Friday, 26 June 2015

Baron - The Lute at the Court of Frederick the Great - Polato

Rating: 3/5

Pleasant but not brilliant

This is an interesting disc and it is good to have Baron's music available, but I do have some reservations about it.

Baron was a younger contemporary of Bach and Weiss who was a composer and lutenist at the court of Frederick the Great of Prussia in the mid 17th Century.  I hadn't come across his work before this disc and as a lover of the lute was very keen to find out more.

Baron was plainly a good composer but not a great one.  The music here is pleasant and features the lute in combination with other instruments as well as in two solo sonatas.  It's all perfectly listenable stuff but, despite Baron's reputation at court as an expressive, emotional composer and player, I found it just a bit bland.  The sonatas certainly don’t have the depth and variety of those of his contemporaries Bach and Weiss, although they are an enjoyable listen.  The same can be said of much of the disc – nice, but rather unmemorable 

Polato's playing is good but sounds a little strained at times as though the music were taxing his technique, so it isn't always as relaxed and natural-sounding as you'd hope.  I don't think the recording helps, either.  Certainly on my download, the lute sounds rather tinny and distant and as though it were at the bottom of a well.  It's a real disappointment when compared with, say, the excellent job Naxos do with Robert Barto's series of Weiss sonatas or Linn's superb recordings of Jakob Lindberg. 

I do go back to this disc from time to time, but it's not among my favourites.  If you're keen on the lute you may well find this interesting, as I do, but for really fine recordings of great music of this period I'd recommend Weiss played by Barto or Lindberg, Bach played by North or O'Dette and several others before this.

Thursday, 25 June 2015

Sainte-Colombe - Pieces de Viole - Pandolfo

Rating: 5/5

Another great disc from Pandolfo

Paolo Pandolfo is now firmly established in the very first rank of gamba players, and this disc will only enhance his standing. It is an absolute cracker, full of virtuosity, great and imaginative music and a truly beautiful sound.

The melancholy, soulful sound associated with Sainte-Colombe in the film Tous Les Matins du Monde is well represented here - and wonderfully evoked by Pandolfo - but there is so much more as well. Lively dances, characterful preludes and others give a real variety of mood and tempo, all held together by superb musicianship. There is accompaniment on several pieces from Thomas Boysen on either theorbo or baroque guitar, and it works wonderfully.

Whether you're looking for some Sainte-Colombe to try or know his work well this will make a terrific addition to your collection. I love this disc and if you have any interest at all in music of this period I am sure you will, too. Very highly recommended indeed.

Wednesday, 24 June 2015

Handel - The Secret Handel - Hogwood

Rating: 4/5

Great music and excellent playing, but...

This is another volume in Hogwood's "The Secret..." series about which I have the same, purely personal, reservations as I do about the others. The idea is good and Hogwood was a superb musician and considerable scholar, but this doesn't quite come off as a top-notch set for me.

The music, of course is excellent, with some quite subtle but interesting differences from the versions we may be used to. Hogwood is a fantastic musician and plays it all wonderfully. However - and this is almost certainly a personal thing - I find the sound of the clavichord somehow rather unsatisfying. It is a small, quiet domestic instrument and it just seems to me to be straining to be heard all the time - fine for practice and personal use but not really for shared performance. This means that for me this isn't a wholly successful set. It is interesting throughout and charming in places but as a satisfying musical experience it falls a little short.

You may well not share my reservations about the clavichord so please don't let me put you off. These are two discs of superb music, excellently performed. They just didn't quite fit my personal taste.

Monday, 22 June 2015

Grieg - Lyric Pieces - Hough

Rating: 5/5

A very fine disc

I tried this disc because I like Stephen Hough's work very much and I think this is well up to his usual extraordinarily high standard.

I make no pretence at being any kind of an expert on Grieg, and many of these pieces were new to me so I cannot offer comparisons or profound insights into Hough's interpretation, but to me these recordings ring with an unfussy sincerity and a genuinely lyrical sense which really makes them speak to me. There is a variety of tone and mood - surprisingly forceful at times, tender or meditative at others, but untrammelled by self-indulgence or empty gesture. There is an unsentimental freshness throughout which is underpinned, I am sure, by deep scholarship and thought.

