Monday, 29 February 2016

Ockeghem - Missa Prolationum, Missa Mi-mi - Hilliard Ensemble

Rating: 5/5

An excellent reissue

This is an excellent reissue of two terrific discs by the Hilliard Ensemble from the late 1980s. Ockeghem was a singer and composer in Paris, Tours and other places in the late 15th Century and was arguably Europe's pre-eminent composer of the time. This set includes his magnificent Requiem, two other very fine mass settings and some of his best motets. Ockeghem's compositions don't have the immense, complex harmonic structures of, for example, Palestrina's a century later but they have a simpler beauty which I find spellbinding. To risk a possibly clumsy analogy, they have the feel to me of a beautifully proportioned stone church rather than a richly ornamented cathedral - different, but equally beautiful and moving.

The Hilliard Ensemble are perfectly suited to this repertoire. Their slightly spare, haunting sound brings out the music's beauty and depth and David James's plangent countertenor in particular makes it glow. The Clerk's group have also made a series of magnificent recordings of Ockeghem which I own and treasure; this is different in feel but just as good and I love both equally. The recorded sound is excellent and I find the whole thing immensely rewarding.

Certainly if you're looking for somewhere to start with Ockeghem you can't go wrong here and if, like me, you're already a seasoned Ockeghem listener this will make an excellent addition to your collection. Very warmly recommended.

Sunday, 28 February 2016

de la Rue - Missa cum iucunditate - Henry's Eight

Rating: 5/5

Beautiful music, excellently sung

This a really excellent disc of very beautiful music, beautifully sung. The mass setting here is one of about thirty which survive by Pierre de la Rue, and shows why his music has received far more attention in the last few years. It is beautiful, passionate and very skilfully composed with de la Rue's distinctive, slightly spare style very much in evidence. Interposed with the mass movements are motets by Josquin, Ockeghem, Willaert and Clemens non Papa, including the latter's sublime setting of Pater peccavi. It's a really enjoyable and satisfying programme.

The performances are truly excellent. Henry's Eight are an all-male ensemble with top lines taken by countertenors. This gives a rich, full sound which suits the music extremely well. Technically impeccable, they also show a real empathy with the text and have a lovely blend while preserving the clarity of individual lines. It's a flawless performance which brings out the real greatness of some of the music here. (It's fascinating, by the way, to compare this Pater peccavi with the excellent recording by the Tallis Scholars who sing with high sopranos in the top lines . They are different experiences, but both are wonderful.)

The recorded sound is excellent and the notes good, if a little spare, with full texts and translations. It's a very fine disc in every way, and wholeheartedly recommended.

Thursday, 25 February 2016

Handel - Bad Guys - Sabata

Rating: 5/5

An excellent recording

I am often sceptical about discs packaged with titles and covers designed to shock (albeit gently) a classical audience because it can be a way of marketing some inferior work, but not here.  This is a terrific disc of Handel arias for countertenor, sung by some of his villains from some well-known operas like Giulio Cesare and Ariodante through to some downright obscure stuff (well, it was obscure to me anyway) from Teseo and Amadigi di Gaula.  All of it is very good music indeed and the performances are excellent.

Xavier Sabata is a very fine countertenor with a rich tone and excellent technique, so that he makes even Handel's most demanding and word-murdering passages seem effortless and meaningful.  He brings genuine menace to the arias without ever resorting to melodrama and there is a real sense of the characters throughout.  Il Pomo d'Oro under Riccardo Minasi are excellent: technically flawless and extremely supple, so that they really enhance the drama as well as the music.

I am going to have to get over my prejudice against this sort of marketing.  First Celcilia Bartoli [[ASIN:B008LSSI4S Mission]] and now Xavier Sabata have recently confounded my expectations with absolutely superb discs, and I wholeheartedly recommend this as a truly excellent and very rewarding Handel recording.

