Monday, 30 May 2016

Il Diario di Chiara - Europa Galante/Biondi

Rating: 5/5

A cracking disc

This is an absolutely cracking CD of Italian baroque music. It is based upon three concerti written for Chiara, and outstanding violinist at the Ospedale della Pieta with which Vivaldi was especially associated. There is a Vivaldi concerto here, but also two other concerti by Martinelli and sinfonias by several other composers. Chiara collected a number of these pieces in her diary - hence the disc's title.

What makes this disc special is the playing of Europa Galante and Fabio Biondi. They give it real zing and sparkle in the livelier movements but also bring out the genuine beauty and emotion in the slower movements. One reviewer in The Guardian described this as being "a bit hard-driven" but I disagree; I think it's vigorous, passionate, tender and thoughtful as appropriate. The musicians play this music as though it really meant something so that even the slightly less distinguished works are still well worth hearing.

Beautifully recorded and presented by Glossa (as always), I think this is a really good disc all round and I can recommend this very warmly.

Haydn - String Quartets Op.33 - Borodin Quartet

Rating: 5/5

A very good set

I like this set very much. I already have some excellent recordings of these Op.33 quartets and I think the Borodins stand very well beside them.

This is the set which Haydn claimed to have composed "in a new and special way." Exactly what that new way was has never been quite clear, but they are a terrific set of quartets, full of Haydn's maturing genius for melody, harmonic invention, subtlety and, of course, wit. This is at its most obvious in the famous ending of the E flat quartet ("The Joke"), but his good humour often shines through here, alongside much very fine and sometimes profound music. It's a delightful, varied set.

The Borodin Quartet perform it very well indeed. They are technically excellent with impeccable intonation, restrained use of vibrato and no portamento (sliding up or down to a note) which is perfect for these quartets. They give proper weight to Haydn's music while understanding that Haydn often said serious things in a witty way, and they have a lovely zing in some of the quicker movements - I love their Presto finale of the B minor quartet, for example. They play on modern instruments which gives the music a full, crisp sound which is very well captured on the recording (although I did think the recording was a little light on the cello occasionally, but that may just be because I'm a cellist.)

I would say that this interpretation is somewhere between Quatuor Mosaiques excellent recording on period instruments and the Lindsays' modern, rather freer approach. I have owned and loved both of those sets for years, but I am very glad to have this, too. It's enormously enjoyable and sheds new light in some places. Very warmly recommended.

Thursday, 26 May 2016

Byrd - Motets & Mass for Four Voices - Theatre of Voices/Hillier

Rating: 3/5

Rather disappointing

I am a great admirer of Paul Hillier's work and have enjoyed many of his discs with Theatre of Voices who are normally excellent, but I found this rather disappointing. The music itself is fantastic: the Mass for Four Voices, propers and motets by Byrd interspersed with some short organ pieces and also a few shorter pieces by other Tudor composers. It's a great and well-programmed collection and in combination with performers of this quality it should have been something really special. It's certainly not bad, but it just doesn't really hit the mark somehow.

Most unusually, the performance by Theatre of Voices to me fails to bring out the full beauty and depth of this wonderful music. They sing one to a part which requires a real perfection of blend and balance to pull it off effectively and, although I hesitate to write this about the work of such a great man as Paul Hillier, I thought the voices simply didn't work together well enough. The balance of the parts was very variable which marred the sense of wholeness, and there is sufficient vibrato in the soprano and tenor voices to prevent the four voices quite blending where necessary. The first time I heard the disc I thought that it must be me, but after repeated listening I don't think it is - this just isn't up to Theatre of Voices usual standard.

