Monday, 27 June 2016

Pamela Thorby & Andrew Lawrence-King - The Garden of Early Delights

Rating: 5/5

A real delight

This is a real gem of a CD. I tried it because of the two performers whose work I have loved for a long time, and I am very glad that I did.

The music presented here is from the 16th and 17th centuries for various types of recorder with continuo - here provided by Andrew-Lawrence King's harp - and there are also some pieces for solo recorder and solo harp. It is a well-chosen, varied and interesting programme; there are vigorous, sparkling pieces allowing Pamela Thorby to display her amazing virtuosity, through to beautiful, melancholy pieces by John Dowland. It is a disc you can listen to straight through because it never becomes same-y, but each piece stands up very well on its own merits.

The musicianship is fantastic. Pamela Thorby already has a wonderful body of work with the Palladian Ensemble and other ensembles, and is well established as one of the world's finest performers on the recorder. Andrew Lawrence-King has played with too many great soloists and ensembles to list and is simply brilliant. His harp sounds like a full chamber ensemble at times and a delicate solo instrument at others. Together they make a wonderful sound, excellently recorded by Linn, and they bring this lovely music to life.

The notes are very good and the presentation is attractive, making this a really cracking disc all round, and I recommend it very warmly.

Saturday, 25 June 2016

Gentlemen of the Chapel Royal - The Gents

Rating: 4/5

Very good but slightly marred

This is an interesting and rewarding disc of music by Tudor and Jacobean composers. Some is well-known, some much more obscure and it makes a fascinating and enjoyable programme. Composers like Tallis, Parsons, White and others here have been well-represented in the catalogue for some time now, but the choral music of the Ferraboscos (father and son) was new to me and I am glad to have it - it is quite dark, complex and beautiful.

The performances are generally very good - technically sound with a good blend and solid intonation. The solo songs by the countertenors are excellent, and the viol consort Diapente (who accompany some works and have three instrumental works of their own) are also very good. I have to say that The Gents is not a very well-chosen name for a serious choir, but they transcend this well. An all-male outfit, they sing at the traditionally low pitch of the Low Countries which makes the sound very rich, accentuated by a very resonant acoustic and what sounds to me like quite distant microphone placement. This makes for an attractive but quite blurred sound and at times I missed the clarity of line which groups like The Tallis Scholars and The Cardinall's Musick do so well, and at times this did interfere with my enjoyment of the music. For example, Tallis's exquisite Miserere nostri got a little lost in the fog for me.

Despite my reservations, this is still an enjoyable disc of very lovely music and I can recommend it.

Thursday, 23 June 2016

Gesualdo - Sacrae Cantiones Liber Secundus - VocalConsort Berlin/Wood

Rating: 5/5

An excellent reconstruction

This is a very good disc of some of Gesualdo's sacred works, reconstructed by James Wood from the parts which have survived. It's a fascinating and very lovely disc.

Gesualdo's music is famously idiosyncratic, with liberal use of chromaticism and highly unusual contrapuntal effects. This has made some of his recordings rather a struggle for me; The Tallis Scholars' recording of his Tenebrae Responsories is just about the only disc of theirs which I can't play with unalloyed pleasure, for example. The music here is considerably less extreme and the chromatic effects add a genuine frisson of excitement rather than just make it seem plain bonkers as some of his other music does to me. I am not musician enough to know whether this is intrinsic to Gesualdo's music or due to James Wood's more gentle reconstruction, but he is a very considerable scholar (as is the great Andrew Parrott, whose "very great help and advice" Wood acknowledges) so I am very willing to accept this as a good approximation to Gesualdo himself.

The effect in the recording is very pleasing. The music is adventurous while remaining very beautiful and the performances are excellent throughout. They are very well balanced with a good blend but with every part distinctly audible. Their technical excellence is plain as they make the challenges of this music seem simple, and they bring real meaning to the texts. It is a pleasure to listen to.

The recorded sound is excellent and the booklet is very attractively presented with very interesting notes by James Wood and full texts and translations. This is an excellent disc all round and very warmly recommended.

