Friday, 30 September 2016

Graupner - Orchestral Suites - Finnish Baroque Orchestra

Rating: 5/5

A very enjoyable disc

I am rather surprised by how much I like this disc. Often, neglected baroque composers are neglected for a very good reason but while Graupner is certainly no Bach or Handel, he turns out to have written some very enjoyable music.

In his own time, Graupner was generally more highly regarded than Bach, of whom he was a slightly older contemporary. That's a judgement which most certainly wouldn't be shared today, but his music does deserve to be more widely known on this evidence. The music is perhaps more solid and workmanlike than inspired but it is nonetheless very enjoyable. He is slightly reminiscent of Handel in his use of orchestral colour and this gives the music real character, I think, and prevents it from just becoming baroque wallpaper. It's an interesting and rewarding listen – and a good deal of what makes it so is the playing of the musicians here.

The Finnish Baroque Orchestra are excellent, as are the soloists. They really understand what makes this music tick and bring out both the colours of the instruments and the dance rhythms of the different movements. The combination is a delight, and the variety of solo instruments – flute, viola d’amore, chalumeau, baroque horn, and bassoon in various combinations – lends real character to the whole thing.

Beautifully recorded and with full, interesting notes, this is a very good disc all round. If, like me, you were only dimly aware of Graupner, this will bring him much more to the fore, and deservedly so. Very warmly recommended.

Monday, 26 September 2016

Handel - My Favourite Instrument - Löffler/Batzdorfer Hofkapelle

Rating: 3/5

Rather disappointing

I love a lot of Handel's instrumental music and the Baroque oboe could be said to be one of my favourite instruments, too, but I'm afraid I found this disc rather disappointing.

The programme is a selection of Handel's works for oboe plus some soprano arias which also feature the oboe prominently.  I was expecting to enjoy it immensely, but it got rather wearing after a while.  Partly this is because it is pretty relentlessly in minor keys, which is absolutely fine in moderate doses and shows the oboe's uniquely plangent tone very well, but I could have done with a little more of Handel's more flowing, mellifluous melodies to leaven it a little.

More seriously, the entire disc seems to be played in a forceful, dramatic, in-your-face style which, while I'm all for vigour and individuality in Baroque playing, really begins to feel as though I'm being harangued after a while.  All the arias are delivered in a very declamatory style and even the gentler, major-key pieces seem very spiky and lacking an essential sense of smooth flow.  This is a shame, because Xenia Löffler is plainly a very good oboist, but I think she could use a few lessons in fluidity of line from someone like Heniz Holliger or Frank de Bruine, and her ensemble need to rein in the attack a little where appropriate. 

All this is a personal view, of course.  Others may disagree but for me this is not one to listen to repeatedly.

Thursday, 22 September 2016

Abel - Mr Abel's Fine Airs - Heinrich

Rating: 5/5

Simply delightful

This is a marvellous disc of 24 of Abel's pieces for solo viola da gamba. When it first arrived I took it into the living room after supper to enjoy with a glass of wine and a book. The book never got a look in. I was instantly spellbound by the music. Abel was a pupil of Bach and the great man's influence shows in places - the two pieces marked "Arpeggio" perhaps have echoes of the preludes to the first and third Cello Suites, for example and the Allegro WKO198 could be a concluding gigue . Now, Abel is no Bach, and these are no Cello Suites, but there is serious and involving melodic and harmonic invention here and a truly delightful sense that these are semi-improvised miniatures played for friends around the fire - which apparently is exactly where Abel, one of the last great masters of the viola da gamba, was at his best.

What really makes Abel's music an unalloyed pleasure is the gamba playing of Susanne Heinrich. I have heard and enjoyed some of her work with Charivari Agreable but until now had no idea she was such a superb musician. The playing is virtuosic in that effortless way which shows off the music rather than the player's virtuosity and, with an intimately close recording, she really does give you the feeling that you're sharing a fireside with her. The sound she produces from the instrument (a modern copy) is fabulously lovely. Try to play this through a good stereo or decent headphones to catch the full, resonant sound - it's just wonderful. I think I may be in love.

I cannot recommend this disc too highly - it's a real gem.

Thursday, 15 September 2016

Bach - Goldberg Variations - Esfahani

Rating: 3/5

A mixed bag

Mahan Esfahani is a fantastic harpsichordist and a thoughtful, individual musician so I was very interested to see what his "fresh approach" to the Goldberg variations would be – and I've found it a bit of a mixed bag.  I have several dearly loved versions of the Goldberg Variations on both harpsichord and piano, and although parts of this recording stand very well with them, as a whole I can't really get on with it.

My problems begin with the first note.  I say "note" because although the score demands two notes played simultaneously, Esfahani separates them, with the bass sounding just before the top G.  He uses this effect a lot throughout the Aria (and in several of the Variations) and I'm afraid I find it a distracting affectation which breaks up the flow of the music and gives it a halting, limping feel.  And although that specific effect is absent in Variation 4, it, too, has a lack of rhythmic continuity which I find very distracting…and then Variation 5 comes along with the most delightful sense of lightness and flow, making it one of the loveliest interpretations I've heard.

I found this throughout: some variations are quite brilliant, others I find hard to listen to.  This is, of course, a matter of personal taste and you may not agree with my assessment.  Technically, Esfahani is, as always, magnificent and the sound of his harpsichord, superbly captured by DG's recording, is wonderfully rich and engaging.  I'd suggest giving this a try or at least listening to some samples; you may well get on with it better than I did.  Personally, though, I'll be going back to Pinnock, Egarr, Hewitt and a few others, and I can only give this a lukewarm recommendation.