Monday, 31 August 2015

Mozart - The Piano Concertos - Uchida/ECO/Tate


Rating: 5/5

Review:
A fabulous set

I don't think this marvellous 8CD set by Mitsuko Uchida and the ECO can be bettered. It is not quite a complete recording of all the piano concerti, but incorporates all of the concerti on the four double CDs issued under the Philips Duo label. Only a few of the very early concerti are missing (nos. 1-4, 7 and 10 to be precise) and all the great ones are here.

I have enthused about Uchida's Complete Mozart Piano Sonatas and about the Concerti issued as Duo discs. Uchida has a real empathy with Mozart, I think, and you get the sense of love and joy in the music combined with magnificent musicianship making this a marvellous set and outstanding value. She is crisp and sensitive in the quicker outer movements and has the power when needed to play as the orchestra's equal. In the slow movements Uchida's beautiful tone is a joy and she judges the mood perfectly, making them truly beautiful without a hint of sentimentality or Mozartkugel-flavoured kitsch. This is not easy in such over-exposed movements as the Andante of K467, for example, but she is absolutely exemplary in her empathy and restraint.

The English Chamber Orchestra are ideal in this repertoire. It is no coincidence that both Uchida and the great Murray Perahia chose them for their Mozart recordings. The orchestra - here under Jeffrey Tate - are vigorous, supple and responsive and again avoid any intrusion of the saccharine nonsense which mars some Mozart performances. You can almost hear the collective grins of the orchestra during some of Mozart's more outrageous show-off finales, and there is a fabulous understanding between them and Uchida who worked with the ECO a lot.

It seems to me that the only close competitor to this series is Murray Perahia's Complete Mozart Piano Concerti (also with the ECO) which are equally good, but at the time of writing weigh in at well over £75. And it's worth saying that on Radio 3's Building A Library the reviewer said that although he couldn't imagine even Mozart playing Mozart more beautifully than Murray Perahia, he still chose Uchida's recording from this set of the Jeunehomme Concerto (No. 9, K271) as the best available. I'm not arguing with either part of that. In fact I've ended up with both Perahia's and Uchida's sets and love both, but at this price you simply can't go wrong with the Uchida set.

Mitsuko Uchida is, in my view anyway, one of the truly great Mozart players of our generation, and this is her at her magnificent best. Recommended without reservation.

Ockeghem - Missa De plus en plus - Orlando Consort


Rating: 5/5

Review:
A superb recording

This is a very welcome re-release of this excellent recording originally from 1997. The music is fabulous and the performance by The Orlando Consort is of their usual superlative standard.

Ockeghem was the towering figure in music in the mid-to-late 15th Century. He was not a prolific composer but wrote music of exceptional beauty and quite astonishing technical brilliance. He was revered by composers of the next generation like Josquin and it is easy to see why on the evidence here. The mass setting based on the chanson De plus en plus is beautiful and deeply spiritual and the secular chansons have genuine spirit and real charm in places. (My only complaint about the disc is that they haven't included the chanson on which the mass is based, which is a regrettable omission in my view.)

The Orlando Consort sing it all superbly. Their four male voices give the music the spare beauty it needs to really glow, and they are all true virtuoso singers so the technical demands present little problem. They have a lovely fluency of line and an excellent balance of voices so both the overall beauty of the music and its magnificent internal structures come over perfectly. It is excellently recorded in a resonant but not over-boomy acoustic.

I have two other very fine performances of this mass by The Tallis Scholars and The Clerk's Group but this is my favourite overall. I think the all-male ensemble and one-voice-to-a-part forces give it exactly the right feel. You really can't go wrong here - it's a superb recording and very warmly recommended.

Dall'Aquila - Pieces for Lute - Volta


Rating: 3/5

Review:
Not the greatest music or playing



This is a disc of music from the late 15th and early 16th Centuries.  It was a period of transition for the lute from mediaeval more monophonic pieces to the complexity and multiple lines of the Renaissance.  It is very good to have this available on disc, and some of it is rather lovely, but as a whole disc I have some pretty severe reservations about it.

Firstly, Dall'Aquila was a good composer but not a great one, I think, so a whole disc of his music can get a bit much.  For me, this is one to play a few pieces from and then take a break – a feeling which is intensified by the playing.  It's OK, but I quite often get a sense of strain, as though Sandro Volta were at the very limit of his technique (and occasionally beyond it).  Compared to some of the superb lute recordings available by people like Paul O'Dette, Jakob Lindebrg, Nigel North and others, this is a bit of a struggle to listen to.

It's by no means terrible and Volta deserves considerable credit for making this music available to us, but I can only give this a rather severely qualified recommendation, I'm afraid.

Saturday, 29 August 2015

The Tallis Scholars - Perfect Polyphony



Rating: 5/5

Review:
An excellent selection



This is an excellent introduction to The Tallis Scholars.  Wrinked old retainers like me who have been listening to them for decades and have most or all of their recordings won't need a collection like this, but this is ideal for anyone wanting a sample of their best work, which comprises some of the finest recordings of Renaissance polyphony over the last forty years.  The purity, precision, spiritual power and sheer beauty of The Tallis Scholars' singing is there in abundance in some truly great music.

The programme is Peter Philips's personal choice of pieces which, as he explains in the notes, are selected for a variety of reasons.  Needless to say my personal double CD of favourites would differ from this but that's inevitable, and many, like those by Browne, Mouton and Tallis would also appear in my selection.  Personal favourites aside, it's still a superb collection and very, very warmly recommended.

The works aren't entirely clear on this page, so I thought a list might be helpful:
Palestrina – Missa Papae Marcelli (2007 recording)
Victoria – Versa est in luctum
Gesualdo – Ave, dulcissima Maria
Mouton – Salva nos, Domine
Mouton – Ave Maria…virgo serena
Gombert – Magnificat 6 (sexti & primi toni)
Browne – Stabat iuxta
Tallis – Lamentations of Jeremiah I & II
Brumel - Lamentations of Jeremiah
Ferrabosco - Lamentations of Jeremiah
Isaac – Optime pastor
Josquin – Missa Ave maris stella

de la Rue - Incessament - Amarcord


Rating: 5/5

Review:
A hidden gem

I was absolutely bowled over by this disc on first hearing. Pierre de la Rue was one of "the forgotten generation" of composers who came immediately after Josquin, but why they were forgotten is a puzzle to me - la Rue's music (like that of his contemporary Gombert) is inventive, skilful, and very, very beautiful. This disc is a setting of his mass based on the chanson `Incessament mon povre cueur lamente'. (I think my spellchecker has just gone into meltdown, but its 16th-century French probably isn't all it might be.) The music is utterly lovely and is sung superbly by Amarcord, who were a new ensemble to me. They sing in the Flemish tradition at a low pitch and record in a resonant acoustic which gives the polyphony a magnificent rich sound, and the mass movements are interspersed with plainsong propers which are so well sung and sound so lovely that they simply glow.

This is a thoroughly out-of-the-way disc of rather obscure music, but if anyone should happen upon this page I strongly urge you to buy it. I've loved it since the moment it arrived and play it often and with huge pleasure. It's a real hidden gem.

