Tuesday, 29 March 2016

Beethoven - Complete Works for Cello & Piano - Philips/Guy

Rating: 5/5

An excellent set

I think this is excellent.  I love the cello (it was my instrument as a teenager) but I have often struggled with Beethoven's Cello Sonatas.  Even in the hands of great musicians like Rostropovich and Richter I have often found them forbidding and rather impenetrable, but there have been two sets which, in their different ways, I have enjoyed very much in more recent times by Isserlis and Levin and by Muller-Schott and Hewitt.  This ranks with them I think.

I am not really musician enough nor sufficiently knowledgeable about Beethoven to analyse closely why this set works so well.  Plainly Philips and Guy are excellent musicians, whose technique and virtuosity is apparent throughout.  The balance of the two instruments is beautifully judged, there is never any sense of strain here even in the most demanding passages and there is a thoughtful, engaged feeling about the whole set.  Somehow, too, there is a sense of  welcome and inclusion of the listener; I always feel as though they want to share their love of this music with us, which allows me into the music in a way which I haven't always found possible.

I'm sorry this is such a subjective ramble, but I don't think I can do much better.  This is superb music, played in a way which really allows it to speak to me.  I cannot say whether it will do that for you, but the playing is superb and the recording very good, so I would suggest you give it a try.  I love it.

Monday, 28 March 2016

Tallis - Complete Works - Chapelle du Roi/Dixon

Rating: 5/5

A superb set

This is a truly excellent set, and at a bargain price. I have loved Tallis's music for many years and have a lot of dearly loved recordings by The Tallis Scholars, Magnificat, the Hillard Ensemble and others which won't be superseded by this set, but are certainly beautifully complemented by it. The approach of Alistair Dixon and Chapelle du Roi is calm and restrained, and the music glows as a result. The singers are very good, tuning is virtually faultless and the absence or restrained use of vibrato ideal. The overall sound is very warm, by and large, emphasised by resonant acoustics in all the recording venues, and this eight-year project is a very fine achievement which does real justice to one of England's greatest composers.

The music itself is magnificent. Obviously, in any Complete Works there will be some pieces which are of less interest to individual listeners, and while I'm not over-keen to hear lengthy organ settings of Felix namque on a regular basis, there will be those who are. There is a wealth of magnificent music and, of course, there are little-recorded gems to discover among the better-known pieces. It's worth saying that Disc 9 - The Instrumental Music and Songs - was named by a reviewer on Radio 3's CD Review as an Essential Tallis disc. Quite right, too, in my view - the playing by Charivari Agréable is excellent and the counter-tenor Stephen Taylor is very good, too. The disc also includes `Ye sacred muses', Byrd's lament on Tallis's death, which is a real bonus.

Brilliant Classics make a pretty good job of the packaging. It's cardboard, but attractive and durable. All the original liner notes and texts are supplied on a CD-ROM as Adobe Acrobat files. It's good to have them, although one can't really sit down comfortably with the text in front of you as you could with a booklet. For so much superb music at such a price, though, this is a sacrifice well worth making - it's a fantastic set of wonderful music and very warmly recommended.

Taner de Gala - Juan Carlos Rivera

Rating: 5/5

A cracking disc

I really like this disc.  It is a programme of music from 16th-Century Spain of music for vihuela – a sort of precursor of the guitar.  It's a rich repertoire from composers like Luis de Narváez, Luys Milan and others, and it's very fine music indeed.  It is full of variety from lively dances to mournful laments, and the melody and harmonic invention is terrific.  I find more in this every time I listen to it.

Part of this is due to the playing of Juan Carlos Rivera, who is excellent.  He rises to the technical challenges with ease and imbues each piece with a real sense of engagement and emotion.  The sound of his vihuela is lovely, and very well recorded here.  In short, it's a cracking CD and if you have any interest in the music of this period, don't hesitate.  Warmly recommended.

Saturday, 26 March 2016

Lobo, Alonso - Missae - Musica Ficta

Rating: 3/5

Unengaging performances

Alonso Lobo was a very fine composer, ending his career as master of the chapel at Seville Cathedral. I am pleased to see more of his works recorded recently because they deserve to be heard. Sadly, I don't think this is a very good recording and I certainly don't think it does justice to these two lovely mass settings.

