Friday, 29 January 2016

Marais & Forqueray - La Gamme - Trio Sonnerie

Rating: 5/5

Terrific stuff from Trio Sonnerie

This is a very fine disc of French baroque chamber music.  Marais and Forqueray, of course, were two of the greatest French composers of the period and Trio Sonnerie do them proud here.

The music itself is very rewarding and extremely enjoyable.  Both Marais and Forqueray were real masters of composition for a small ensemble and we get plenty of melodic and harmonic invention here, as well as a very pleasing overall effect.  Forqueray's musical portraits of some of his composing contemporaries and other characters are always a pleasure, and the Marais suite from which the disc takes its name is quite remarkable in its scale and brilliance.

Trio Sonnerie are a favourite ensemble of mine.  I love Monica Huggett's work, and her fellow musicians are both brilliant, too, with a string of terrific recordings to their names.  Their playing is as good as I would expect: technically superb and with a depth of understanding both of the music and of each other which lends this real meaning throughout.  It's just very classy chamber playing by three really good musicians and I find it a pleasure form beginning to end.

Linn, of course, make a wonderful job of the recorded sound which is delightfully clear, rich and well balanced, and the presentation and notes are excellent.  This is a terrific disc all round and I can recommend it very warmly.

Wednesday, 27 January 2016

Fretwork - Birds On Fire

Rating: 5/5

An excellent disc

This is another excellent disc from Fretwork - now firmly established as one of the world's finest viol ensembles. Here they present a programme of music by Jewish-Italian musicians at the Tudor and Stewart courts. It is very fine viol music (I thought the five tracks by Thomas Lupo were exceptionally good) from the period of about 1550 to 1650. If you have any interest in music of this period or in viols in general, you'll love it.

Interspersed with this is the three-part piece by Orlando Gough which gives the disc its name. It's a bit like a klezmer-tinged Shostakovich string quartet. I rather like it, but I find it intrudes when I'm listening to the rest of the disc and I tend to programme my CD player to listen to it separately.

Fretwork, as one would expect, are simply brilliant. Their unflashy virtuosity and love for the music brings out all its wonderful qualities and their overall sound (excellently recorded by Harmonia Mundi) is rich and lovely. The whole disc is a truly rewarding and hugely enjoyable musical experience, and I recommend it very warmly indeed.

Tuesday, 26 January 2016

Bach - Goldberg Variations - Jarrett

Rating: 4/5

Not great Goldbergs

This recording has a good deal to commend it, but for me it lacks a little to make it a really good Goldberg Variations.

Keith Jarrett is a fine harpsichordist and a very good baroque player – I love his recordings of Bach and Handel with Michala Petri, for example. Here, his technique is excellent and he brings a truly lovely sound from his harpsichord, but the interpretations seem to me to lack a little depth and character. He takes the opening Aria at a funereal pace – it almost makes Rosalyn Tureck seem lively by comparison – but without the phrasing which would give it real meaning at this tempo. Other variations seem similarly flat to me and, while some do have a character of their own, I feel that there's something missing most of the time. Variation 8, for example, sounds charming and harmonious enough, but I don't get much sense of purpose or any real direction – just a pleasant sequence of notes, and Bach is so much more than that.

I think there's enough here in skill and beauty of sound to make three stars rather churlish, but it's only just four stars for me. I'll be sticking with Pinnock, Hewitt and others, I think, and I can only give this a qualified recommendation.

Monday, 25 January 2016

Bach - Concertos - Café Zimmermann

Rating: 5/5

A fantastic box

This is a simply fantastic box of all six volumes of Café Zimmermann's recordings of Bach's "Concerts avec plusiers instruments." These include all six Brandenburg Concertos, the four Overtures or Orchestral Suites and the concertos for violin, oboe and harpsichords in various combinations. I have listed the works below. The music is all magnificent and played with a freshness combined with depth of understanding which is a real joy.

Café Zimmermann are a small ensemble, generally playing with one instrument to a part and this, combined with terrific musicianship and scholarship, gives their interpretations a real zing in the livelier movements and genuine beauty and emotion in the slower passages. To me, this is what Bach should sound like: sometimes dancing, sometimes deeply spiritual, sometimes simply lovely. I have a much-loved set of Bach concertos by Trevor Pinnock (Bach: Concertos) and while these won't replace them in my affections, they will certainly stand alongside them and be played at least as often.

The other great strength of these discs is the programming. Many sets of these concertos group, say, the harpsichord concertos or the violin concertos together, and I find that I often don't want to listen to all of them one after another. Here, each disc has one Brandenburg Concerto, for example, and a varied combination of other concertos, so that playing the whole disc is a varied pleasure and I am always happy to let a whole disc play rather than changing it after one or two concertos.