Wednesday, 24 February 2016

Byrd - Complete Keyboard Music - Moroney

Rating: 5/5

A brilliant box

This is an absolutely fantastic set. Byrd wrote a lot of keyboard music in his long life, and to have it all available and played so wonderfully is a real pleasure. These pieces are full of melody and invention and I am constantly finding something new in them; any enthusiast for the music of the period will love them. For an admirer of Byrd's choral music and consort songs (as I am) it is a revelation and a joy.

There are seven CDs in this box played on harpsichord, clavicord, muselar and organ. Davitt Moroney shows that he is a master of all of them - his playing is uniformly excellent, with a deep sympathy for the music, impeccable technique and a wealth of brilliant detail. He has shown over the years with his great recordings of Bach, Biber, Purcell and others that he is one of the giants of early music, and this is one of his finest achievements.

I am deighted to see this box reissued at budget price. It remains a bit of an investment, but in my view is well worth the outlay for seven superb CDs. I paid a lot more for mine for a number of years ago, still get huge pleasure from it and have never regretted a single penny. It was hailed as a landmark recording by Gramophone and others when it came out, and that description is certainly justified. It's a brilliant box, and I recommend it in the strongest terms.

Monday, 22 February 2016

Mattheson - Suites - Holtz

Rating: 4/5

A very good recording

This is a very good disc of Baroque harpsichord music. 

Mattheson is a new composer to me, but I'm glad I investigated his work.  It is very good, enjoyable stuff; he's no Couperin, Bach or Handel but the music is engaging, tuneful and inventive which I like a lot.

Cristiano Holtz plays very well.  He has excellent technique so that the music sounds natural even in its most demanding passages and his phrasing is exactly right to keep the music flowing while giving it real meaning.  The sound of his harpsichord is lovely, and beautifully recorded so that the whole disc is a pleasure.

I won’t be returning to Matteson's music as often as I do to the keyboard works of some of the truly great Baroque composers, but I think it is very good and I'm extremely glad to have this in my collection.  Recommended.

Sunday, 21 February 2016

Weiss - Lute Music II - Lindberg

Rating: 5/5

Great lute music, superbly played

This is in fact the third disc of Weiss's music from Lindberg, but his second on the BIS label. It is a companion to his fabulous disc recorded in 2006 and is just as good, in my view. Weiss, a near contemporary of Bach, was a truly great composer for the lute and gave it virtually its final flowering - and a fabulous flowering it was. There is great variety and real musical depth here from mournful sarabandes through elegant menuets to lively gigues and a sombre but enthralling tombeau on the death of a nobleman. It's terrific stuff from beginning to end.

Lindberg plays wonderfully throughout. He is one of the world's very finest lutenists and his scholarship and complete mastery of his instrument shine through here in elegant, sensitive and in places truly joyful playing. I have loved his playing since first hearing his complete Dowland many years ago and I am running out of superlatives to describe it. I simply cannot imagine these pieces being played better, and I recommend this disc extremely warmly.

Friday, 19 February 2016

Striggio - Mass for 40 and 60 Voices - Le Concert Spirituel/Niquet

Rating: 4/5

Not the best recording

This is a good disc but not a great one, I think.  Striggio's Missa Ecco si beato giorno is a colossal, inspiring work reconstructed in 2007 by Davitt Moroney and brought to prominence by the fabulous recording by Robert Hollingworth with I Fagiolini.  Here, Niquet uses an earlier edition by Dominique Visse, carefully and thoughtfully augmented by instrumentation as it might have been used at the time.

This performance of the mass is set in the context of a Florintine service for St John The Baptist as it might have been celebrated in the mid 16th Century.  As Paul McCreesh has shown us, these reconstructions can be extremely effective, but if they are to be so the liturgical music surrounding the main work also needs to be of the highest quality.  One of this disc's weaknesses is that some most certainly isn't, and indeed has only a dubious claim to inclusion on such a reconstruction.  Orazio Benevoli's setting of the Magnificat, for example, may be contemporary but is to my ears a rather uninspiring work and (as I understand it) makes little liturgical sense in the middle of a mass.  The same can be said of a lot of the other works here and they detract from rather than enhance Striggio's mighty mass setting.