Sunday, 19 June 2016

Gombert - Missa Media Vita etc - The Hilliard Ensemble

Rating: 5/5

Another gem from the Hilliards

This is a truly beautiful disc. It consists of a Mass setting by Nicolas Gombert based upon his own motet Media vita in morte summus, interspersed with other motets and beginning with Media vita itself. Gombert was one of "the forgotten generation" of composers who came between the titanic figures of Josquin and Palestrina and who have been overshadowed by them virtually ever since. Well, not any more. The music presented here is rich, involving and incredibly lovely, and shows why much of Gombert's music has been revived and recorded in the last 20 years or so.

The Hilliard Ensemble - one of the world's finest vocal ensembles - do the music proud. Their apparently effortless skill, careful attention to detail and the relationship between text and music, and the sheer beauty of the sound they make produce a truly memorable disc. It's one that I return to again and again, and it moves and uplifts me every time. The Mass and motets are stunning and as a bonus they finish the disc with Musae Iovis, Gombert's fabulously lovely lament on the death of Josquin.

I don't really know how to convey the full greatness of this disc, but it really is one of my absolute favourites in a fairly extensive collection. At this price you've very little to lose and I recommend it in the warmest possible terms. It's a gem.

Thursday, 16 June 2016

Guerrero - Requiem - Orchestra of the Renaissance/Noone

Rating: 5/5

An excellent disc

I have owned and loved the original issue of this excellent recording for years and I am delighted to see it reissued.

Guerrero worked in the cathedral at Seville from 1554 until his death in 1599, and Michael Noone describes it in his excellent notes as "an attempt to imagine the Requiem Mass and Burial Service that was celebrated in Seville's great Cathedral after the composer's death." Guerrero's music is fabulous, and in my view it is of the same quality as that of Guerrero's contemporary Victoria. It is rich, passionate and very beautiful and the programme as a whole, which includes chant and motets and instrumental pieces by other composers (including Josquin) forms a lovely programme.

The performances are excellent. Noone notes that " One of the remarkable features of Seville Cathedral's music making was the participation of ministriles who played shawms, cornetts, sackbuts and dulcians," and their effect here is wonderful. There is an excellent balance between chant, unaccompanied polyphony and the use of the instruments. It is technically very good, with real engagement with the text and a fine, resonant acoustic (in a London Church rather than Seville Cathedral) which gives genuine atmosphere to the recording.

I think this is an excellent and immensely enjoyable and moving disc, and recommend it very warmly.

Hammer - Sonatas for Viola da Gamba - Eckert/Hamburger Ratsmusik

Rating: 5/5

A very good disc

Franz Xavier Hammer was born in 1741 and died in 1817, so the claim that he was the last gambist may well be true (neglecting the modern revival, of course). He was a new composer to me and I was a little sceptical about what to expect, but I was pleasantly surprised - this is very enjoyable music. It is somewhat akin to that of Abel (two of whose brief solo pieces appear on the disc); perhaps not quite as musically inventive, but very rewarding nonetheless.

The musicianship is excellent. Simone Eckert is a fine gambist and she and Hamburger Ratsmusik play beautifully together so that these sonatas have real depth and intimacy. The recorded sound is very good, bringing out the full resonance of both the viola da gamba and the continuo instruments, making the disc a pleasure to listen to.

If you have any interest in the viola da gamba or 17th Century chamber music in general, I can recommend this very warmly.

Wednesday, 15 June 2016

Handel - Il Caro Sassone - Crowe/English Concert/Bicket

Rating: 5/5

Fabulous Handel

This is a fabulous disc of youthful works by Handel, composed during his stay in Italy between 1706 and 1710. It was an incredibly productive period and a lovely sample of what he wrote is presented here - a setting of Salve Regina, concert arias, extracts from cantatas and operas and some instrumental sonatas. It's a terrific programme, well-balanced, interesting and full of Handel's great tunes and brilliant orchestration.