Friday, 28 August 2015

Barber, Copland etc - American Polyphony - Polyphony/Layton


Rating: 5/5

Review:
A very fine disc



This is a lovely and very interesting disc from the excellent Polyphony.  It's not really my usual repertoire but I like Steven Layton's work very much so I gave it a try.  I'm delighted that I did.

The music is a mixture of the very familiar in Barber's Agnus Dei (the choral version of the Adagio for Strings) and the unfamiliar (to me, anyway) in much if the rest of the programme.  It's all very good: rich, spiritual choral writing from some of the finest of later 20th Century composers.  I found it very rewarding and it remains a great pleasure every time I hear it.

Polyphony are, as always, excellent.  They are technically impeccable and create a genuinely spiritual atmosphere; for example, there is a wonderful serenity in Barber's setting of Hopkins's exquisite poem A Nun Takes The Veil.  It's a varied disc, too – Bernstein's Missa Brevis is anything but serene in places, for example – and it makes a really good programme.

Hyperion's recording is, as always, excellent, with a fine overall sound and lovely clarity in the individual lines.  It's a very fine disc all round and even if, like m, you're not usually that keen on 20th Century music, I can recommend this very warmly.

Thursday, 27 August 2015

Kapsberger etc. - Labirinto d'Amore - Dunford/Reinhold


Rating: 5/5

Review:
A lovely disc

This is a lovely disc by two very fine musicians. Kapsberger was a great Italian lutenist who was composing and performing at the transition from the more modal Renaissance style to the sort of music we now recognise as Baroque, and elements of both are evident here in his solo lute pieces. These are interspersed on the disc with lute songs by Strozzi, Caccini, Monteverdi, and Merula.

The music is excellent, and really brought to life by the performances here. Thomas Dunford is a terrific lutenist with a superb technique which allows him really to express the emotion and depth of these pieces. It is fascinating to compare his approach to that of Paul O'Dette: Dunford takes a fairly rhythmically free approach, giving the pieces a more improvisatory, Renaissance feel to me, while O'Dette has more of a solid Baroque pulse to his playing. Both work extremely well - I have loved the O'Dette disc for years and this is a terrific new take which I am coming to love equally.

The songs are also lovely; Anna Reinhold's beautiful mezzo suits them perfectly and she sings with great style and engagement with the texts. As a programme it works very well indeed.

Alpha make their usual beautiful job of both recording and presentation and this is a very fine disc all round, I think. If you have any interest at all in the music of this period, don't hesitate - this is a real cracker.

Sorensen & Ockeghem - Requiem - Ars Nova Copenhagen/Hillier


Rating: 5/5

A gem

This is another innovative project by the great Paul Hillier. I haven't always liked his more adventurous exploits, but this one is quite brilliant, I think. He has interspersed the wonderful Requiem setting by Ockeghem with pieces (Fragments of Requiem) by the contemporary Danish composer Bent Sorensen, which could easily have turned out to be a horrible mess, but it works extremely well. Sorensen's work is distinctively 21st Century in some of its harmonic structures, but captures a similar spare and beautiful sense to Ockeghem's great work and the two composers complement each other really well. I think the result is quite spellbinding.

Hillier and Ars Nova Copenhagen perform it all brilliantly. They have a lovely, haunting sound which is exactly right for this music and the technical excellence to make it glow with beauty. Hillier uses his decades of experience to bring out just the right feel in both composers' works so that they blend very well together while retaining their individual identities. It is exemplary work, I think, and beautifully recorded so that the overall sound is quite breathtaking in places.

I would warmly recommend this even to those who, like me, are a bit sceptical about mixing contemporary music with great polyphonic works. I love Ockeghem's Requiem and was very concerned that this would simply spoil it, but tried it because Paul Hillier can produce something truly special sometimes. This is one of those times, in my view and I would urge people to try it. I think it's a real gem.

Jacqueline du Pré - The Great Recordings


Rating: 5/5

Review:
A wonderful set

This is an absolutely outstanding set, at an amazingly low price. Jacqueline du Pré was a truly remarkable musician, and her verve, thoughtfulness and sheer brilliance show in every one of these fine recordings. It is true that the notes are basic at best, but at this price for 17 superb CDs I don't think one can carp. Don't hesitate - it's a fantastic set.

Here's a (fairly complete) list of the works included:

Elgar: Cello Concerto in E minor, Op.85
Delius: Cello Concerto
Saint-Saens: Cello Concerto No.1 in A minor, Op.33
Saint-Saens: Carnaval des animaux - Le cygne
Dvorak: Cello Concerto in B minor, Op.104
Dvorak: Silent Woods Op.68
Schumann: Cello Concerto in A minor, Op.129
Schumann: Fantasiestucke, Op.73
Monn: Cello Concerto in G minor
Haydn: the two Cello Concertos
Beethoven: Variations, all the Piano Trios an all the Cello Sonatas (with Barenboim and Zukerman)
Brahms: the three Cello Sonatas
J S Bach: Cello Suites Nos.1&2; Viola da gamba Sonata No.2 in D;
Chopin: Cello Sonata in G minor, Op.65
Franck: Cello Sonata in A (arr. Delsart)
Handel: Sonata in G minor HWV287 (arr. J W Slatter)
F Couperin: Les Gouts-Reunis (1724) - Treizieme Concert a deux instruments a l'unisson
R Strauss: Don Quixote, Op.35
Lalo: Cello Concerto in D minor
Boccherini: Cello Concerto No.9 in B Flat G.482 (Cadenzas by Grützmacher)
Bruch: Kol Nidrei Op.47
Tchaikovsky: Piano Trio in A minor, Op.50
Mendelssohn: Song without Words in D, Op.109
Faure: Elegie in C minor, Op.24
Falla: Suite populaire espagnole - Jota (arr. Maurice Marechal)
Britten: Cello Sonata in C, Op.65 : II - Scherzo: Pizzicato / IV - Marcia
Paradis: Sicilienne (arr. Dushkin)

Tuesday, 25 August 2015

Mozart - Divertimento, K563 - Trio Zimmermann


Rating: 5/5

Review:
A fabulous recording



I think this is a terrific disc. I have loved the Grumiaux recording for many years; this is its equal, I think, and the excellent sound quality may even give it the edge.

The principal work here is the Mozart Divertimento in Eb, K563.  Its title, suggesting a small lighter work, is a complete misnomer – it has six varied movements, each of them wonderful in its own way, it is longer than most symphonies and is a pinnacle of the chamber music repertoire.  There is a great range of mood and emotion here from the introspectively beautiful to the charmingly cheerful; it's a truly great work which needs a great performance to do it justice.  It gets one here, I think.

Trio Zimmermann's playing is quite wonderful.  They are technically excellent with impeccable intonation and a mastery of their instruments which makes even the most demanding passages sound quite natural.  Their tone is lovely throughout and they have a genuine rapport which lends the music an intimacy which is very appealing.  They just seem to "get" what Mozart is doing here, sounding completely at home and moving between Mozart's different moods with complete understanding and empathy.  It's an exemplary performance to my ears, which is beautifully recorded by BIS.  The sound is superbly captured and the whole disc just glows.

