Sunday, 24 December 2017

Bach - Goldberg Variations - Strauf, Harders

Rating: 4/5

An enjoyable arrangement

This is an arrangement of the Goldberg Variations for two violas da gamba which I approached with some scepticism because even the great Fretwork couldn't really make the Goldbergs work on viols.  This recording does have its limitations, but it actually works better than I expected.

This was originally a set of pieces for keyboard, of course, and the two gambas are a little limited in their ability to create complex harmonies and also in their nimbleness in the really quick, light passages.  This does show in places – Variation 8, for example – but the overall sound is magnificent and much of the disc is very enjoyable.

The playing by Strauf and Harders is very good and the recorded sound really captures the full resonant beauty of the two gambas.  It may not be a classic rendition of the Goldbergs, but this is an enjoyable disc which I can recommend.

Monday, 18 December 2017

Haydn - Cello Concertos - Isserlis, Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen

Rating: 5/5

Terrific stuff

This is yet another terrific recording from Steven Isserlis.  He recorded the two Haydn cello concertos with Roger Norrington in 1998 and I have owned and loved that disc for almost twenty years now.  I think this is even better.

Haydn's cello concertos are full of his trademark depth, beauty and wit.  They are also very technically demanding, but you wouldn't know it from hearing Isserlis play; he gives the music a vigour and drive which really lights up the quicker movements and both of the slow movements are simply sublime here, being full of beauty, emotion and an inner light which I can't quite put my finger on but which really makes them glow.  He has written new cadenzas, all of which are adventurous but go beautifully with Haydn's music, and the whole effect is simply fabulous to my ears. 

(I confess that I have always struggled to like CPE Bach, and the smaller works here, while being enjoyable enough, don't do much for me – but who cares?  The Haydn concertos are more than enough reason to buy this disc.)

Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen play excellently, with a supple vigour and empathy which complements Isserlis's playing beautifully.  The recorded sound is up to Hyperion's usual fine standard and Isserlis's notes are as witty and insightful as always.  It's an outstanding release all round and very warmly recommended.

Monday, 11 December 2017

Locke - The Broken Consort etc. - Wayward Sisters

Rating: 3/5

Not the instrumentation for me

This is good music which is well played, but I do have my reservations.

Locke's music (from the mid 17th-Century) is very enjoyable; it is graceful and tuneful with real melodic and harmonic interest.  It is more usually played by a viol consort with other instruments, like my dearly loved old recording by The Parley Of Instruments under Peter Holman. 

Here, the Wayward Sisters play on recorder, violin, viola da gamba or cello and theorbo or guitar.  The recorder part is generally rather dominant and the other instruments don't really provide the richness of texture which gives this music such a lovely sound.  As a result, I find it rather unsatisfying; the ensemble plays very well but for me the music doesn't really gel as it should.

Others may feel differently, because this is a perfectly legitimate way of playing The Broken Consort and there is some good musicianship here, but my own response is to return to the Parley Of Instruments, and I can only give this a very qualified recommendation.

Friday, 8 December 2017

Bach - Piano Concertos - Pires

Rating: 3/5

Hasn't aged well

Maria Joao Pires is a magnificent pianist whose recordings of Chopin's Nocturnes and Schubert's Impromptus are among my most treasured discs.  This disc of three Bach concertos, originally issued in 1976, is not in the same league as her later recordings for me.

Pires herself plays excellently; she has beautiful tone and a lovely touch.  The orchestral work is pretty stodgy, though, and lacks almost all of the suppleness and spring which informs so many more recent recordings and really brings Bach's music to light.  Tempi are generally slow and are positively funereal in some of the slower movements - which Pires deals with by introducing some rather Romantic-sounding phrasing in places, most notably in the adagio of BWV1052, for example, (which lasts over 9 minutes!).  It just doesn't really sound like Bach to me, however lovely her playing.

In short, this is a recording which has not aged well. However much I respect Maria Joao Pires and love her other recordings, I much prefer Murray Perahia or Angela Hewitt for Bach keyboard concertos on the piano. This is only OK, and I can't really recommend it.

