Wednesday, 27 April 2016

Mozart - Gran Partita - RAMSE, Pinnock

Rating: 5/5

A cracking disc

I really like this disc.  I'm naturally inclined toward it anyway because I love Trevor Pinnock's work almost without exception, and his excellent cycle of Mozart Symphonies is a staple of my collection, but it stands on its own merits.

Here Pinnock directs the finest crop of musicians from the Royal Academy Of Music on the colossal Gran Partita for winds.  It's a terrific work, full of playfulness and, especially in the Adagio made famous in Peter Schaffer's Amadeus, it also has real depth and beauty.  It's all there in this recording; to my ears Pinnock brings lovely performances from his ensemble and lends the whole disc his immense depth of understanding and long, long love of this music.  The much smaller Notturno by Haydn which concludes the disc was unfamiliar to me, but it turns out to be a little Haydn jewel – the sort of perfect, delightful piece he so often gave us.

It's a lovely programme, excellently performed and beautifully recorded by Linn (of course.)  I love this for its warmth, energy and insight and I can recommend it very warmly.

Wednesday, 20 April 2016

Carlos V; Mille regretz - Savall

Rating: 5/5

Another cracker from Savall

This is yet another cracking disc from Jordi Savall.  It is a collection of vocal and instrumental pieces from the first half of the 16th Century, based loosely around the chanson Mille Regretz.  There are some familiar composers here, like Josquin, Morales, Willert and others and also some more obscure pieces including a number of anonymous ones.  It's a terrific programme, put together with Savall's unfailing scholarship and musical judgement.

The performances are, as you'd expect, terrific.  The overall sound is lovely, the individual singers and players are excellent and the arrangements are impeccable; the judgement of the use of percussion is excellent, for example.  It's a fabulous disc.

I've loved Savall's work for many years now, and this is among his best, I think.  The recorded sound, presentation and notes are all up to Alia Vox's usual excellent standard and it's a really good disc all round.  I can recommend this very warmly indeed.

Tuesday, 19 April 2016

Bach - Cello Suites - Maisky

Rating: 4/5

Beautiful sound and some unusual interpretations

There is much to love in Mischa Maisky's reading of the Cello Suites, but I do have my reservations, too. 

The Cello Suites contain some of Bach's very finest music, in my view, and I think they distil the very essence of Bach's genius into a magnificent series of sublime movements.   Maisky plainly "gets" this – he invests the works with real passion and gives us a very powerful, emotional reading of the Suites.  Sometimes this works very well – the whole of the First Suite sounds just wonderful to me, for example, with a lovely, heartfelt approach.  In other movements I wasn't so keen: those fabulous wide arpeggios in the Prelude of the Third Suite didn't have the emotional power I expect, for example, and the slow, rather plodding tempo of the famous Bourée from the Third Suite just sounded wrong to me.  Also, the astonishing Sarabande of the Fifth Suite is played with such explicit expression (and so much vibrato) that, perhaps perversely, it lost much of its usual power to move me.  Sometimes, if you'll forgive the cliché, less is more.

Whatever I may think about the interpretations, the sheer beauty of sound from Maisky's cello is simply mesmerising.  It's probably the loveliest sound I know in any recording of these works (and I have quite a lot), and it's superbly recorded. 

My reservations about this recording are very personal, and you may well respond differently.  Personally, I'd go for Isserlis, Fournier or the recent brilliant recording by David Watkin before this, but that's the point of different recordings.  I wouldn't reject this by any means.  There are parts of this set which I return to again and again (especially the First Suite) and many people love it, so my advice is to give it a try of you can and see what you think – it may suit you very well.

Rosenmüller - Beatus vir? - Beyer/Gli Incogniti

Rating: 4/5

Excellent performances

I wasn't familiar with Rosenmüller but I tried this disc because I like Amandine Beyer's work with Gli Ingogniti.  As expected, they are excellent, but I find Rosenmüller's work a little ordinary.

Rosenmüller was composing in the early Baroque period in the half-century or so before the birth of Bach, Handel and Scarlatti in 1685.  His music is good, well crafted stuff, but I don't find either the melodic or harmonic aspects especially inspiring.  However, he is given a significant lift here by the excellent singers and Beyer and her small ensemble.  The performances are excellent, I think, with real thought and engagement with the music and texts, so that both the sacred motets and instrumental pieces are given genuine meaning.  They lift this music well above the ordinary and make this an enjoyable disc.

With very good recorded sound and attractive presentation, this is a recommendable performance even if the music isn't the most inspiring, and I'd encourage anyone with an interest in the music of the 17th Century to give it a try.