I don't mean to gush, but I do think this is an exceptionally fine disc.  I love it, and recommend it very, very warmly.

Monday, 24 August 2015

The Tallis Scholars Sing William Byrd


Rating: 5/5

Review:
A fabulous reissue

This is another in the outstanding series of budget reissues of the Tallis Scholars' finest recordings of the last 30 years. It contains the two CDs of Byrd's music recorded in the mid 1980s - their wonderful recordings of the three Masses and of the Great Service. In addition, there are five magnificent motets including the sublime Infelix ego. It is a wonderful collection of music from one of England's very greatest composers, and it also provides a really fascinating insight into the religious upheavals of Tudor times.

Byrd remained a Catholic throughout his life, despite the colossal pressures on Catholics following the Reformation. The first part of this includes Byrd's three settings of the Mass in Latin for Five, Four and Three Voices for Catholic worship. These are sublime, touching works, perhaps written for secret worship. The contrast between these and the Anglican settings in English is very marked, although the Anglican settings are no less musically rewarding. They conform (largely) to the injunction by Cranmer that settings should be one note to a syllable so that the text should be clearly heard, and have a sparer and more declamatory feel. Peter Phillips's commentary on this aspect of the music is, as always, exceptionally penetrating and interesting.

The performances themselves are unsurpassed, in my view, and rivalled only by The Cardinall's Musick's magnificent disc of the Masses.  Intonation, clarity of line, balance and blend are impeccable and the whole is, as we have come to expect from the Tallis Scholars, simply brilliant and exceptionally beautiful.

At this price for two CDs of superb performances of some of the greatest English music ever written you simply can't go wrong, and I recommend this set wholeheartedly.

Sunday, 23 August 2015

Allegri - Miserere - The Tallis Scholars


Rating: 5/5

Review:
Still and absolute gem

I bought the LP of this wonderful recording in the early 80s after hearing a snippet on the radio and it absolutely transfixed me with its sheer beauty. It still does. There have been dozens of recordings of Allegri's Miserere since then, many of them very fine, but none has surpassed this groundbreaking performance, in my view. Recorded in the perfect acoustic of Merton College Chapel, Oxford and beautifully sung with an ideal separation and balance of the choirs, it has a limpid, spiritual loveliness with an undertow of passion which makes the whole thing glow from start to finish.

The disc also features Mundy's colossal motet Vox Patris caelestis and another landmark recording, this time of Palestrina's Missa Papae Marcelli. The Tallis Scholars' full-voiced, vibrato-free and perfectly balanced performance really makes this wonderful music blaze with power and tenderness as appropriate - for example, the two colossal "Amens" which conclude the Gloria and the Credo are simply stunning. The fabulous beauty of Palestrina's music shines out of this recording, and the disc would be worth buying for this mass alone.

This recording has given me huge pleasure for getting on for 30 years and continues to do so. Now it is at budget price it is an absolute snip, and is recommend very warmly indeed.

Friday, 21 August 2015

Bach - Sonatas & Partitas for Solo Violin - Beyer


Rating: 4/5

Review:
Good but not great



I am a great admirer of Amandine Beyer's work and her recordings of Rebel and Matteis are treasured discs in my collection.  Her solo Bach is good (of course it is – she's a terrific violinist) but for me not quite in the same league as some of her other recordings.

It goes without saying that the music is magnificent, from the delightful dancing Preludio of BWV1006 to the mighty, intense Chaconne from BWV1004, it is music of the greatest invention, depth and expressiveness.  It takes a great violinist to really master and get inside these works, and even some truly great violinists haven't really managed it for me.  I expected Beyer to produce something special from them and she nearly does…but not quite, I think.

This is a very personal view.  Beyer's technique is superb, her tone is lovely throughout and there's never any sense of strain even in the most demanding passages.  It's a good performance but for me not a great one, but I find it almost impossible to put my finger on what's not quite there for me.  She certainly "gets" Bach, with his essential pulse and sense of dance throughout, but  perhaps some sense of depth or engagement is missing?  Or it may be to do with a slight feeling of disengagement in places…  The truth is, I'm struggling to articulate any sensible analysis, but I do know that this recording doesn't quite speak to me in the way that some others do.

This may be of no help whatsoever as a review or a guide, but it's the best I can do.  It's extremely personal and you may well engage with this recording more than I do.  It's certainly a very well performed and recorded set, so the preferences of others may well not coincide with mine but I can only give this a slightly qualified recommendation.

(Personally, I would recommend the recordings by Rachel Podger, Viktoria Mullova or Isabelle Faust.  They are all different but all quite brilliant in their way.)

Thursday, 20 August 2015

Muffat - Componimenti Musicale per il Cembalo - Meyerson


Rating: 5/5

Review:
Excellent

This is an excellent double CD of some very fine and engaging harpsichord music, played beautifully by Mitzi Meyerson. Gottlieb Muffat, the son of Georg Muffat, was born in 1690 (making him roughly contemporary with Bach) and he worked chiefly in Vienna for much of the 18th Century until his death in 1770. He was a highly skilled musician and these works are of the highest quality, full of invention melody and expressive writing. Both this collection and Gottlieb Muffat himself were completely new to me and I am very glad that I took a chance on it.

Mitzi Meyerson, continuing her mission to unearth obscure harpsichord music, plays it all beautifully. Her technique is rock-solid, her judgement of ornamentation and rubato is perfect to my ear and she brings out the really delightful nature and variety of this music. The recorded sound is excellent and the harpsichord sounds simply lovely throughout (showing yet again that Beecham's famous remark about skeletons on a tin roof may be funny but is hopelessly wrong).

Glossa have produced their usual lavish and beautiful packaging for this set. The notes are in the form of a transcript of an interview with Mitzi Meyerson which I found rather twee in tone, although much of the content is very interesting and I certainly wouldn't carp about it. This is an all-round cracker of a set - I am extremely glad that I came across it and recommend it very warmly.

Palestrina - 5 Masses


Rating: 2/5

Review:
Uninspiring

I'm afraid that I'm not very keen on this set. It is good to see Palestrina's music being made available at budget price, but these recordings, despite some of the distinguished performers, don't really do it justice in my view.

Palestrina wrote some truly wonderful music and some of the masses here are fabulous works, but for me the music can begin to sound a little samey in the hands of larger choirs, and this is what happens here. The three choirs on this disc are Kings College, Cambridge, St. John's College, Cambridge and The Carmelite Priory, London. They are all excellent choirs but in these older recordings they don't really manage to bring out the expressive, beautiful nature of Palestrina's polyphony and the whole thing begins to merge into a pleasant-sounding but undistinguished mush which occasionally gets louder or quieter but doesn't really engage with the music or the text.

A further problem is that John's and the Carmelites especially have a good deal of vibrato in the choir's voices, particularly the top lines. This prevents the lines from blending as they should and the harmonies don't really ring out.

