied music.  The influence of Corelli seems plain but the sonatas have their own individual style and identity and make a really satisfying listen.  Much of this is due to the playing of Amandine Beyer, Leila Schayegh and their continuo group, which is quite excellent.  Beyer is brilliant in this repertoire and I have admired her work for some time.  This is well up to standard and her fellow musicians are just as good.  They generate real zing and power when needed, and genuine tenderness and beauty in other places.  It's exemplary Baroque and chamber playing, I think, and a real pleasure to listen to.

Glossa do their usual excellent job of both sound recording and presentation, making this an all-round gem of a disc, I think.  Very warmly recommended.

Saturday, 3 October 2015

Mozart - Clarinet Works - Ogrintchouk et al


Rating: 5/5

Review:
Outstanding Mozart

I think this is an outstanding Mozart recording. Slightly to my shame, I had not come across Alexei Ogrintchouk's work before but he is a excellent musician who produces something quite special here.

The works on the disc are the Oboe Quartet K370, the Oboe Concerto K314 and a transcription of the Violin Sonata K378. It's a fine programme of excellent, varied music, of course, but it's all pretty well-known and the question is whether Ogrintchouk and his fellow musicians can bring anything new to it. I think they do.

There is a real empathy with Mozart's music here, I think. Ogrintchouk has a lovely, crisp articulation but the music always flows beautifully so that it feels perfectly balanced. All Mozart's profundity, wit, beauty and charm shine out: it is simply excellent playing. For me, this does for Mozart's oboe works what Thea King did for his clarinet works on her classic recording, which is really saying something.

Superb recorded sound from BIS and very good notes and presentation make this an excellent disc all round, and I recommend it very warmly indeed.

Matteis - False Consonances of Melancholy - Gli Incogniti, Beyer


Rating: 5/5

Review:
Excellent Baroque playing

I think this is a cracking disc of Baroque violin music. Matteis was an Italian violinist and composer who flourished in London from around 1675 to 1700. He was chiefly known as a virtuoso on the instrument, but these pieces show that he was a very decent composer, too. They have wit, charm and genuine inventiveness as well as all the virtuosic fireworks you would expect, and they make a very enjoyable programme.

Amandine Beyer and Gli Incogniti play it superbly. They have the skill to make light of the technical challenges and play with a perfect blend of gravitas and real zing which makes the music really sing out. Beyer in particular is brilliant here, with a vigour, a lovely judgement and clarity of phrasing and an obvious enjoyment of what she is playing. It's a performance at least to match that of Rachel Podger with The Palladian Ensemble in her performances of Matteis - and that's really saying something.

The recorded sound is excellent and I think this is an all-round gem of a disc. Very warmly recommended.

Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Haydn - Symphonies - AAM, Hogwood


Rating: 5/5

Review: 
A fabulous box



This is a fabulous box.  It isn't a complete cycle, sadly, but there is a wealth of great music here, superbly played.

The actual contents of the box are Symphonies Nos. 1-75, 94, 96, 100, 104, 107, and 108.  It is a great shame that the project was never finished, but the 81 symphonies that are here are quite marvellous.  Haydn was a truly great symphonic composer and in my view anyway his symphonies are at least the equal of those of Mozart.   There is beauty, passion, tranquillity…you name it, it will be beautifully evoked here somewhere.  And, of course, there is Haydn's wonderful wit and twinkle in the eye in abundance.

Hogwood and the AAM play brilliantly.  They are a period ensemble, of course, which to me brings a freshness and glow to these works which suits them perfectly.  Hogwood was a great conductor and his attention to detail and obvious love of these works produce something quite special, I think.  There is always a danger with a large  cycle of works that the artists slip into a slightly samey routine but I don't find any hint of that here.  This is partly due to the recordings being made over a long period, widely spaced out, but chiefly because the musicians so obviously care about every single movement they play.  As a result, I love this set.

The recorded sound is excellent.  The notes in this box are a bit sketchy, but full notes are available on-line at http://christermalmberg.se/files/pdf/musik/verkkommentarer/haydn_joseph_the_symphonies_volume_1-10.pdf

It is largely a matter of personal taste whether or not you will feel the same.  There are two excellent Complete cycles available, conducted by Dorati and Fischer, both of which I like very much indeed and I would be hard put to choose between this and either of them, but whenever I listen to Hogwood's recordings I get a lovely sense of enjoyment underpinned by top-class musicianship.  I couldn't ask for more than that.  Warmly recommended.

Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Mendelssohn - Piano Trios - Trio Dali


Rating: 5/5

Review: 
An excellent disc

 
The music is excellent, and is among the many chamber works which give the lie to those who maintain that Mendelssohn was somehow lightweight.  There is verve, beauty and passion in abundance here and it's a delight from beginning to end.

The playing of Trio Dali is as good as you would expect from three such excellent musicians.  They are technically brilliant, with superb precision and intonation, and also show a fine understanding of both the music and of each other. 

I have a couple of older recordings of these works by the Vienna Piano Trio and Trio Wanderer, both of which I like very much, but this somehow brings a new light and energy to the trios.  Beautifully recorded (as always) by Hyperion and with interesting notes, this is an excellent disc all round and warmly recommended.

Monday, 28 September 2015

Morales en Toledo - Ensemble Plus Ultra, Noone


Rating: 4/5

Review: 
Very good Morales

This is a very good disc of Morales's music by the excellent Christopher Noone and his Ensemble Plus Ultra. Morales wrote some very fine and extremely beautiful music while at Toledo and the performances here do it full justice. The singers are technically excellent with faultless intonation and minimal vibrato, so that the harmonies and dissonances really ring out. They have a good engagement with the text and lend real meaning to what they are singing and the balance and blend of voices produces a very lovely sound, including some fabulously deep and resonant basses in places.

I have a small reservation about the acoustic. Glossa, as ever, record the sound beautifully but it is set in a very resonant and "churchy" acoustic with the choir sounding slightly distant from the listener. This slightly diminishes the distinctness of the lines and, to my ear anyway, gives a slightly disembodied feel to the disc. It's a tiny, personal reservation which many people probably won't share, but I thought it worth mentioning.

Overall, though, this is a lovely, rewarding and well-presented disc and recommended to anyone with an interest in polyphony.

Thursday, 24 September 2015

Schubert - Le Voyage Magnifique (Impromptus) - Pires


Rating: 5/5

Review:
Fabulous music, played to perfection

This wonderful set has been among my very favourites for many years now. I agree with the enthusiastic reviews here - this is fabulous music played to perfection.

Schubert's Impromptus are truly great, mature works. There is a lovely variety between them but they share a true, enduring beauty and often a marvellous serenity as in D899 No.3 or a shimmering loveliness as in D899 No.4. They are somewhat more accessible than the Piano Sonatas, but no less great as music and I love them dearly.

Maria Joao Pires Plays them simply perfectly to my ears. Her technical brilliance means that she can let the pieces glide and shimmer without ever losing the sense of their real weight and quality, and she seems to invite the listener to share her obvious love of the music. I find listening to her play these pieces a truly transporting experience. There have been many great recordings but this stands out for me as my favourite (possibly rivalled by Mitsuko Uchida).

I have to say that the notes are the most silly and pretentious that I have ever read (with the possible exception of those for Yo Yo Ma's Inspired By Bach) but, as with the Ma set, the music is sublime and makes them irrelevant. I cannot recommend this set too highly - it's a gem.