I don't want to be too critical, but for a performance of the Mass for Four Voices I'd stick to the Cardinall's Musick or The Tallis Scholars and try Theatre of Voices lovely performance of Josquin and others instead of this.

de Visée & Corbetta - La Mascarade - Lislevand

Rating: 5/5

A lovely disc

I like this disc very much indeed.  It is a very well played selection of pieces by Francesco Corbetta for baroque guitar and by his student Robert de Visée for theorbo.  Both served as court musicians in different countries, including at the court of Charles II in London, and both were very fine composers.  The music here is an excellent programme, interspersing the pieces for the two instruments which gives a fascinating and very enjoyable contrast throughout because they sound so different; the guitar being often strummed and with a high tone while the theorbo is plucked and has a fabulous, resonant sound (which, by the way, makes it one of my favourite instruments).

Rolf Lislevand plays it beautifully to my ears.  His theorbo playing is supple and often quite gentle in feel, and the instrument really rings out in his hands.  He has just the right degree of rhythmic freedom, bringing out the meaning of de Visée's lovely music while preserving its structure, and these recordings are as good as my much-loved recordings by José Miguel Moreno and Pascal Monteilhet, which is very high praise.  I'm less familiar with baroque guitar, but again these seem like excellent performances to me and I find the whole disc a real pleasure.

ECM do their usual excellent job with the recorded sound and the presentation.  I have to say that the notes are a little rambling and on the pretentious side for my taste - but who cares?  It's a lovely disc of very good music, excellently played and that's what matters.  Warmly recommended.

Tuesday, 24 May 2016

Benjamin Grosvenor - Dances

Rating: 5/5

A very fine disc

There has already been a mountain of praise heaped on this disc, so another review might be redundant but, for what it's worth, I think this really is as good as it's cracked up to be and Benjamin Grosvenor really is a phenomenal talent.

The programme is varied and interesting, and it is fascinating to hear Grosvenor's mastery of different styles. His technique is superb, of course, which allows him the freedom to interpret the music for himself. I think he does it wonderfully; the Bach Partita has a beautifully crisp articulation and impeccable phrasing, for example, and his tone and mastery of rubato in the Chopin pieces makes them positively glow.

I won't go on at length – plenty has already been said by others. In short, this is an imaginative programme of music, beautifully played and excellently recorded, and I warmly recommend this disc.

Weiss - Sonatas for Transverse Flute and Lute - Duo Inventio

Rating: 3/5

A bit dull

I'm afraid I wasn't very taken with this disc. I love Weiss's solo lute music but I don't think these sonatas for flute and lute are in anything like the same league. The music is pleasant enough but to me lacks much in the way of real substance much of the time, so it becomes rather samey background quite quickly.

This isn't helped by the performances. Duo Inventio play competently enough, but I found there was often a plodding feel to the music, and where Weiss's music should flow and dance it tended to just trudge on. I also thought that the recording of the lute left it sounding very dry and flat of tone.

I'm sorry to be so critical. This isn't objectionable music in any way and the performances are adequate, but compared to the brilliant recordings of Weiss by both Robert Barto and Jakob Lindberg, it's just a bit dull.

Josquin - Missa Malheur me bat etc. - The Tallis Scholars/Phillips

Rating: 5/5

Superlative Josquin

This is another superlative Josquin disc from the Tallis Scholars.  In his excellent notes Peter Phillips says that these are two of the finest mass settings to come from any pen.  This may seem rather a grand claim when you think of subsequent masters of the form: Palestrina, Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven and many other truly great composers, but I think it is quite justified.  Josquin was one of the very greatest of composers, these are two of his finest works, and they are simply magnificent: beautiful, evocative, dramatic and structured with astonishing musical brilliance.  I love them.

The Tallis Scholars give a performance to match the greatness of the music.  They have shown a real affinity with Josquin throughout their 30-plus year recording career (their disc of Missa Pange Lingua won the 1987 Gramophone Record of the Year Award - still the only early music recording ever to do so and now part of an excellent reissue, The Tallis Scholars Sing Josquin, and it remains as strong as ever.  For several years I have owned and thoroughly enjoyed the Clerks' Group's recordings of these two masses, but there is such poise, balance, fluency of line and sheer beauty of sound from The Tallis Scholars on this disc that it simply eclipses other recordings.  It is one of their very best performances - and that's really saying something.