I am sorry to be critical, but I can't really recommend this set. I think there are some much better recordings of Palestrina and I would suggest trying some of these instead:  Philippe Herreweghe's recording of Missa Viri Galilaei is probably my favourite Palestrina recording, and The Tallis Scholars have also made some fine recordings, now available at budget price: a great version of Missa Papae Marcelli coupled with Allegri's Miserere, and four wonderful masses including Missa Assumpta est Maria on The Tallis Scholars Sing Palestrina.

Palestrina - MIssa Pro defunctis - Chanticleer


Rating: 5/5

Review:
Excellent Palestrina

This is an excellent recording of Palestrina's setting of the Requiem mass, combined with some motets taken from the Song of Songs - a slightly odd-seeming combination as the Song of Songs is a sequence of love poems, some of them distinctly erotic. Nevertheless, this works very well as a programme and is among my favourite recordings of Palestrina.

Palestrina's music is a model of polyphonic composition, which I find sometimes means that technique can drive out feeling in some of his works, but that is not true here. These are lovely, heartfelt compositions (some maintain that Palestrina wrote the Requiem for his own funeral) which are full of emotion. The Requiem laments without being turgid and the Song of Songs selections have genuine erotic power. They are done full justice by Chanticleer, who sing beautifully. They generate a lovely, rich sound, are technically excellent and engage with the text in a way which really brings these works to life. It's a fine performance: when Chanticleer get it right they can produce something very special, and they do that here, I think.

I warmly recommend this disc - it's one of the best of the Palestrina recordings I know.

(By the way, I would also strongly recommend Philippe Herreweghe's wonderful recording of Missa Viri Galilae.)

Wednesday, 19 August 2015

Bach - Sonatas for Violin and Keyboard - Makarski/Jarrett


Rating:4/5

Review:
A good interpretation

I like these interpretations. I was rather dubious about the piano/violin combination, but for me it works well here. It's an interesting perspective and in places is very beautiful.

Both Michelle Makarski and Keith Jarrett are very good musicians who have an excellent sense of what Bach's music is about. That essential rhythmic pulse is there when needed and although Makarski is a little freer with the vibrato and rubato than I would like in places, it's by no means excessive and both she and Jarrett judge ornamentation very well. They combine together with great precision and the effect is often very engaging, but I did find that they seem oddly disengaged from each other in places. Perhaps it's just me, but in the Largo of the G major Sonata, for example, there somehow seems to be a sense of two instruments being played perfectly in tune and time but almost in separate worlds. I can't quite put my finger on why and you may disagree, but it does disconcert me from time to time in these discs.

Small personal feelings aside, this is a good recording of these fine works and one I'm glad to have. Obviously, this set is very suitable if you'd like to hear the sonatas well played on piano and violin. I have three treasured recordings for violin and harpsichord which won't be superseded in my affections by this set, but I would still recommend it as a set of often interesting and enjoyable performances.

(For a violin and harpsichord recording, I'd probably recommend Rachel Podger and Trevor Pinnock  but I also love the recordings by Andrew Manze and Richard Egarr and by Viktoria Mullova and Ottavio Dantone.)

Musique and Sweet Poetrie - Kirkby/Lindberg


Rating:5/5

Review: A fabulous disc of lute music and songs

This is a very beautiful disc of lute songs and solo lute pieces by some of the finest composers around the turn of the 17th Century. English composers like Dowland, Morley and Robert Johnson feature heavily but there are also lovely pieces from continental composers, some of whom are familiar (like Schutz and d'India) and some who were quite new to me. They are all delightful, often with the characteristic melancholy of the time but quite varied and with songs and instrumental pieces interspersed throughout the disc it never begins to feel same-y.

The performances are absolutely wonderful. Personally, I don't think there is a better singer of this repertoire than Emma Kirkby. Her purity of tone, minimal vibrato, impeccable intonation and technique and, most importantly, her genuine engagement with the text make her interpretation of these songs a complete delight. Jakob Lindberg is one of the world's greatest lutenists and he plays here with all the thought, skill and empathy we have come to expect of him.

It's a fabulous disc all round and very warmly recommended to anyone with even the slightest interest in the music of this period.

Palestrina - Missa Viri Galilaei - La Chapelle Royale/Herreweghe


Rating: 5/5

Review: A great recording

This is a really wonderful disc of one of Palestrina's great mass settings plus the motet on which he based it, and a Magnificat. I have loved this recording ever since I first heard it on Radio 3 in the early 1990s and I am delighted that it's available as a budget reissue.

La Chapelle Royale under Phillippe Herreweghe sing superbly. They pitch somewhat lower than, say, the Tallis Scholars and record in a very resonant acoustic. Although they therefore aren't quite as pure and precise as the Tallis Scholars, they have a very rich, warm sound which is wholly beguiling, and their blend, fluency and continuity of line do this beautiful music proud.

The mass is performed with plainchant Propers between Palestrina's polyphonic settings. The plainchant is sung by Ensemble Organum, who are simply fantastic. They have a restrained but muscular sound (very striking as they open the disc with the word "Viri") which goes brilliantly with the polyphony and works real magic in the Magnificat primi toni. This is, as was usual, an "alternatim" setting in which alternate verses are sung to plainchant and polyphony, and the constant interchange between the two beautiful and contrasting sounds makes it something really special.

At this price the disc is a colossal bargain for one of the finest Palestrina recordings I know. Recommended in the highest terms.

Tuesday, 18 August 2015

Morales - Missa De Beata Virgine - Ensemble Jacques Moderne


Rating: 4/5

Review:
A good recording



This is a good recording of one of Morales's masses, framed by some lovely Marian motets and antiphons by Guerrero.  It makes a fine programme which is well performed here.

I hadn't come across Ensemble Jacques Moderne before this recording; I was pleasantly surprised by how good they are.  They are technically very sound with excellent intonation and a good blend and balance.  They engage very well with the texts and the overall feel of the disc is very attractive. 

My one reservation is the recorded sound.  There's nothing wrong with it per se, but the ensemble are recorded in a very resonant acoustic by what sound like quite distant microphones.  This gives a very warm but slightly woolly, indistinct sound which can be very effective but the lack of distinctness over a whole disc does make it begin to sound a bit samey.  After a while I began to yearn for the clarity and variety of The Tallis Scholars or The Cardinall's Musick, for example.

Your preferences in sound may differ from mine, however, and this is an enjoyable disc of fine music in good performances which I can recommend.

Sunday, 16 August 2015

The Hilliard Ensemble - Transeamus


Rating: 5/5

Review:
More excellence from The Hilliard Ensemble

This is a lovely farewell disc from one of the great vocal ensembles of the last 40 years. It is a collection of 15th Century English music with the lovely spare sound of the period, beautifully expressed as ever by the Hilliards. The music is by a variety of composers from the well-known Cornysh to the obscure Plummer, and over half of them are anonymous. All are very fine works and it makes a lovely and fascinating programme.

The Hilliard Ensemble, of course, sing it beautifully. They are in their element (well, one of their elements) in this repertoire and their sound fits it perfectly, with David James's plangent countertenor setting the tone. Intonation, phrasing and engagement with the text are all exemplary and they bring a real inner glow to every piece.