Monday, 4 December 2017

Lutz Kirchhof - The Language of the Gods

Rating: 4/5

Not a favourite

Lutz Kirchhof has constructed a programme of French baroque lute works here which includes some well known names like de Visée and the Gaultiers along with a number of more obscure composers – to me, anyway.  It's an approach I like because it is always good to bring less well known music to light, but to me not all the music here really merits its place.  It's a personal feeling, of course, but I don't find this as consistently interesting as some collections.

Kirchhof is a fine lutenist who has been making well-received recordings for many years.  Again, this is a personal take on it, but I often find a slight stiffness in his approach which I don't find as appealing as the lucidity of lutenists like Paul O'Dette, Jakob Lindberg, Nigel North and others.  The result is that, although the disc has its fine moments and the overall sound is very enjoyable, it's not really among my favourite lute recordings.  It's certainly worth investigating by any lute enthusiast, but my recommendation is slightly qualified.

Sunday, 26 November 2017

Balbastre - Pieces de Clavecin, Livre I - Rousset

Rating: 5/5

An excellent release

This is yet another excellent release from Christophe Rousset.  Somewhat to my shame, I hadn't heard of Balbastre but I'm willing to try anything that Rousset records and I'm very glad I did.

Balbastre published these pieces in 1757 and they clearly show the influence of the Baroque era which was coming to its close.  They don't show anything like the contrapuntal genius of Bach, for example, or the melodic and harmonic gifts of Handel – but then very few composers' work does.  They are enjoyable, neatly turned pieces which certainly deserve to be recorded and heard.

It is Rousset's playing which really makes this a top-class disc.  He has been a magnificent harpsichordist for decades now and his experience, technique and genuine love and feeling for this music shine through, lifting it well above the ordinary.  His harpsichord (by Goujon in the early 18th Century) sounds simply wonderful, with a full, resonant depth and the whole thing is a pleasure.

In short, this is a fine release of decent music made really good by a brilliant player and a lovely instrument.  Very warmly recommended.

Friday, 24 November 2017

Jakob Lindberg - A Lute By Sixtus Rauwolf

Rating: 5/5

Another cracker from Lindberg

A new release by Jakob Lindberg is always an exciting prospect for me, and this one fully lives up to expectations.  It's an excellent, varied programme, beautifully played.

Rauwolf's instrument itself is billed as "the star" of this disc in Tim Crawford's notes.  It is a lute which was first built in the late 16th Century, probably tinkered with later and finally modified in 1715.  It has been impeccably restored to its 1715 state an the result is something rather special; it's tone and expressiveness in Lindberg's hands is quite exceptional to my (admittedly layman's) ears and the whole disc sounds simply fantastic.

The programme is made up of music "which could plausibly have formed part of the repertory of an owner (presumably German?) of the instrument at around the time of its final conversion."  It includes works by 17th-Century composers for the lute: Reusner, Dufault, Charles Mouton, Kellner and Pachelbel, plus a suite by Weiss.  It's a great programme and a pleasure to listen to, with Lindberg's interpretations being impeccable throughout.

The recording by BIS is, as always, excellent.  Some fretboard noise and breathing is audible, but it's never intrusive and I like the sense of intimacy it gives.  The notes and presentation are good, and it's a really fine release all round.  Warmly recommended.

Thursday, 16 November 2017

Bach - English Suite No.2 etc. - Avdeeva

Rating: 5/5

Very good Bach playing

I was very pleasantly surprised by how good this disc is.  I confess that I approached it with a little scepticism because I have heard quite a few pianists trying to produce an "individual" interpretation of Bach with rather unhappy results, but Yulianna Avdeeva plainly "gets" Bach and this is a quality recording.

The three works here are reasonably varied but Bach's dancing pulse runs through them all.  Avdeeva catches it very well so each movement moves as it should and she has the musical intelligence to phrase and project so that of the intellectual weight and emotion comes through too. 

Yulianna Avdeeva may not have quite the dancing elegance of Angela Hewitt or Murray Perahia's wonderful grace, but I am still very impressed with this disc and I look forward to her recording more Bach.  Warmly recommended.