In addition to all this, Peter Phillips's notes are excellent.  They are scholarly but very readable and give a fascinating insight into the amazing structure of these works.  It's a simply fantastic disc, and I recommend it in the warmest possible terms.

(Incidentally, I think this was the last recording that Tessa Bonner made with the Tallis Scholars before her tragic death.  What a beautiful and fitting monument this makes for us to remember her by.)

Bouzignac - Te Deum etc - Les Arts Florissants/Christie

Rating: 5/5

An excellent reissue

This is a very welcome reissue of the original recording of 1993. The rather wonderfully named Bouzignac is a shadowy figure of whose life little is known, but who was active in the first half of the 17th Century. His music deserves to be far better known on this evidence - the selection here is thrilling, moving and very beautiful by turns and startlingly original in many places.

There are two motet forms here: ordinary ritornello motets and some dialogue motets, which are very striking indeed. Ecce homo, for example, is an amazing dialogue beween Pilate, beautifully sung by the excellent Paul Agnew, and the crowd whose angry and agitated cries of "Crucifige, crucifige eum!" are truly chilling. Set against this is a limpidly lovely setting of In pace, in idipsum for four voices and viols which is simply spellbinding, and the brief motet O mors, ero mors tua whose opening dissonances and suspensions sound 20th Century rather than 17th. The closing Te Deum is just fabulous. There is endless variety and it's a fascinating, hugely enjoyable and very rewarding programme.

The performance is terrific. William Christie and his ensemble respond to the texts with real empathy, and the standard of musicianship and interpretation is excellent. They bring this excellent music wonderfully to life, and I simply can't fault them in any way.

The recorded sound is excellent and the disc comes with full, interesting notes and texts (although no translations). It's a really cracking disc and (as I write, at least) a monumental bargain. Very highly recommended.

Sunday, 22 May 2016

Haydn - Keyboard Concertos - Staier/Freiburg Barockorchester/Goltz

Rating: 5/5

A wonderfully enjoyable disc

This is a terrific disc of three of Haydn's best keyboard concertos, Nos. 4, 6 and 11. Haydn wasn't always at his most comfortable in the concerto form but did produce some real beauties and the three here are really good. They have all of Haydn's wit and sparkle and also the depth he always brought to his music and they deserve to be better known.

Andreas Staier is now one of the leading period performers on the keyboard. On this recording he plays a modern copy of a 1785 fortepiano. Combined with the period instruments of the orchestra this gives a good idea of the way the concertos might have sounded in Haydn's day. The performances are really excellent, with Staier's virtuosity shining delightfully and the excellent Freiburger Barockorchester proving sympathetic an supple throughout. These are performers who really understand that Haydn often said serious things in a witty way and they do real justice to this fine music.

The recorded sound is excellent and the booklet is attractive with full, informative notes. This is an excellent disc all round and warmly recommended.

Thursday, 19 May 2016

Josquin - Missa de Beata Virgine etc - Tallis Scholars/Phillips

Rating: 5/5


This is an absolute stunner of a disc. Ever since their recording of the Missa Pange Lingua became the first early music disc to win the Gramophone Record of the Year award in 1987, the Tallis Scholars have shown a real affinity with Josquin and this is a terrific addition to their growing canon of Josquin recordings.

The two masses here are both canonic in structure, allowing Josquin's astonishing compositional skill to shine and it is fascinating to listen to the virtuosic structures running through these pieces, but the overall impression is of a wonderful, limpid beauty. The disc is simply ravishingly lovely from start to finish. The Tallis Scholars sing with their trademark perfection of intonation and rock-solid technique, which allows them really to engage with the meaning of the text and, without any appearance of artifice, imbue it with a real meaning. Both musically and spiritually, I find this disc a quite remarkable experience.

