Thursday, 31 December 2015

Bach - Motets - Herreweghe

Rating: 5/5

More excellent Bach from Herreweghe

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 30 December 2015

Bach - Leipzig Cantatas - Colleguim Vocale Ghent/Herreweghe

Rating: 5/5

Excellent recordings

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

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

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

Tuesday, 22 December 2015

Taverner - Missa Corona spinea - The Tallis Scholars

Rating: 5/5


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

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

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

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

Sunday, 20 December 2015

Ward - Fantasies & Verse Anthems - Phantasm

Rating: 3/5

Not up to Phantasm's usual standard

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

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

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

Saturday, 19 December 2015

Dufay - Motets Vols. 1 & 2 - Cantica Symphonia

Rating: 5/5

Fine Dufay recordings

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

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

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

Sunday, 13 December 2015

The Frans Brüggen Edition

Rating: 5/5


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

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

CD 1: Telemann - Recorder sonatas and fantasias

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

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

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

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

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

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

CD 8: Vivaldi - Chamber concertos

CD 9: Handel - Recorder sonatas

CD 10: Telemann - Concertos and overtures

CD 11: Bach - Concertos and sonatas

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

Thursday, 10 December 2015

Hille Perl - Born to be Mild

Rating: 2/5

Not for me

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 8 December 2015

Armada - Fretwork

Rating: 5/5

Review:An excellent re-release 

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

Regnart - Missa Super Oeniades Nymphae - Cinquecento

Rating: 5/5

A very fine disc

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

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

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

Monday, 7 December 2015

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

Rating: 5/5

An excellent recording

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

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

Saturday, 5 December 2015

Gabrieli - Venise sur Garonne - Les Sacqueboutiers

Rating: 5/5

Fabulous Gabrieli

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

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

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

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

Friday, 4 December 2015

Palestrina - Canticum Canticorum - Pro Cantione Antiqua/Turner

Rating: 3/5

Showing its age

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

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

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

Tuesday, 1 December 2015

Rachmaninov - All-Night Vigil

Rating: 5/5


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

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

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