The performance of the mass itself is very good, and brings out its nuances and variations very well.  Personally, I find the very churchy acoustic and slightly romantic sounding phrasing not quite to my taste, but that's definitely a personal thing and many listeners will love these aspects of the recording.

I can only give this disc a qualified recommendation.  For me, it isn't as good as the Hollingworth recording, which I would recommend unreservedly over this one.  However, for Niquet and his ensemble at their magnificent best I would highly recommend their mighty and hugely enjoyable disc of Handel's Water Music and Music for the Royal Fireworks which is an unalloyed pleasure.

Monday, 15 February 2016

Brumel - "Earthquake" Mass - The Tudor Consort

Rating: 4/5

Good, but a little too restrained

I like this CD, although I don't think it quite conveys the full impact of the music.  Brumel's Missa Et ecce terrae motus is a work for twelve voices, full of sonority and is a kind of Renaissance Wall Of Sound, providing a wonderful experience as wave after wave of sound rolls over you.  At its best it really does feel a bit like a musical representation of an earthquake.

The Tudor Consort do well with it.  They are a New Zealand ensemble, composed of very good singers whose technique and intonation is excellent and who engage very well with the text.  My slight reservation is their…well…reserve at times.  There are some quiet, intimate passages which they do beautifully – sections of the Gloria, for example, are simply exquisite – but their slightly held-back, very resonant sound doesn't quite hit the spot in the really thunderous passages which need to convey the huge forces at work in the Earth, and the awe-inspiring effect they can have.  It's a difficult balance to strike between just blasting your way through this the whole time and not quite giving it enough, and for me The Tudor Consort err just a little too much on the side of restraint.

That said, it's very lovely much of the time and a very good performance in many ways.  I like the two commissioned pieces which open the disc, from contemporary New Zealand composers Ross Harris and Jack Brody, too.  Although this won't displace my much-loved Tallis Scholars recording in my affections, it's a good disc and well worth seeking out, I think.

Sunday, 14 February 2016

The Tallis Scholars Sing Josquin

Rating: 5/5

A fabulous reissue

This is a fabulous re-issue of two of the Tallis Scholars' finest discs, with the addition of two magnificent motets from other discs.  Josquin is the undisputed master of Flemish polyphony in the late 15th- and early 16th centuries, and remains in my view one of the very greatest composers ever to have lived.  The Tallis Scholars sing his music magnificently and these discs are unsurpassed by anything in the catalogue.

The first of the two is their legendary recording of the Missa Pange Lingua and Missa Mi-mi which won the Gramophone Record of the Year Award for 1986 and remains the only Early Music disc ever to have done so.  It's a stunner - beautiful, beautiful sound and clarity of line which makes each part distinct while blending perfectly with the others, all of which brings out the best in truly great music.  In addition you get the Tallis Scholars' unrivalled performance of the great motet Praeter rerum seriem (originally from the disc featuring the mass which Cipriano de Rore based on the motet) which alone would be worth buying a double CD for, and Josquin's beautiful, haunting setting of Ave Maria.

And I think the second disc is even better.  It contains the two masses Josquin based on the chanson L'Homme Arme, and it has been one of my Desert Island Discs ever since I bought it in 1989.  The whole thing is simply sublime, and the third Agnus Dei in the second mass is, to me, five minutes of what Heaven sounds like.

You cannot go wrong with this set.  It's an absolute bargain at the price and you get two of the greatest recordings of Renaissance polyphony in the catalogue for your money.  If you are at all interested in this repertoire, buy it.  I bought both discs at full price when they came out and never regretted a single penny.  I promise that you won't either.

(You might be interested, too, in the Philips Duo reissue of The Hilliard Ensemble's recordings of Josquin which are also excellent and a real bargain.  They make an excellent complement to this set.)

Friday, 12 February 2016

Bach - Goldberg Variations - Fretwork

Rating: 4/5

Perhaps not the work to transcribe?

