Friday, 30 December 2016

Mozart - Violin Concertos - Faust, Antonini


Rating: 5/5

Review:
Fabulous



This is a fabulous recording.  I already have several well-loved recordings of these works and only tried Isabelle Faust's recording because I loved her solo Bach so much.  I'm very glad I did, because she brings something quite special to the concertos.

Faust is a magnificent violinist whose approach is often quite austere.   Here she is less austere than light-touch, with the music often seeming to flow completely effortlessly.  There's plenty of weight and punch when needed, though, especially in some terrific cadenzas and the whole thing has a wonderful feel to it.

Il Giardino Armonico are excellent.  They are a small ensemble here, playing with a suppleness and responsiveness which brings the music completely to life, with Faust's solo violin always clear and distinct but also with a sense of belonging to the whole.  The effect is fresh and, to me, completely delightful.

With excellent recorded sound, this is a very fine release all round, and very warmly recommended.

Tuesday, 27 December 2016

Bach - Mass in B minor (1998) - Herreweghe


Rating: 5/5

Review:
Quite magnificent



I think this is a truly lovely performance of the B minor Mass.  There are many great recordings and for me, this stands with the best of them.

The music itself is sublime, of course.  This has been called the greatest artistic statement of any age and that's a defensible view.  Herreweghe really gets this, I think.  He takes things at measured tempi which never drag, but really give the music the spirituality and intellectual weight it deserves.  Bach's essential pulse and dancing rhythms are always there, though; the Christe eleison, for example, conveys both a serious expression of faith and a lovely dancing joy.  The depth, thought and richness of sound which Herreweghe brings here makes the whole thing a complete delight for me.  It may sound less sparklingly brilliant in places than, say, Gardiner (whose interpretation I also love) but it has a core of beauty and musicality which is profoundly involving, and Bach's deep spirituality is always present.

The recorded sound is excellent, the soloists are quite magnificent (as you'd expect from a cast including people like Veronique Gens, Andreas Scholl and Peter Kooy) and it's a great recording all round.  Very, very warmly recommended.



Tuesday, 20 December 2016

Victoria - Canticum Nativitatis Domini - Capella de Ministres


Rating: 2/5

Review:
Very disappointing



I'm afraid I found this very disappointing.  Neither the performance nor the recording quality is really good enough.

Victoria's music is wonderful, and there are many very fine recordings of it available.  This doesn't stand up to comparison.  The singing is adequate but unbalanced, so individual voices sometimes dominate inappropriately, some voices have too much vibrato to blend and the overall sound is rather muddy and indistinct.  As a result, rather than the sublime beauty of Victoria's music shining though, we get an indistinct, undifferentiated and woolly sound which doesn't really convey any of the meaning or spirituality in the music.

I am sorry to be so critical, but I think this is a pretty poor recording and I'll be going back to The Tallis Scholars, The Cardinall's Musick, The Orchestra Of The Renaissance and others; I can't recommend this.

Friday, 16 December 2016

Pedrini - Complete Violin Sonatas - Lindorff, Wilson


Rating: 3/5

Review:
Rather uninspiring



I'm afraid I found this a little uninspiring.  It's decent music in pretty good performances, but no more.

Pedrini is a little-known composer who turns out to have had an interesting life, spending a significant period as a court musician to the Chinese Emperor in the early 18th century.  Sadly, I didn't find all that much of interest in his music; it is perfectly listenable and quite technically challenging at times, but I don't find anything like the melodic or harmonic invention of, say, Vivaldi or Corelli and it's not in anything like the same league as Handel or Bach.

Joyce Lindorff and Nancy Wilson deal pretty well with the technical challenges of the music, but for me it never really catches fire or speaks to me emotionally.  This is partly due to the music itself, but I often find the playing a little stiff and uninspired, too.

Lindorff and Wilson deserve praise for bringing obscure music to a wider audience.  I admire the intent, but the overall result is a little lacklustre in both content and execution and I can only give this a very qualified recommendation.

Josquin - Musica Symbolica - De Labyrintho/Testolin


Rating: 5/5

Review:
A real find

I took a bit of a risk with this disc, but I'm very glad that I did. I was looking for a recording of the Missa Gaudeamus and I don't really get on with A Sei Voci's performances which left this as the only alternative I could find. Luckily, it's terrific.

The music here is, of course, outstandingly brilliant and exceptionally lovely (it is by Josquin, after all). There is the fabulous mass setting Missa Gaudeamus and five of Josquin's finest motets. It's a lovely and rewarding programme.

De Labyrintho were a new ensemble to me, and I can't understand why they are not better known. They are a small group of Italian singers, and they are excellent. Intonation, blend and balance are all impeccable, and they have a lovely fluency and feel for the text. Sopranos take top lines so pitch is high and the resultant sound is crystal clear and very beautiful (and captured in an excellent recording). Their sound reminded me a little of the Brabant Ensemble, and the quality of the performance matches the Brabant, too, which is very high praise.

I have to say that I'm not keen on the rather pretentious title of this disc, nor on the notes which are rather overblown and speculative, although there are full texts and translations. Dodgy notes or not, the music's the thing and this is a real find for me - I'm delighted with it and recommend it very highly.

Monday, 5 December 2016

Bach - Testament - Barton Pine


Rating: 4/5

Review:
Very skilful but something slightly lacking



I tried this because of  enthusiastic reviews by critics whom I greatly respect, but I'm afraid I found it slightly disappointing.