Musica Ficta are technically very competent, their intonation is good and many of the singers have fine voices. However, the voices fail to blend at all - partly due to some very obtrusive vibrato which prevents the harmonies and particularly the resonant chords from ringing as they should. I didn't really feel that there was much engagement with the text and I also found the dulcian (or bajon) playing in unison with the sung bass gave the whole thing a ponderous feel which really detracted from Lobo's often luminous writing. For me, the overall effect was rather unengaging and felt more like a singing exercise than a committed performance of passionate and beautiful sacred music.

I am sorry to have to be so critical. The disc is by no means bad, it just left me very cold, which Lobo's music certainly shouldn't. My advice is to wait and hope that perhaps a group like the Brabant Ensemble or Stile Antico might record some of Lobo's masses soon.

Friday, 25 March 2016

Bach - Violin Concertos - Bernardini/Dunedin Consort/Butt

Rating: 5/5

Excellent Bach

I like this recording very much.  These concertos have been recorded so often and by so many very fine violinists that another may seem an irrelevance, but this stands with the best, I think.

The programme consists of the two concertos that Bach actually left as solo violin concertos (BWV1041 and 1042), the famous double violin concerto BWV1043 and the concerto for violin and oboe BWV1060.  They are all brilliant works (which explains why they have been recorded so often, of course) which are full of Bach's wonderful melodies, emotion and essential pulse – and the slow movement of BWV1043 is simply sublime as the two violin parts twine around each other.  There is also a lovely little Sinfonia from Cantata 21 for violin and oboe.

Cecilia Bernardini plays beautifully.  Her tone is lovely throughout and she really brings out the meaning in these pieces without ever overlaying Bach's music with over-emphatic or sentimental gestures.  Her two solo partners are her father Alfredo Bernardini playing the oboe and violinist Huw Daniel , both of whom are excellent, as is the Dunedin Consort.  They are a chamber-sized ensemble here of four violins, viola, cello and violone with John Butt directing from the harpsichord.  They are ideal here – supple and empathetic, with some genuine welly when needed and aas a whole this sounds to me just as Bach should.

This won't supplant my dearly loved versions by Andrew Manze, Rachel Podger, Alina Ibragimova and others, but it's alongside them and I'll be playing this just as often, I think.  It's excellently played, superbly recorded and has very good accompanying notes, so I can recommend this in the warmest terms.

Thursday, 24 March 2016

Tallis, Tye Sheppard - Audivi vocem - The Hilliard Ensemble

Rating: 5/5

Another beauty from the Hilliard Ensemble

This is a really fine disc of church music from three of England's finest composers of the 16th Century. It is fabulously beautiful and chosen from the last decades of the reign of Henry VIII to illustrate the rapidly changing religious practice of those times and its effect on the music written for worship, making a varied and interesting programme, consisting of Tye's Missa Sine nomine interspersed with very fine motets by Tallis and Sheppard.

Whether or not you like this disc depends on whether you like the distinctive sound of the Hilliard ensemble. I love it and think this is one of their loveliest discs - it reminds me of their wonderful disc of Tallis's Lamentations and Four Voice Mass, which has been a favourite of mine for many, many years. They sing at a low pitch, with the top line taken by David James's distinctive, plangent countertenor and the recording sounds as though the microphone is placed some distance from the singers. This gives a haunting, rather spare sound which sounds to me as though it is coming from a hidden cloister of a plain but beautiful ancient stone church, rather than the rounder, Cathedral-filling sound of The Tallis Scholars or Stile Antico, for example. I also have their recordings of many of the motets sung here and love them too, in their different ways. This disc is equally beautiful and evocative, but evocative of different things and, to me, a wholly different musical experience.

It's a very beautiful rewarding disc, with excellent recorded sound and first-rate notes by David Skinner, and highly recommended.

Tuesday, 22 March 2016

Josquin Desprez - Missa Gaudeamus

Rating: 3/5

Thin sound and unengaged performances

I'm afraid this isn't a very good recording.  I have never got on well with A Sei Voci's recordings of Josquin; I have found them rather thin in sound and somewhat unengaged as performances.  The addition here of the children's choir, however well-intentioned, certainly doesn't help and I find the whole effect rather unpleasing.  It certainly doesn't show Josquin's magnificent music at its best.