The performances are excellent. Lucy Crowe has a delightful voice which has matured slightly, giving it a lovely depth of tone. Her technique is superb - the aria Disserratevi, o porte d'Averno from La Resurrezione, for example, shows her singing at times with quiet depth and at others with staggering virtuosity as she breezes through some of Handel's most demanding, word-murdering passages, while the English Concert provide a thrilling orchestral accompaniment - including some fabulous, sparkling trumpet work from Neil Brough and Michael Harrison. It's as good as this all the way through the disc, and I would say it's one of the most enjoyable discs of Handel vocal works that I own - and it's up against some very stiff competition.

The recorded sound is excellent and beautifully balanced, the notes are very good and it is attractively presented. This is an excellent disc all round and very warmly recommended.

Hasse - Salve Regina - Bonney/Fink/Musica Antiqua Koln/Goebel

Rating: 5/5

Alittle gem

This is a fabulous disc of music which was new to me and which I enjoyed hugely. The two settings of Salve Regina (one for mezzo and one for soprano and mezzo) are really lovely, and you also get a motet (for mezzo), two Sinfonias and a Fuga & Grave. It's all very good music - there is charm, beauty and real interest here in abundance and Hasse deserves to be better known on this evidence.

The performances are all one would expect from this stellar line-up. Bernarda Fink sings absolutely beautifully and when she is joined by the excellent Barbara Bonney the effect is stunning. Musica Antiqua Köln are their usual virtuosic selves and Reinhard Goebel directs with the technical excellence and real empathy with this period which shines through all his recordings.

In short, it's a little gem of a disc, and I recommend it very warmly.

Tuesday, 14 June 2016

Bach - Sonatas & Partitas, BWV1001 - 1006 - Luolajan-Mikkola

Rating: 4/5

Interesting but not wholly successful

This is a good recording in many ways, but gosh, I find it disconcerting!  These are the Violin Sonatas and Partitas but transposed for and played on the baroque cello - an interesting idea which I was keen to investigate.  I wasn't quite sure what to expect; what I got was a generally very well performed set of pieces but which don't quite work for me.

The first thing to say is that the overall sound is quite lovely; Markku Luolajan-Mikkola's cello sounds wonderfully rich and full in a resonant acoustic, and it's beautifully captured in the excellent recording.  The playing is remarkably virtuosic at times (although intonation isn't always as secure as it might be) and the interpretations seem pretty true to the spirit of Bach to me - all of which makes it hard for me to put my finger on why I find the Sonatas and Partitas played on the cello so disorientating, but I do.

Partly, it's just in my head, I suspect.  I'm so used to hearing these magnificent pieces played on the violin that the change in register and tone is hard to adjust to.  Even allowing for that, though, I think there's something more.   Bach really understood the instruments he wrote for, and although many of his works can be very successfully transcribed for other instruments, the Sonatas and Partitas have a spare, austere quality which suits the violin perfectly, and doesn't sit so well on the cello.  There's a sense of strain in places as the cello tries to perform light, skipping phrases which it wasn't really built for.  Also, the resonance and depth which make the cello suites such a joy don't really go with the emotional tone of many of these pieces, so the great Chaconne from the D minor Partita, for example, actually seems to me to lose some of its magnificent intellectual and emotional impact here.  It seems perverse - the cello is such an expressive instrument that you'd expect the opposite - but for me it's true. 

This is a difficult one to sum up and one which leaves me a bit divided.  Markku Luolajan-Mikkola is a wonderful musician with Phantasm and  this is well performed and an interesting idea interesting, so others may find it suits them better than it suits me - these things are very personal, after all.  I think I'd suggest giving this a try, despite my considerable reservations.

Wednesday, 8 June 2016

Haydn - Complete Baryton Trios - Esterhazy Ensemble

Rating: 4/5

Charming, but...

Haydn wrote a very significant amount of music for the baryton which is seldom performed today. The baryton is now an obsolete instrument which is rather like a viola da gamba but with strings set into the back of its neck which were played with the thumb. It has an echoing, somewhat gamba-like quality and it is fascinating and enjoyable to listen to when it is played as well as it is here by Michael Brünning.

