Thursday, 28 July 2016

Dvorak - Stabat mater - Collegium Vocale Gent, Herreweghe

Rating: 5/5

A delightful discovery

I confess that I didn't know Dvorak's Stabat Mater before trying this, which I took a punt on because I have enjoyed Philippe Herreweghe's recordings for many years and wanted to find out what he was doing on his new Phi label. I am extremely glad I did because both the music and the performance here are top-notch.

This is Dvorak's setting of the powerful mediaeval poem of Mary at the foot of the cross, lamenting her son's terrible death. It is therefore quite dark and intense in places, but there's also plenty of Dvorak's warmth and light, too. His wonderful, distinctive harmonic structures and his gift for melody shine here and give real depth and meaning to the text.

Herreweghe and his ensemble do the music proud, engaging intensely with both text and music and shaping the piece with real skill. The soloists are all very good, the chorus and orchestra are excellent and the whole thing is very well balanced in a lovely, rich recording.

I was delighted to discover this piece and this performance. I think it is rather special and recommend it very warmly.

Thursday, 21 July 2016

Fux - Sonate e Sinfone - Capella Agostino Steffani/Rovatkay

Rating: 4/5

A very enjoyable disc

I like this disc very much.  It is very good, often extremely charming music, very well played.

Fux was a rough contemporary of Bach, older by 25 years, who was a brilliant theorist on counterpoint and a long-standing composer to the Hapsburg court in Vienna.  His music has a charm and grace about it which is very appealing, I think.  It doesn't have the depth and sheer genius of Bach nor the fiery passion of Vivaldi, but it is melodically and harmonically inventive and is a great deal more than just the baroque wallpaper as which it is sometimes dismissed.

These performances bring out the best in the music, I think.  Fux needs a thoughtful and sympathetic ensemble and Capella Agostino Steffani are exactly that.  They play beautifully and bring meaning and elegance to these pieces.  This is not music to set the world alight but, as with people like Heinichen, it is still well worth hearing and giving proper attention.  There's a lot here to enjoy, and I can recommend this disc.

Tuesday, 12 July 2016

Vincenzo Galilei - The Well-Tempered Lute - Ozmo

Rating: 4/5

A good recording

This is a good disc of 16th-Century lute music.  There is some real interest here and it's very good to have this music available, but I'm not sure that this will end up among my favourite lute recordings.

Vincenzo Galilei (father of Galileo, by the way) was a considerable lutenist, composer and theorist in 16th-Century Italy.  Part of his purpose in writing this collection was to champion equal temperament on the lute, almost a century and a half before Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier.  This aspect alone lends the music interest, and creates some fine changes of mood as well as some very enjoyable music.  To me, though it lacks some of the real depth and beauty of, say, Dowland, Bacheler or Gaultier and while I like it and am glad to have it in my collection, it doesn't move me as some of my other lute recordings do.

The playing is generally very good.  Zak Ozmo is a very fine lutenist; this is extremely technically challenging in places and his technique is usually up to making it sound smooth and natural, but not quite always.  To my ears, there's a slight sense of strain occasionally and a little clunkiness from time to time – although to be fair this may be a matter of Ozmo's choice of emphasis and phrasing rather than any limitation of technique.  Nonetheless, I don't find it quite as fluid as it might be in places.

Despite my slight reservations, this remains a good disc of worthwhile music which is well played and recorded.  The notes are informative and readable and, as always, Hyperion present it beautifully and I can recommend this recording.

Sunday, 10 July 2016

Mozart - Complete String Quartets - Hagen Quartet

Rating: 5/5

Excellent Mozart playing

This is a terrific box of all Mozart's String Quartets plus Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, the Bach fugues which Mozart arranged and two of Mozart's Adagios and Fugues. It's a collection of superb music, excellently played by one of the world's leading string quartets.

In my view, some of Mozart's finest music is here. I have to say that although the earlier quartets have a great deal of charm and it's good to have them, I do find they pale beside the great later quartets, which I think are works of true genius. In particular, the set he dedicated to Haydn and the Prussian Quartets are works of real depth and innovation and are they immensely pleasurable to listen to. I have a number of recordings, including Quatuor Mosaiques, Quartetto Italiano and the Amadeus Quartet, and I think these renditions by the Hagens stand very well beside those other great recordings.