There is now a truly excellent recording of this mass by De Labyrintho.  Rather than go on at length about why I find this A Sei Voci performance unsatisfactory, I will simply recommend that you try De Labyrintho.  You will find samples to play on Amazon's mp3 page HERE . I suggest that you try them and if you like the sound, snap up either the download or the CD.  It's a real treat.

Friday, 18 March 2016

Musik am Dresdner Hof - Virtuosi Saxoniae/Guttler

Rating: 4/5

A good box

This is rather a good box, I think.  The performances are very decent and there's a very good selection of music by a variety of composers.

The box contains 8 discs of music written for the Dresden Court in the late 17th- and  18th Centuries by composers like Vivaldi, Telemann, Pisendel, Zelenka, Heinichen and others.  There is a variety of secular and sacred music and it makes a varied and very enjoyable set.

These recordings were made between 1989 and 1995, and they are pretty good, without being up to the phenomenal standard set by some more recent ensembles under people like Rachel Podger, Fabio Biondi and many others.  They are technically very sound and have a decent engagement with all they perform, so I find that especially playing just one or two pieces at a time they are very enjoyable.

At the current price for 8 discs of very good music in decent performances which are well recorded, I think this box represents good value and I can recommend it.

Thursday, 17 March 2016

Bach - Sonatas and Partitas - Galbraith

Rating: 3/5

Virtuosic playing, but the interpretations aren't always for me

This is excellent in many ways, but I'm not quite as bowled over by it as some reviewers.

The first thing to say is that Paul Galbraith is an excellent musician whose mastery of the eight-string guitar is remarkable.  He has the quality of technique to make even the most demanding passages here sound natural and straightforward, and the sound of his instrument is simply lovely throughout. 

The transcriptions, by Galbraith himself, are also very good.  The nature of the violin means that the harmonies in Bach's original pieces are often (brilliantly) implied rather than explicitly stated and Galbraith does a fine job of filling in the harmonic structure to suit an instrument which can sound many notes at once, without overlaying the music with superfluous additions.

My reservations are purely personal and lie in the interpretations, which, although they have a lovely overall sound, seem to me to lack some of Bach's essential pulse and drive in places and certainly aren't varied enough in approach for me.  The mighty chaconne from the D minor Partita, for example, needs some bite and even emotional bleakness in places, but the continuous flow of soft-toned notes and gentle phrasing to me robs it of a good deal of its power.

Many people have found this set a real delight and you may well agree, so do read other reviews as well, but for me, however excellent the playing, this doesn't quite hit the spot and I can only give it a qualified recommendation.

Wednesday, 16 March 2016

Handel - Recorder Sonatas - Thorby/Egarr

Rating: 5/5

A terrific disc

This is a terrific disc. Handel's Recorder Sonatas are lovely works, full of joy, depth and genuine tenderness and these two superb musicians do them full justice.

Handel's chamber music doesn't get anything like the attention given to his orchestral and choral works. This understandable in a way - the larger scale music is fabulous, after all - but real gems like these sonatas deserve more of a hearing in my view. They show all the aspects of Handel's genius: they are tuneful, harmonically brilliant and above all a genuine pleasure to listen to.

In the hands of Pamela Thorby and Richard Egarr they really shine. Egarr is now well established as one of the world's foremost baroque musicians through his solo recordings, his partnership with Andrew Manze and more recently his direction of The Academy of Ancient Music (with whom he has made some magnificent Handel recordings.) Pamela Thorby, while less well known, is a virtuoso of equal standing, in my view with a fine catalogue of recordings including some belters with The Palladian Ensemble. Together they make something really special of these Handel sonatas with a fine understanding between them, a perfect balance between instruments and a lovely sound from Egarr's harpsichord and organ and Thorby's recorders. They make some of the virtuosic passages sound as natural as breathing and the quieter movements are simply lovely. It's exemplary chamber music playing.

I have versions of these pieces played both on recorder (by Michala Petri and Keith Jarrett) and flute (by Lisa Beznosiuk) which I have loved for years. This, however, is the best I know and is very warmly recommended indeed.

(I would also strongly recommend Pamela Thorby's disc The Garden of Early Delights with the harpist Andrew Lawrence-King. It's another beauty.)

