Thursday, 30 July 2015

Byrd - The Early Byrd - I Fagiolini/Fretwork/Yates

Rating: 5/5

Excellent Byrd

This disc of Byrd's music and its companion volume The Caged Byrd are both excellent, I think.  They present a finely judged mixture of his the range of his music, all of which is beautifully performed.  It makes a thoroughly enjoyable and very rewarding programme.

It goes without saying that Byrd's music itself is simply wonderful. He was one of the greatest of Renaissance composers, and this is an excellent selection of his output, from deeply spiritual polyphony, beautiful secular songs and superb keyboard music - all of it immensely skilful, harmonically innovative and a pleasure to listen to.  It is performed here by some of the world's best in this repertoire.  I Fagiolini and the two viol consorts, Fretwork and Concordia, are now well established as international superstars and Sophie Yates is also very highly regarded.  And quite right, too.  The performances here are technically superb and also deeply felt: they get right to the heart of Byrd's music for me and simply make it glow.

Chandos's recorded sound is of the excellent quality we expect from them and the presentation and notes are very good.  I have a lot of very fine recordings of Byrd by brilliant musicians like The Cardinall's Musick, The Tallis Scholars, Davitt Moroney, Robin Blaze and others; I think these stand very well with them and I like these discs very much indeed.  Certainly as an introduction to the range of Byrd's music you couldn't do much better, but seasoned Byrd listeners like me will find plenty to enjoy here, too.  Very warmly recommended.

Byrd - The Caged Byrd - I Fagiolini/Concordia/Yates

Rating: 5/5

Excellent Byrd

This disc of Byrd's music and its companion volume The Early Byrd are both excellent, I think.  They present a finely judged mixture of his the range of his music, all of which is beautifully performed.  It makes a thoroughly enjoyable and very rewarding programme.

It goes without saying that Byrd's music itself is simply wonderful. He was one of the greatest of Renaissance composers, and this is an excellent selection of his output, from deeply spiritual polyphony, beautiful secular songs and superb keyboard music - all of it immensely skilful, harmonically innovative and a pleasure to listen to.  It is performed here by some of the world's best in this repertoire.  I Fagiolini and the two viol consorts, Fretwork and Concordia, are now well established as international superstars and Sophie Yates is also very highly regarded.  And quite right, too.  The performances here are technically superb and also deeply felt: they get right to the heart of Byrd's music for me and simply make it glow.

Chandos's recorded sound is of the excellent quality we expect from them and the presentation and notes are very good.  I have a lot of very fine recordings of Byrd by brilliant musicians like The Cardinall's Musick, The Tallis Scholars, Davitt Moroney, Robin Blaze and others; I think these stand very well with them and I like these discs very much indeed.  Certainly as an introduction to the range of Byrd's music you couldn't do much better, but seasoned Byrd listeners like me will find plenty to enjoy here, too.  Very warmly recommended.

Wednesday, 29 July 2015

Purcell - Victorious Love - Sampson

Rating: 5/5

Wonderful Purcell

This is a terrific collection of Purcell's songs and arias. The selection is excellent, with many of his Greatest Hits like Fairest Isle and Music For A While interspersed with less well-known but equally enjoyable pieces. Purcell, of course, was a wonderful composer, full of melody and harmonic invention and innovation which shows fully in these songs. They are expressive and beautifully set, and remain absolute gems.

Carolyn Sampson sings them wonderfully. She is now well established as a leading performer of early music particularly and this disc is a good example of why she is so highly regarded: her voice is rich and beautiful, her technique and intonation are impeccable and she lends real meaning to what she is singing without ever straying into the pantomimic over-expression which mars some recitals. She has also chosen some magnificent musicians to accompany her here and the varied arrangements are a delight, from the larger instrumental group in pieces like The Bashful Thames to the exquisite rendering of An Evening Hymn, accompanied by theorbo only which makes a spellbinding close to the disc. It's a terrific programme and a delight from start to finish.

The recording quality is excellent (as always from BIS) and Elizabeth Kenny's notes are interesting and readable. In February 2014 this was selected as the best single disc of Purcell songs for Radio 3's Building A Library - a deserved accolade, in my view, even in the face of phenomenal competition. It's a really good disc all round and I recommend it very warmly indeed.

Tuesday, 28 July 2015

Purcell - Complete Chamber Music - Musica Amphion/Belder

Rating: 5/5

Excellent Purcell

This is an excellent seven-CD set. With substantial box-sets like this which are very reasonably priced, there is always a slight worry in my mind that the performances will be a bit substandard. That was a misplaced worry with this set. Pieter-Jan Belder has recorded a very good complete set of Scarlatti's Sonatas for Brilliant Classics and he and Musica Amphion here do Purcell proud, too.

The music itself is delightful. You get the Sonatas Of Three- and Four-Parts, the Fantazias and In Nomines, three discs of harpsichord music and one of miscellaneous chamber music. All of it displays Purcell's melodic gift and inventive harmony and there's nothing in any of the seven discs that smacks of filler; it's a treasure trove of great music which will give you pleasure for many years.

The performances, too, are very good. I have the excellent London Baroque discs of the Sonatas, and I think these stand up very well beside them. Belder's harpsichord playing is very fine on the solo works. The Fantazias and In Nomines are also very well played by the ensemble. They play on violins, violas and violas da gamba rather than viols, and I miss the wonderful sound on Fretwork's superb disc of these pieces, but the playing is excellent and, on these instruments, I have no complaint about the performance whatever.