Hyperion do their usual excellent job on the recorded sound and the presentation, and Jeremy Nicholas's notes are interesting and readable. Others with more knowledge of this repertoire will doubtless be along shortly with more in the way of analysis, but for what it's worth I think this is a very fine disc of lovely music, beautifully played and I can recommend it very warmly.

Domenico Scarlatti - Sonatas - Tharaud

Rating: 5/5
A terrific recording

This is a terrific recording. I love Scott Ross's and Christophe Rousset's recordings on the harpsichord and, after a long search, I am delighted finally to have found a performance of Scarlatti on the piano which I really like.

These pieces form a small selection from Scarlatti's huge output of well over 500 keyboard sonatas. They are very well chosen to give an excellent variety, from the energetically vigorous to the deeply contemplative and the programme as a whole is very rewarding. It is Tharaud's playing, though, which makes this disc something special. He uses the piano's expressive ability to bring out all the depth and nuance in the music with just enough rubato and dynamic variation to show exactly what Scarlatti means in each sonata without using over-emotional gestures which obscure the music and overlay it with misplaced romanticism. His ornamentation is similarly beautifully judged.

This is, I think, exemplary playing of Baroque music on a modern piano. With lovely recorded sound, good notes and attractive presentation this is an excellent disc all round. It has been a revelation to me and has become a firm favourite. Very warmly recommended.

Bach - Cello Suites - Queyras

Rating: 5/5

An excellent, distinctive interpretation

I like this interpretation of the Cello Suites very much. Jean-Guihen Queyras is a fine cellist and he brings something both fresh and thoughtful to this marvellous music.

Queyras has a distinctive approach which I found quite a surprise in many ways. His tempi are often quite brisk and he has a very decisive approach to phrasing which shapes the lines somewhat differently from some of the great interpretations I am used to - and I think it works very well. He has a superb technique which he uses to allow him almost to skip and glide over the notes in places, so those wonderful wide arpeggios in the prelude of the Third Suite really sway and dance, for example. He never trivialises, though, so the Sarabandes have real depth and gravitas in every Suite while never becoming stodgy, and for me his approach sheds new light in lots of places.

I found this set a revelation in many ways. The vigour of many of the movements is a joy, without any sense of rush or strain and there is a genuine depth of understanding and scholarship throughout, I think. The recorded sound is superb and Queyras's cello sounds wonderful in a lovely, resonant acoustic. I have a lot of versions of the Cello Suites (I used to be a very bad teenage cellist) and this will be played just as often as my dearly loved sets by Isserlis, Fournier, Ma and others. It's a lovely interpretation and very warmly recommended.

Sunday, 21 June 2015

Bach - Harpsichord Works - Rousset


Superb Bach

This is a terrific recording of Bach's English and French Suites, plus the Klavierbuchlien. Christophe Rousset is a brilliant harpsichordist and he is at his best here.

These are among Bach's finest keyboard works, in my view. They show all his greatness in melody, counterpoint and expression of human emotion and although they are performed somewhat less often than some of Bach's other works I think they are hugely enjoyable and satisfying.

Christophe Rousset plays them excellently. He has the technique to make even the trickiest parts sound quite natural and he has a deep understanding of Bach. That essential pulse is there throughout and he judges rubato and ornamentation perfectly to my ears. His tempi are generally quite brisk and are almost breakneck in some places (try the closing Gigue of the Second English Suite, for example) but he carries it off very well and it never feels rushed or inappropriate. I go back to this set time and again with great pleasure.

If you want a harpsichord version of these works you can't go wrong with this - the playing is superb and the recording is excellent. Wholeheartedly recommended.

(For a different but equally good piano interpretation, I would recommend Angela Hewitt's recordings of the English and French Suites, now included in a fantastic box of all her Bach recordings.)

Serenissima - The Rose Consort of Viols


An excellent disc 

This is an excellent disc. The Rose Consort of Viols have been making very fine recordings for fifteen years now, and this is among their best, I think.