Peter Phillips's notes are, as always, interesting and very readable and the presentation is very attractive. I have been a fan of the Tallis Scholars for over thirty years now and this has taken its place among my best-loved discs. Recommended in the warmest possible terms.

Wednesday, 18 May 2016

Field - Nocturnes - Roe

Rating: 5/5

Lovely music, very well played

I think this is an excellent disc.  I review it with a little trepidation because it's not my normal repertoire, but I do think it's lovely music, very well played.

John Field was an Irish composer who is best known for inventing the Nocturne.  He was a fine composer and pianist whose work influenced Chopin, Brahms and others, so it's good to see him getting more recognition and this is a fine collection of all his Nocturnes.  They are very beautiful pieces – in my view often the equal of those by Chopin – with real emotional depth, genuine invention and above all a serene loveliness throughout.

Elizabeth Joy Roe plays them very well to my ears.  She brings out all their fine qualities and invests them with real beauty without ever slipping into sentimentality making this a pleasure to listen to.  I'm not sure I want to hear a whole CD of Nocturnes together that often, but individually or just a few at a time they are really, really good, I think.

I was surprised by how much I liked this disc, and I can recommend it very warmly.

Magdalena Kozena - Lettere Amorose

Rating: 5/5

Thoroughly enjoyable

This is a thoroughly enjoyable disc of very good music, excellently performed. Magdalena Kozena is a superb singer but I must say I had doubts about whether her style would fit this repertoire. No need to worry - it does. She retains her emotional engagement with the music but reins in the more operatic aspects of her voice, especially vibrato which is delicately used, and the result is a lovely, rewarding interpretation of these songs.

The instrumental group are equally good. They play a variety of instruments in accompaniment including guitars, theorbo, violone, harp and percussion. They are supple and extremely sympathetic, making the songs glow with beauty and emotion. The five brief instrumental pieces on the disc are hugely enjoyable and played with real zing.

The recorded sound is excellent, the notes good and the presentation attractive. It's a really good disc all round and very warmly recommended.

Monday, 16 May 2016

Lassus - Prophetiae Sybillarum etc - Brabant Ensemble/Rice

Rating: 4/5

Not one of the Brabant Ensemble's best

This is a good recording of Lassus, but perhaps not a great one.  I have loved some of The Brabant Ensemble's recordings in the past, but some of their more recent discs, this one included, have failed to move me in the same way.

The principal work here is Prophetiae Sibyllarum, Lassus's venture into chromaticism, which can be a somewhat challenging listen.  I have two very fine recordings of it by The Hilliard Ensemble and De Labyrintho, both of which capture the dark, atmospheric nature of the music which I don't think the Brabants quite manage to do here.  They sing with their customary technical excellence and a good blend and balance, but don't really generate a sense of what the music is about.  This is due at least in part to the recording which is rather distant and very resonant, while I think it needs a more intimate sound.

The Magnificat, motets and mass setting which male up the rest of the disc are a good deal better, with a more appropriate sound and, to me anyway, considerably more engagement from the singers.  The motet Tristis est anima mea in particular is exceptionally beautiful and shows what the Brabant Ensemble are really capable of.

There's nothing wrong with this disc as such, but if you're looking for a recording of Prophetiae Sibyllarum I'd recommend the Hilliard Ensemble (who couple it with a wonderful recording of Lassus's Requiem) or De Labyrintho before this, and I also think that the Brabant's recordings of Phinot, Crecquillon, Manchicourt and Clemens non Papa are more worthwhile than this one.  It has its moments, but I can only give this a somewhat qualified recommendation.

Lauffensteiner & Weichenberger - Austria 1676 - Yisrael

Rating: 4/5

Enjoyable, if not great, lute music

This is an enjoyable disc of Austrian Baroque lute music by Wolff Jacob Lauffensteiner and Johann Georg Weichenberger, two composers born in 1676.  This is the first I have heard of either composer and their music is very enjoyable, although perhaps not quite in the first rank of lute music of the period.  They are rough contemporaries of Weiss, a true German master of lute composition and although their style is similar, for me neither has quite the depth and invention of Weiss.

