Saturday, 31 October 2015

Vivaldi - Concertos - English Concert/Pinnock

Rating: 5/5

An excellent set

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

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

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

Wednesday, 28 October 2015

Purcell - Ten Sonatas In Four Parts - Retrospect Trio

Rating: 5/5

An excellent recording

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

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

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

Monday, 26 October 2015

English Royal Funeral Music - Vox Luminis

Rating: 5/5


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

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

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

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

Sunday, 25 October 2015

Mozart - Piano Quartets - Leopold Trio, Lewis

Rating: 5/5

Simply fantastic

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 22 October 2015

Bach - Flute Sonatas - Oliva/Hewitt

Rating: 5/5

Excellent Bach

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

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

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

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

Friday, 16 October 2015

Bach - Goldberg Variations - Tharaud

Rating: 3/5

Rather disappointing

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

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

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

Thursday, 15 October 2015

van Wilder - Complete Works - Cantores/Allinson

Rating: 4/5

Interesting and worthwhile

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 14 October 2015

Ludford - Missa benedicta etc. - New College/Higginbottom

Rating: 4/5

Very good Tudor polyphony

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

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

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

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

Louis Couperin - Complete Keyboard Works - Egarr

Rating: 5/5

An outstanding set

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

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

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

Tuesday, 13 October 2015

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

Rating: 5/5

One of Savall's best

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

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

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

Monday, 12 October 2015

Mozart - Flute Quartets - Hurel, Quatuor Voce

Rating: 5/5

Excellent Mozart

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 11 October 2015

Lully - Petits Motets - Les Arts Florissant/Rousset

Rating: 4/5

Decent music and performances but rather unexciting

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

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

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

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

Monday, 5 October 2015

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

Rating: 5/5

Terrific stuff

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

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

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

Saturday, 3 October 2015

Mozart - Clarinet Works - Ogrintchouk et al

Rating: 5/5

Outstanding Mozart

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

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

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

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

Matteis - False Consonances of Melancholy - Gli Incogniti, Beyer

Rating: 5/5

Excellent Baroque playing

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

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

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