The idea of this disc is to explore viol consort music played on Venetian viols. They play modern copies, based on a single surviving example, and they have a lovely, rounded sound. The music is excellently chosen to give a lovely, varied programme by a wide variety of composers - some familiar and some not, and some, like Cipriano de Rore for example, not usually associated with a viol consort. The result is fascinating, it never gets samey or boring and it is utterly lovely.

The beauty of sound is due to the excellence of the playing of The Rose Consort who bring the loveliest of tones from their viols and play with a virtuosity and depth of understanding that makes this music sound utterly natural. It's exemplary playing, and it means that this is among my very favourite viol consort recordings alongside great performances by Phantasm and Fretwork. The recorded sound is excellent, and this is a very fine disc all round. Very warmly recommended.

Perla Barocca - Rachel Podger


Another beauty from Rachel Podger

This is yet another absolutely cracking disc from Rachel Podger. This one is a collection of gems from the early Italian Baroque by a variety of composers. Some, like Frescobaldi and Marini, are pretty familiar now, while others were unknown to me. All the pieces here are of top quality, though, and form a very rewarding and hugely enjoyable programme.

Needless to say, much of the enjoyment comes from the playing of Rachel Podger and her fellow musicians. They all rise seemingly effortlessly to the technical challenges of these pieces and endow them with real meaning, both in the quicker, more formal movements and in the freer, more improvisatory-sounding passages. It's all simply excellent, and never begins to sound remotely samey or dull (which cannot be said of all Baroque recitals, I'm afraid.) I keep going back to it and enjoying it just as much each time.

Channel Classics have done their usual excellent job on the recorded sound and the disc is attractively packaged. I have been a great admirer of Rachel Podger since first hearing her solo Bach over a decade ago, and her recordings have given me huge pleasure ever since. This is up there with the best of them, which is really saying something. It's a real beauty and very warmly recommended.

Anchieta - Missa Rex Virginum etc. - Capilla Penaflorida/Carré


A welcome introduction

This is a good recording of music which was quite unknown to me. Anchieta was a Basque composer who became an integral part of the Castillian court in the early 16th Century, and I am glad to have made his acquaintance. The music is good and it is well performed here.

The programme consists of a reconstruction of a mass and settings of texts for Vespers (which include three movements by two other contemporary composers). Josep Cabré has recorded them with his choir and a consort of contemporary instruments, including organ, which accompanies throughout in various combinations and also plays a couple of very enjoyable instrumental interludes. Both choir and instrumentalists are technically very good, although I did find the choir a little lacking in engagement with the text at times, so that a sense of spirituality wasn't always present.

This is purely a matter of personal taste, but I find this approach with unbroken instrumental accompaniment less involving than an a cappella performance at least in part. Also, the music is good, but Anchieta was no Josquin, and these things meant that the overall effect for me becomes just a little samey and repetitive. Nonetheless, it is good to have this repertoire available and, especially in smaller doses, this is an enjoyable, well performed and recorded disc which I can recommend.

The Spirite of Musicke - Les Voix Humaines


An excellent disc

This recording is getting on for 20 years old now, but it's still a favourite of mine. It is of English viol music and songs from the early 17th century, and it's a rich mixture of the beautiful, the melancholy (of course) and the rather thrilling in some of the livelier movements.

Gamba enthusiasts like me will be familiar with composers here like Hume, Jenkins, Ferrabosco and Simpson and will know that they wrote wonderfully for the viol and the voice. Coprario was new to me, but his two songs here are excellent and I'm very glad to have made his acquaintance. It's a lovely programme.

The performances are excellent. Les Voix Humaines (Susie Napper and Margaret Little) have made a lot of superb recordings now, including their excellent Sainte-Colombe series, and this stands with their best, I think. They play with an easy virtuosity and a fine understanding of the music and of each other so that the whole thing sounds utterly natural. Suzie Le Blanc is excellent in this repertoire with restrained vibrato and just the right level of expressiveness to bring out the sense of the songs without getting bogged down in excessive melancholy. The whole thing is exemplary, I think, and a pleasure from start to finish.

