Tuesday, 25 October 2016

Scarlatti - Sonatas - Bogner (clavichord)

Rating: 2/5

Very disappointing

I'm afraid this disc didn't work for me.  This may be because of the instrument, but I think it's to do with the playing as well.  There are a lot of magnificent recordings of Scarlatti on both harpsichord and piano and this simply isn’t in the same league.

I am not really sure of the rationale behind playing Scarlatti on the clavichord; the argument presented in the notes isn't very clear and didn't convince me.  Bogner's notes claim that, "The endless tonal flexibility of the clavichord underlines the origins of this music, particularly on the instrument by Thomas Vincent Gl├╝ck. Thanks to the elaborate construction in the bass, the powerful chords really come into their own with an almost unheard-of resonance…"  They don't.  The sound of the clavichord in this recording is dull and lifeless, which in itself robs the music of much of its freshness and interest. 

I also felt that much of the playing was similarly lacklustre.  The disc opens with Kk.208, which plods and stumbles its way along and has the air of a Grade 5 exam piece being practiced by someone who doesn't like it very much.  This pretty much sets the tone of the programme; not all of the selections were quite so drably presented, but none really shone as they should and I found the whole disc a grave disappointment.

I am sorry to be harsh, but that's my honest response to this recording. I'll be sticking to Hewitt, Tharaud, Pinnock and my old and dearly loved Scott Ross complete recordings; this isn’t for me.

Monday, 24 October 2016

Striggio - Mass in 40 Parts - I Fagiolini/Hollingworth

Rating: 5/5

A terrific disc

I think this is a terrific disc. A great deal of scholarship has gone into finding and editing the colossal mass by Striggio which is at its heart, the recording itself must have been a huge undertaking and the result fully justifies the work that has gone into it. The works on this disc are musically very fine and the performances are excellent, making the whole thing fascinating, beautiful and hugely enjoyable.

Robert Hollingworth has chosen to perform the works on this disc with some parts taken by voices and some by a range of contemporary instruments such as sackbuts, shawms and viols. He makes a convincing and interesting case for this in the excellent notes and the effect is remarkable, often creating a thrilling Renaissance Wall of Sound but also beautifully delicate and intimate in places. Striggio structures his mass very cleverly to allow these effects to offset each other and I thought the whole thing - both the large- and small-scale works - was fantastic. This use of instruments also sheds a fascinating new light on Tallis's wonderful Spem in alium and I found this version of it riveting.

Hollingworth has assembled a wonderful group of singers to augment the excellent I Fagiolini, many of whom are regular members of such outstanding ensembles as The Tallis Scholars, The Sixteen, Stile Antico and others. The instrumentalists are just as good, including members of Fretwork and other world-class period ensembles. They give an outstanding performance together; technically flawless and with a wonderful empathy for the music, they are powerful and delicate, passionate and tender as required and really bring this wonderful music to life.

The recorded sound is excellent, the presentation attractive and the notes very interesting. You also get a DVD which includes three surround-sound tracks and a video on the making of the CD. It's an excellent set all round and very warmly recommended.

Wednesday, 19 October 2016

Bach - Goldberg Variations - Hewitt (2016)

Rating: 5/5

Another gem from Angela Hewitt

I have loved Angela Hewitt's original recording of the Goldberg Variations ever since it was issued in 2000, so I was both excited and a little anxious about a new recording.  No need for anxiety – this is another outstanding recording.

Hewitt has lived with this work for many, many years and has a deep understanding of it both scholastically and emotionally - that much was already evident in her original recording.   This version, recorded on her own Fazioli piano, is recognisably different,  but the differences are subtle and to me often almost intangible.  The pulse of the dance which Hewitt understands so well is still there, as is the deep scholarship which illuminates every bar and also the radiant beauty she brings out of so many of the Variations.  Although she obviously brings something new to the work here, I struggled to put my finger on exactly what it is because it's more a matter of mood and a slight mellowness, perhaps, than anything really obvious.  In her typically  readable and interesting notes, Hewitt says:
"The Steinway I recorded on back in 1999 was a most
beautiful instrument. My own Fazioli on this 2015 recording
is more flexible, more challenging to one’s creativity, more
open to variations in sound and touch. The emphasis on
dance is more marked (dance in Bach means joy—one
would think that with age the capacity for joy diminishes,
but in fact I find the opposite). On this new recording the
phrasing is, I think, more elastic; the touch, when required,
lighter; the contrasts more apparent."

I agree, and I can't do better than that.  What I can say is that this will take its place alongside her 2000 recording as a genuine favourite.  It is, of course, superbly recorded by Hyperion and is a wholly involving pleasure to listen to.

Hewitt ends her notes with this:  "But above all, the ‘Goldberg’ Variations has somehow become a mirror of my life, and gives me the opportunity to say with music that which I would never be able to express with words."  That maturity and emotional investment shines out of this disc as she expresses Bach faithfully and very beautifully.  I love it, and I can recommend it very warmly indeed.

Monday, 17 October 2016

Weiss - Moscow Manuscript - Suetin

Rating: 3/5

Not the best Weiss recording

I'm afraid I'm not all that taken with this disc.  I like Weiss's music very much so I was looking forward to it, but both the performance and recording are a bit problematic.