As always, ECM's recorded sound is superb and the presentation excellent. Long-term fans of the Hilliard Ensemble like me will need no encouragement to buy this, but if you are undecided don't hesitate. This is a very fine disc all round, and a fitting finale from a truly great ensemble.

Pandolfi - Violin Sonatas - Manze/Egarr


Rating: 5/5

Review:
A great reissue

This is yet another great reissue in Harmonia Mundi's Gold series. Pandolfi is scarcely a household name and indeed very little is known about him (Andrew Manze in his typically informative and witty notes says that we might be forgiven for thinking that he had been made up by a bored musicologist on a wet Thursday afternoon), but these sonatas dating from 1660 are music of the highest quality. They are delightful and often intense works which are really enjoyable and which also reward careful listening. I was captivated by them when I first got the original disc and continue to enjoy them immensely.

The reason I invested in the disc in the first place was that it was played by Andrew Manze and Richard Egarr. They are now firmly established as great musicians in their own right, and together as one of the world's finest violin and keyboard duos who excel in this repertoire. This disc is one of their best, in my view. The fantastic empathy they have between them produces something really special, and all the thoughtfulness, virtuosity and verve one would expect from them is there in abundance.

Now it is reissued at budget price this disc is an absolute must for fans of Manze and Egarr, and also for anyone with any interest in Baroque music. Recommended very warmly indeed.

Patricia Petbon - Amoiueuses


Rating: 5/5

Review:
An excellent disc

This is an excellent disc of opera arias from Patricia Petibon. She has chosen music which is very well suited to her voice and sings it superbly.

The programme is a very well chosen selection of arias by Mozart, Gluck and Haydn. Some are very well-known - there is a cracking rendition of The Queen of the Night's aria, for example - and some much less so. I am particularly pleased that there is a generous helping of Haydn here. Haydn's operas are not that great as entire works with largely rather silly plots, uninspiring libretto and lots and lots of recitative, but Haydn's music itself is fantastic and it is great to have a decent selection on this disc.

Patricia Petibon sings beautifully. Her voice is lovely, with a richness in the lower register particularly which sometimes makes my spine tingle. Her interpretations are excellently judged and she puts just the right amount of feeling into them to give the arias real meaning without over-egging it. Concerto Köln play brilliantly, giving the whole disc a real glow.

In short, this disc is a joy to listen to and has genuine depth and musical merit. Warmly recommended.

Victoria - Missa Gaudeamus - Lay Clerks of Westminster Cathedral/Martin


Rating: 4/5

Review:
A very good reconstruction



This is a good recording by Westminster Cathedral.  It is not by the usual full choir but just the Lay Clerks, so the all-male ensemble lends the music a depth of sound which may be unfamiliar but which I like very much.

The music is a full choral and instrumental reconstruction of a mass for the Feast Of The Assumption (15th August) based on the choral music of Victoria and the instrumental music of Frescobaldi.  It is a major undertaking and they succeed very well, I think.  The sequence of polyphony, chant and instrumental music is performed with skill and feeling, giving a strong atmosphere and sense of worship.   The singing is of a particularly high standard, I think - unsurprisingly from Westminster Cathedral, who have been making fine recordings of Victoria's masses for many years now.

If you enjoy this sort of reconstruction, don't hesitate – the music is wonderful and very well performed, and Hyperion's recorded sound is excellent as usual.  Personally, I'm less keen on full reconstructions than on just sequences of polyphony (with or without chant), but that's just my personal taste and the reason for a four-star rather than five-star review, but for what it is, it's excellent.

Friday, 14 August 2015

Vaet - Missa Ego flos campi - Cinquecento


Rating: 5/5

Review:
Another fine disc from Cinquecento

This is Cinquecento's fourth disc since their formation in 2006, and in their career so far I have become a big fan. Like the Brabant Ensemble, they are unearthing some little-known but very beautiful music from the 16th century, and this is another beauty.

Stephen Rice (director of the Brabant Ensemble) claims in his excellent notes that Vaet would undoubtedly have been among the best-known composers of the 16th century if he had not died young. Perhaps that's a slightly overblown claim, but he was a very fine composer and I thought his were the outstanding works on Cinquecento's disc of Music for the Court of Maximilian II. The music here is beautiful, dramatic in places and extremely skilfully constructed, and there is no doubt that Vaet deserves to be heard much more widely.

Cinquecento bring their characteristic empathy and beauty of sound to the music. An all-male ensemble, they sing in the Flemish tradition of lower pitch and record in a resonant acoustic which produces a fabulous, rich sound but never obscures the individual lines. Intonation is impeccable, the balance and blend of the voices is perfect, and they show a fine understanding of the relationship between music and text. I found the whole disc a huge pleasure, just as I have with all their previous discs. (Their recording of Regnart is a particular favourite of mine.)

The recorded sound by Hyperion is excellent and the notes are interesting and informative. It's an excellent disc, recommended very warmly.

Rameau - Pieces de Clavecin - Esfahani


Rating: 5/5

Review:
Fantastic Rameau



This is a fantastic recording of some of the greatest French baroque works.  Rameau wrote some magnificent works for the harpsichord; they are musically inventive, varied and immensely pleasurable to listen to when this well played. 

Mahan Esfahani is now well established as one of the world's foremost harpsichord players, and on this evidence you can see why.  His technique is fantastic, so that even the trickiest passages sound natural and effortless, and he lends real meaning to Rameau's music – which isn't always easy on a harpsichord.  His tone is lovely and he has – to my ears anyway – an ideal approach to phrasing, using enough rubato to shape each phrase and give it meaning without ever overdoing it.

Credit must also go to Hyperion (as so often) for the recorded sound.  Esfahani's harpsichord has a lovely, rich tone which is beautifully captured on these discs and makes them a pleasure to listen to.  I have dearly-loved recordings of Rameau's keyboard music by Christophe Rousset on the harpsichord and both Angela Hewitt and Alexandre Tharaud on the piano, all of which are quite wonderful in their different ways.  This stands with them and is a very welcome addition which will give me pleasure for years to come.  Very warmly recommended.

Wednesday, 12 August 2015

Pergolesi - Septem verba a Christo - Jacobs


Rating: 4/5

Review:
Good but not great music

I like this disc of music recently attributed to Pergolesi, and it is very good to have more of Pergolesi's music available in excellent performances like this. I can't quite share the rapturous enthusiasm of some other reviewers, though; for me, this is good rather than great music.

Here, Pergolesi has set the Seven Last Words of Christ on the cross for a range of largely solo voices. They are skilful emotional settings and show what a loss Pergolesi's early death was but they don't quite engage me with the power of his Stabat Mater and Salve Regina. It's hard to put my finger on why, but the amazing dissonances of Stabat Mater aren't used much here, for example, and it just doesn't grab me by the throat in quite the same way. That said, there's plenty of very enjoyable music here, there are moments of true pathos and it's still very good music.

René Jacobs and his ensemble are, as one would expect, excellent. The four soloists are very good and Jacobs brings really fine performances from them and the instrumentalists, shaping the music to give it genuine emotion without ever spilling over into sentimentality. It's very finely judged, and beautifully recorded by Harmonia Mundi.