Haydn's employer, Nikolaus Esterhazy, was a keen but not very talented player so at his instruction Haydn continually composed new trios for the instrument, which do have real grace and charm. There are 126 of them, though, which is an awful lot of trios - especially when written for a limited player by a somewhat reluctant composer. Haydn was incapable of writing poor or dull music, but these works seem to me to lack the real inventive flair and variety of much of Haydn's other chamber music, much of which is among the greatest music ever written. I confess that I have not yet listened to every one of these discs, but I am working through them and although I love Haydn's music, I am not sure that I really need 21 whole discs of baryton trios. It's not that there's anything wrong with this set: it's enjoyable music which is very well performed, well recorded and nicely presented, it's just that I don't think it's among Haydn's best work.

I would have no hesitation in recommending a 21-disc set of the String Quartets (I own and love the Angeles Quartet's fantastic set) or large complete sets of the Piano Trios or Keyboard Sonatas because these are chamber works of real substance, endless variety and true genius in places. I can't say the same of the baryton trios - they are enjoyable pieces individually, but one or two CDs of them would do me quite nicely, I think, so I'm afraid I can't recommend this very large set unreservedly.

Handel - Music For Royal Occasions - King's Consort/King

Rating: 5/5

Excellent early Handel

A favourable review of a King's Consort recording of Handel won't surprise anyone, but this is a very fine disc of early works by Handel, whose music was already showing that mastery of melody, harmonic invention and brilliant use of instrumentation which makes him a truly great composer. There is some truly excellent stuff here, from the wonderfully beautiful soprano and trumpet duet which opens Eternal Source of Light Divine to the mighty closing choral "Alleluia, amen" of Sing Unto God. It's a lovely programme.

The performances are excellent. You would expect this from the array of star soloists and they don't disappoint, but The King's Consort is also littered with names like Catherine Mackintosh, Mark Caudle, Crispian Steele-Perkins, James O'Donnell and other giants of the early music scene who make this something really special. It is all beautifully judged and superbly performed. I'm sorry to gush, but I really do think this is exemplary Handel playing and singing.

With Hyperion's usual excellent recorded sound and good, interesting notes, this is a cracking disc all round and very warmly recommended.

Heinechen - Dresden Concerti - Musica Antiqua Köln/Goebel

Rating: 5/5


I find these concerti by Heinichen utterly delightful. There is plenty of musical invention here, but I think the overwhelming impression is one of immense charm and joi de vivre. There is huge wit, too - the amazing Pastorell from the C major Concerto, for example, which imitates the bagpipes, complete with the opening coming up to pitch as the bag is inflated and closing wobble as the pressure is released, and it's all done with conventional woodwind instruments. I love it - it makes me smile every time, as well as being a well-written piece of music in the middle of a very enjoyable Concerto.

Musica Antiqua Köln are, as always, impeccable under Reinhard Goebel, giving the music exactly the right balance of respect for very good compositions and enthusiastic zing and twinkle. It's irresistible, and a fine bargain for two CDs at this price. Recommended very warmly.

Sunday, 5 June 2016

Haydn - Complete Mass Edition - CM90/Hickox

Rating: 5/5

An excellent set

Haydn's mass settings are superb and some may truly be called masterpieces, I think - the Nelson Mass and the Theresienmesse among them. They are full of fabulous music and this is an excellent set of all of Haydn's masses. I also have a much-played and loved set on Decca of 60s recordings by George Guest and others. Both are terrific but as a set I think I prefer this one.

The recordings from the late 1990s show why Richard Hickox is regarded as one of the finest choral conductors of the 20th Century. With a large series of recordings like this by a single ensemble there is always the worry that some pieces may have a slight done-to-order feel or that it will begin to sound a bit weary in places. In fact, Hickox draws wonderful performances from his soloists and chorus throughout and the engagement with both music and text is a delight. In the Sanctus of the Nelson Mass, for example, the dense, beautiful intensity of "Sanctus, sanctus, sanctus" develops into light-filled joy at "pleni sunt coeli et terra gloria tua," as the world really does seem to be filled with glory. The same glory can be found in plenty of places - the opening of the Gloria of the Threresienmesse is particularly wonderful - not because of over-loud blazing bombast, but sheer beauty and joyfulness of playing and singing.