The pieces here are all Partitas with movements based upon different dance rhythms and Miguel Yisrael plays them very well.  He has a very good technique, bringing out the different characters of the movements and giving them each a distinct feel.  The spirit of Hopkinson Smith, Yisrael's teacher, is discernible here in the smooth phrasing and beautiful tone he produces and I think he is a very fine lutenist.

The quality of the music means that I don't find this disc as satisfying as the excellent recordings of Weiss by both Jakob Lindberg and Robert Barto which are in a similar style, and if you're just looking for a disc of first-rate baroque lute music I'd recommend one of them first.  However, it's good to have some music by these two composers available and this is certainly recommendable as a well-played programme of very pleasant music.

Sunday, 15 May 2016

Scarlatti - Piano Sonatas - Huangci

Rating: 5/5

Very enjoyable

There have been some very fine recordings of Scarlatti on the piano in recent years - Tharaud, Sudbin and Hewitt spring to mind and there are others, too.  This may not have quite the depth of some of those great recordings, but Claire Huangci plays with such fire and youthful zest that this is in many ways just as enjoyable.

There are two discs here which form a good, varied selection from the 555 sonatas.  Huangci plays a little fast and loose with Scarlatti's repeats and can be pretty free with her ornamentation occasionally, but this really sparkles throughout and seems a perfectly legitimate interpretation to me.  She doesn't go in for inappropriate Romantic gestures but often brings out the phrasing to make good sense of the structure of the music, so the whole thing makes good sense to me.

Huangci has a brisk, staccato approach much of the time, lending this the air of a harpsichord recital, which I like very much.  I do think she gets carried away with tempi sometimes, so that some sonatas are played so fast that they rush by with some of their meaning lost, but there is so much sheer joy and delight here that I find that forgivable.

If really pushed for a single Scarlatti recital on piano I think I would go for Angela Hewitt's somewhat deeper, more thoughtful approach but that's purely a matter of personal taste.  There is a huge amount to enjoy here and even if you already have some favourite Scarlatti on the piano, I would urge you to try this.  Warmly recommended.

Saturday, 14 May 2016

Beethoven - Complete String Quartets - Alban Berg Quartet

Rating: 5/5

Wonderful music, beautifully performed

Beethoven's string quartets contain some of his finest music, in my view. The early Opus 18 quartets retain elements of the classicism of Haydn and Mozart while moving the form into new territory, the wonderful Rasoumovsky Quartets in his middle period have some sublime slow movements and show the real development in Beethoven's music, and the amazing late quartets contain a mixture of the strange, the inspiring and the beautiful as Beethoven's genius reached its final flowering. To have all this in one box is truly wonderful.

The performances by the Alban Berg Quartet are excellent. They date from the early 1980s, were very highly regarded at the time and have aged very well, I think. They are technically excellent, their intonation is flawless and show great insight in interpretation. Very fine cycles have been recorded since by other quartets, but I still listen to these discs with great pleasure and for a great complete cycle at budget price I'd say you couldn't do better than this. The slow movement of the A minor quartet Op.132 is one of music's true miracles, and the Alban Bergs' playing of it is still my favourite of any quartet - indeed, it's possibly my favourite 15 minutes of music anywhere. The recording of the Quartet in E flat major, Op.74 ("The Harp") included in this set was selected by Radio 3 CD Review's Building a Library in 2011 as the best available. Given the phenomenal standard of the competition, it's a fine endorsement of the quality of this box.

If you're looking for a recording of the Beethoven Quartets to get to know, this is ideal, and if you're already familiar with them there is plenty to enjoy in these interpretations. At this price for seven CDs of superlative music it's an exceptional bargain, too, and I recommend this set very warmly indeed.