Plenty of others don't share my slight reservations about the music, and they just represent a personal feeling, so don't let me put you off. This is a good disc which is beautifully performed and recorded, and very nicely presented. I can still recommend it - just not quite as warmly as some of Pergolesi's other music.

Byrd - The Great Service - Musica Contexta/Devine


Rating: 3/3

Review:
Not really for me

This is an attempt to reconstruct Byrd's Great Service as it may have been performed in the Chapel Royal in the early 17th Century. Steven Devine presents good evidence for his choices and is honest about what is speculative, so it's a perfectly valid idea. Sadly, for me it doesn't really come off.

The Great Service (referring to its size rather than being a grandiose claim of musical brilliance) is a fine work, full of Byrd's trademark melodic gift and harmonic inventiveness. I have loved the work ever since I bought The Tallis Scholars' magnificent recording getting on for 20 years ago. That is an a capella performance which brings out all the beauty and passion of Byrd's setting of these English words and I was looking forward to this much larger-scale setting including instruments of the time. For me, though, much of the beauty and passion is missing here.

Part of the difficulty is the scale of things. There is a bit of a Wall Of Sound feel quite a lot of the time, so the complex textures which give the music much of its beauty are rather lost. The sound is attractive but lacks much delicacy or subtlety, not helped by occasional insecure tuning among the instruments, and it all gets a bit samey.

I'm sorry to be critical of a worthy project by respected musicians, but this really doesn't get to the heart of Byrd for me and I'll be sticking to The Tallis Scholars.

Philips - Cantiones Sacrae - The Sarum Consort


Rating: 3/5

Review:
A little dull

I'm afraid I found this disc a little dull. This is partly due to the performances, I'm afraid, but also because, although Philips's music is enjoyable and moving in places, it is not in the same class as that of some of the great English polyphonists, in my view. It lacks the fabulous melodic and harmonic invention which made Byrd's music so striking and dramatic and doesn't quite achieve the serene, limpid loveliness evident in some of Tallis, for example.

Nonetheless, it is beautiful in places when well sung (by the Trinity College Choir, for example), but the singing here isn't quite good enough to make it shine. It isn't bad by any means and the one-to-a-part approach can be very effective, but intonation isn't quite precise enough at times and The Sarum Consort fail to achieve a real blend or cohesion of voices. Individual lines flow well enough but seldom quite mesh into a real, cohesive whole. It's not helped by one soprano having just enough vibrato to separate her form the rest of the singers, but I don't get much of a sense anywhere of real engagement with the spiritual sense of the texts and it all falls slightly emotionally flat, and a slightly hooty organ in places does nothing to improve matters.

I'm sorry to be critical, but this disc really didn't do much for me. Although I applaud the effort to bring Philips's music to a wider audience, this doesn't begin to compare to many of the fine polyphony recordings being made at the moment. If you want a selection of Philips, I'd suggest the Trinity College recording, and I'm afraid I can only give this a very lukewarm recommendation.

Pilgrimage to Santiago - Monteverdi Choir/Gardiner


Rating:5/5

Review:
Pilgrimage of grace

I love this disc - it is beautiful and thoroughly uplifting. The music and performances are delightful and (WARNING - sacrilege approaching!) I much prefer this version of Victoria's Missa O quam gloriosum to that of the Westminster Cathedral Choir, which has never moved me in the same way.

The tracks from the Codex Calixtinus and Libre Vermell are truly lovely, and the polyphonic motets by Lassus, Victoria and Clemens non Papa are exquisitely paced, pitched and sung, in my view. And there is a heart-stoppingly beautiful version of Mouton's Nesciens mater. It's a fabulous disc.

In addition, in the notes there's a very perceptive introduction by Gardiner and a scholarly but approachable analysis by the excellent Tess Knighton. It's a tad over-packaged for my taste, but that's a tiny quibble. Gardiner has fully earned his high reputation and this disc does that reputation full justice. Not to be missed.

Bach - Violin Concertos - Carmignola/Concerto Köln


Rating: 3/5

Review:
Fine solo work but disappointing orchestral playing

This is a slightly disappointing disc not because of Carmignola but because of the rather turgid and muddy ensemble playing of Concerto Köln.

There are lots and lots of recordings of these terrific works by Bach but I was looking forward to hearing Carmignola play them because he brings such zing and flair to everything he does. It's not always entirely appropriate (to me, anyway) but it's almost invariably entertaining and sometimes quite inspired. Here, he brings those characteristics to Bach and as a soloist he's pretty successful, I think. Technically, of course, he is superb and the slightly rumbustious feel works well much of the time. I find him less convincing in the slower movements, though, especially the sublime second movement of the double concerto. In the version by Andrew Manze and Rachel Podger, for example, there is a wonderful, sensuous feel as the lines twine around each other but that is wholly absent here and it all sounds just a little mechanical to me. On the other hand, I love his vigorous, almost joyous approach in the finale of BWV1041, in spite of its minor key and there are other terrific moments on the disc.

The real problem is Concerto Köln. They are a fine orchestra who here just sound rather mediocre, I'm afraid. The playing seems uninspired and the overall sound is turgid to the point where it almost seems to be dragging everything back at times. The contrast between this and, say, the playing of Brecon Baroque on Rachel Podger's two discs of Bach concertos is very marked and it really does mar the disc.

I am sorry to be critical, but I won't be going back to this very often. If you're looking for good recordings of Bach violin concertos I would recommend giving this a miss and trying Andrew Manze and Rachel Podger's disc J.S. Bach: Solo & Double Violin Concertos or either of Rachel Podger's recordings with Brecon Baroque:

Tuesday, 11 August 2015

Beethoven, Schumann, Brahms - Bagatelles - Varbanov


Rating: 5/5

Review:
An excellent disc

I like this disc very much. This is not a repertoire in which I can claim great expertise, but I think I know great music and fine playing when I hear it, and both are well in evidence here.

The disc contains the final piano works of Beethoven and Schumann, and six of Brahms's Chorale Preludes Op.122 - his final works - arranged for piano by Busoni. Each is a sequence of miniatures by and as a programme it works excellently, giving variety and real depth throughout.

What makes it special is the quality of Ivo Varbanov's playing. The notes by Malcolm MacDonald point out that these last works are less about some final testament to posterity by each composer than an expression of his own preoccupations, and Varbanov seems to me to take the music itself and to lay it out for us rather than to try to invest it with over-intense, possibly spurious meaning. There is plenty of intensity where necessary, but here the music seems to speak for itself with a refreshing clarity and beauty. I find it a real pleasure to listen to - and I can't say that of all recordings of late works by these composers, by any means.

The recorded sound is excellent. ICSM set out to be an audiophile label, and certainly this sounds wonderful. It was recorded in large venues with no extra reverb added, and the result is a warm, naturally rich sound which sounds wonderful through my studio-quality headphones. The notes are full and interesting, if a little over-cooked in places for my taste, and the presentation is attractive.

I may not have come across this disc if ICSM had not sent me a copy for review but I am very glad I have. It has been something of a revelation for me and I can recommend it very warmly.