In short, it's a gem of a set and truly excellent value. I recommend it very highly.

Rachmaninov - Vespers - King's, Cambridge/Cleobury

Rating: 5/5

A fabulous disc

I love this recording of the Vespers, of one of Rachmaninov's greatest works. The music is a powerful spiritual statement, full of deeply-felt emotion expressed through some of the 20th century's most beautiful choral music.

I know that some have questioned whether a non-Russian choir can do justice to this very Russian work. I think King's choir most certainly do. They are technically flawless with impeccable intonation and a fine blend of voices. The basses have a marvellously rich, resonant depth and the acoustic of King's Chapel brings out fabulous sonorities of this music perfectly. The choir may not be Russian, but their daily lives revolve around singing sacred music in divine services so they have a real engagement with the text and bring a genuine sense of spirituality to the whole work. This, combined with the fine musicianship and the sheer beauty of sound, makes this disc something really special.

In short, this is a disc of fabulously beautiful music, sung magnificently. It has given me enormous pleasure for many years and I recommend it very warmly indeed.

Monday, 27 July 2015

Obrecht: Chansons, Songs, Motets - Capilla Flamenca/Piffaro/Snellings

Rating: 5/5

Capilla Flamenca do it again

This is another excellent disc from Capilla Flamenca. Here we have a collection of mainly secular songs by Obrecht, although there are some sacred motets and also a couple of instrumental pieces and a piece each by Aquilla and Neusidler. Obrecht was a fine composer and the disc is arranged to make a very enjoyable and interesting programme of late 15th-Century songs.

As always, Capilla Flamenca are excellent. Vocally impeccable in intonation, balance and engagement with the texts, they have a lovely full sound, beautifully supported by their own instrumentalists and the group Piffaro, whom I have not come across before but who are also very good indeed. Instrumental and vocal balance is very well handled and the whole thing is a pleasure from start to finish.

With excellent recorded sound, very full and interesting notes and lovely presentation, this is a terrific disc all round, and I can recommend it very warmly.

(By the way, I would also especially recommend Capilla Flamenca's box set "Portrait Musical" of Pierre de la Rue's masses, which is quite superb.)

Rameau - Keyboard Suites - Hewitt

Rating: 5/5

A real beauty

I think this is a terrific disc. Rameau's music is wonderful - full of energy, melody and variety - and Angela Hewitt does it proud. As others here have noted, Rameau on the piano is a different experience from Rameau on the harpsichord, but for me it is a wonderful experience when the piano is this well played.

As with her magnificent Bach recordings, Hewitt brings a flawless technique, deep scholarship and an obvious love of the music to this disc. She judges tempi and ornamentation perfectly to my ears, giving the music exactly the right feel and she uses the expressive capabilities of the piano to bring out the music's qualities without ever imposing flashy tricks or inappropriate sentiment on it. It is a joy from start to finish and I never tire of listening to it.

I love my wonderful set of Rameau on the harpsichord by Christophe Rousset and this certainly doesn't replace it, but it complements it beautifully. The recorded sound is (as always from Hyperion) excellent and the notes and presentation are very good and I recommend this very warmly - it's a beauty.

Sunday, 26 July 2015

Haydn - String Quartets Opp. 71 & 74 - Takacs Quartet

Rating: 5/5

Quite brilliant These recordings of Haydn's Op.71 and Op.74 quartets are, as you would expect from The Takacs Quartet, quite brilliant. They are very fine works from a master composer, played by arguably the greatest string quartet currently performing and the result is wonderful.

Haydn's string quartets are a source of endless variety, depth, joy and sheer beauty and the Op. 71 and Op. 74 sets contain three lovely examples each. The music is a joy, full of melody and ingenious structure and counterpoint, with that delightful twinkle in Haydn's eye never too far away, and it's just a pleasure to hear any of them.

The performances are superb. They are thoughtful and respectful to Haydn's intentions and understand that Haydn often said serious things in a witty way. All the musical, emotional and intellectual depth in these works is well to the fore. Technically the players are superb, with impeccable intonation and quite restrained use of vibrato and rubato. There is also an almost miraculous understanding between them, all of which makes the performances lovely and clean, and full of beauty and sheer enjoyment. I have for years owned dearly loved performances of these quartets by The Lindsays, but I prefer these; the sheer crispness and clarity of these interpretations is a revelation.

The recorded sound is, as always from Hyperion, excellent. There are detailed, interesting notes and the presentation is very attractive. Both of these discs are simply excellent all round and I recommend them very warmly indeed.

Bach - Cello Suites - Fournier

Rating: 5/5

Wonderful playing of great music

This is deservedly regarded as a classic recording of the Bach Cello Suites. Fournier was one of the very greatest of 20th Century cellists, and this recording is among his finest. It is thoughtful and deeply felt, with generally measured tempi and enough rubato (speeding up and slowing down) to allow the music really to speak to us without becoming swamped in the cellist's own personality or swept away in Romantic fervour. It is marvellous playing in which Fournier's virtuosity is put entirely to the service of Bach, and the result is something really special. The great sweeping arpeggios of the Prelude to Suite No. 3 are resonant and deeply moving, for example, and the magical, numinous Sarabande from Suite No. 5 is simply spellbinding.