Haydn - String Quartets - Jerusalem Quartet

Rating: 4/5

Fine playing, but...

I like this disc but I do have my reservations.

The music itself is wonderful, and particularly if you are looking for a sample of Haydn's finest quartets the programme alone is enough to commend this disc strongly.  There are three Quartets here:  the famous "Lark" (Op. 64 No.5), the "Fifths" (Op. 76 No.2) and the towering masterpiece which is Op.77 No.1.  Each is given its own character by the Jerusalem Quartet and they play them very well.

Technically, the playing is excellent, with rock-solid intonation and extremely fine ensemble playing - their sheer accuracy in the scampering finale of The Lark, for example, is remarkable.  The Jerusalem Quartet also bring real distinctness to each work with fabulous, soaring beauty in the opening of The Lark and powerful, dark passion in parts of The Fifths.  However, I felt at times there was a little something lacking.  For example, the finale of The Lark is spectacularly quick and quite exciting here but lacked that sense of real exuberant joy which Quatuor Ebene bring to it, and the sheer weight and passion the Jerusalem Quartet give to the dark, driving minuet of The Fifths was really arresting for a while but became a bit much when unrelieved for the whole movement which desperately needed the little leavening of lightness I find in Quatuor Mosaiques' interpretation.

Please don't let me put you off - these things are a matter of taste and there is no doubt that this is a disc of fabulous music, very well played.  For me, though, Quatuor Ebene and Quatuor Mosaiques are a better bet and I can only give this disc a somewhat qualified recommendation.

La Guitarra Espanola - Moreno

Rating: 5/5

An excellent reissue

This is an excellent and very welcome reissue of two recordings from the mid-1990s by the excellent Jose Miguel Moreno. They span four centuries of works for the Spanish guitar and its predecessor, the vihuela. It is a rich, diverse and extremely satisfying collection.

The earlier works by Luys de Narvaez and others on the vihuela are excellently done and rival Hopkinson Smith's brilliant recordings, which is really saying something. For me, though, the highlights of this set are the later classical and romantic works by the likes of Sor and Tarrega. Moreno seems really to come into his own here: they are magnificently played and the sound of his guitar is fabulous. I have some of these pieces played by the great Andres Segovia and while I wouldn't want to draw a parallel between Moreno (who is very good indeed) and Segovia (who was a towering genius), Moreno does play them extremely beautifully in his own way and the fantastic quality of the recorded sound on these discs makes the pieces really glow.

Anyone with any interest in guitar music will find an immense amount to enjoy here and I recommend this set very warmly.

Thursday, 12 May 2016

Haydn - 11 Piano Sonatas - Brendel

Rating: 5/5

A welcome reissue of a superlative recording

What a fantastic reissue this is! I have owned and loved the originals for many years, they are a real treasure of my collection and I am delighted to see them available at budget price.

Haydn's Piano Sonatas are very fine works - full of his characteristic invention, melody and sheer craftsmanship and in my view are at least the equal of Mozart's Piano Sonatas. Haydn's wit and twinkle are all well in evidence, there's real drama in places and also limpid beauty - the free-standing Adagio in F which closes Disc 2 is simply exquisite, for example. It's wonderful music which I return to again and again

Alfred Brendel, of course, plays it magnificently. It is almost redundant nowadays to praise his playing because it has been so reliably excellent for well over half a century, but it is still worth doing. Technical perfection allows Brendel really to allow the music's quality to shine out in all its variety and he captures every bit of it. If there is a flaw or misjudgement anywhere on these discs I've not found it in years of listening.

I simply cannot praise this set highly enough. I genuinely think it stands comparison with Brendel's classic Beethoven and Schubert sonata cycles, and my only complaint is that he only recorded these four discs of Haydn - a Complete Cycle would have been magnificent. It's is a superlative set, now at a real bargain price. If you like Haydn or Mozart, or just want great piano music played to perfection, don't hesitate. Recommended in the warmest possible terms.