In short, this box - the fruits of ten years' work - is an unalloyed delight and guaranteed to give immense pleasure for many years. Very warmly recommended.

The works:
CD 1
1. Concerto pour clavecin en Ré Mineur, BWV 1052
2. Concerto pour hautbois d'amour en La Majeur, BWV 1055
3. Concerto pour violon en Mi Majeur, BWV 1042
4. Concert Brandebourgeois No. 5 en Ré Majeur, BWV 1050

CD 2
1. Concert Brandebourgeois No. 3 en Sol Majeur, BWV 1048
2. Concerto pour deux violons & cordes en Ré Mineur, BWV 1043
3. Suite en Ut Majeur, BWV 1066
4. Concerto pour hautbois & violon en Ut Mineur, BWV 1060

CD 3
1. Concert Brandebourgeois No. 4 en Sol Majeur, BWV 1049
2. Concerto pour hautbois d'amour en Ré Majeur, BWV 1053
3. Concerto pour trois clavecins en Do Majeur, BWV 1064
4. Suite en Si Mineur, BWV 1067

CD 4
1. Concerto pour violon en La Mineur, BWV 1041
2. Concerto pour 2 clavecins en Ut Majeur, BWV 1061
3. Concerto pour flûte, violon & clavecin en La Mineur, BWV 1044
4. Concert Brandebourgeois No. 2 en Fa Majeur, BWV 1047

CD 5
1. Ouverture No. 3 en Ré Majeur, BWV 1068
2. Concerto pour clavecin en Fa Mineur, BWV 1056
3. Concerto Brandebourgeois No. 6 en Si Bémol Majeur, BWV 1051
4. Concerto pour trois clavecins en Ré Mineur, BWV 1063

CD 6
1. Ouverture No. 4 en Ré Majeur, BWV 1069
2. Concerto pour clavecin en La Majeur, BWV 1055
3. Concert Brandebourgeois No. 1 en Fa Majeur, BWV 1046
4. Concerto pour quatre clavecins en Ré Mineur, BWV 1065

Sunday, 24 January 2016

Telemann - Recorder Sonatas and Fantasias - Thorby

Rating: 5/5

A terrific recording

This is a terrific recording.  Pamela Thorby is a wonderful musician and she has done Telemann proud here.

The first if the two discs consists of sonatas for flute and continuo which, like so much of Telemann's music, are full of interest, melody, charm and sometimes drama.  By changing the composition of her continuo group for different sonatas, Thorby introduces another element of variety which I find extremely engaging, too; it's done with care and thought and shows a real understanding of the music rather than just being a facile trick, and the quality of the playing throughout is excellent.

The second of the discs is Telemann's set of twelve fantasias for solo recorder.  I think these are extraordinary works of real imagination, and they require real virtuosity to play – which Pamela Thorby has in abundance.  I'm delighted that she has recorded the Fantasias; I have a good recording of them by Marion Verbruggen and they have been well recorded by some fine flautists, too, but I think this is something special.  Thorby invests each Fantasia with real meaning and its own character, without ever resorting to spurious tricks.  It all sounds absolutely natural and comes out of Telemann's music itself. 

As well as fine musicianship, the recorded sound is as lovely as you would expect from Linn and the presentation is very attractive.  This is a very fine set all round and I can recommend it very warmly.

Saturday, 23 January 2016

Old Gautier's Nightinghall - Anthony Bailes

Rating: 5/5

A beauty

This is a lovely disc of 17th-Century lute music from France and England.  I'm a fan of the lute, but apart from Pierre Gaultier none of these composers were familiar to me so I approached this with a degree of scepticism: obscure composers are sometimes obscure for a very good reason.  In fact this turns out to be a disc of very fine music, beautifully played.

This is Baroque music and builds on the foundations laid by Kapsberger and others.  There is a wide variety here from the intense to the genial – and all of it is very enjoyable indeed.  Anthony Bailes plays a twelve-course lute with great skill and sensitivity to the music. He produces a lovely, resonant tone which is beautifully recoded here, so I find the whole disc a pleasure to listen to.  Bailes's notes are very full and extremely interesting (I genuinely learned a lot from them) and the packaging is attractive.  If you're a lute devotee like me or just have an interest in music of this period, I can warmly recommend this disc; it's a beauty.

Tuesday, 19 January 2016

The Mozart Album - Lang Lang/Harnoncourt


Good in parts

This, as they say, is an album of two halves, Brian.  The first half, consisting of the concertos K491 and K453, while not being brilliant, is pretty well done and has some interesting features.  I'm afraid I find the second half, of solo piano works, pretty grim.