Monday, 13 November 2017

Bach - Cello Suites Vols 1&2 - Grigoyan (bartione guitar)

Rating: 3/5

A little disappointing

The Bach Cello Suites played on a baritone guitar is an interesting idea, but I'm afraid it doesn't work as well as it should here.  The baritone guitar with its lower tuning ought to be an ideal instrument for transcribing the Cello Suites, and in many ways it is.  The depth and remarkable sustain produce a lovely sound, although the sustain on the bass notes does make the effect a little blurred at times.  I do have two reservations, though.

Firstly, the transcriptions are pretty pedestrian.  As far as I can tell they stick very closely to Bach's original cello score, which in a way is commendable, but it doesn't make use of the guitar's ability to play and hold chords.  In really good lute or theorbo transcriptions, a little added harmony really moulds these pieces to the instrument (I'm thinking of Nigel North, Pascal Montailhet and others).  A little of this would have helped a lot.

More seriously, the interpretations don't really do justice to the music.  Slava Gigoryan is plainly a very good guitarist, but he doesn't really capture the sense of dance which runs through the Cello Suites (which are suites of dances, after all).  Just to take one example, the Courante of the Third Suite, should flow freely and flexibly, but there is a hint of stiffness about it here so that it sound a little like a formal exercise rather than a joyful dance.  I found this in a lot of places.

I'm sorry to be critical of a laudable enterprise, but for me this doesn't quite work musically.  I think there is a good recording to be made of the Cello Suites on baritone guitar, but in spite of some good aspects, this isn't really it.

Monday, 6 November 2017

Falckenhagen - Sonate di Liuto Solo - Maginley

Rating: 4/5

An enjoyable disc

This is a good disc of well-played and enjoyable music.  Falckenhagen was a contemporary of Bach and Weiss and his music makes up part of the final flowering of Baroque lute music.

Andrew Maginley is a fine lutenist who brings charm, delicacy and some foot-tapping dance rhythm to these pieces as appropriate.  It's enjoyable stuff, although I have to say that musically I don't find it as interesting or engaging as the lute music of either Bach or Weiss.  It's certainly pleasant to listen to, but I do find my attention wandering after a sonata or two.

However, even if these aren't musical masterpieces anyone with an interest in the lute (like me) will find much to enjoy in this disc.  It is well recorded and I can recommend it.

Friday, 3 November 2017

Bach - Violin Sonatas & Partitas - Kremer (1981)

Rating: 3/5

Not for me

This is Gidon Kremer's first recording of the Sonatas and Partitas from 1981.  Kremer is a very fine violinist and I like a lot of his work very much, but I'm afraid this doesn't do much for me.

These things are a matter of personal taste, of course: Kremer's technique is excellent and he brings plenty of passion to these wonderful pieces, but for me he is a bit over-attacking a lot of the time.  There is subtlety, dance and delicacy in these works as well as intensity and darkness and I could do with a bit more of the subtle, dancing and delicate sides.

Others plainly like this far better than I do and you may, too.  Personally, though, I'll be sticking to my dearly loved recordings by, among others, Rachel Podger, Viktoria Mullova and Isabelle Faust which, in their different ways, all show me far more of the fabulous range of these great works.

Monday, 30 October 2017

Bach - Goldberg Variations - Seldom Sene

Rating: 2/5

Not a successful arrangement

I like the idea of an arrangement of the Goldberg Variations for recorder consort and there is some fine musicianship here, but I'm afraid that overall this recording didn't work for me.

In principle this is a good idea; Bach's music – including the Goldbergs – can often work extremely well in arrangements, and the arrangement itself here is fine.  However, the overall sound doesn't really come together into a coherent whole and  I often had the sense of an elderly harmonium struggling for breath.  I don’t know whether this is because of the instruments themselves, the players or the recording balance, but the lower-register recorders especially often struggle to be heard in the texture which unbalances counterpoint badly.  As a result there is little sense of coherence, much of the meaning of the music is lost and, frankly, I found this a bit of a struggle to listen to in places.

I am sorry to be critical.  This is a project which I admire and there is some fine, virtuosic playing in places, but as a recording of the Goldberg variations I really can't recommend it, I'm afraid.