Weiss was a rough contemporary of Bach and wrote a large amount of very fine lute music, of which this is a pretty decent selection.  However, the music needs a variety of approaches, including a lightness of step and a sense of space sometimes, neither of which it gets here.  Alexander Suetin is plainly a very good lutenist, but he invests everything with great intensity which works well enough in some more dramatic or emotional movements.  However, these are suites of dances; some of them are light and full of joy, but the whole thing has a terribly serious feel to it which gets pretty wearing after a while.  This isn't helped by a recording which sounds as though it was made in a lavatory – echoey but bleak and cold.  The overall effect really isn't good.

There are plenty of very fine recordings of Weiss by Robert Barto, Jakob Lindberg and others.  Personally, I'd recommend trying them rather than this; it's worthy but not all that enjoyable.

Tuesday, 11 October 2016

Allegri - Miserere - A Sei Voci/Fabre-Garrus

Rating: 4/5

A welcome reissue

I'm glad to see this disc (originally from 1994) reissued.  It is an interesting take on one of the best-known pieces in the repertoire, and it's good to have some more of Allegri's work available – even if it isn't terrifically inspiring.

The principal interest here is in the two versions of Gregorio Allegri's famous setting of the 51st Psalm, known as "Miserere".  The first is quite a revelation, with Baroque ornamentation rather than the more familiar version with the stratospheric treble/soprano notes which probably date from the Sistine Chapel's original ornamentation practice.  It's rather lovely, even if it is a bit of a shock to the system.  A Sei Voci also sing the more familiar version to close the disc.  They take both very slowly compared with other modern recordings like The Tallis Scholars and the Sixteen which can feel a little funereal at times, but they're well sung.

The rest of the music is a mass setting and three motets, also by Allegri, which – to me anyway – aren't all that interesting.  They're perfectly decent works, but compared to many of the wonderful music by famous composers like Josquin, Byrd or Palestrina, or the fabulous stuff by obscure composers unearthed more recently by ensembles like Cinquecento and The Brabant Ensemble, it seems pretty uninspiring.  It is redeemed a good deal by the performances, though.  I haven't always got on with A Sei Voci's performances in the past (their Josquin recordings in particular) but here they sing beautifully, with a lovely, richly textured sound and genuine engagement with the text. 

I certainly wouldn't recommend this as the best recording of Allegri's Miserere (for me, that's still The Tallis Scholars' 1980 recording) but it's a very interesting disc which I can recommend.

Monday, 3 October 2016

Vivaldi - Concerti per Due Violoni - Beyer, Carmignola, Gli Incogniti

Rating: 4/5

Review: Good but not quite great

I like this disc, but it's not quite as special as I was hoping it would be.  I love Amandine Beyer's work with Gli Incogniti and Giuliano Carmignola is a very fine Baroque player; in many ways they produce the goods here but I do have some reservations.

This is an interesting and quite varied programme of double violin concerti with – contrary to some beliefs about Vivaldi – a good variety of moods.  There are plenty of Vivaldi's familiar virtuosic pyrotechnics, but also genuine minor-key drama and some very lovely slower movements, too.  The players, soloists and ensemble alike, do seem to go at almost all of it with immense vigour, and while I'm all for Vivaldi being invested with plenty of fire and emotion, I think there does need to be a little more variation of tone.  It does happen sometimes – the Largo of RV527 is exquisite, for example – just not quite enough for me.

I also found the sound balance a little odd at times, with the soloists mixed rather a long way back so there were moments when I was struggling to make out the solo lines among the ensemble.

Neither of these is a massive criticism; they are both quite personal perceptions and others may not agree with them.  This is certainly a very good disc of Vivaldi from two terrific players and a very fine ensemble.  It's not quite the fabulous treat I was expecting, but I can still recommend it.

Saturday, 1 October 2016

Mouton - Missa Dictes moy etc - The Tallis Scholars

Rating: 5/5

A fabulous recording

The Tallis Scholars are invariably excellent (I have loved their recordings for forty years now), but every so often they release a disc which is truly exceptional even by their own stellar standards. This is one of them. Mouton's music is rich, distinctive and astonishingly beautiful, featuring a serenity and sweetness of tone seldom matched in Renaissance polyphony but never becomes bland or monotonous because Mouton varies his mood and effects so cleverly that there is always variety and something new to keep the ear interested and - for me, anyway - often spellbound.

The mass setting here is really excellent, with Mouton's ingenious use of Compere's chanson Dittez moy as a basis binding it together beautifully and keeping even the long movements fresh and interesting throughout. The motets are also terrific, with the amazing setting of Ave maria...virgo serena showing hints that Mouton occasionally came close to Josquin's genius in composition.

The disc ends with Mouton's only well-known work, the fabulously beautiful Nesciens mater. I already have three dearly-loved versions but this may well be my favourite. Sung one to a part, it has a spare clarity which allows it to really shine. As Dorothy L. Sayers said of Dante's Divine Comedy, it has a lasting beauty being built on noble bones and here the Tallis Scholars allow that innate beauty to shine. This is true throughout the disc, which has a deeper, more resonant sound than some Tallis Scholars recordings. The top lines in the mass and two of the motets are taken by the altos, and Donald Greig, a stalwart bass of the ensemble, here sings the baritone part which gives an idea of the often lower pitch. This fits the music perfectly and with the Tallis Scholars' characteristic impeccable technique and deep engagement with the music the whole thing is quite exceptionally beautiful and involving.

The recorded sound (in the lovely acoustic of Merton College Chapel, Oxford) is outstanding and the notes full, readable and interesting. This is an absolutely terrific disc all round and on a par with their Browne, de Rore and Victoria recordings which are among my most treasured discs. Recommended in the warmest possible terms.