Good things first.  The concertos are, at the very least, interesting.  Harnoncourt treats them less as works of the Classical period than as almost early Beethoven.  They have a dramatic and almost romantic in feel in places.  While this isn't really to my taste, it's well done and I think it's a legitimate approach – and it suits Lang Lang's style very well.  He is much more at home with grand Romantic flourishes than with Classical formalism, so, while he reins himself in somewhat here, the overall feel does fit his style and it's a pleasing and interesting result.  It shows (to me anyway) that the Liberace jibes and the suggestion that he is just an empty showman are unjustified, as in places he plays with a lovely touch and real empathy, I think.

Sadly, I can't say the same of the solo work, recorded live.  I'm afraid I find it almost unlistenable in places – clunky, self-conscious and with little trace of Mozart but an excess of Lang Lang.  As examples, the opening movement of the A minor sonata, K310 is so rhythmically perverse that it fails to flow at all and makes almost no sense to me, and the last track is the finale of K331, the Rondo "Alla Turca" which is played so fast and with so little sense of the music itself that it sounds like bad telephone hold muzak.

So…a mixed bag, frankly.  I have a lot more respect for Lang Lang's ability than some others, but I think he also has severe limitations and commits some pretty dreadful howlers.  We see both sides of him here: some good moments in the concertos and some absolutely dreadful ones in the solo works.  I'm interested to have heard this and recognise the merits that it has, but I will be sticking with my loved recordings by Mitsuko Uchida, Murray Perahia and Maria Joao Pires, and I can only give this a lukewarm recommendation.

Tuesday, 12 January 2016

Bach - Cantatas for Solo Bass - Kooy/Herreweghe

Rating: 5/5


This is an outstanding disc.  There are a lot of very fine recordings of these cantatas by truly great singers and conductors, but I don't know of any which I prefer to this.

The three cantatas here are "Ich habe genug" BWV82, "Ich will den Kreatzstab gerne tragen" BWV56 and "Der Friede sei mit dir" BWV158.  All are wonderful works, full of Bach's spirituality and his unparalleled gift for both counterpoint and melody.  There are some extraordinarily affecting pieces here, and it's a fine collection of music.

It is the performances which really make this stand out, though.  Peter Kooy is simply magnificent, with a beautiful tone to his voice, impeccable technique and intonation and an engagement with the music and text which is deep and wholly natural-seeming.  For example, the fabulous aria "Schlummert ein" really does sound like a man contented with his life going peacefully and joyfully to meet his God.  Whether or not you believe in that (or any) God, it would be hard to remain unmoved by Kooy's performance.  Philippe Herreweghe's direction of his small, intimate orchestra and chorus is impeccable, bringing out all Bach's fabulous nuances and producing a beautiful, warm sound.  The players themselves (who include Monica Huggett and Marc Minkowski are excellent, and the superb solo oboe work deserves special mention, too – although I cannot find which of the three oboists plays the solos.  Whoever it is, all of them are unfailingly excellent.

The recorded sound is excellent, the notes are interesting and you get full texts and translations.  This is a wonderful disc all round, and I can recommend it very warmly.

Monday, 11 January 2016

Lassus - Oracula - Daedalus

Rating: 2/5

Rather dull

I'm afraid that I found this disc rather dull.  Lassus was a wonderful composer and there are a lot of very fine recordings of his work, but for me this isn't among them.

The works presented here are settings of nine lessons from the Book of Job, which were new to me, and Lassus's much better-known Prophetiae Sibyllarum, a dark, chromatic work which in the right hands is varied and extremely atmospheric.

Ensemble Daedalus didn't manage to move me with either work.  They are a very good group of singers with excellent technique, but I found passion and emotion rather lacking here.  They create a nice sound together but it all begins to get a bit samey, I found, with each movement sounding distressingly similar to the last one.  It isn't helped by an under-responsive acoustic and recording which makes the sound a little dry.  The Job settings especially are largely chordal rather than polyphonic and really need more resonance to allow them to ring out.

Alpha make their usual beautiful job of presentation and provide good notes and full texts.  This can't really make up for what I found to be a lacklustre performance, though, and I can't really recommend this recording.

(For really good recordings of Lassus, try the Hilliard Ensemble, Cinquecento, The Tallis Scholars or De Labyrintho.)

Saturday, 9 January 2016

Haydn - The Sturm und Drang Symphonies - English Concert/Pinnock

Rating: 5/5
A superb box

This is a simply superb box of magnificent music, excellently performed.  Haydn's "Sturm und Drang" symphonies, written between roughly 1766 and 1773 constitute a great body of work even by Haydn's own stellar standards, full of emotional intensity, minor-key angst and drama – and of course, there's still some of his trademark wit and knowing twinkle in places.  It's great music, conceived for a fairly small orchestra, and Pinnock's English Concert get it just right, I think.