The music itself, of course, is sublime and Rachel Barton Pine plays it with superb technique.  She has obviously thought hard about it, too, and it's a very respectable performance from a very fine musician.  She doesn't try to overlay it spurious emotion or tricksy techniques, which I appreciate very much, but for me there's something a little lacking.  The great Chaconne from the D minor Partita never quite catches light or gives me any sense of taking me into the slightly strange and wonderful places to which Bach is leading us, for example.  The sprightly dancing movements don't have quite the spring in their step which I would like and the soulful, sometimes agonized slower movements lack some emotional depth, I think.

For me, this doesn't bring any of Viktoria Mullova's sinewy grace, Isabelle Faust's spare beauty or Rachel Podger's fabulous combination of warmth and intellectual depth, for example.  It's certainly not a bad recording and in many ways it is a very good one which greater musical minds than mine admire.  Personally, though, I'll be sticking to Podger, Faust, Mullova and one or two others.

Dowland - Lachrimae or Seven Tears - Phantasm, Kenny


Rating: 5/5

Review:
Wonderful



This is just wonderful.  I love Phantasm's recordings and I think this is among their best work – which is really saying something.

The music itself is fabulous:  Dowland's seven variations on  a lovely theme which he called "Lachrimae" (of course he did!) plus arrangements of some of his finest lute pieces.  These include well-known pieces like The Earl Of Essex Galliard and Semper Dowland, Semper Dolens with a very good, varied selection of other pieces.  It's a lovely collection, very well put together.

It's the playing which makes this so special.  Phantasm are one of the world's leading viol consorts, and the excellent Elizabeth Kenny's lute blends and complements them perfectly.  The lovely phrasing and subtlety of expression is quite remarkable, and the overall sound is just lovely.  I realise that I'm gushing rather, but I mean it; I have quite a few recordings of Lachrimae including much-loved discs by The King's Noyse and Musica Antiqua Köln, but this rather effortlessly eclipses them, I think.

Linn make their usual excellent job of recording so the sound is perfectly clear but full and warm, and it's very nicely presented with good, readable notes from Laurence Dreyfuss.  This is an absolutely terrific disc all round, and very warmly recommended.


Saturday, 26 November 2016

Byrd - My Ladye Nevell's Booke


Rating: 5/5

Review:
A wonderful set



This is a wonderful collection of Byrd's keyboard music.  Although he is better known for his polyphony, Byrd wrote a great deal of very fine music for harpsichord, virginal and other keyboard instruments of the time; this is some of the best of it, played on the harpsichord by a real master of the instrument.

The 3CD set is a wonderful, varied sequence of mature works by Byrd, Nos. 1-25 being largely pavans and galliards and Nos 26-42 fantasias and variations.  There is a wealth of wonderful stuff here, showing what a truly great, innovative and imaginative composer Byrd was.  It is played superbly by Hogwood, with real sensitivity and insight - and it goes without saying that he has the technique and virtuosity to allow every nuance of feeling and atmosphere to shine through.

The recording is lovely, giving a fabulous rich sound with none of the tinniness which sometimes afflicts harpsichord recitals.  Hogwood's own notes are full, very interesting and very readable, and it's a really good set all round.  Very warmly recommended.


Sunday, 13 November 2016

Simpson - The Four Seasons - Sirius Viols/Perl


Rating: 5/5

Review:
A lovely disc



This is absolutely excellent.  Hille Perl is a very fine gamba player who has made a lot of really good recordings (and some that I haven't liked).  This is one of her best – thoughtful, superbly played and very enjoyable.

Simpson was a great English gamba player of the early 17th Century and The Seasons is his best-known work.  It's easy to see why; it is varied and very involving with a fine variety of moods and some lovely melodic and harmonic invention.  Perl and her ensemble play it superbly, I think, with intelligence, insight and a remarkable beauty of sound in many places – the opening movement of Spring, entitled Fan, held me absolutely spellbound by it's sheer loveliness, for example.

I have fine recordings of this work by Les Voix Humaines and by Sophie Watillon, of which this is at least the equal.  It's a musically rewarding and very lovely disc – beautifully recorded by DHM.  Warmly recommended.


Monday, 7 November 2016

Alison Balsom - Jubilo


Rating: 5/5

Review:
Another cracker from Alison Balsom



This is yet another very fine disc from Alison Balsom.  She continues to be both a genuinely world-class musician and a great ambassador for classical music.

In Jubilo, she has recorded a selection of Baroque concerti and transcriptions by Fasch, Torelli, Corelli and J.S. Bach.  All are fine works, to which Balsom lends real class with superb playing.  Some thrilling, stratospherically high pyrotechnics are made to sound as natural as breathing, and the slower more evocative passages are simply lovely.  It is here that Balsom really shines, I think, because she gives the music real depth and feeling, coupled often with a genuine gentleness and subtlety which isn't often associated with the trumpet. 

The ensemble playing and singing is excellent – as you'd expect from such superstars as Pavlo Beznosiuk, Stephen Cleobury, and a world-class orchestra and chorus.  It's a lovely programme, helped by transcriptions of a couple of Bach's greatest hits, and the whole thing is a real pleasure.

I think that this is a disc with real popular appeal, but which also has genuine musical merit so that crusty old classical listeners like me will find it very rewarding, too.  It is, in short, a cracking, hugely enjoyable disc which is warmly recommended.

Thursday, 3 November 2016

Bach - The Art Of Fugue - Podger/Brecon Baroque


Rating: 5/5

Review:
fabulous



This is quite fabulous. Rachel Podger is widely recognised as one of the world's leading baroque violinists and interpreters, and this is yet another excellent recording from her.  She and her fellow musicians have produced something very special here, I think.