Tuesday, 15 March 2016

Elgar & Walton - Cello Concertos - Isserlis/PO/Järvi

Rating: 5/5

A wonderful recording

Even 50 years on, it takes a brave cellist to tackle the Elgar Cello Concerto in the shadow of the recording by Jacqueline du Pre and John Barbirolli, which remains a thing of wonder.  Possibly the highest praise I can give to Steven Isserlis and Parvo Järvi is that I think they have at least matched it here; this is a wonderful recording.

There are four works presented here: the Elgar Cello Concerto, the Walton Cello Concerto, "Invocation," a single movement piece by Gustav Holst, and "The Fall Of The Leaf," a piece for solo cello by Imogen Holst in five short movements.  Both the pieces by the Holsts were new to me, and I am very glad to have them here.  They are not major works but both are fine, contemplative pieces and are both very lovely in their different ways.  I confess that I struggle with Walton's Cello Concerto;  it's a piece which has never really engaged me and even in this excellent performance it doesn't do much for me, so I'll have to leave any critique to others.  However, in the Elgar and the Holst pieces, both Isserlis and the orchestra under Järvi are excellent.

Steven Isserlis is, of course, one of the world's greatest cellists.  His technique is superb (as it needs to be here) and he uses it to play with both passion and subtlety, bringing real meaning to the music.  The elegiac feel of the Elgar Concerto is very moving without ever becoming sentimental or miserable, and there is a palpable sense of engagement both from Isserlis and the orchestra.  The sheer beauty of the sound he brings from his cello is wonderful (and beautifully recorded by Hyperion), and he is matched throughout by the orchestra who are perfectly balanced and bring just the right degree of emotion to the work.  I may even prefer this to the du Pré version – something I never thought I'd say.

This really is something special, I think, and very well illuminated by Isserlis's notes which are thoughtful, informative and very readable.  Isserlis's Bach Cello Suites were a landmark in his career and in the interpretation of those fabulous works, and I think this is in the same league.  It's a recording which I expected to be very good and which has still surprised me with how good it really is.  Very, very warmly recommended.

Saturday, 12 March 2016

Nelson Freire plays Bach

Rating: 3/5

Not a great Bach disc

It pains me to say this of such a great pianist, but I'm afraid I don't think that Nelson Freire's Bach is all that good.  It has its moments and Freire's technique is, of course, superb, but I don't think his first foray into this repertoire is successful overall.

Nelson Freire is rightly hugely respected for his interpretations of 19th- and 20th-Century repertoire, but Bach is a different thing altogether and I don't think he's really made the transition.  He doesn't overdo the Romantic Gestures (thank heavens!) but some real essentials of Bach performance often seem to me to be missing.  Fluency and distinctness of individual contrapuntal lines too often becomes lost, especially in fugal passages, as does the essential pulse which beats through Bach's music at different rates but always as an integral part of the music.  Its blurring loses something fundamental to these pieces, and I find the whole thing rather undistinguished.

There are some quite magnificent performances of Bach on the piano by people like Angela Hewitt,  Murray Perahia and recently (and rather to my surprise) Rudolf Buchbinder.  I would recommend any of these before this disc; I'd recommend sticking to Freire's superb interpretations of later repertoire and give this one a miss.

Thursday, 10 March 2016

Bach - Complete Sonatas for Violin and Harpsichord - Podger/Pinnock

Rating: 5/5

Outstanding bach

These are wonderful discs. Bach's sonatas for violin and cembalo are delightful, rewarding works, but can be hard to get into, in my experience. Previously I have had recordings by Elizabeth Wallfisch and Richard Tunnicliffe and by Fabio Biondi and Rinaldo Alessandrini - both world class duos, and fine performances in their way. However, I always had a sense with both of somehow working ones way rather ploddingly through the sonatas (most certainly not what I'd expect from Biondi!) and they had a slightly turgid, uninvolving feel to them.

Podger and Pinnock dispel this instantly. Rachel Podger's wonderful lightness of touch doesn't trivialise the music in any way but, as with her solo Bach, brings a sparkle and verve which light up the whole disc. And Trevor Pinnock plays with the enthusiasm and energy of a young tyro while bringing the depth of his decades of experience to bear. The combination is irresistible. Any Bach enthusiast will want these sonatas in their collection, and this is the finest recording I've come across by some distance. It is also very reasonably priced. In my view, you can't go wrong with these discs - very warmly recommended indeed.