The soloists, who include stars like Mark Padmore, Steven Varcoe and Nancy Argenta, are uniformly excellent and the chorus and instrumental ensemble are terrific. With roughly 25 players and an equal number of singers (although this varies a bit) they are light and supple, but have enough power to provide the necessary welly when needed. Instrumentalists include people like Simon Standage, Crispian Steele-Perkins and David Blackadder which gives an idea of the quality of the performers here.

The recorded sound is clear and warm with just the right amount of resonance to enhance the sound without blurring it, the presentation is attractive and the notes are very good. This really is a set to give pleasure for many years and, at this price for 8CDs of fabulous music in first-rate performances, you can't really go wrong. Very warmly recommended.

Trevor Pinnock - Journey

Rating: 5/5

A fabulous recital

This is a disc of Trevor Pinnock sitting at his harpsichord playing a selection of music from Tallis to Bach, Handel and Scarlatti.  Given that Pinnock is one of the very greatest figures of the Early Music movement over the last 50 years and the music itself is wonderful, you can probably guess for yourself whether this disc is any good or not.

It's fabulous, of course, and scarcely needs a review from me.  Pinnock brings all of his immense talent and huge experience to these pieces and makes every one of the shine.  He is utterly at home in all of this repertoire and shares his understanding with us; from Byrd's cheery Carman's Whistle to the introspective and lovely Sarabande from Bach's 6th French Suite everything makes perfect sense to me and I don't think he puts a foot wrong from start to finish here.

The recorded sound is excellent as always from Linn, who capture the wonderfully resonant depth of Pinnock's harpsichord – proving yet again that Beecham may have been witty about the sound of a harpsichord, but he was completely wrong. 

This is a very fine recital of great music by a very great musician who shows no sign of fading powers whatsoever – and long may that last!  Very warmly recommended.

Thursday, 2 June 2016

Sor - Late Works - Carter

Rating: 5/5


This is a lovely disc of wonderful music, beautifully played by William Carter.

This is music from toward the end of Sor's life in the 1830s.  It is very beautiful and extremely well crafted music which, if it had been written for piano rather than guitar would probably be far better known and celebrated.  The great Andres Segovia was a champion of Sor's music and one can see why; it is full of melodic and harmonic invention and a real pleasure to listen to.

William Carter plays superbly, to my ears.  I am no expert on this music, but I think I know good playing when I hear it and this is fabulous.  It is technically flawless and has an empathy and fluency which makes the music really glow, I think.  The sound which Carter brings from his guitar is just wonderful – superbly recorded, as always, by Linn.

The whole thing is a huge pleasure and I can recommend it very warmly.

Wednesday, 1 June 2016

Franco-Flemish Masterworks - Hilliard Ensemble

Rating: 5/5

A magnificent box

This is a magnificent box.  You get 8 CDs of superb music sung by one of the world's greatest ensembles.  It spans the century roughly from 1450-1550 and the title "masterworks" is no exaggeration.  These are fantastic works by some of the greatest composers of the age - and I would argue of Josquin, one of the greatest ever.

The Hilliard Ensemble bring their superb technique and haunting sound to every one of these pieces and it all simply shines.  I have listed below links to earlier releases of the CDs in this box.  There you will find detailed reviews for most of them if you're interested.  Otherwise, just snap this box up - it's an absolute gem and a monumental bargain!

CD1&2: Ockeghem - Requiem, Missa Mi-Mi,Missa Prolationum, marian motets
CD3&4: Josquin & Gombert - Mass, motets etc
CD5: de la Rue - Missa Iocunditate etc.
CD6: Lassus - Motets
CD7&8: Lassus - Penitential psalms