Bach's Art of Fugue is written in open score, allowing it to be played on all manner of instruments, including the keyboard.  As a result there are many very fine recordings already in existence, including my two personal favourites by Phantasm (arranged for viol consort) and Angela Hewitt on the piano.  This is their equal, I think.  It's not an easy work to get right for performance; it is extremely cerebral, of course, but there are genuine emotional and spiritual statements here and balancing the two can be tricky.  To my ears Podger and her ensemble get it exactly right; they vary the instrumentation to maintain interest, the clarity of line and fugal structure is all there, but there's also a real sense of the spiritual depth of Bach's writing and it's spellbinding in places.

The playing is exceptionally good, as one would expect from musicians of this calibre.  In chamber playing there is often something rather indefinable which goes to make a great performance in addition to technical excellence, precision and so on; it's to do with the players having a shared love of the music and a shared sense of its real meaning.  I would be very hard pressed to say exactly how this shows itself, but I think it does here, and very powerfully.  For me, it lifts the performance from the very good to the exceptional.  Also (and I know not everyone agrees with me here), I wholeheartedly approve of the decision to end the disc with the incomplete version of Contrapunctus 14 as Bach left it at his death.  That sudden halt has a poignancy I find in few other places in music, and it gets me every time here.

The notes are adequate if not brilliant – but that's only a minor point.  What really counts here is the music and its performance, both of which are superb.  I said last year of Rachel Podger's  magnificent recording of Biber's Rosary Sonatas that there would be something seriously wrong if it wasn't a major contender in the next Gramophone Awards (there wasn't – it won one) and I can say the same of this.  It's a wonderful release.

Tuesday, 1 November 2016

Josquin - Missa Di dadi etc - The Tallis Scholars/Philips


Rating: 5/5

Review:
Another excellent disc from The Tallis Scholars



This latest addition to The Tallis Scholars' Josquin mass cycle is, like the others, quite fabulous.  Here we have two early masses whose authorship is perhaps questionable, but which are still very fine and worthy of inclusion under Josquin's name.

Both these settings and their respective performances are excellent; slightly strangely, it is the more obscure (and more doubtful) Missa Une Mousse de Biscaye which I find the more rewarding.  Perhaps this is because it is new to me, but its prominent lower register in particular makes a powerful impact on me and the overall sound often puts me in mind a little of the opening of Josquin's great motet Praeter rerum seriem.  The Missa di dadi is a little less visceral but still very potent, and both are sung with The Tallis Scholars' trademark precision, beauty, engagement with the text and wonderful fluency of line. 

I ran out of superlatives to use about The Tallis Scholars quite some time ago.  I have bought each disc as it came out for over 30 years now; I have never been disappointed and have often been thrilled.  This is another truly excellent release in a series which will surely be the benchmark for Josquin masses for many years.  It scarcely needs an endorsement from me, but I can still recommend this very warmly indeed.  It's another real gem.

Tuesday, 25 October 2016

Scarlatti - Sonatas - Bogner (clavichord)


Rating: 2/5

Review:
Very disappointing



I'm afraid this disc didn't work for me.  This may be because of the instrument, but I think it's to do with the playing as well.  There are a lot of magnificent recordings of Scarlatti on both harpsichord and piano and this simply isn’t in the same league.

I am not really sure of the rationale behind playing Scarlatti on the clavichord; the argument presented in the notes isn't very clear and didn't convince me.  Bogner's notes claim that, "The endless tonal flexibility of the clavichord underlines the origins of this music, particularly on the instrument by Thomas Vincent Glück. Thanks to the elaborate construction in the bass, the powerful chords really come into their own with an almost unheard-of resonance…"  They don't.  The sound of the clavichord in this recording is dull and lifeless, which in itself robs the music of much of its freshness and interest. 

I also felt that much of the playing was similarly lacklustre.  The disc opens with Kk.208, which plods and stumbles its way along and has the air of a Grade 5 exam piece being practiced by someone who doesn't like it very much.  This pretty much sets the tone of the programme; not all of the selections were quite so drably presented, but none really shone as they should and I found the whole disc a grave disappointment.

I am sorry to be harsh, but that's my honest response to this recording. I'll be sticking to Hewitt, Tharaud, Pinnock and my old and dearly loved Scott Ross complete recordings; this isn’t for me.

Monday, 24 October 2016

Striggio - Mass in 40 Parts - I Fagiolini/Hollingworth


Rating: 5/5

Review:
A terrific disc

I think this is a terrific disc. A great deal of scholarship has gone into finding and editing the colossal mass by Striggio which is at its heart, the recording itself must have been a huge undertaking and the result fully justifies the work that has gone into it. The works on this disc are musically very fine and the performances are excellent, making the whole thing fascinating, beautiful and hugely enjoyable.

Robert Hollingworth has chosen to perform the works on this disc with some parts taken by voices and some by a range of contemporary instruments such as sackbuts, shawms and viols. He makes a convincing and interesting case for this in the excellent notes and the effect is remarkable, often creating a thrilling Renaissance Wall of Sound but also beautifully delicate and intimate in places. Striggio structures his mass very cleverly to allow these effects to offset each other and I thought the whole thing - both the large- and small-scale works - was fantastic. This use of instruments also sheds a fascinating new light on Tallis's wonderful Spem in alium and I found this version of it riveting.

Hollingworth has assembled a wonderful group of singers to augment the excellent I Fagiolini, many of whom are regular members of such outstanding ensembles as The Tallis Scholars, The Sixteen, Stile Antico and others. The instrumentalists are just as good, including members of Fretwork and other world-class period ensembles. They give an outstanding performance together; technically flawless and with a wonderful empathy for the music, they are powerful and delicate, passionate and tender as required and really bring this wonderful music to life.