The recording quality (from 1961) is very good and the digital transfer seems to have preserved the fabulous sound of Fournier's cello beautifully. The notes are a little sketchy, but the music's the really important thing.

I have loved the Bach Cello Suites since I was a hopelessly bad teenage cellist (a long time ago now). Of all the recordings I have heard this stands with the very best. I couldn't possibly pick a single favourite, but if you want just one for your collection, this will do you very well indeed. Even if, like me, you already own more than one recording I would urge you to try Fournier. There is insight and beauty in abundance here, and I recommend this set without any reservation whatever.

Rameau - Le Grand Theatre De L'amour - Devieilhe

Rating: 5/5


This is quite brilliant. As a concept it may be slightly dubious - putting together extracts from several of Rameau's operas to create a different narrative - but it works well, and anyway it's so musically wonderful that I'd forgive it almost anything.

Rameau was a great composer who could conjure varied emotions in music amazingly well, and we get the full gamut here: thrilling elation, tender devotion, abject despair... it's all there and superbly done by the performers. Sabine Deveilhe is the star of this disc, and she sings wonderfully with real feeling and brilliant technique, with great control of vibrato and tone which lends genuine depth and feeling to what she is singing. It's an exemplary performance, I think - and fully matched by the other singers and musicians. The orchestra is absolutely fantastic, with tricky instrumentation and real virtuosity required, and they make it all sound wholly natural and unforced, while giving it exactly the right feel throughout - including some thrilling welly in places.

This is a marvellous disc of excellent music, superbly performed and recorded and very nicely presented. The notes are good (if a little on the florid side for my taste) and there are full texts with translations. If you have any interest at all in this repertoire, don't hesitate. Very warmly recommended.

Locatelli - Sonatas Op.4 - Raglan Baroque Players/Wallfisch

Rating: 5/5

A terrific set

This very welcome re-release is a real treat. Locatelli (a younger contemporary of Bach) was a genuinely significant 18th-Century composer and violinist and the music here is always enormously enjoyable and often full of musical interest. The virtuosic pyrotechnics one would expect of Locatelli are all there but there is also great lyricism and tenderness, making this a very engaging collection of baroque music.

The musicianship is fantastic. Elisabeth Wallfisch is joined by a wonderful group of stars of baroque including them Richard Tunnicliffe, Catherine Weiss and Catherine Mackintosh (of the Purcell Quartet), the Isserlis sisters and others who are not only very fine instrumentalists in their own right but plainly enjoy playing together enormously. The group is chamber in scale giving them a lovely suppleness which really brings a sparkle to this music.

The recorded sound is (as always from Hyperion) is excellent and the notes full and interesting. It's an excellent set all round and is now at budget price for the two CD set. Very warmly recommended.

Friday, 24 July 2015

Vivaldi - L'Estro Armonico - Brecon Baroque/Podger

Rating: 5/5

An outstanding recording

This is quite outstanding. I have heard a lot of performances of these concerti, but Rachel Podger and Brecon Baroque bring something truly special to them.

These are some of Vivaldi's best-known concerti, and you'd think it was all but impossible to bring anything new to works like the B minor concerto, RV580 which Bach adapted for four harpsichords and which has been recorded so many times in all its guises, and yet it feels utterly fresh to me here. The tempo is brisk but there is no sense of hurry or strain, just a flowing, almost dancing feel with a subtle but perfectly judged driving pulse. There is a lovely lightness of touch but also real depth and thought in the music and the playing; I find myself feeling, "oh, *this* is how it should be played". The same is true throughout the disc, with a wonderful fluency which still invests the music with genuine intellectual and emotional content.

Podger and her small ensemble are simply brilliant. Technically, they are excellent, allowing even Vivaldi's most demanding pyrotechnic passages to sound utterly natural. They play together with superb cohesion and understanding, beautifully captured by the excellent recording, so that the whole thing is a joy from start to finish.

I have been a huge admirer of Rachel Podger's work since I first heard her wonderful solo Bach getting on for a decade ago.  Since then she has made a lot of extremely fine recordings and this is among the very best of them and I would recommend this set in the warmest terms. It's an absolute gem.

Bach - Alio Modo - Fretwork

Rating: 5/5

Another gem from Fretwork

This is another gem from Fretwork. They have been producing superb recordings for almost 30 years now, and this is among their best, I think.

The music presented here is a programme of transcriptions of some of Bach's keyboard works, some for organ and some for harpsichord. The transcriptions for between three and five viols were made by the brilliant Richard Boothby and work extremely well. Bach himself was an inveterate recycler and transcriber, so this is very much in the composers own idiom, even if a consort of viols isn't something Bach himself would have composed for. The organ pieces especially have a lovely coherent feel here, but it's all terrific stuff and is a very welcome airing for some music which might not otherwise be widely heard.

The playing is, as always, brilliant. Fretwork are simply a world-class ensemble with superb technique, a magnificent sound and a sense of the music and of each other which is a joy. They bring real meaning to every piece in this quite varied programme - it is chamber playing of the highest order.

The only Fretwork disc I have ever been less than keen on was their transcription of The Goldberg Variations, which just didn't quite seem to lend themselves to transcription for viol consort. These Bach pieces, however, lend themselves to it very well and they have been quite superbly transcribed, played and recorded here. The notes are good and the presentation attractive, and this is a really excellent disc all round which I can recommend very warmly indeed.