The Goldberg Variations lend themselves well to different instruments (I have fantastic versions on piano, harpsichord and harp) and Bach himself was an inveterate transcriber and arranger of his own music so the idea of the Goldbergs for viol consort is certainly within the composer's own idiom.  However, the sound and capability of a viol consort is a long way from the original keyboard for which these were written and that presents some pretty big challenges to the transcriber, to the performers and to the listener.  I think these are only partially met in this recording.

Richard Boothby is a superb musician and the Purcell Quartet's recording of his transcriptions of Bach's Trio Sonatas is one of my favourite discs.  Some of the variations here work just as well, particularly the canonic variations which are a delight, and the deeply meditative Variation 15 is simply wonderful.  However, some other variations don't work nearly so well.  I have no complaint about the transcriptions, which are skilful and preserve Bach's structures very well, but the dazzling runs in Variation 28, for example, just sound a little ponderous here and they don't give the necessary lightness to balance the thundering chords between them.  Similarly, the Aria is a wonderful piece and certainly sounds pretty good here, but crucial detail is missing in order to allow the viol consort to play it.  For example there is a tiny, crotchet-length descending arpeggio at the start of Bar 11 which under Angela Hewitt's fingers glows with beauty, and here is simply missing.  Details like this make the difference between a quite good performance and a very good or great one and this, sadly, is only quite good.

I am sorry to be critical of this disc - I love Fretwork's discs as a rule.  They play beautifully here and the recording captures their wonderful, rich sound excellently.  I also like and respect Richard Boothby's work very much.  I just think that this transcription doesn't quite work - and if Boothby can't quite make it work, I suspect no-one can.  There is enough to enjoy here to warrant a four-star rating, I think, but only a qualified recommendation, I'm afraid.

(For a really wonderfully played string arrangement of the Goldbergs I would warmly recommend the Leopold String Trio on Hyperion.)

Wednesday, 10 February 2016

Bach - Concertos for Two Harpsichords - Suzuki

Rating: 3/5

Not really for me

I'm afraid this disc didn't really work for me.  I'm sorry to say it because I greatly admire many of Suzuki's Bach recordings, but I don't think these arrangements really work that well.

Suzuki has included three well-known concertos for two harpsichords, and has arranged the First Orchestral Suite for two harpsichords alone.  The outer two works are Bach's transcriptions of the Double Violin Concerto and the Concerto for Violin and Oboe and although it is almost sacrilegious to say this of Bach, I'm afraid I think they lose a lot in translation.  That sublime slow movement from the Double Violin Concerto loses much of its sensuous grace as the violins twine around each other, and the vigorous, toe-tapping finale of the Violin and Oboe Concerto doesn't quite have the right pace and zing when played on harpsichords.  With both concertos I find I'm straining to pick the sense of the piece out of the rather generalised sound of the harpsichords and I also find that the Orchestral Suite, although perfectly listenable, loses a lot of its interest and character when its orchestral colour is removed.

This is just a personal response and you may, of course, disagree entirely.  The musicianship is excellent (of course), the recorded sound is good and, to be fair, this version of the concerto BWV1061 is very good.  For me, though, this is of interest rather than a disc to be enjoyed and listened to repeatedly, and I can only give it a very qualified recommendation.

Monday, 8 February 2016

Tallis & Byrd - Cantiones Sacrae 1575 - Alamire/Skinner

Rating: 5/5

An excellent recording

I think this is an excellent double CD. Tallis and Byrd have been extensively recorded by some truly brilliant ensembles, but this is a very welcome and significant addition to the catalogue. David Skinner has studied and lived with the 1575 Cantiones Sacrae for many years, not least in the recordings he prepared and produced for The Cardinall's Musick's superb Byrd series. This is the first time that the whole of the Cationes Sacrae has been recorded together in the order in which Byrd and Tallis placed them in the manuscript, and it is Skinner's personal, deeply researched and deeply felt take on a sublime collection of music. The result is fabulous, and it has been in my CD player almost constantly since it arrived a few days ago.