The recorded sound is excellent, the presentation attractive and the notes very interesting. You also get a DVD which includes three surround-sound tracks and a video on the making of the CD. It's an excellent set all round and very warmly recommended.

Wednesday, 19 October 2016

Bach - Goldberg Variations - Hewitt (2016)


Rating: 5/5

Review:
Another gem from Angela Hewitt



I have loved Angela Hewitt's original recording of the Goldberg Variations ever since it was issued in 2000, so I was both excited and a little anxious about a new recording.  No need for anxiety – this is another outstanding recording.

Hewitt has lived with this work for many, many years and has a deep understanding of it both scholastically and emotionally - that much was already evident in her original recording.   This version, recorded on her own Fazioli piano, is recognisably different,  but the differences are subtle and to me often almost intangible.  The pulse of the dance which Hewitt understands so well is still there, as is the deep scholarship which illuminates every bar and also the radiant beauty she brings out of so many of the Variations.  Although she obviously brings something new to the work here, I struggled to put my finger on exactly what it is because it's more a matter of mood and a slight mellowness, perhaps, than anything really obvious.  In her typically  readable and interesting notes, Hewitt says:
"The Steinway I recorded on back in 1999 was a most
beautiful instrument. My own Fazioli on this 2015 recording
is more flexible, more challenging to one’s creativity, more
open to variations in sound and touch. The emphasis on
dance is more marked (dance in Bach means joy—one
would think that with age the capacity for joy diminishes,
but in fact I find the opposite). On this new recording the
phrasing is, I think, more elastic; the touch, when required,
lighter; the contrasts more apparent."

I agree, and I can't do better than that.  What I can say is that this will take its place alongside her 2000 recording as a genuine favourite.  It is, of course, superbly recorded by Hyperion and is a wholly involving pleasure to listen to.

Hewitt ends her notes with this:  "But above all, the ‘Goldberg’ Variations has somehow become a mirror of my life, and gives me the opportunity to say with music that which I would never be able to express with words."  That maturity and emotional investment shines out of this disc as she expresses Bach faithfully and very beautifully.  I love it, and I can recommend it very warmly indeed.

Monday, 17 October 2016

Weiss - Moscow Manuscript - Suetin


Rating: 3/5

Review:
Not the best Weiss recording



I'm afraid I'm not all that taken with this disc.  I like Weiss's music very much so I was looking forward to it, but both the performance and recording are a bit problematic.

Weiss was a rough contemporary of Bach and wrote a large amount of very fine lute music, of which this is a pretty decent selection.  However, the music needs a variety of approaches, including a lightness of step and a sense of space sometimes, neither of which it gets here.  Alexander Suetin is plainly a very good lutenist, but he invests everything with great intensity which works well enough in some more dramatic or emotional movements.  However, these are suites of dances; some of them are light and full of joy, but the whole thing has a terribly serious feel to it which gets pretty wearing after a while.  This isn't helped by a recording which sounds as though it was made in a lavatory – echoey but bleak and cold.  The overall effect really isn't good.

There are plenty of very fine recordings of Weiss by Robert Barto, Jakob Lindberg and others.  Personally, I'd recommend trying them rather than this; it's worthy but not all that enjoyable.

Tuesday, 11 October 2016

Allegri - Miserere - A Sei Voci/Fabre-Garrus


Rating: 4/5

Review:
A welcome reissue



I'm glad to see this disc (originally from 1994) reissued.  It is an interesting take on one of the best-known pieces in the repertoire, and it's good to have some more of Allegri's work available – even if it isn't terrifically inspiring.

The principal interest here is in the two versions of Gregorio Allegri's famous setting of the 51st Psalm, known as "Miserere".  The first is quite a revelation, with Baroque ornamentation rather than the more familiar version with the stratospheric treble/soprano notes which probably date from the Sistine Chapel's original ornamentation practice.  It's rather lovely, even if it is a bit of a shock to the system.  A Sei Voci also sing the more familiar version to close the disc.  They take both very slowly compared with other modern recordings like The Tallis Scholars and the Sixteen which can feel a little funereal at times, but they're well sung.

The rest of the music is a mass setting and three motets, also by Allegri, which – to me anyway – aren't all that interesting.  They're perfectly decent works, but compared to many of the wonderful music by famous composers like Josquin, Byrd or Palestrina, or the fabulous stuff by obscure composers unearthed more recently by ensembles like Cinquecento and The Brabant Ensemble, it seems pretty uninspiring.  It is redeemed a good deal by the performances, though.  I haven't always got on with A Sei Voci's performances in the past (their Josquin recordings in particular) but here they sing beautifully, with a lovely, richly textured sound and genuine engagement with the text. 

I certainly wouldn't recommend this as the best recording of Allegri's Miserere (for me, that's still The Tallis Scholars' 1980 recording) but it's a very interesting disc which I can recommend.

Monday, 3 October 2016

Vivaldi - Concerti per Due Violoni - Beyer, Carmignola, Gli Incogniti


Rating: 4/5

Review: Good but not quite great



I like this disc, but it's not quite as special as I was hoping it would be.  I love Amandine Beyer's work with Gli Incogniti and Giuliano Carmignola is a very fine Baroque player; in many ways they produce the goods here but I do have some reservations.