Hille Perl - Doulce Memoire

Rating: 5/5

A lovely, rewarding disc

I tried this disc because I like Hille Perl's work very much and I'll listen to anything that the superb Doulce Memoire choose to record. It turns out to be a little gem, full of lovely music and superb instrumental playing.

The disc is a collection of instrumental variations and transcriptions of vocal pieces - madrigals, chansons and so on - from the late 16th and early 17th Centuries. Some of the composers like Monteverdi, Ortiz and de Rore are familiar while others were new to me, but the standard of composition throughout is high. Played on a varied combination of viols, lutes and harp, it makes a very enjoyable collection.

The playing is superb throughout. Perl, who takes the lead on the disc, is on excellent form; her viola da gamba playing is expressive and nimble, and as always she draws a magnificent sound from her instrument. The other instrumentalists, including the brilliant harpist Andrew Lawrence-King, are just as good and the ensemble playing is smooth and empathetic to both what they are playing and to each other. It's all beautifully recorded and the effect is a joy; the disc is a real pleasure from start to finish.

Don't look for great insights from the written notes in the booklet, by the way. Whatever Hille Perl's gifts as a gamba player, her notes here seem to me to be almost meaningless in many places. On a piece by Willaert, for example, her entire analysis is: "Once more a plain version of a chanson. Five Italian viols...will give you pleasure my friend, and lead you where your hope aspires." Er...thanks, Hille - we'll let you know.

The music is what counts, though, and it's top-class stuff. This is a lovely and very rewarding disc, and I recommend it very warmly.

Tallis - Spem in alium - Magnificat/Cave

Rating: 5/5

A real beauty

I came late to this recording; I already had at least one version of all the works on this disc which I loved, and wasn't convinced I needed yet another. I was wrong. This is a really exceptional disc on which every work is at least as good as the best I had, and in some cases better.

The music itself is wonderful. Tallis was a great composer and these are some of his loveliest works. There is a very fine range, too, from the overwhelmingly mighty 40-voice Spem in alium to the intimate Mass for Four Voices and Magnificat handle them all excellently.

Philip Cave is a fine tenor in his own right who has sung regularly with the Tallis Scholars for many years, and here he shows that he also a very good director indeed. He has assembled a terrific cast of singers, many of whom have also sung with the Tallis Scholars and other world-class ensembles, and the list includes stars like James Bowman, Sally Dunkley, Andrew Carwood and many others. They produce a truly wonderful sound together: rich and resonant with an exemplary balance and blend and exceptional clarity of individual lines. The sense of the text is very well conveyed, with real passion, delicacy or tranquillity as appropriate.

Spem in alium is exceptionally good: controlled and well paced with real depth of feeling and building to a level of truly spine-tingling power. It is the best version I know - and I'm comparing it with wonderful performances by the Taverner Consort, the Tallis Scholars and others. The Lamentations of Jeremiah is also as good as any I've heard: it laments beautifully without ever being oppressive and the lower pitch chosen by Cave gives really wonderful depth to the basses. The other major work on the disc is the Mass for Four Voices which I have loved ever since I first heard the Hilliard ensemble sing it over 20 years ago, and I never thought I'd hear a performance to match theirs. This one does. With four singers only - one to a part - they produce just the right level of spare beauty and real feeling which drew me in and transfixed me completely. It's wonderful.

I know this review is probably already too long, but I must mention the brief, exquisite Miserere, which is possibly my favourite two-and-a-half minutes of music anywhere. This is perfect: delicate with just the right level of sonority, and soaring to a finish which genuinely brings tears to my eyes each time. The disc is worth buying for this alone, in my view.

Excellent recorded sound, good, intelligent notes and full texts and translations make this an all round gem. Recommended in the strongest terms.

Pärt - Titntinabuli - The Tallis Scholars/Philips

Rating: 5/5

A fabulous disc
This is a fabulous disc from the Tallis Scholars. I have been saying that for years about their superb recordings of Renaissance polyphony, and this disc devoted entirely to the music of Arvo Pärt stands with their best - which for the Tallis Scholars is really saying something.

This disc is in honour of Pärt's 80th birthday and shows why he is one of the most respected and loved of contemporary composers. The title of the disc refers to Pärt's technique of basing his music on the sound and harmonic structures of a struck bell. This gives it a warmth and depth of sound closely related to the polyphony we usually associate with the Tallis Scholars, but with distinctive 20th- and 21st-Century harmonies and dissonances. It also shares the deep spirituality of polyphony and the effect is extraordinarily beautiful in places and very dramatic in others. The music often seems to somehow fill the air with light and stillness, drawing you in and speaking to you very intimately. (I'm sorry if that sounds over-flowery or pretentious - it's not easy to describe the effect of Pärt's music, but that's the best I can do to convey some of it.)

The performances are wonderful. Singing two voices to a part, the Tallis Scholars invest the music with immense beauty, depth and power in places. They are technically impeccable, of course, and engage completely with the meaning of what they are singing. For me, their flawless, at times almost ætherial sound is perfect for this music.

Even if you're a bit sceptical about contemporary music, I would strongly urge you to give this a try. It is distinctively modern but firmly rooted in ancient tradition and is simply very beautiful. Peter Philips's notes are, as always, very interesting and readable, the recorded sound is excellent and the presentation attractive (if a little on the frolicsome side for the Tallis Scholars). It's a really excellent disc and very warmly recommended.