If you have any interest at all in this repertoire, don't hesitate - even if you have some of these pieces in other performances. It's an excellent disc, very well recorded and with decent notes and full libretto (if that's the term for the words English to songs of this period - but you know what I mean.) Very warmly recommended.

Bach - Violin Sonatas & Partitas - Ehnes


Very good Bach 

Needless to say, this is brilliant.  James Ehnes is one of the finest violinists currently performing, and the music, of course, is simply sublime. 

Ehnes gives a remarkable performance here.  He is outstanding technically, with perfect intonation and a beautiful tone.  This goes with a firm confidence and an intensity throughout which drives these pieces at a high emotional pitch.  The great Chaconne is very good and held me for the whole of its sixteen-plus minutes, while the less intense Preludio from the Third Partita has a wonderful resonance about it while still dancing – and Ehnes catches the dancing rhythms very well pretty well throughout.

At this level of excellence preferences are based almost entirely on personal taste, and I'm not sure this quite spoke to me as Rachel Podger, Viktoria Mullova and Isabelle Faust do in their different ways.  A little let up in the emotional intensity to allow some more lightness and joy into the music would be welcome at times.  Also, in some places - parts of the closing Presto of the First Sonata, for example - I thought the overall shape of the music got a little lost, even though the playing never lost any of its precision.

These are tiny factors, though, and largely personal responses to these performances which you may well not share.  Anything other than five stars would be absurd for such a fine performance and this may well become a favourite with a good many people.  It's beautifully recorded in a lovely acoustic which isn't over-resonant so Ehnes's violin sounds just fabulous and I can recommend this as a very good set, even if it isn't an absolute favourite of mine.

Saturday, 20 June 2015

Vivaldi - Avi Avital



Hugely enjoyable 

This is a cracking, hugely enjoyable disc. Avi Avital is a superb musician and he has produced a really fine programme here.

The music is terrific. There is Vivaldi's mandolin concerto of course, and transcriptions by Avital of four violin concerti (including Summer from The Four Seasons) and two very fine stand-alone movements. The whole thing is a delight; the mandolin gives a lovely fresh feel to these works and even re-invigorates "Summer," which is quite some achievement. The music lends itself very well to the mandolin especially in the quicker movements of course, but Avital's technique is such that he makes even the expressive slow movements sound as if hey were written for the instrument.

It is the playing of Avital which really makes this special. He is an amazing virtuoso who can make light of the technical challenges here so that everything sounds natural with no sense anywhere of strain or rush. He also manages to produce sufficiently sustained notes to allow the music to speak as it should. The mandolin simply doesn't have the expressive properties of the violin, but Avital makes it speak beautifully in its own voice here. His fellow musicians (including terrific appearances by Mahan Esfahani and Juan Diego Flórez) are excellent and the whole thing is delightful.

Even if you are thoroughly jaded with Vivaldi I would recommend giving this a try. It's full of terrific music making and is immensely enjoyable throughout. Very warmly recommended.

Lawes - The Royal Consort - Phantasm


Another brilliant release from Phantasm

This is another excellent recording from Phantasm.  I think it is just as good as their previous Lawes recording of Consorts To The Organ, which is really saying something. 

Lawes's music is quite radical for its time (the first half of the 17th century), with some dramatic harmonies and linking of different moods and ideas which still sound very inventive today.  To me this makes it very interesting and enjoyable to listen to, and it is also often very beautiful – due in no small part to the excellent musicianship of the ensemble here.

Phantasm are simply brilliant.  They show an intelligence and depth of understanding which really brings out the character in this music, and their mutual understanding is almost palpable at times.  Their individual playing shows its usual brilliant virtuosity, but in that unflashy way which serves the music rather than the ego of the player.  Everything sounds natural and unforced and has real meaning.  It's exemplary playing, and the excellent Elizabeth Kenny on theorbo matches them in every way.  The sound is simply lovely, too, and beautifully captured by Linn's recording.

Phantasm are now well established as a truly world-class ensemble, and this will enhance their reputation even further.  It's an absolute gem and very warmly recommended.