Sunday, 17 April 2016

Bach - Cello Suites - Gastinel

Rating: 5/5

Excellent interpretations

I wasn't at all sure that I would like Anne Gastinel's interpretations of the Cello Suites having read some reviews, but I tried them anyway and I'm very glad I did because I like them very much.  They are slightly eccentric in places but superbly played and very rewarding, I think.

The first thing to say is that Anne Gastinel is a very fine cellist indeed.  These are extremely challenging works which demand genuine virtuosity in places, but Gastinel's technique is so good that she seems to move through them with no sense of strain and her playing sounds utterly natural.  There is a delightful sense of flow throughout as she is seemingly immersed in and carried along by the music itself – and it's a lovely ride.  The sound of her cello is simply fabulous (and beautifully recorded by Naïve) and I often find myself captivated by these performances.

Gastinel's tempi are generally quite brisk and she brings some occasional rhythmic eccentricity to her phrasing which in some recordings I have found intrusive and rather irritating, but here it just seems to work.  It sounds absolutely sincere and genuine with no hint of mannered or forced "individuality" being imposed on Bach's music.  For example, she skips with the quickest and lightest of touches over the wonderful wide arpeggios in the prelude to the Third Suite, and yet they keep all the moving beauty they have in, say David Watkin's fabulous and much more emphatic interpretation.  In the magnificent Sarabande of the Fifth Suite, which Steven Isserlis invests with such spellbinding depth and passion, Gastinel seems to caress the meaning from the music in the tenderest way – and it's just as powerful.

I was genuinely surprised by how much I like these interpretations.  I have a lot of recordings of the Cello Suites and I think this stands with the best of them.  These things are often a matter of personal taste and preference but I would urge you to give this recording a try.  If you find them as enjoyable and rewarding as I do, it will be well worth it.

Friday, 15 April 2016

Finger - Sonatae Op.1 - Echo du Danube

Rating: 5/5

A thoroughly enjoyable disc

I like this disc very much.  It's not truly great music but it's sometimes quite delightful and always very enjoyable, and it's very well played.

The excellently named Gottfried Finger was a gambist and composer active chiefly in London and then Mannheim from around 1680-1730.  He was plainly a very accomplished player and a more-than-competent composer; the sonatas here which make up his Op.1 are skilfully done, melodious and have plenty of harmonic interest.

Echo du Danube bring the music to life very well.  They are a six-member ensemble whose individual virtuosity allows them to play the music very naturally, and their understanding of the music and each other gives the whole thing an really enjoyable feel.  I get this out sometimes and listen to a couple of sonatas just for the simple pleasure of it - somewhat like a musical sorbet, I suppose.

This music won't set the world alight but that's true of a lot of music which is still very good and thoroughly satisfying to listen to and I can recommend this warmly to anyone with an interest in this period. 

Thursday, 14 April 2016

Terzi - Il secondo libro... - Beier/Marchitelli

Rating: 5/5

Enjoyable lute music

This is an enjoyable disc of late 16th Century lute music. We know precious little about Terzi's life - not even his exact dates - but quite a bit of his work survives and it is good to have it available.

The music is Italian and considerably sunnier in disposition than that of Terzi's contemporary Dowland. These are more free-form pieces such as toccatas and fantasias rather than the more dance-like pieces we know from Dowland, and this is a very engaging selection of them. They are tuneful and charming and although there are galliards and the like, the feel of the selection is of sunny and rhythmically fairly free music. It is very enjoyable indeed.

The playing by Beier and Marchitelli is good and in places truly delightful. They bring out the music's charm very nicely and they are a pleasure to listen to. The recording is slightly on the dry side for my taste but the overall sound is still very good. The notes by the two performers themselves are informative and it's an attractive disc all round. Recommended.

Bach - Stirring Stills - Esther Apituley

Rating: 4/5

A good Bach disc

Esther Apituley is a very fine viola player who has here recorded movements transcribed from Bach's solo works for violin and cello.  The transcriptions work very well and in some of the violin works especially the richer sound of the viola gives them a lovely depth.  The programme itself is of individual movements from various sonatas, partitas and suites and it did feel a little fragmented to me; Bach's ordering of the movements in the original works is an important part of their structure, and these individual movements didn't work quite so well for me as a sequence.