Mozart - Complete Sonatas for Keyboard and Violin - Podger & Cooper

Rating: 5/5

A superb set

This is a magnificent set. I bought every single one of them as they came out and have been playing them regularly and with undiminished pleasure for a decade now. They are full of delightful sound, perfect balance of parts and the superlative musicianship and form one of the really enduring contributions among the vast number of Mozart recordings available.

Mozart composed violin sonatas virtually throughout his life from the age of eight. Podger and Cooper chose to record them in a non-chronological way with early and late sonatas interspersed with each other on every disc. I think this is an excellent idea - the early sonatas are works which I might not take out and play often, if at all, if grouped together on a single disc. I have several "Complete....." sets of things recorded in chronological order, in which the early discs very seldom see the inside of a CD player. However, interspersed as they are here with more mature works the early works will be heard much more often, and I am glad of it. They are well worth hearing, particularly when so well played.

There is real intelligence and insight combined with verve and virtuosity throughout this set from both Podger and Cooper. A good example of the excellence of their interpretation and musical partnership is the Adagio of K481 (on Vol. 2). It is a varied movement in which the lead and accompaniment alternates between violin and pianoforte and they get it, in my view, exactly right, making it charming, moving and very beautiful by turns. I find a similarly deep understanding of Mozart's music and the same empathy between these two superb musicians throughout the set.

Channel Classics produce excellent sound quality, but the packaging is poor, with very limited notes and information. This isn't a disaster, but I think a musical project of such distinction seems to me to deserve more professionalism from its publishers, even at a very good budget price like this.

Minor gripes aside, this is an essential Mozart set which has been (rightly in my view) showered with awards and very highly praised by professional critics, and I think the series will set the standard for these works for many years. Warmly recommended.

Thursday, 23 July 2015

Bach On The Lute - North

Rating: 5/5

A fantastic reissue

This is a simply fantastic re-issue of four discs which I went to considerable trouble and expense to get hold of as they came out, and which were very well worth both the trouble and the expense. Nigel North is a brilliant lutenist, and these are his own transcriptions of Bach's Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin and the Cello Suites. The transcriptions are excellent and, as Bach was an inveterate recycler and transcriber himself, very much in the composer's own idiom. Technically, they are brilliant and manage to preserve the character and beauty of the fabulous originals while making these transcriptions wonderful lute music.

I don't really know how to convey how good this set is, save to say that I have had the original discs for many years and still play them very regularly and with enormous pleasure. I love the originals on the violin and cello, too, and I think these discs are a delightful addition to the repertoire rather than being in any way a diminution or poor imitation. As I write, the price for the four-disc set is just under £16 - an absolute bargain for a real treasure of a set. It is a complete treat from start to finish, and I recommend this set very highly indeed.

Mozart - Clarinet Quintet, Kegelstatt Trio - Quatuor Mosaiques

Rating: 5/5

A wonderful disc

This is a lovely disc of two of Mozart's great chamber works. Both playing and recording are really excellent here and this is one of my favourite recordings of both works.

Quatuor Mosaiques are one of the world's leading chamber ensembles, with lots of magnificent recordings behind them, including all ten of Mozart's mature string quartets.This disc is just as good, in my view. They play on period instruments with very limited vibrato which gives their performances a warm, clean sound. This is very well suited to the works here, and Wolfgang Meyer matches this perfectly. You feel that all five musicians really understand Mozart; they don't swamp the music with grand romantic gestures or excessive rubato, but the music still has plenty of beauty, elegance and excitement in their hands. They have a fine understanding between them and their superb technique just allows each movement to shine.

The recorded sound by Naïve is excellent and the presentation is attractive, making this first-rate disc all round. It ranks in my affections with my dearly loved disc of the Clarinet Quintet by Thea King and the Gabieli Quartet, which is really saying something. I think this is a wonderful disc, and I recommend it very warmly indeed.

Rogier and Romero - Masses - Tubéry

Rating: 2/5


I'm afraid I'm not keen on this set. Although it is good to see two relatively obscure works being made available, the performances aren't that good and some of the music is a bit uninspiring.

Rogier was a very fine composer, but here his music sounds rather flat and featureless. The instrumental ensemble is perfectly competent but they don't really bring a lot of life to the music, and I found the choir disappointingly unengaged with the text. They are technically sound with good intonation and blend, but the overall sound is very unemotional. A somewhat muddy-sounding recording in a rather unsympathetic acoustic doesn't help either. And I have to say that things get worse on the second disc because in addition to all this, Romero's music isn't in the same class as that of Rogier and I find CD2 plain dull, I'm afraid.

I am sorry to be critical, but I really don't think this set is up to the standard we now expect from recordings of Renaissance polyphony. There are now three superb discs of Rogier's works by Magnificat under Philip Cave, all of which I recommend very warmly, and I would suggest that you try them rather than this set.

Kapsberger - Lute Works - O'Dette

Rating: 5/5

A brilliant re-issue

This is another brilliant re-issue in Harmonia Mundi's Gold series. The original recording is from 1990, and it remains an absolute gem.