Richard Strauss - Orchestral Works - Dresden Staatskapelle/Kempe

Rating: 5/5

A fantastic set

This is simply fantastic 9CD set.  Strauss wrote some of the finest music of the 20th century in my view, and this is a wonderful collection of his entire orchestral output from his very well-known tone poems through the excellent but often under-rated concertos to works which were quite new to me. All of it is exceptionally well played: Kempe conducts brilliantly and brings really fine performances from the Dresden Staatskapelle and soloists including Paul Tortelier and Peter Damm.

The recording quality is excellent and the digital transfer has obviously been done very well - I have nothing but praise for the warmth and clarity of the sound. The box and individual cardboard sleeves are sturdy (if a little dull). There is a booklet of rather sparse notes in English only. They give adequate basic information about the works themselves and at this price and in slimline format I wouldn't dream of carping.

This is a terrific box and a monumental bargain and I recommend it very warmly.

The works:
Concerto for Horn and Orchestra No. 1 in E flat
Concerto for Horn and Orchestra No. 2 in E flat
Concerto for Oboe and Orchestra in D
Burleske in D minor
Panathenäenzug: symphonische Etüden in Form einer Passacaglia
Parergon zur Symphonia domestica
Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche
Don Juan
Ein Heldenleben
Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in D minor
Symphonia domestica
Also sprach Zarathustra
Tod und Verklärung
Der Rosenkavalier
Le Bourgeois gentilhomme
Eine Alpensinfonie
Aus Italien
Don Quixote
Tanzsuite aus Klavierstücken von François Couperin

Wednesday, 11 May 2016

Lawes - The Harp Consorts - Eilander/Les Voix Humaines

Rating: 5/5

Excellent Lawes

This is an excellent and hugely enjoyable recording of the Harp Consorts of Willam Lawes.  I have a number of very fine recordings of some of Lawes's other consort music, but this is the first time I heave heard the Harp Consorts.  They, and the performances here, stand very well beside those I already have.

The Consort of a diverse mixture of instruments had developed as an idea during the first half of the 17th Century and Lawes (who died during the Civil War) was one of its finest exponents.  The music here is original, diverse and extremely engaging to the listener.  He uses his combination of instruments - harp, theorbo, violin and two bass viols (violas da gamba) - very well so that there is real tonal as well as melodic and harmonic interest here and the whole effect is simply delightful.

The musicians are first-rate.  I have enjoyed the work of the gamba duo Les Voix Humaines for several years now since I began buying their excellent series of Sainte-Colombe recordings.  Stephen Stubbs, David Greenberg and especially harpist Maxine Eilander are also excellent and they play with a deep understanding of the music and excellent cohesion and precision in their ensemble playing.  It's a great performance of this music and really makes it shine.

The recorded sound is good - although the gambas are slightly under-recorded for my taste, Stephen Stubbs's notes are full of fascinating scholarly detail and the presentation is attractive.  I would recommend this very warmly to anyone with the slightest interest in music of this period - it's a really good disc.

Thursday, 5 May 2016

Haydn - String Quartets Op.50 - Quatuor Zaïde

Rating: 5/5

Excellent Haydn

This is a cracking recording of a rather less frequently heard set of Haydn's quartets.  I've never been sure why these aren't as often performed or recorded as, say the Op.64 or Op.76 sets because they have all the same depth, charm and wit, which is fully brought out by Quatuor Zaïde.

The cover photo looks rather like a selfie taken by four young women heading for a big night on the town – and the music sounds rather as though that's what they're doing.  It's full of youthful zing and joy, but never lacks delicacy or emotion where appropriate.  What really comes across here is Haydn's wit and twinkle, and the verve in much of the music is a real pleasure.  Those repeated notes on the cello in the opening movement of the first quartet, for example, aren't just a measured base for the rest of the quartet to work around; they almost swing, and that sheer joy in the music and the playing of it together sparkles throughout.  Technically the quartet are excellent with impeccable intonation to my ears and a real precision when it matters, so this is proper music-making but with real flair.