Pieces de Théorbe Francais - Moreno


Rating: 5/5

Review:
A lovely disc

This is a very welcome re-release of a Glossa disc from 2000. It consists of French theorbo music from the baroque period by Bethune, de Viseé, Forqueray, Lully and Marais. It's a lovely programme, very well played and recorded.

The music, as one might expect from this list of fine composers, tends to be courtly, but has real beauty and emotional depth to it in places, as well as the occasional welcome zing in a couple of the gigues. It's all very high-quality stuff - the pieces by Forqueray, Lully and Marais, who aren't especially noted for their compositions for the theorbo are excellent, the de Visée suite is typically lovely and the pieces by Béthune (whom I hadn't heard of) are a revelation. It's a terrific, varied programme.

Moreno is in his element here and plays beautifully. The sheer sound of his theorbo is a delight and he gives each of these pieces a distinct, appropriate character. The whole thing is beautifully recorded and it's a delight throughout. I can recommend this very warmly.

Pipelare - Missa L'Homme armé - Huelgas Ensemble


Rating: 5/5

Review:
A very beautiful disc

This is a very beautiful disc. Paul van Nevel has unearthed the work of an obscure contemporary of Josquin, and it leaves you wondering why Pipelare's work has remained obscure. It is of extremely high quality and reminds me most strongly of Heinrich Isaac, I think. A tranquil, sometimes mournful atmosphere pervades the disc but it never drags or begins to sound samey because Pipelare is so skilful as a composer.

Van Nevel and the Huelgas Ensemble do it proud here. They sing with exemplary technique and intonation, and genuine feeling for the texts. The result is beautiful, deeply spiritual and often very affecting. The motets and antiphons are all excellent and the mass setting is simply lovely, with an all male choir singing at low pitch. This gives the basses a wonderful solidity and they descend to almost Russian depths at times.

This disc is included in the wonderful box The Secret Labyrinth.  I would warmly recommend it, but it is currently unavailable. This disc is well worth the outlay on its own, though and I recommend it wholeheartedly. It's one of van Nevel's best - and that's really saying something.

Prioris - Missa Pro Defunctis - Capilla Flamenca


Rating: 5/5

Review:
A lovely disc

This is a lovely disc of relatively unknown music by Johannes Prioris, a rough contemporary of Josquin, about whose life very little is known for certain. What is certain, though, is that he was a very good composer, as evidenced by this fine setting of the Requiem Mass.

The music is a mixture of very skilful polyphony, chordal passages and homophonic writing, whose balance produces a very lovely and intensely spiritual effect. This is beautifully brought out by the excellent Capilla Flamenca who sing this wonderfully. An all-male quartet here, they sing at a lower, resonant pitch, with impeccable tuning and a fine engagement with the text. They generate a wonderfully intense feeling, wholly appropriate to this music and it's an impressive and very engaging performance. A number of organ pieces are interwoven between the polyphonic movements which for me, although no doubt historically defensible, rather broke the mood and is a feature of the disc I'm not that keen on - but that's a personal thing and others may enjoy these movements very much; they are certainly good pieces and very well played.

The recorded sound is excellent and with good, detailed notes and attractive presentation, this is, as we have come to expect from Capilla Flamenca, a fine disc all round. Very warmly recommended.

Tallis - Salve Intemerata - The Cardinall's Musick/Carwood


Rating: 5/5

Review:
Another fine disc from The Cardinall's Musick



The Cardinall's Musick are well established now as one of the world's truly great ensembles in polyphony, and this growing series of Tallis discs is among their best work, I think.  They are thoroughly at home in English polyphony (their recordings of Fayrfax and Ludford are quite wonderful) and they bring some real magic to the pieces here.

The major work here is the magnificent votive antiphon Salve Intemerata and the mass based on themes from it.   The programme also includes some of the smaller, more intimate but no less lovely pieces in English required during Edward VI's short reign and later at the start of Elizabeth's reign.  It's a lovely programme showing the variety of styles forced upon Tallis by the religious upheavals of the time and how wonderfully he excelled in all of them.

The singing is fabulous.  I have a real personal love of the Cardinall's Musick's sound: it is rich and full with wonderfully firm lower voices and a resonance which sometimes genuinely sends shivers down my spine.  They have a superb technique and a real engagement with the text so this music really glows with beauty and spirituality.  This stands with my much loved Tallis recordings by The Tallis Scholars, Magnificat, The Taverner Consort and others – it's a fine addition to their catalogue.

The recorded sound by Hyperion is excellent – full and resonant but crystal clear – and Andrew Carwood's notes are scholarly and very readable.  It's a superb disc all round and very warmly recommended.

Monday, 10 August 2015

Haydn - Violin Concertos - Carmignola


Rating: 5/5

Review:
Excellent Haydn

Even as a lover of Haydn I have to admit that his violin concertos aren't among his greatest works. Nevertheless, he was incapable of writing poor or dull music and while these may not have the brilliance and profundity of his trumpet or cello concerti, this is still a terrifically enjoyable disc.

These are early works which already show the grace, charm and wit which became such a hallmark of Haydn. There are signs, too, of developing depth, but the dominant sense here is of sheer enjoyment of music which Carmignola brings out fully. He and the small orchestra give terrific performances full of understanding, thought and real zip when appropriate. The recording is excellent and the whole thing has a delightful feel to it.

This is a thoroughly enjoyable disc in every way and I heartily recommend it.

Veracini - Sonatas - Holloway, ter Linden, Mortensen


Rating: 5/5

Review:
An excellent disc

This is an excellent disc of some very fine music by Veracini, whom John Holloway describes as earning "an honoured place on the short list of truly great violinist-composers," in which he includes Biber, Ysaye and Bach. For me, this is going a little far, but these are inventive and very enjoyable sonatas with some truly virtuoso writing for the violin.

Veracini was an eccentric and arrogant character judging by contemporary accounts, and that eccentricity and swagger can often be heard here. However, there is far more than that to the music, and there is a fine mixture of the vigorous the passionate and the tender in these sonatas, with some fine melodic writing and innovative harmonic invention. It all adds up to very high-quality early 18th Century music.

I tried this disc because I think that anything recorded by John Holloway is worth hearing, and it's certainly true here. Holloway and his excellent fellow musicians (both international stars in their own right, of course) give this music real meaning, and play together beautifully. There is a fine understanding between them and they really bring these pieces to life. Their playing and the quality of the music make this a pleasure from start to finish.

ECM's recorded sound is of their normal excellent standard, as is their presentation, and John Holloway's notes are interesting and readable. All round, it's a fine disc and I can recommend it very warmly.

Bach - Vivaldi Transcriptions - Yates


Rating: 5/5

Review:
A fine disc

I like this disc very much. It is a selection of concerti by Vivaldi and the Marcello brothers which Bach transcribed for harpsichord. I was ignorant of these transcriptions until now and am very glad to have come across them because they are well worth hearing.

It isn't known exactly why Bach chose to transcribe these concerti, but he has made some excellent solo keyboard pieces out of them. In structure they don't differ much from the originals, with Bach changing keys in places and adding some counterpoint and ornamentation to the solo parts, so they're a lot more Vivaldi and Marcello than Bach but it's still high-quality music and a very enjoyable programme.