There is, as you would expect from Pinnock, careful scholarship and consideration of every movement, which shows itself not in dry, academic performances but in the variety and depth of emotion in every movement.  This is also due to the excellence of the players; a glance at the names in the English Concert at this time (the set was recorded in the very late 80s) will give you an idea:  Simon Standage, Andrew Manze, Lisa Beznosiuk to name but three.  It's a terrific ensemble and combined with Pinnock's direction (and excellent harpsichord work) they produce something pretty special.

I love this set.  The recorded sound is very good, the notes by Nicholas Kenyon are very informative and (like all these Archiv reissues) it's nicely presented with an attractive box and simple but good cardboard sleeves for each disc.  At the time of writing it costs around fifteen quid, which for six CDs of this quality is an absolute steal, so my advice is to snap it up.  It's a gem.

Friday, 8 January 2016

The Berlin Gamba Book - Berger

Rating: 4/5

Interesting and very well performed

This is a good double-CD of gamba music from 17th-Century Berlin.  They are adaptations of hymn tunes and religious music of the time by an unknown composer/arranger known only as "J.R." and they form an interesting and often very rewarding programme.

The music itself is good while not being utterly brilliant, I think.  "J.R." was plainly a fine musician who truly understood the gamba and each miniature here shows the instrument's capabilities both in its slightly hoarse-sounding upper voice (which I have always loved) and in its astonishingly powerful bass resonances.  There is melodic and harmonic invention here, but a long sequence of these pieces does begin to pall a little.  Nonetheless, a few at a time sound great.

Dietmar Berger's playing is excellent.  I hadn't come across him before, but I'm very glad to have heard his playing now.  He is expressive and thoughtful, and he brings fabulous sounds from his instrument (very well recorded by Naxos).  The notes are basic but adequate and this is a good disc all round.  Gamba enthusiasts like me will certainly want this, but thre is much to enjoy for anyone with an interest in 17th-century music.  Recommended.

Monday, 4 January 2016

Tune Thy Musicke To Thy Hart - Stile Antico

Rating: 5/5

A terrific disc

This is another excellent disc from Stile Antico, this time of performances of smaller scale works for private worship dating from roughly 1500 to 1630. These are all settings of English texts rather than Latin settings and are more intimate works than many of their previous recordings. In addition, they are joined by the brilliant viol consort Fretwork who play with them on some of the sung pieces and contribute two instrumental In nomines of their own.

Although the repertoire gives this disc a rather different in feel from their previous five releases, what remains constant is the excellence of the performance. The ensemble's blend and balance is as beautiful as ever and their tuning and technical mastery remains impeccable. The fact that they sing without a conductor but, as the notes tell us, "rehearse and perform as chamber musicians" gives a wonderful engagement with both music and text and the sense of private devotion is palpable throughout the disc. Fretwork, as ever, are superb and bring a depth and variety which really enhances the whole programme, and the intimate recorded sound makes the most of the wonderful performances here.

With good notes, full texts and very attractive presentation, this is a terrific disc all round and is very warmly recommended.

Sunday, 3 January 2016

Bach - Preludes & Fugues - Alessandrini

Rating: 4/5

A fine recording - with some reservations

This is a fine recording in many ways, but I do have some reservations about it.

Rinaldo Alessandrini has brought together a very interesting programme here; he has taken free-standing preludes and fugues which were mainly composed as technical exercises for Bach's students from a great variety of sources and paired the preludes and fugues by key – sometimes pairing pieces from widely differing times and sources.  It works very well indeed, giving a varied and rewarding programme of (to me) largely unfamiliar pieces whose acquaintance I am very glad to make.  He plays with real care for each piece's meaning and structure, and this is clearly a labour of love by a fine scholar and musician.

What slightly takes the edge off this disc for me is Alessandrini's phrasing.  I am surprised to have to say this of a musician whom I admire very much and whose work I have loved over the years.  However, there is often a slight slowing or halting at the end of a phrase which in Bach I find hard to take.  It disrupts that wonderful pulse which beats, at different rates, through the whole of Bach's music.  Here the pulse seems to stumble rather too often for me and this throws me out of the music.  Two highly knowledgeable and experienced reviewers from BBC Music and Gramophone have no such reservations, so this is obviously a personal matter, but it really does affect my enjoyment of the disc.

That said, this is a fine achievement in all other ways, with a beautiful sound from the harpsichord (take that, Thomas Beecham!) which is beautifully recorded by Naïve.  There are good notes by Alessandrini and it is very nicely presented.  You may not share my reservations about the phrasing; if so you will love this, I think, but my personal recommendation does come with that qualification.