I have a couple of other recordings of the Op.50 Quartets by The Angeles Quartet and The Lindsays.  Both are very good in their different ways, but I prefer Quatuor Zaïde to either.  The recorded sound is very good and the performance a pleasure from the first note to the last.  Very warmly recommended.

Stile Antico - Song of Songs

Rating: 5/5

Another fine disc from Stile Antico

This is Stile Antico's third disc and the first in which they have moved outside English repertoire. It is well up to the excellent standard of their first two.

The programme is a selection of settings of verses by various composers from the Song of Songs, which the sleeve notes describe as the most "profane" (for which read "erotic") book of the Bible. Used by composers to represent the love of God and of Mary, the texts are often intense, often passionate and speak of beauty, all of which is represented in the magnificent music presented here. It is a rich and varied programme, and the variety of composing styles makes it a really rewarding disc.

The performances are very good indeed. Stile Antico are increasingly regarded as among the top ensembles for this repertoire and their quality is well in evidence here: flawless intonation, a real empathy with music and text and a lovely, rich vocal blend. The acoustic is quite resonant which gives a rounded sound in which individual lines are not always completely distinct but whose overall effect is very lovely. Quite a few of these motets have been recorded by truly great ensembles like the Tallis Scholars and the Hilliard Ensemble; these versions stand up very well beside them, which is high praise indeed.

Harmonia Mundi's recorded sound is excellent and the packaging and notes are very good. It's a really cracking disc and recommended in the warmest terms.

Wednesday, 4 May 2016

Lully - Petits Motets - Les Arts Florissant/Christie

Rating: 4/5

Decent music and performances but rather unexciting

This is a disc of Lully's "Petits motets," a group of small scale settings for three voices and continuo.  Presented here are the eleven motets which have been firmly established as being by Lully, excluding a number which were probably wrongly ascribed to him.

The music is enjoyable although to me not truly great.  There is a fluency and deftness in Lully's handling of his small forces and the effect is pleasing, so individually these motets are quite rewarding.  They vary in scale from the nine-minute Omnes gentes to the sub-two-minute Dominum salve regum - but I have to say that as a programme it does begin to get a bit samey rather quickly.  This may be a personal thing, because I do find that, with a few noble exceptions, I often find Lully's music rather stodgy.  This, I'm afraid, is not one of the noble exceptions.

Les Arts Florissants under William Christie are an excellent ensemble and these days have a world-wide reputation.  This recording dates from 1987 and although the performances are good (of course they are from Christie), to me they lack some of the bounce and inner glow which marks their more recent work.

A qualified recommendation, then.  The music and performances are both good if not great and they are well recorded.  If you want a recording of these rather out-of-the-way works this will serve you well, but for a disc of Lully which is an unalloyed pleasure I'd recommend Jordi Savall's L'Orchestre du Roi Soleil.  It's different repertoire but for me a much more enjoyable experience.

Sunday, 1 May 2016

Schubert - Piano Trio in Bb, D898, Noturno, etc. - Florestan Trio

Rating: 5/5

Superb Schubert

This is a terrific disc.  The music is simply wonderful; it is full of charm, beauty, thoughtfulness and the most brilliant melodic and harmonic invention.  For me, the Notturno in particular is the most fabulous miniature with its sublimely beautiful opening and closing passages and the darker, more dramatic middle section, but it's all chamber music of the highest order.

The Florestans play it superbly.  There is a real feeling of life and depth in the music throughout and their technical excellence allows them to really bring out the meaning and feel of the music while sounding completely at ease with it; it's exemplary playing.  I have the Beaux Arts Trio's recordings of these works which I have loved for many years and I think this is better – and I can't think of any higher praise than that.

This really is one of the finest and most enjoyable discs of Schubert's chamber music that I know (which is really saying something) and I can recommend it very, very warmly.