This is an interesting and quite varied programme of double violin concerti with – contrary to some beliefs about Vivaldi – a good variety of moods.  There are plenty of Vivaldi's familiar virtuosic pyrotechnics, but also genuine minor-key drama and some very lovely slower movements, too.  The players, soloists and ensemble alike, do seem to go at almost all of it with immense vigour, and while I'm all for Vivaldi being invested with plenty of fire and emotion, I think there does need to be a little more variation of tone.  It does happen sometimes – the Largo of RV527 is exquisite, for example – just not quite enough for me.

I also found the sound balance a little odd at times, with the soloists mixed rather a long way back so there were moments when I was struggling to make out the solo lines among the ensemble.

Neither of these is a massive criticism; they are both quite personal perceptions and others may not agree with them.  This is certainly a very good disc of Vivaldi from two terrific players and a very fine ensemble.  It's not quite the fabulous treat I was expecting, but I can still recommend it.

Saturday, 1 October 2016

Mouton - Missa Dictes moy etc - The Tallis Scholars


Rating: 5/5

Review:
A fabulous recording

The Tallis Scholars are invariably excellent (I have loved their recordings for forty years now), but every so often they release a disc which is truly exceptional even by their own stellar standards. This is one of them. Mouton's music is rich, distinctive and astonishingly beautiful, featuring a serenity and sweetness of tone seldom matched in Renaissance polyphony but never becomes bland or monotonous because Mouton varies his mood and effects so cleverly that there is always variety and something new to keep the ear interested and - for me, anyway - often spellbound.

The mass setting here is really excellent, with Mouton's ingenious use of Compere's chanson Dittez moy as a basis binding it together beautifully and keeping even the long movements fresh and interesting throughout. The motets are also terrific, with the amazing setting of Ave maria...virgo serena showing hints that Mouton occasionally came close to Josquin's genius in composition.

The disc ends with Mouton's only well-known work, the fabulously beautiful Nesciens mater. I already have three dearly-loved versions but this may well be my favourite. Sung one to a part, it has a spare clarity which allows it to really shine. As Dorothy L. Sayers said of Dante's Divine Comedy, it has a lasting beauty being built on noble bones and here the Tallis Scholars allow that innate beauty to shine. This is true throughout the disc, which has a deeper, more resonant sound than some Tallis Scholars recordings. The top lines in the mass and two of the motets are taken by the altos, and Donald Greig, a stalwart bass of the ensemble, here sings the baritone part which gives an idea of the often lower pitch. This fits the music perfectly and with the Tallis Scholars' characteristic impeccable technique and deep engagement with the music the whole thing is quite exceptionally beautiful and involving.

The recorded sound (in the lovely acoustic of Merton College Chapel, Oxford) is outstanding and the notes full, readable and interesting. This is an absolutely terrific disc all round and on a par with their Browne, de Rore and Victoria recordings which are among my most treasured discs. Recommended in the warmest possible terms.

Friday, 30 September 2016

Graupner - Orchestral Suites - Finnish Baroque Orchestra


Rating: 5/5

Review:
A very enjoyable disc

I am rather surprised by how much I like this disc. Often, neglected baroque composers are neglected for a very good reason but while Graupner is certainly no Bach or Handel, he turns out to have written some very enjoyable music.

In his own time, Graupner was generally more highly regarded than Bach, of whom he was a slightly older contemporary. That's a judgement which most certainly wouldn't be shared today, but his music does deserve to be more widely known on this evidence. The music is perhaps more solid and workmanlike than inspired but it is nonetheless very enjoyable. He is slightly reminiscent of Handel in his use of orchestral colour and this gives the music real character, I think, and prevents it from just becoming baroque wallpaper. It's an interesting and rewarding listen – and a good deal of what makes it so is the playing of the musicians here.

The Finnish Baroque Orchestra are excellent, as are the soloists. They really understand what makes this music tick and bring out both the colours of the instruments and the dance rhythms of the different movements. The combination is a delight, and the variety of solo instruments – flute, viola d’amore, chalumeau, baroque horn, and bassoon in various combinations – lends real character to the whole thing.

Beautifully recorded and with full, interesting notes, this is a very good disc all round. If, like me, you were only dimly aware of Graupner, this will bring him much more to the fore, and deservedly so. Very warmly recommended.

Monday, 26 September 2016

Handel - My Favourite Instrument - Löffler/Batzdorfer Hofkapelle


Rating: 3/5

Review:
Rather disappointing



I love a lot of Handel's instrumental music and the Baroque oboe could be said to be one of my favourite instruments, too, but I'm afraid I found this disc rather disappointing.

The programme is a selection of Handel's works for oboe plus some soprano arias which also feature the oboe prominently.  I was expecting to enjoy it immensely, but it got rather wearing after a while.  Partly this is because it is pretty relentlessly in minor keys, which is absolutely fine in moderate doses and shows the oboe's uniquely plangent tone very well, but I could have done with a little more of Handel's more flowing, mellifluous melodies to leaven it a little.

More seriously, the entire disc seems to be played in a forceful, dramatic, in-your-face style which, while I'm all for vigour and individuality in Baroque playing, really begins to feel as though I'm being harangued after a while.  All the arias are delivered in a very declamatory style and even the gentler, major-key pieces seem very spiky and lacking an essential sense of smooth flow.  This is a shame, because Xenia Löffler is plainly a very good oboist, but I think she could use a few lessons in fluidity of line from someone like Heniz Holliger or Frank de Bruine, and her ensemble need to rein in the attack a little where appropriate. 

All this is a personal view, of course.  Others may disagree but for me this is not one to listen to repeatedly.