Wednesday, 9 March 2016

Scarlatti - Sonatas - Hewitt

Rating: 5/5

Outstanding Scarlatti

This is yet another outstanding disc of Baroque keyboard music from Angela Hewitt.  There are many fine Scarlatti recordings, but this stands with the very best of them, I think.

Hewitt has chosen sixteen of the 555 sonatas and has arranged them into an interesting and varied programme.  I think it is telling that she begins with a minor-key sonata (Kk9, in D minor) which is contemplative and very beautiful.  This sets the tone of the disc, in that Hewitt, as always, has thought deeply about every bar of each of these pieces and there is a thoughtful feel to the disc which really brings out the depth and individuality in each sonata.  There's still plenty of playful zip when appropriate and it's anything but solemn and turgid (Kk29 in D really zings along, for example) but the sense that it all really means something is always there.  It's fascinating to compare Hewitt's style with Alexandre Tharaud, whose Scarlatti on the piano I also love.  His interpretations seem to me to have a lighter, more playful air somehow; they are equally enjoyable but shed a different light on Scarlatti's music.

Hewitt's playing throughout is superb.  She is technically brilliant, of course, (which anyone tacking these pieces needs to be) but she also has a deep sense of Baroque music which is probably partly instinctive, but also comes of  years deep study and love of the music of the period.  She has the understanding to use rubato and ornamentation to really make sense of the music without overlaying it with grand Romantic gestures (as Pletnev does, for example).  I think she is unsurpassed in the Baroque repertoire, even by greats like Perahia and Schiff, and for me her recordings of Couperin, Rameau and, of course, Bach are in a class of their own on the piano.  This belongs in that magnificent class.

Quite simply, this is superb.  It's great music, magnificently played and beautifully recorded, with very thoughtful, scholarly and interesting notes.  Recommended in the warmest terms.

Friday, 4 March 2016

Danielle de Niese - The Beauty of the Baroque

Rating: 4/5

A very enjoyable disc

This is a very well-performed and enjoyable programme of some of the Baroque's best-known and loveliest vocal works of Handel, Bach, Monteverdi, Pergolesi, Purcell and Dowland.

Danielle de Niese is a very fine singer with impeccable technique and intonation and she gives excellent performances throughout. Her style is quite Romantic in feel, with quite a bit of vibrato and an emphasis on expressive singing which makes an interesting contrast with great recordings of the recent past by Emma Kirkby, for example. I particularly like the opening of Pergolesi's Stabat Mater which she sings in duet with the great Andreas Scholl and where her overt emotional intensity works especially well. I hope they might record the whole work together at some point - on this evidence it would be something really special.

The English Concert, as one would expect, are terrific. They are completely at home in this repertoire and their playing is supple and responsive. They are excellent as an ensemble and there is some wonderful solo work - the trumpet playing in Let the Bright Seraphim and the oboe in Sich üben im lieben are quite outstanding, I thought.

Danielle de Niese is famously beautiful and Decca make full use of this, so that the cover is ambiguous about whether "The Beauty of the Baroque" is intended to refer to the music or to Ms de Niese herself. I suspect that this, combined with an air of "The Baroque's Greatest Hits" about the disc, may make some crusty old veterans of classical music like me a little dubious about whether the disc itself has real musical merit, but it genuinely does. I think it's a disc that will give real pleasure to an awful lot of people. Recommended.

Wednesday, 2 March 2016

Scarlatti - Complete Keyboard Sonatas - Ross

Rating: 5/5

An excellent set

This set is a bit of an investment, but one that is well worth making. It contains 34 CDs of truly wonderful music, superbly played. Scarlatti's 555 keyboard sonatas form a remarkable and very rewarding body of work and they are immensely varied - passionate, serene, humorous... every mood or emotion you could think of is here somewhere. I never tire of them, and always find something fresh and new when I listen to them.

You do need to like the harpsichord if you're going to buy this set. I certainly do, and especially when it is played as well as this. These recordings by Ross are regarded as landmarks by many, and I wouldn't argue with that. His playing is technically brilliant, and he brings out all the variety in these amazing pieces. What also shines through is his sheer love for the music - every single sonata is played as though it really means something and he makes this monumental compendium a pleasure from start to finish.

I cannot recommend this set too highly. I have owned and loved the original Erato discs for years and still play them regularly and with immense pleasure. It is a set to last a lifetime and if you have any interest in baroque music or the keyboard in general, I urge you to give it a try.