This is in no small measure due to Sophie Yates, who is a fabulous harpsichordist and on fine form here. She has superb technique which allows her to phrase and interpret these pieces beautifully, and she brings real individuality to every movement. The recorded sound is excellent and the overall effect is very rewarding.

With good presentation and interesting, readable notes by Yates herself, this is a fine disc all round and warmly recommended.

Rachel Podger - Guardian Angel


Rating: 5/5

Review:
A terrific disc

This is yet another terrific disc from Rachel Podger. It's a collection of what she describes as favourite pieces played on solo violin. It's largely out-of-the-way repertoire, but it makes for a terrifically enjoyable and rewarding programme.

The Usual Suspects of the solo violin repertoire don't really feature here, but there is a wonderful transcription (Podger's owm) of Bach's Partita for Solo Flute BWV1013 which works extremely well on the violin - she says in her contribution to the notes, "I would often play it for fun as a warm up (which would disorient the flute player in the room!)". In addition there are works by Tartini, Matteis, Pisendel and the Passacaglia from Biber's Rosary Sonatas (the engraving for which gives this disc its title). It is a varied and fascinating programme which is just a pleasure to listen to but has genuine musical depth, too.

What makes this special is Rachel Podger's playing, of course. I have enjoyed her work for a very long time now and fell irredeemably in love when I heard her solo Bach discs - which remain my favourite recordings of the Sonatas and Partitas.  She has phenomenal technique which allows her to sound utterly natural throughout the most demanding passages, and is utterly at home in this repertoire. She also has a wonderful sense of the music's meaning which shines through every movement here and shows that her standing as an international star is wholly justified. I'm sorry to gush, but I really do think this is something special.

Channel Classics' recorded sound is excellent and the presentation is attractive with good notes. Even allowing for my pre-existing admiration for Rachel Podger, this is a cracking disc all round and very warmly recommended.

Bach - Violin Concertos etc. - Jansen et al


Rating: 5/5

Review:
Delightful Bach

Janine Jansen is a very fine violinist and I like her work very much. Even allowing for this, I was surprised by how very much I enjoyed this disc. There are many excellent recordings of these works and this stands with the best of them while feeling very fresh.

The works on this disc are Bach's two recognised violin concertos in A minor and E, the double concerto for violin and oboe BWV1060, and two of the sonatas for violin and keyboard. To be honest, I nearly didn't bother trying this disc because these are all so well-known and I have several well-loved recordings already, but I'm delighted that I decided to give it a go. Jansen has a wonderful lightness of touch throughout which gives all these pieces a real zing and a sense of light and air while never losing any of their intellectual weight. She shapes the phrases beautifully and her wonderful technique allows everything to sound effortless.

It really is a delight, and the oboe playing of Ramon Ortega Quero is equally good, making the double concerto a highlight for me - and the finale, one of Bach's most toe-tapping movements, has a terrific spring in its step. The ensemble is very small (four violins, two violas, cello and double bass) and very good, so they have a fabulous, chamber-like flexibility while being able to give it all the necessary welly in the more vigorous passages.

Jansen herself is just as good in the sonatas, although if there is a weakness on this disc it is in the harpsichord playing of her father Jan, which I found a little plodding compared to, say, Ottavio Dantone with Viktoria Mullova or Richard Egarr with Andrew Manze. Nevertheless, these are very enjoyable recordings.

The recorded sound is excellent. The notes are a little pedestrian but perfectly adequate and the presentation is nicely done. Even if, like me, you have several recordings of these concerti and sonatas I would suggest giving this a listen - I find it hugely enjoyable and recommend it very warmly.

Sunday, 9 August 2015

Avi Avital - Between Worlds


Rating: 5/5

Review:
A Joy

This is a joy of a disc. I tried it on the strength of Avi Avital's Bach disc which I enjoyed and showed him to be a fantastically talented mandolin player. I think this is even better – the varied and extremely interesting programme makes it a fascinating as well as a very enjoyable listen.

Avital himself is superb. He is a genuine virtuoso with a real feel for what he's playing, so as well as some high-speed fireworks (which aren't overdone) we get a lot of genuine artistic interpretation. The works are always interesting and very varied from slightly louche, slinky dancing in the Piazzola to atmospheric spirituality in the Bloch, for example – and thoroughly enjoyable thoughout. I wasn't at all sure about the idea of Dvorak's American String Quartet arranged for mandolin, violin, viola, cello, double bass and accordion (!) but it's a delight, and the closing duet with the great harpist Catrin Finch is simply fabulous.

I'd suggest listening to a few samples and then snapping this up. It's is a group of fantastic musicians playing great music in an original and hugely enjoyable programme. Very warmly recommended.

Friday, 7 August 2015

de Rore - Missa Doulce memoire etc. - The Brabant Ensemble


Rating: 4/5

Review:
Not the best de Rore recording

I have been a great admirer of The Brabant Ensemble for years now and some of their recordings, notably of Phinot and Moulu are among my very favourites. Although I like this disc, I don't think it is really in the same league as their best.

The music itself is good but perhaps not as rewarding as some of the finest polyphony of the period. Nonetheless, it is well worth hearing and a really great performance could give it real depth and beauty; I don't think the Brabants quite manage that here. As other reviewers have noted, the balance of voices is very top-heavy which robs the music of a good deal of its texture, and this is exacerbated by the recording. It is echoey and distant so the rich, intimate sound of the choir is much diminished and they sound rather disembodied and detached. Also - and this may just be my ears - the normally impeccable intonation of the Brabants sounds slightly off in a couple of places to me. All of these things combine to mar the disc rather and they do diminish my enjoyment.

I don't want to be too harsh - there are moments of real clarity and beauty here, and I applaud the Steven Rice's continuing efforts to bring to light some of the more obscure but beautiful Renaissance repertoire. However, for me this isn't one of the Brabant Ensemble's best discs by any means and I can only give it a rather qualified recommendation.

(For a great recording of de Rore I would suggest The Tallis Scholars' fabulous disc of motets and the mass Praeter rerum seriem or their fine compilation Flemish Masters which includes the mass.)

Wednesday, 5 August 2015

Purcell - Complete Odes and Welcome Songs


Rating: 5/5

Review: 
A magnificent box

This is a magnificent box. The music itself is wonderful with Purcell's genius shining through every one of the pieces here. His gift for melody and especially for brilliant harmonic invention make these works a treasure trove of great music. Many are extremely famous, but the less well-known also all have something unique and special about them. It has to be said that the words Purcell was given to set are sometimes pretty over-ripe, but this doesn't interfere with my enjoyment of the music at all.

The performances are equally good. The King's Consort were invariably excellent and these recordings from the late 80s and early 90s are among their best in my view. There is a magnificent cast of soloists including Tessa Bonner, Michael George, John Mark Ainsley, James Bowman and others, with the great Crispian Steele-Perkins playing the natural trumpet superbly.

I love every disc and I simply don't think you can go wrong with this set. It is quite an investment, but it is one which will give a lifetime of pleasure. Very warmly recommended indeed.