Kapsberger was a lute virtuoso and, as O'Dette says, a "Baroque composer in the true sense of the word," active between about 1600 and 1650. He wrote delightful, original music which deserves to be much better known. Echoes of Dowland are audible in some pieces, while others wouldn't be out of place on a modern pop album. It's wonderful stuff, and Paul O'Dette plays it magnificently.

O'Dette is recognised as one of the world's greatest lutenists, if not the greatest, and this disc shows why. He has such a great empathy with the music and plays with such skill and grace that I was instantly seduced the first time I heard the previous release of this CD. He plays some pieces on a 10-course lute and some on a chitarrone (or theorbo), both of which sound simply wonderful - particularly the chittarone, whose deep bass comes across beautifully in the excellent sound recording.

I simply don't know how to convey how good I think this disc is. I have listened to mine very regularly for a long time, it still gives me huge pleasure and I still find new things in it. Now it's at budget price it is an unmissable bargain. Recommended in the warmest possible terms.

Wednesday, 22 July 2015

Purcell - Ten Sonatas In Four Parts - The King's Consort

Rating: 5/5

Something special

I love this recording. I have fine versions of Purcell's four part sonatas by Musica Amphion and London Baroque which I have loved for years but I think I prefer this to either of them.

The music itself is wonderful, showing all Purcell's melodic gift and extraordinary harmonic invention. Although perhaps not his best-known works, these sonatas really show why Purcell is considered such a great composer, and their variety, depth and sheer inventiveness make them a constant pleasure for me.

The musicians here do them proud. Robert King is well established as a giant of this repertoire and he has assembled a small group of very fine musicians here and moulded them into a wonderfully cohesive, empathetic chamber ensemble. With people of the calibre of the great Suzanne Heinrich on bass viol you'd expect something pretty special and we certainly get it. The playing is effortlessly virtuosic, but also has a wonderful clarity, a sense of depth without being over-solemn, and a love for the music from all five players. They obviously enjoy playing together, and the overall result is a joy from start to finish.

I don't mean to gush, but I think this really is something rather special. It is beautifully recorded and the notes are very full, scholarly, interesting and readable. This is a terrific disc all round, in my view, and I recommend it very warmly.

(Someone has questioned whether I should be praising this recording given Robert King's recent spell in prison for child abuse. I have dithered over this, first posting the review, then deleting it and now posting it again. It's a fair question, but in the end I have decided to leave this review here as a comment on the music and to allow others to make up their own minds about the relevance or otherwise of the conviction.)

Tuesday, 21 July 2015

Kapsberger - Libro d'intavolatura di Lauto - Genov

Rating: 5/5

A very good recording

This is a very good recording of some of Kapsberger's lute music by the young Bulgarian lutenist Yavor Genov. I hadn't heard Genov before, and on this evidence I'm impressed. He was a student of Jakob Lindberg and some of Lindberg's brilliance shows though here.

Kapsberger was a lute virtuoso active between about 1600 and 1650. He wrote delightful, original music which deserves to be much better known. He stands at the transition from the Renaissance to the Baroque: echoes of Dowland are audible in some pieces (the opening of Gagliardia 12, for example, is very reminiscent of Dowland's Earl Of Essex, His Galliard) while others look forward to a more ordered, contrapuntal style. It's great stuff, I think.

Genov plays it very well indeed. He has a very good technique, although his sheer verve does allow things to become a little ragged in places. Personally, I don't mind this because the overall effect is so pleasing and he draws such a lovely sound from his lute. He is plainly completely in sympathy with Kapsberger and has the skill to bring his music to life beautifully.

If I were allowed to own only one disc of Kapsberger's music I would stick with my much-loved disc by the great Paul O'Dette, I think, but this is a very welcome addition to my collection and I will be looking out for more of Genov's work. Warmly recommended.

Debussy, Fauré, Ravel - String Quartets - Quatuor Ebene

Rating 5/5

Another gem from Quatuor Ebene

Quatuor Ébène are a fantastic quartet, and their debut disc of Haydn remains a firm favourite of mine. This disc is just as good, showing that they have as much empathy with Ravel, Debussy and Fauré as Haydn and their superb technique, faultless intonation and brilliant mutual understanding are well in evidence here.  This disc has just won "Recording of the Year" at the 2009 Gramophone Awards - just about the most prestigious award available anywhere. It's a deserved honour for a terrific recording by a very fine quartet. I'm delighted!

Radio 3's Building A Library reviewer also chose this recording of the Fauré quartet as the best available, in the face of phenomenal competition form the world's best quartets of the last 80 years, which probably says a lot more than I can about the quality of this disc. It's fabulous and very warmly recommended.

Monday, 20 July 2015

Mahan Esfhani - Time Present and Time Past

Rating: 4/5

Superb music making with some challenging repertoire

This is an extraordinary CD with some outstanding playing on it. How you respond to it will depend on how you feel about the music itself. (I have appended a track list at the end of this review.)

Mahan Esfahani is quite astonishingly brilliant here. His virtuosity is breathtaking in places - in Steve Reich's piano phase which is double tracked and calls for quite remarkable precision and dexterity to be maintained flawlessly for 17 minutes, for example. He also shows a fine engagement with the music, giving the Baroque pieces in particular real meaning. It's a tour-de-force of a performance, and its brilliance coupled with the fine sound of Esfahani's harpsichord (beautifully recorded by DG) is an emphatic rebuttal of Beecham's famous, admittedly funny, but completely wrong-headed dismissal of the harpsichord. (In case it has slipped your mind, he described the sound of the harpsichord as "two skeletons copulating on a tin roof in a thunderstorm.")