The Hagen Quartet are superb musicians with excellent technique and flawless intonation. Their use of vibrato is restrained and, I think, ideal for this repertoire. Similarly, their phrasing and careful use of rubato shapes the music perfectly so that Mozart's wonderful structures shine through and aren't obscured by over-expressive gestures. There is often an audible twinkle and zest in their playing but they generate genuine passion and emotion, too (K421 is something quite special, I think). I would characterise this set as perhaps a little less austere than Quartetto Italiano, and a little cheerier and more vigorous than Quatuor Mosaiques. I love all three sets in their different ways and which is best for you will depend on your personal taste.

For a complete set of Mozart's String Quartets I really don't think you can go wrong with this box. They are beautifully played and excellently recorded, and the extras are a real pleasure, too. Even if, like me, you have a number of recordings already I'd say this is well worth getting; it has a fresh and very enjoyable feel and offers some new insights, too, and at this price for 7 CDs it's an absolute steal. Very warmly recommended.

Friday, 8 July 2016

Palestrina & Allegri - Masses and Miserere - Oxford Camerata/Summerly

Rating: 4/5

Fine Palestrina, less good Allegri

This is yet another fine disc from Oxford Camerata, although I do have some reservations about it: I think the Palestrina is excellent but I'm a little less happy with their performance of Allegri's Miserere.

The principal works here are two of Palestrina's finest mass settings, Missa Papae Marcelli and Missa Aeterna Christi munera.  Both are beautifully judged and performed here.  Oxford Camerata produce a lovely, warm sound which never becomes blurred or muddy.  There is a lovely fluency of line and engagement with the text and technically the singing is excellent, with impeccable tuning and precise ensemble singing.  The are lovely performances, I think, and an interesting contrast to The Tallis Scholars' classic recording of the Missa Papae Marcelli which is more clear and defined in sound but less warm.  I love both, and which you prefer is just a matter of personal taste, I think.

For me, the Allegri isn't as well judged.  The tempo is quite quick and I find the delivery almost aggressive – it's certainly much more robust than in many versions.  I have the greatest respect for Jeremy Summerly's scholarship and judgement, but I do wonder whether this is really the ideal tone for such a beautiful supplication for mercy.

Nonetheless, this is a fine disc and I can recommend these Palestrina performances very warmly.

Thursday, 7 July 2016

Schubert - Late String Quartets and Quintet - The Lindsays

Rating: 5/5

An excellent set

This is a really excellent set - four discs of some of Schubert's finest and most affecting music played by one of the great string quartets of the last 40 years. The music itself is simply fantastic: Schubert's wonderful last three String Quartets - the A minor "Rosamunde" D804, the D minor "Death and the Maiden" D810, and the great G major D887 - plus one earlier quartet, the brilliant single movement "Quatettsatz" D703 and of course the sublime String Quintet in C, D956. It is utterly captivating and wonderfully varied with limpid beauty in the famous Adagio of the Quintet, drama in the famous opening of "Death and the Maiden" and aching melancholy in the Minuet of the A minor "Rosamunde" quartet, for example. For me, Schubert is at his best in his chamber music and this selection represents some of the cream of it.

The performances are extremely good. Intonation is generally very sound, which cannot always be said of The Lindsays by any means, and their empathy with and interpretation of the music is excellent. They play together with a superb understanding and produce something really special in places. This has been my favourite version of the String Quintet for many years, and every movement in this entire set is really involving and rewarding. I have versions of two of the Quartets which I marginally prefer to these (Quartetto Italiano for the A minor and the Takacs Quartet for Death and the Maiden, if you're interested), but I have owned the original issues of the discs in this set for years, and I am still extremely fond of them and play them regularly and with great pleasure.

You simply can't go wrong with this set. It's an absolute bargain and you get a wealth of truly great music in excellent performances. Very warmly recommended.