Apituley plays very well.  She is emotionally expressive without resorting to inappropriate Romantic gestures and her ornamentation and very restrained use of vibrato are excellently judged, I think.  For example, the opening track is the adagio from the first Violin Sonata BWV1001, which is powerful and thoughtful with a simply wonderful sound from the viola.  Some other movements are as good, but I didn't quite find this depth everywhere.  The disc closes (almost inevitably) with the mighty chaconne from the D minor Violin Partita BWV1004; it is well played but doesn't really have the impact of the great performances by people like Rachel Podger, Viktoria Mullova, Isabelle Faust and others.

Overall, I think this is a good disc with very fine great highlights which is well worth looking into for any Bach enthusiast.  For some outstanding Bach on the viola, I'd recommend Maxim Rysanov's transcriptions of the Cello Suites, and for wonderful transcriptions of some of the solo violin works Suzanne Heinrich's viola gamba transcriptions.  However, there is some fine playing here and while it's not on a par with some of the truly great Bach recordings, I can still recommend it.

Fayrfax - The Masses - The Cardinall's Musick - Carwood

Rating: 5/5

A superb set

The three discs in this set are compiled from the set of five discs which The Cardinall's Musick made of Fayrfax's complete works. Fayrfax himself was an English composer of the first half of the 16th Century, and wrote these five magnificent mass settings plus some very beautiful settings of the Magnificat and other texts. His music is rich, delicately beautiful in some places and spine-tinglingly sonorous in others. The Cardinall's Musick are the perfect ensemble for this repertoire: a superb group of singers with a rich, resonant tone and acoustic, directed by the excellent Andrew Carwood who has an unsurpassed feel and understanding of English music of this period. The combination is irresistible, and I urge you not to resist.

The original five discs were favourites of mine as they came out, and remain so. This set is slightly diminished in that works such as the sublimely lovely Aeternae laudis lilium are missing, and two of the masses have to be split over two discs. However, at this price you are getting a simply fantastic set of music which will give you pleasure for years and years to come. Just listen to the Sanctus of the Missa Albanus and I guarantee you'll be transported by its sheer loveliness. A set not to be missed.

Sunday, 10 April 2016

Bach - Johann, I'm Only Dancing - Red Priest

Rating: 5/5

Terrific stuff from Red Priest

I love Red Priest.  I don't enjoy everything they do, but I think their approach is wonderfully refreshing, their musical skill is quite astounding in places, they often produce genuinely thrilling music – and they quite often raise a smile, too.

This is a terrific album of Bach arrangements, played with Red Priest's trademark zest and virtuosity.  It opens with the famous prelude from the E major Violin Partita, superbly arranged and played with terrific zing, continues with a truly lovely Andante from the E minor Flute Sonata, then a wonderful, varied arrangement of the mighty organ Toccata & Fugue in D minor…and so on.  It's a really great programme, crammed with wit, beauty, virtuosic fireworks and, running through it all, a genuine love and understanding of Bach's music.

I love and revere Bach and I would be very critical if I thought he were being trivialised.  I think this is anything but trivialising Bach, though; it's a lot of fun but there's also real musical depth and merit here and I can recommend this disc extremely warmly.

Saturday, 9 April 2016

Telemann - Complete Violin Concertos - Wallfisch et al

Rating: 5/5

An outstanding series

This series by Elizabeth Wallfisch and her different ensembles is really excellent. Telemann is too often dismissed as an amiable but inconsequential composer of mediocre Baroque wall paper. I disagree: I think that much of Telemann's music has real weight and substance under the charm and accessibility, and these discs show it off very well.

Elizabeth Wallfisch has been making very fine baroque recordings for many years now (her recently re-released Vivaldi violin sonatas are absolutely fantastic, for example, and she brings her wonderful technique and depth of understanding to these recordings and makes something really special from them. Slower movements have genuine emotion and feeling without being overly sentimental and the quicker passages have a terrific zing. She is excellently supported by her ensembles, who play with great sensitivity and suppleness and do the music proud.

Every one of this series (five at the time of writing) has been a gem and a real eye-opener for me into the quality of these concerti. The notes, it must be said, are pretty stodgy and not well translated but the music's the thing and it is excellent. I recommend all of these discs very warmly.

Sunday, 3 April 2016

Bach - Cello Suites - Vogler

Rating: 3/5

OK but not great

This is a decent recording of the Bach Cello suites, but not a great one, I think.  Jan Vogler brings a fabulous sound from his Stradivarius cello and he plays well, but this set doesn't quite hit the spot for me.

Vogler brings his own interpretations to these suites, as any cellist must do, and he emphasises the melodic lines very strongly.  This is fine, of course, but I think it comes at the expense of the harmonic depth, both explicit and implied by Bach, and hence of the real emotional and intellectual weight of the Suites.  It would be unfair to say that the whole thing sounds just a little superficial, but there's an element of that as I begin to long for more of the real solidity and depth of these magnificent works.  In addition, Vogler's phrasing and rhythmic variations – particularly the long, emphatic rallentandos at the end of a lot of movements – sometimes sound rather forced rather than emphasising the meaning of Bach's music.