Alamire are a group of very fine singers and their performance is excellent - technically flawless and with a lovely balance and blend. Skinner's choices of pitch (which he explains in the fascinating notes) are generally fairly low, giving a very rich sound with a thrillingly full lower register. The acoustic in the Fitzalan Chapel at Arundel Castle is simply perfect for this, with a lovely resonance which never obscures or blurs the parts. Skinner maintained in a recent interview on Radio 3 that this music is not aetherial and other-worldly and this is reflected in the performance which is a little more robust than, say, The Tallis Scholars or Stile Antico. This brings out many of the music's wonderful qualities, such as Byrd's inventive harmonies, but there is still plenty of sheer beauty here. For example, the collection closes with possibly the best performance I have heard ofTallis's indescribably lovely Miserere nostri Domini. Considering the competition, this is very high praise indeed and not given lightly.

In short, this is a terrific set of wonderful music, superbly sung. Very warmly recommended indeed.

Saturday, 6 February 2016

Haydn - The Operas - Dorati

Rating: 5/5

Hidden gems

This set is a delight. I am a big fan of Haydn's music, but until fairly recently I didn't even know that he had written any operas. I came across this set (in a previous form) comprising eight operas and took a chance on the basis that I couldn't go too far wrong buying twenty discs of Haydn's music by first-rate musicians at this price. I was right.

If you know Dorati's Haydn symphony cycle you will know that he's a brilliant Haydn conductor. In the operas as in the symphonies he gets exactly the right balance of structure, melody and emotion and that knowing Haydn twinkle emerges in all the right places. The orchestra is excellent and the singers include Jessye Norman, Arleen Auger, Elly Ameling, Benjamin Luxon, Anthony Rolfe Johnson... Even the less well-known singers seem to these ears to be really excellent and the combination of Haydn's music and these performers produces something really special in places.

In my view, many of Haydn's works - the symphonies, mass settings, string quartets and piano trios, for example - are at least the equal of Mozart's. As entire works, the same cannot be said of the operas. The plots, even by the very forgiving standards of opera, are largely fatuous and there is a lot of recitative which (although true opera buffs will disapprove of this) I find rather tedious. However, I programme my CD player to cut out the recitative and what emerges is some truly wonderful vocal and choral writing, magnificently performed. These operas may not be dramatic masterpieces but they contain a wealth of magnificent and sadly neglected music.

At this price in slimline format there is no libretto included, but you do get a synopsis of each opera with references to the relevant track numbers, which is largely enough, I found. The packaging is attractive and the notes informative and very interesting. I am delighted with this set and get very great pleasure from it. I am sure you will too if you like Haydn or Mozart and I recommend it very highly.

Bach - Complete Sonatas and Partitas - Faust

Rating: 5/5

A great interpretation

This is a wonderful budget issue of the complete Isabelle Faust recording of the Bach Sonatas and Partitas.  I have owned and loved the original single discs since they came out – and were both Gramophone Editor's Choices.  Faust's remarkable skill and musicianship produce a terrific interpretation. She plays with minimal vibrato, exceptionally intelligent ornamentation and a directness which is very striking. The closing Presto of the First Sonata, for example, is quite brilliant here, taken at a thrilling speed with Faust's magnificent technique allowing her to remain utterly fluent and completely engaged, and other movements show similarly exceptional skill and imagination.

Whether this is the recording for you will depend upon your response to Faust's interpretation, which may not suit everyone.  As an example, in the hands of Rachel Podger the opening Adagio of Sonata No.1 is mournful but humane and Viktoria Mullova's reading is more sinewy but shot through with human melancholy. For Isabelle Faust it seems rather bleak and desolate - marvellously played and interpreted but, for me anyway, not an easy listen.

The recording is slightly dry which adds to the slight sense of mortality and darkness which seems to me to pervade much of Faust's playing. Personally, I think that's great and the effect is powerful and moving. I am very glad to have this alongside my other loved interpretations and I am sure this will be a recording which I will still be playing in many years' time. Very warmly recommended.