Thursday, 22 September 2016

Abel - Mr Abel's Fine Airs - Heinrich


Rating: 5/5

Review:
Simply delightful

This is a marvellous disc of 24 of Abel's pieces for solo viola da gamba. When it first arrived I took it into the living room after supper to enjoy with a glass of wine and a book. The book never got a look in. I was instantly spellbound by the music. Abel was a pupil of Bach and the great man's influence shows in places - the two pieces marked "Arpeggio" perhaps have echoes of the preludes to the first and third Cello Suites, for example and the Allegro WKO198 could be a concluding gigue . Now, Abel is no Bach, and these are no Cello Suites, but there is serious and involving melodic and harmonic invention here and a truly delightful sense that these are semi-improvised miniatures played for friends around the fire - which apparently is exactly where Abel, one of the last great masters of the viola da gamba, was at his best.

What really makes Abel's music an unalloyed pleasure is the gamba playing of Susanne Heinrich. I have heard and enjoyed some of her work with Charivari Agreable but until now had no idea she was such a superb musician. The playing is virtuosic in that effortless way which shows off the music rather than the player's virtuosity and, with an intimately close recording, she really does give you the feeling that you're sharing a fireside with her. The sound she produces from the instrument (a modern copy) is fabulously lovely. Try to play this through a good stereo or decent headphones to catch the full, resonant sound - it's just wonderful. I think I may be in love.

I cannot recommend this disc too highly - it's a real gem.

Thursday, 15 September 2016

Bach - Goldberg Variations - Esfahani



Rating: 3/5

Review:
A mixed bag



Mahan Esfahani is a fantastic harpsichordist and a thoughtful, individual musician so I was very interested to see what his "fresh approach" to the Goldberg variations would be – and I've found it a bit of a mixed bag.  I have several dearly loved versions of the Goldberg Variations on both harpsichord and piano, and although parts of this recording stand very well with them, as a whole I can't really get on with it.

My problems begin with the first note.  I say "note" because although the score demands two notes played simultaneously, Esfahani separates them, with the bass sounding just before the top G.  He uses this effect a lot throughout the Aria (and in several of the Variations) and I'm afraid I find it a distracting affectation which breaks up the flow of the music and gives it a halting, limping feel.  And although that specific effect is absent in Variation 4, it, too, has a lack of rhythmic continuity which I find very distracting…and then Variation 5 comes along with the most delightful sense of lightness and flow, making it one of the loveliest interpretations I've heard.

I found this throughout: some variations are quite brilliant, others I find hard to listen to.  This is, of course, a matter of personal taste and you may not agree with my assessment.  Technically, Esfahani is, as always, magnificent and the sound of his harpsichord, superbly captured by DG's recording, is wonderfully rich and engaging.  I'd suggest giving this a try or at least listening to some samples; you may well get on with it better than I did.  Personally, though, I'll be going back to Pinnock, Egarr, Hewitt and a few others, and I can only give this a lukewarm recommendation.

Friday, 26 August 2016

Marais - Per la Violle et la Theorbe - Perl, Santana


Rating: 5/5

Review:
A lovely disc



I am a great admirer of the work of Hille Perl, although I haven't always liked her collaborations with Lee Santana (their recent Born To Be Mild, for example).  However, this is first-rate, I think.

These are some of Marais' gamba works with the basso continuo arranged for the theorbo.  It's a lovely combination of sounds, which Perl and Santana use to produce a very fine disc.  The overall sound is fabulous, rich and deep and there's plenty of melodic and harmonic invention here, too (as one would expect from Marais.)  Both play beautifully, with virtuosity, mutual understanding and an obvious love for what they are playing.

The result is a disc of very satisfying music which rewards careful listening, but you can also just sit back and luxuriate in the sound (beautifully recorded by DHM).  The notes are in Hille Perl's usual…er…individual style which may suit others better than it does me, but there is plenty of scholarly content too.  It's a really good disc, and one which I can recommend very warmly.

Friday, 19 August 2016

de Machy - Pieces de Violle - Pandolfo


Rating: 5/5

Review:
Another gem from Pandolfo



Paulo Pandolfo has been making brilliant recordings for decades now, and this is another gem, I think.  The music is by de Machy, a composer I'd never heard of before, and published in 1685 (the year of Bach's birth, to put it in context).  It's all for solo viola da gamba and arranged into Suites of dances – a familiar format at the time.  It is varied and enjoyable, with melodic invention and skilful polyphonic writing for the instrument, on which de Machy was an acknowledged master.

What makes this disc so enjoyable, of course, is the playing of Pandolfo.  As always, it is virtuosic, expressive and free-flowing.  Pandolfo's almost improvisatory-sounding style works very well with these pieces, and I find the whole thing a pleasure.

Glossa make their usual beautiful job of both recorded sound and presentation, and this is a very fine disc all round.  If you like the gamba as I do, or just have an interest in early Baroque music, don't hesitate – this is a cracker!

Thursday, 11 August 2016

de Monte - Missa Ultimi miei sospiri - Cinquecento


Rating: 5/5

Review: A very fine disc

Considering his vast output of music, Philippe de Monte doesn't feature in the catalogue all that much, which is a shame as this disc shows that he was a composer of real stature who produced some very fine works.  I had previously known de Monte largely through his famously sending his lovely motet Super flumina Babylonis to Byrd, lamenting the oppression of Catholics in England (and Byrd responding with a fabulous setting of Quomodo cantabimus?)  This disc comprises a very fine mass setting, a Magnificat and several motets and is a very welcome addition to my collection.