I tried the disc because I have such immense respect for Esfahani and have enjoyed his previous recordings, but Gorecki and Reich aren't my normal choices for repeated listening. That remains true here, I'm afraid. The Baroque pieces are very enjoyable and superbly performed all round, I think, with genuine intelligence and involvement which is a world away from some of the wallpapery stuff we sometimes get in Baroque recitals. However, the Gorecki and Reich works are ones I'm glad to have heard but wouldn't want to be tackling on a regular basis. They are demanding and pretty hard going in places - the Gorecki particularly, where I felt I was being walloped over the head for prolonged passages - and don't leave me with much of a sense of what they were really about.

This is a matter of my personal taste, of course, which you may well not share. Certainly, this is a disc of astonishing virtuosity and fine music-making. For me, it's a bit of a mixed bag but if you like this repertoire you'll love the disc.

On this disc:
Alessandro Scarlatti
1. Variations on 'La Folia'

Henryk Gorecki; Harpsichord Concerto, Op.40
2. I. Allegro molto
3. II. Vivace

Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach
4. 12 Variations on 'Les Folies d'Espagne' Wq. 118, No. 9

Francesco Geminiani
5. Concerto Grosso in D minor (after Corelli, Op.5 No.12)

Steve Reich
6. Piano Phase (version for harpsichord by Mahan Esfahani)

Johann Sebastian Bach; Harpsichord Concerto BWV1052
7. I. Allegro
8. II. Adagio
9. III. Allegro

Mozart - Clarinet Concerto & Quintet - Fröst et al

Rating: 4/5

Technically excellent but slightly emotionally cold

This is in many ways a very good recording of these two lovely works, but it doesn't quite hit the spot for me. Martin Fröst is a brilliant clarinettist and both the Amsterdam Sinfonietta and the Vertavo Quartet are very good, too, but to me these interpretations lack a real emotional core. The technical precision is remarkable, but it feels to me as though everyone is concentrating on producing a very beautiful sound (which they do) and not quite getting to the heart of the music.

This is a very personal feeling, of course, and you may not agree with it. In many ways these are very fine recordings, with excellent sound and a very close-miked clarinet which brings Fröst's masterly playing intimately close to the listener. I would suggest that, if you can, you listen to the samples before buying and try to make your own judgement. You may well find it is for you, but personally I would recommend Thea King's wonderful recordings on Hyperion for equal technical brilliance but a much warmer, more engaged and emotionally literate interpretation.

Alison Balsom - Italian Trumpet Concertos

Rating: 5/5

A very enjoyable disc

This is another very enjoyable disc from Alison Balsom to follow her excellent recording of Haydn, Hummel et al. This time she has recorded seven baroque concertos transcribed from pieces originally written for violin or oboe. Musically, this is a very sound idea - baroque composers including Bach himself were great transcribers - and it works very well here. The natural trumpet of the 18th Century had a limited range of notes and so there were relatively few works written for the instrument as soloist, but modern valve trumpets have a full range and it is good to see suitable works transcribed to allow the instrument to shine.

Alison Balsom certainly makes it shine wonderfully. She is a first rate musician (she made several of these transcriptions herself) who combines amazing virtuosity with a joy and naturalness in her playing. The sparkling passage-work in the quicker movements on this disc is quite brilliant and hugely enjoyable, but I think her special quality really shows through in the slower movements where her control, lovely phrasing and beautiful tone produce something really special: the adagio of the Albinoni Oboe Concerto, for example, is quite magical. The playing of the Scottish Ensemble is excellent - supple and springy or delicate as appropriate - and the overall effect is delightful.

Alison Balsom is an excellent ambassador for classical music through her outstanding musicianship, beauty and charm and this is a hugely enjoyable disc which will certainly appeal to people who don't normally listen to much classical music. It is certainly not lightweight, though; it has real quality and musical substance and crusty old veterans like me will thoroughly appreciate it, too. Very warmly recommended.

Sunday, 12 July 2015

Dowland - Complete Lute Music - North

Rating: 5/5

A fantastic set

This is an absolutely fantastic set. Dowland's lute music itself is wonderful - often melancholy, sometimes more sprightly and dancing but always fresh and often innovative for its time and packed with melody and harmonic invention. It constitutes one of the glories of the Elizabethan and Jacobean ages and, four centuries on, thoroughly deserves to be alive and well. In the hands of Nigel North it is both.

North is one of the world's greatest lutenists. He has been making recordings of the highest quality for many years now and this series for Naxos is among his best. He has the depth of technique to make Dowland's sometimes very difficult pieces sound as easy and as natural as breathing. He also has a wonderful understanding of the music itself, investing it with exactly the right degree of emotion so that it never sounds stodgy or miserable - just poignantly melancholy where it should and engagingly charming in other places. The fabulously beautiful tone which North coaxes from his lute is perfectly caught by the excellent recording, and the notes and presentation are very decent.

I cannot commend this set highly enough. I was raised on Jakob Lindberg's recordings which I still love, but I have come round to preferring Nigel North's recordings. At this price they are a wonderful bargain, too. Don't hesitate: this is a set to give pleasure for many years so snap it up.