Sunday, 29 October 2017

Telemann - Fantasias for Viola da Gamba - Smith

Rating: 5/5

A fine recording

This is a fine recording.  These gamba sonatas by Telemann were only rediscovered in 2015, and Robert Smith is one of the first to release a recording of them.  In fact, I heard Paolo Pandolfo's slightly more recent recording first and was so taken with the music that I wanted to hear what another gambist made of them.  I'm very gad I did, because Smith's is beautifully played interpretation.

Telemann's music is very good indeed.  What I said of it in my review of Pandolfo's recording still applies: "Anyone who still believes the old canard that Telemann was a superficial composer of baroque wallpaper need only to listen to the opening Fantasia in C minor here to have that firmly dispelled. Telemann may not have been another Bach, but then nobody ever has been; he was a fine composer in his own right and all of these are works of depth, thoughtfulness and real compositional skill. The minor-key Fantasias are especially fine, I think, with a genuine intellectual and spiritual weight. They are a delight to listen to."

They are an especial delight in Robert Smith's hands.  I hadn't heard him play before, but he is a very fine gambist with a beautiful tone, excellent technique and an expressive feel for what he is playing.  His approach is a little more restrained and less flamboyant that Pandolfo's (as is most people's) and I like both very much.  Smith gives these works depth and dignity, but they still dance and have plenty of that Telemann charm where appropriate.  The recorded sound is excellent with a good balance of clarity and resonance in the acoustic, so the overall sound is fabulous.

With Smith's thoughtful notes and very attractive presentation this is a very fine release all round and warmly recommended.

Friday, 27 October 2017

Grandissima Gravita - Podger, Brecon Baroque

Rating: 5/5

Terrific stuff

This is a disc of very fine Baroque violin sonatas played by the great Rachel Podger with three other outstanding musicians who excel in this period.  Hands up all those who will be surprised if I say it's brilliant…no, I thought not.

The sonatas are all fine works by Vivaldi, Tartini, Pisendel and Veracini.  It's a lovely, varied selection and the continuo ensemble of cello, harpsichord and lute give a fabulous sound.  It's a very good idea to have these different composers together in the same programme; the overall effect is extremely pleasing and it never gets at all samey.

The four musicians here play fabulously, both as individual virtuosi and as an ensemble.  They have an obvious delight in the music and in playing together which gives the disc a rather joyous feel quite a lot of the time.  There is also plenty of depth here and the music is played as though it really means something – by no means always the case with Baroque releases.  The whole thing is a pleasure from beginning to end.

The recorded sound by Channel Classics is very good and the disc is nicely presented, but I have to say that I'm not keen on the whimsical "notes" in the form of an imagined discussion in heaven between the four composers.  It's a bit toe-curling and not very informative about the music; a release of this quality deserves better, I think.  However, it's the music which counts and it's terrific.  Warmly recommended.

Tuesday, 24 October 2017

Tallis - Lamentations of Jeremiah - The Deller Consort

Rating: 2/5

A period piece

We owe Alfred Deller a huge debt of gratitude for his influence in bringing so much Renaissance music, including Tallis's Lamentations, back into the repertoire.  This recording originally from 1968 (I think) is a case in point.  Sadly though, I don't think it has aged well, influential though it undoubtedly was.

These things are a matter of taste, of course, but for me the Deller Consort's sound simply doesn't do justice to this fabulous music.  The balance of voices is variable and distracting so that Tallis's wonderful textures don’t really emerge, and the vibrato used by the singers prevents the chords and shifting harmonies from really ringing.

There are many very fine recordings available of Tallis's Lamentations, including wonderful interpretations by The Hilliard Ensemble, The Tallis Scholars, The Taverner Consort and Magnificat, all of which are different in their sound and all of which I love.  Personally I would recommend any of these rather than The Deller Consort; I am grateful for this recording's influence and I respect it – but I don't actually like it much.

Monday, 23 October 2017

Telemann - Fantasias for Viola da Gamba - Pandolfo

Rating: 5/5

A fabulous set

This is an excellent set.  It's a real pleasure to have this recently-discovered work by Telemann, and Paolo Pandolfo plays it magnificently.