Cinquecento sing the music superbly.  The beautiful sound which was such a feature of their disc of Regnart's music is here too.  They are an all-male sextet with top lines sung by countertenors, so the pitch is relatively low and this and the resonant acoustic gives a fabulous, warm, enveloping sound which loses none of the detail and expressiveness of either the music itself or the fine performance.  Intonation is impeccable and the singing is wonderfully clean and sympathetic to the text without disturbing the overall beauty of the sound.  The combination of top-quality performance with excellent recorded sound makes this a favourite disc of mine and I recommend it very warmly indeed.

Tuesday, 2 August 2016

Bach - Easter & Ascension Oratorios - Retrospect Ensemble/Halls


Rating: 5/5

Review:
Magnificent Bach

I think this is a quite exceptionally good disc of two of Bach's great choral works. The two oratorios here are on a very grand scale by comparison with most of Bach's cantatas, and the performances make them something very special indeed.

The music itself is glorious: Bach included plenty of brass and percussion which gives these works immense power and richness, but also structures them beautifully so that there is plenty of quieter spiritual reflection too. The combination is quite wonderful, and the Retrospect Ensemble and cast of soloists perform it superbly.

Both the orchestra and chorus are relatively large, but there is none of the ponderous, over-reverential and frankly turgid feel of some older large-scale recordings. The entire ensemble is nimble and light-footed throughout while still having plenty of power and spiritual depth where needed. Bach's essential pulse never gets lost, and some of the instrumental playing, notably in the trumpets, is quite brilliant.

The soloists are simply brilliant. They are four of our finest singers in this repertoire and every one of them excels, so that the arias and recitative shine with depth and beauty. Just as one example, I find James Gilchrist's singing of Sanfte soll mein Todeskummer simply spellbinding here, and the same can be said of other arias from all the soloists. It's fantastic stuff throughout.

Linn make their usual beautiful job of the recording, the disc is very nicely presented and it's an all-round gem, in my view. There are an awful lot of recordings of Bach's choral music; this is among the very best. Highly recommended.

Monday, 1 August 2016

Dufay - Missa Se la face ay pale - Diabolus in Musica


Rating: 5/5

Review:
Beautiful Dufay

I love this disc.  I don't always find Dufay easy to listen to, but this is a rich, moving and satisfying performance.
Dufay's music is from the mid-part of the 15th Century and so can have a spare, even austere sound to the modern ear.  This can be very lovely, but in some recordings I find the spareness slips over into bleakness which can be tough going for the duration of an entire mass setting, say.
I think Diabolus in Musica get this just right.  They bring a warmth of sound and lovely, full resonance and warmth of sound to it which, combined with a sedate but appropriate tempo, makes the music glow while never slipping into blandness or losing the music's sense and structure.  Technique is excellent, with impeccable intonation and a lovely fluency of line.  They sing at a lower pitch with countertenors taking the top lines, which emphasises the bass lines beautifully, and the whole thing is a real pleasure to my ears.
This is one of the loveliest and most accessible recordings of Dufay that I know.  Alpha make their usual excellent job of both recording and presentation, making it an all-round gem, I think.  Very warmly recommended.

Thursday, 28 July 2016

Dvorak - Stabat mater - Collegium Vocale Gent, Herreweghe


Rating: 5/5

Review
A delightful discovery

I confess that I didn't know Dvorak's Stabat Mater before trying this, which I took a punt on because I have enjoyed Philippe Herreweghe's recordings for many years and wanted to find out what he was doing on his new Phi label. I am extremely glad I did because both the music and the performance here are top-notch.

This is Dvorak's setting of the powerful mediaeval poem of Mary at the foot of the cross, lamenting her son's terrible death. It is therefore quite dark and intense in places, but there's also plenty of Dvorak's warmth and light, too. His wonderful, distinctive harmonic structures and his gift for melody shine here and give real depth and meaning to the text.

Herreweghe and his ensemble do the music proud, engaging intensely with both text and music and shaping the piece with real skill. The soloists are all very good, the chorus and orchestra are excellent and the whole thing is very well balanced in a lovely, rich recording.

I was delighted to discover this piece and this performance. I think it is rather special and recommend it very warmly.

Thursday, 21 July 2016

Fux - Sonate e Sinfone - Capella Agostino Steffani/Rovatkay


Rating: 4/5

Review:
A very enjoyable disc



I like this disc very much.  It is very good, often extremely charming music, very well played.

Fux was a rough contemporary of Bach, older by 25 years, who was a brilliant theorist on counterpoint and a long-standing composer to the Hapsburg court in Vienna.  His music has a charm and grace about it which is very appealing, I think.  It doesn't have the depth and sheer genius of Bach nor the fiery passion of Vivaldi, but it is melodically and harmonically inventive and is a great deal more than just the baroque wallpaper as which it is sometimes dismissed.

These performances bring out the best in the music, I think.  Fux needs a thoughtful and sympathetic ensemble and Capella Agostino Steffani are exactly that.  They play beautifully and bring meaning and elegance to these pieces.  This is not music to set the world alight but, as with people like Heinichen, it is still well worth hearing and giving proper attention.  There's a lot here to enjoy, and I can recommend this disc.

Tuesday, 12 July 2016

Vincenzo Galilei - The Well-Tempered Lute - Ozmo


Rating: 4/5

Review:
A good recording



This is a good disc of 16th-Century lute music.  There is some real interest here and it's very good to have this music available, but I'm not sure that this will end up among my favourite lute recordings.