I'm afraid that, for me, this doesn't come close to the superb recordings in recent years by Steven Isserlis or David Watkin.  Just compare the pleasant but slightly forgettable way in which Vogler plays the Sarabande from the 5th Suite with the depth and intensity given to it by Isserlis, or the fabulous beauty of Watkin's playing of the wide arpeggios in the Prelude to the 3rd Suite to the unremarkable skipping over them by Vogler, for example.

The sound on this set is wonderful, and beautifully recorded by Sony, and there's nothing actively wrong with Vogler's Bach, but it doesn't really stand with some of the greats of the past like Fournier or Tortelier, nor with the more recent recordings I've already mentioned.  Some of my reservations are personal and others may disagree, of course, but I'm afraid I can only give this a lukewarm recommendation.

Saturday, 2 April 2016

Magnificat - Scattered Ashes

Rating: 5/5

Simply superb

This is quite brilliant.  Magnificat are one of the finest ensembles performing Renaissance music today, and this is a recording to stand with their very best, I think.

This is a collection of works based around the last meditations of Savonorola, who was put to death in 1498 for heresy and from whose fate the title of this set is taken.  They are therefore somewhat solemn and sombre works, but they also often have a deep, meditative beauty about them.  The collection begins and ends with two of the very greatest works of the 16th Century: Josquin's setting of Miserere mei, Deus from the very beginning of the century, and Byrd's Infelix ego from its very end.  In between there is a collection of far less well-known settings, all of which are very fine; it's an excellent, well thought-out programme.

Magnificat sing it superbly.  Philip Cave has gathered a choir of truly excellent singers (you only have to see names like Sally Dunkley, Caroline Trevor, Stephen Harrold and others to know you're in the best possible hands) and with them has crafted performances of exceptional depth and beauty.  Technically they are impeccable, of course, and they bring both clarity and emotional engagement to every phrase.  There is excellent balance and blend, a lovely fluency of line and a real sense of engagement with what they are singing.  I have several dearly loved recordings of Josquin's Miserere mei, Deus by great ensembles including The Hilliard Ensemble and Cinquecento, and this stands with the best of them.  Magnificat judge it perfectly so that it flows beautifully and has immense emotional intensity without ever getting bogged down, and the same can be said of every piece on these discs.  It's a wonderful recording.

Linn's recorded sound is, of course, superb.  The notes are very full and extremely interesting and the presentation is very attractive.  This is, in short, a great set all round and very warmly recommended indeed.

Friday, 1 April 2016

Byrd, Tallis, Pärt - The Deer's Cry - The Sixteen/Christophers

Rating: 4/5

Lovely sound, but...

I realise that this is tantamount to sacrilege, but I'm not all that keen on some of The Sixteen's recordings.  Their early work like the Taverner series or The Eton Choirbook discs were fantastic, but more recently they have sometimes, to my ears at least, lost a little of the important emotional edge in favour of a smoothly blended sound.  This disc, lovely though it is, is a case in point.

The works here are wonderful.  The majority of these pieces are motets by William Byrd, with three pieces by Arvo Pärt and two by Thomas Tallis.  It's a fine programme, and the parallels between Byrd and Pärt are well drawn, but I'm not sure how well it works overall.

The Sixteen sing beautifully, as ever.  They are a superb choir, made up of some of the world's finest singers of this repertoire and they are technically impeccable.  The overall sound which Harry Christophers creates is lovely to listen to throughout; it is warm, impeccably blended and slightly muzzy in a resonant acoustic – and therein lies some of my problem with this disc.  It lacks any real emotional edge when one is needed because everything lies under a pleasant, slightly obscuring wash of sound.  It's a little like filming in soft-focus: it can be a lovely and appropriate effect, but it won't do for everything.  Even Tallis's sublime setting of Miserere nostri sounds slightly muffled as those fabulous soprano lines rise to what should be a spine-tingling climax.

This is a personal view, of course, it's not shared by a lot of people and I don't want to be too critical but my rating is really 3.5 stars rounded up to 4.  The Sixteen are rightly highly respected as one of the world's finest Renaissance ensembles; there is much to like about this disc and many people will doubtless love it, but I will be going back to my recordings by The Tallis Scholars, The Cardinall's Musick, Alamire, Stile Antico and others and I can only give this a qualified recommendation.