Josquin - Missa Hercules Dux Ferrariae - De Labyrintho

Rating: 5/5

A fabulous disc

This is a fabulous disc of Josquin's music. Josquin himself was arguably the greatest of the Renaissance composers (and probably among the greatest of all composers) and De Labyrintho do his music proud here. They are a mixed ensemble with impeccable intonation and technique, and also fabulous poise and balance which brings out the depth of quality and meaning of these lovely works.

I have dearly-loved recordings of all the pieces here but this is at least their equal. The two major works are the great mass setting for Hercules, Duke of Ferrara and Miserere mei, Deus, Josquin's magnificent setting of the 51st Psalm. Both are wonderfully performed. The mass is a joy, with De Labyrintho breathing real spiritual meaning into every line without it ever becoming ponderous, and it is truly beautiful in many places.

Miserere mei, Deus is even better. It is a magnificent piece, and one of the true glories of the Renaissance, in my view. I have a number of recordings of it, including two absolute gems by The Hilliard Ensemble and Cinquecento. This is as good as either, which is really saying something. Pacing the piece somewhere between the two, it has real weight but never drags and the colours and variety are wonderful. De Labyrintho really understand the work's structure and how it relates to the meaning of the text, and it glows from start to finish. I think it is really something special.

Excellently recorded in a perfect acoustic which is resonant but doesn't blur the sound or individual lines, this is an outstanding disc all round. I think it is one of the very finest Josquin recordings available (which is really saying something) and very, very warmly recommended.

Friday, 10 July 2015

Lassus - Missa super Dixit Joseph etc. - Cinquecento

Rating: 5/5

Another fine release from Cinquecento

This is another fine release by the excellent Cinquecento.  I have become a real devotee of their recordings over the last few years and this is a really good one.

Lassus doesn't always inspire me.  His music can sometimes be a little ponderous to my ears and it needs a very fine performance to make it really shine.  It gets that here, and both the mass and the motets which make up this disc are very beautiful and genuinely moving in places. The mass was new to me – it's a parody mass based on Lassus's own motet Dixit Joseph Undecim Fratribus Suis and it's very good, as are the motets.  This is obviously a small selection from Lassus's vast output, and they are very well chosen to give a good variety, from the unfamiliar (to may, anyway) to the very well known Timor Et Tremor which closes the disc.

It's all beautifully sung and recorded.  Cinquecento are technically flawless, with impeccable intonation, a lovely fluency of line and a beautiful blend of the male voices.  Their lower, Flemish pitch gives the music a fabulous resonance in a perfect acoustic, and the whole thing sounds just fabulous.  They also give the texts real meaning, so the Agnus Dei, for example, really sounds like a plea for the granting of peace, and fear and trembling are plain in Timor Et Tremor.  It's exemplary singing, I think.

It often takes something quite special to really involve me in Lassus's music, and I think this is something special.  It's another gem from this very, very fine ensemble and I can recommend it very warmly.

Wednesday, 8 July 2015

Corelli - The Assisi Sonatas - Gatti et al

Rating: 5/5


A rewarding disc

Disputed discoveries of works possibly by famous composers can sometimes be a severe let-down, but this is a very good disc of some relatively recent discoveries, thought by Gatti to be early works by Corelli which pre-date his Op. Trio Sonatas.  Whatever their authorship, they are very enjoyable works and are very well performed here.

The sonatas themselves are brief three-movement pieces, most under four minutes in total, with four later, more substantial sonatas included.  They are charming rather than dramatic or moving, but they do carry some of Corelli's style.  I like them very much and they are very enjoyable to listen to.

Much of this is due to Gatti's playing.  He has a lovely tone (beautifully captured in the recording) and a warm, lyrical approach which goes very well here and adds to the charm of these works.  He seems very committed to the music, investing it with genuine personality and meaning, he draws his fellow musicians with him in this, and the result is a very rewarding disc.

Glossa make their usual lovely job of the presentation, although the notes are exceptionally brief and not terribly informative.  The recorded sound is warm and rich and it's a very good disc all round.  Recommended.

Wednesday, 1 July 2015

King's Singers - The Golden Age

Rating: 4/5

A good recording

This is a disc of very fine repertoire, well sung by The King's Singers.  The music is by a variety of Portugesee, Spanish and Mexican composers, some very well known like Victoria and Morales, and some much less so.  All the works are very fine, and it is especially interesting to have three settings of the funeral motet Versa est in luctum (including the famous setting by Alonso Lobo) to compare.

The performances are, as always from The Kings' Singers, technically flawless in intonation and blend, with a very good fluency of line and with that King's Singers sound evident throughout.  They also employ a bajon (an early type of bassoon) in several places, which is very well done adds a great deal to the music here.

I have slightly mixed feelings about The King's Singers; their disc of Josquin is among my favourites from the whole of my collection [[ASIN:B000003FK2 Renaissance: The Music of Josquin  Desprez]], but I find the uniformity of the sound can, at other times, sometimes slip over into slight blandness and monotony.  There is a bit of that here, and I find that a few pieces at a time is enough for me.  Individually they are excellent but as a whole programme it gets just a bit samey – which shouldn't be the case with fine music like this.

A slightly qualified recommendation, then, but a recommendation nonetheless.  This is a good recording of some really fine polyphony and, if you're happy with The King's Singers' sound, it will give a lot of pleasure.