Vincenzo Galilei (father of Galileo, by the way) was a considerable lutenist, composer and theorist in 16th-Century Italy.  Part of his purpose in writing this collection was to champion equal temperament on the lute, almost a century and a half before Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier.  This aspect alone lends the music interest, and creates some fine changes of mood as well as some very enjoyable music.  To me, though it lacks some of the real depth and beauty of, say, Dowland, Bacheler or Gaultier and while I like it and am glad to have it in my collection, it doesn't move me as some of my other lute recordings do.

The playing is generally very good.  Zak Ozmo is a very fine lutenist; this is extremely technically challenging in places and his technique is usually up to making it sound smooth and natural, but not quite always.  To my ears, there's a slight sense of strain occasionally and a little clunkiness from time to time – although to be fair this may be a matter of Ozmo's choice of emphasis and phrasing rather than any limitation of technique.  Nonetheless, I don't find it quite as fluid as it might be in places.

Despite my slight reservations, this remains a good disc of worthwhile music which is well played and recorded.  The notes are informative and readable and, as always, Hyperion present it beautifully and I can recommend this recording.

Sunday, 10 July 2016

Mozart - Complete String Quartets - Hagen Quartet


Rating: 5/5

Review:
Excellent Mozart playing

This is a terrific box of all Mozart's String Quartets plus Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, the Bach fugues which Mozart arranged and two of Mozart's Adagios and Fugues. It's a collection of superb music, excellently played by one of the world's leading string quartets.

In my view, some of Mozart's finest music is here. I have to say that although the earlier quartets have a great deal of charm and it's good to have them, I do find they pale beside the great later quartets, which I think are works of true genius. In particular, the set he dedicated to Haydn and the Prussian Quartets are works of real depth and innovation and are they immensely pleasurable to listen to. I have a number of recordings, including Quatuor Mosaiques, Quartetto Italiano and the Amadeus Quartet, and I think these renditions by the Hagens stand very well beside those other great recordings.

The Hagen Quartet are superb musicians with excellent technique and flawless intonation. Their use of vibrato is restrained and, I think, ideal for this repertoire. Similarly, their phrasing and careful use of rubato shapes the music perfectly so that Mozart's wonderful structures shine through and aren't obscured by over-expressive gestures. There is often an audible twinkle and zest in their playing but they generate genuine passion and emotion, too (K421 is something quite special, I think). I would characterise this set as perhaps a little less austere than Quartetto Italiano, and a little cheerier and more vigorous than Quatuor Mosaiques. I love all three sets in their different ways and which is best for you will depend on your personal taste.

For a complete set of Mozart's String Quartets I really don't think you can go wrong with this box. They are beautifully played and excellently recorded, and the extras are a real pleasure, too. Even if, like me, you have a number of recordings already I'd say this is well worth getting; it has a fresh and very enjoyable feel and offers some new insights, too, and at this price for 7 CDs it's an absolute steal. Very warmly recommended.

Friday, 8 July 2016

Palestrina & Allegri - Masses and Miserere - Oxford Camerata/Summerly


Rating: 4/5

Review:
Fine Palestrina, less good Allegri



This is yet another fine disc from Oxford Camerata, although I do have some reservations about it: I think the Palestrina is excellent but I'm a little less happy with their performance of Allegri's Miserere.

The principal works here are two of Palestrina's finest mass settings, Missa Papae Marcelli and Missa Aeterna Christi munera.  Both are beautifully judged and performed here.  Oxford Camerata produce a lovely, warm sound which never becomes blurred or muddy.  There is a lovely fluency of line and engagement with the text and technically the singing is excellent, with impeccable tuning and precise ensemble singing.  The are lovely performances, I think, and an interesting contrast to The Tallis Scholars' classic recording of the Missa Papae Marcelli which is more clear and defined in sound but less warm.  I love both, and which you prefer is just a matter of personal taste, I think.

For me, the Allegri isn't as well judged.  The tempo is quite quick and I find the delivery almost aggressive – it's certainly much more robust than in many versions.  I have the greatest respect for Jeremy Summerly's scholarship and judgement, but I do wonder whether this is really the ideal tone for such a beautiful supplication for mercy.

Nonetheless, this is a fine disc and I can recommend these Palestrina performances very warmly.

Thursday, 7 July 2016

Schubert - Late String Quartets and Quintet - The Lindsays


Rating: 5/5

Review:
An excellent set

This is a really excellent set - four discs of some of Schubert's finest and most affecting music played by one of the great string quartets of the last 40 years. The music itself is simply fantastic: Schubert's wonderful last three String Quartets - the A minor "Rosamunde" D804, the D minor "Death and the Maiden" D810, and the great G major D887 - plus one earlier quartet, the brilliant single movement "Quatettsatz" D703 and of course the sublime String Quintet in C, D956. It is utterly captivating and wonderfully varied with limpid beauty in the famous Adagio of the Quintet, drama in the famous opening of "Death and the Maiden" and aching melancholy in the Minuet of the A minor "Rosamunde" quartet, for example. For me, Schubert is at his best in his chamber music and this selection represents some of the cream of it.

The performances are extremely good. Intonation is generally very sound, which cannot always be said of The Lindsays by any means, and their empathy with and interpretation of the music is excellent. They play together with a superb understanding and produce something really special in places. This has been my favourite version of the String Quintet for many years, and every movement in this entire set is really involving and rewarding. I have versions of two of the Quartets which I marginally prefer to these (Quartetto Italiano for the A minor and the Takacs Quartet for Death and the Maiden, if you're interested), but I have owned the original issues of the discs in this set for years, and I am still extremely fond of them and play them regularly and with great pleasure.

You simply can't go wrong with this set. It's an absolute bargain and you get a wealth of truly great music in excellent performances. Very warmly recommended.