Wednesday, 3 February 2016

Lassus - Mass for Five Voices etc. - Oxford Camerata/Summerly

Rating: 5/5

An excellent disc

This is an excellent disc of two of Lassus's mass settings and a sublime motet. Oxford Camerata have been making some very good recordings for many years now, and this from 1993 is one of the best of theirs that I know.

Lassus is a slightly underrated composer, I think. He is sort of the Haydn of his day: prolific and brilliant, while carrying a sense with a lot of today's audience that he was a little stolid and dull, whereas in fact both Haydn and Lassus wrote some of the best and most enjoyable music of their respective eras. These two masses, based on chansons of the day, are good examples. They are very beautiful in their different ways, and the Missa Entre vous filles especially is quite playful (the original chanson being a rather racy celebration of the female body.) I think the gem of this disc, though, is Infelix ego, a wonderful "darkly spiritual" motet which absolutely glows between the two masses. It's a lovely programme.

Oxford Camerata sing it all superbly. A glance at the names of the singers will help to explain why: Carys Lane, Rebecca Outram, Andrew Carwood, Edward name just a few. These are great names of early music now and Jeremy Summerly is a very fine conductor and considerable scholar of this repertoire. Together they make something quite special here, with impeccable intonation, a fine balance and blend, a lovely fluency of line and a genuine sense of the meaning of the text. I couldn't ask for better, and this is a real favourite disc of mine.

You get full texts but, as is usual at Naxos's budget price, rather sparse notes and presentation. However, the performance and recorded sound are first class and that's what really matters. Very warmly recommended indeed.

Marais - Suitte d'un Gout Etranger - Savall et al

Rating: 5/5

A gem of a double CD

This is an absolute gem of a double CD. The music is for accompanied viola da gamba, published in 1717 by the great master of the instrument of the time, and played by one of its great present-day masters. This great "Suitte" contains over thirty very varied pieces, every one of them hugely enjoyable and full of melody and rich, satisfying harmonic invention.

Savall made a very fine recording of a number of these pieces in the late 1970s with Ton Koopman and Hopkinson Smith, and it's a disc which I have treasured for years. This is a much larger affair - far more music and a larger ensemble, which works wonderfully well. The musicians are all truly excellent (including harpsichordist Pierre Hantai and harpist Andrew Lawrence-King, both real stars of this repertoire) and I found the variety of different instruments used in various pieces really spellbinding, ranging from solo viola da gamba to a full chamber ensemble. Percussion is used only very occasionally, but when it is, as in the Marche on CD2, its effect is really fabulous. Savall himself excels, bringing a lovely sound from his viola da gamba and playing with an effortless virtuosity which is feather-light or full of weight as appropriate. It is wonderful music-making.

The recorded sound is excellent, the notes full and informative and the presentation is up to Alia Vox's usual beautiful standard. The whole thing is a huge pleasure and I recommend it very warmly.

Phinot - Missa Si bona suscepimus etc. - The Brabant Ensemble

Rating: 5/5

A terrific disc

The Brabant Ensemble are doing a really fine job in bringing us wonderful music from some composers of the "forgotten generation" after Josquin in the first half of the Sixteenth Century. Sometimes when I hear the music of a previously neglected composer it seems to me that they have been neglected for a very good reason. Not here, by any means. As with the Brabants' lovely disc of music by the little-known Crecquillon, this is a truly beautiful and engrossing disc of motets and a mass setting of the highest quality. It reminded me most strongly of Phinot's rough contemporary Clemens non Papa, who was a very fine composer indeed. Phinot's excellent compositional technique and his use in some settings of double choir for real depth and sonority make the programme a real pleasure.

As always, the Brabant Ensemble's performance is excellent. They have impeccable technique, faultless intonation and a finely judged expressiveness which really enhances the music and text while never dominating either with intrusive tricks. They now have a well established and well deserved international reputation, and this is one of their loveliest discs to date. In addition, Hyperion's recorded sound is up to its normal excellent standard and the notes are very interesting and well-written.

A real beauty of a disc, very warmly recommended.