Anyone who still believes the old canard that Telemann was a superficial composer of baroque wallpaper need only to listen to the opening Fantasia in C minor here to have that firmly dispelled.  Telemann may not have been another Bach, but then nobody ever has been; he was a fine composer in his own right and all of these are works of depth, thoughtfulness and real compositional skill.  The minor-key Fantasias are especially fine, I think, with a genuine intellectual and spiritual weight.  They are a delight to listen to.

Pandolfo is, as always, brilliant.  He has a slightly improvisatory style with more rhythmic freedom than some players, which I like very much.  Here, he brings out the meaning and beauty of these pieces wonderfully, and the sound of his gamba is magnificent (and beautifully recorded by Glossa). 

In short, this is a fabulous release of top-quality but unknown music, beautifully played and recorded and with very good notes and lovely presentation.  Very warmly recommended.

(Robert Smith also released a recording of these Fantasias earlier this year. I haven't yet heard it but I hope to be able to compare the two versions eventually; certainly, two recordings of these fine works will be no hardship!)

Saturday, 21 October 2017

Scarlatti - Sonatas 2 - Hewitt

Rating: 5/5

Exceptionally good

I thought Angela Hewitt's first CD of Scarlatti was excellent.  This, her second, is at least as good and in some ways to me is better.

Hewitt has again made a careful selection from the abundance of Scarlatti's sonatas, choosing seventeen which are varied in mood and feel.  She has grouped them into small programmes of about five designed to be heard together, which works extremely well.  She even includes two specifically because they are not too difficult so that listeners may be encouraged to try to play them.  (Without her notes, I wouldn't have known which they are because there's no diminution in quality or interest.)  It's a very engaging programme.

Hewitt plays quite superbly, I think.  Technically, she is impeccable, of course, and there is an elegance, thoughtfulness and an underlying love of this music which is apparent throughout.  The opening two sonatas Kk 491 and 492, both in D major, held me spellbound on first hearing; I don't think I've ever heard Scarlatti given such meaning or such grace before.  The whole disc is of similar quality and has kept it through repeated listenings.  It really is a magnificent performance, I think.

The recorded sound is excellent and Hewitt's notes are as full, scholarly and fascinating as always.  I have quite a lot of Scarlatti on both piano and harpsichord, much of which I love, but I think if I had to choose a single disc to keep it would be this one.  It's exceptionally good and very, very warmly recommended.

Tuesday, 17 October 2017

Tye - Complete Consort Music - Phantasm

Rating: 5/5

A wonderful recording

Unsurprisingly, this is absolutely brilliant.  Phantasm have yet to make a recording which is anything other than excellent and this disc of  Christopher Tye's complete consort music is a wonderful achievement which sits alongside their best.

I knew Tye as a Tudor composer of choral polyphony, but I had no idea that he wrote consort music, too – and it is extraordinary.  Almost always original, sometimes quirky and occasionally just plain odd, I find it fascinating and rewarding to listen to.  It's anything but an anodyne musical experience, but the fabulous sound of the viol consort makes it a lovely disc to listen to and means that there is no sense of it being forbidding. 

Phantasm are simply superb.  Technically, they are flawless and their consort sound is magnificent: rich and beautiful while having the slight edginess at times which this music demands.  They bring out all the character of the music while melding it into a coherent, listenable whole and for me this exemplary playing from a truly great ensemble.

With Linn's outstanding recorded sound, fascinating and readable notes from Laurence Dreyfuss and very attractive presentation, this is an outstanding disc all round.  I would expect it to feature strongly in Awards lists next year, and I can recommend it very warmly.

Friday, 13 October 2017

Josquin & Victoria - Secret History - Potter et al

Rating: 2/5

Not for me

You don't look to a John Potter recording for conventionality, and we certainly don't get it here.  I admire Potter's originality of approach and I like many of his previous recordings, but I'm afraid this just doesn’t work for me.

Potter has taken some fine works of polyphony, chiefly by two of its truly great composers, Josquin and Victoria, and has recorded them as solo-voice or duet pieces accompanied by differnt vihuelas and in some cases featuring a viola da gamba.  The performances themselves are excellent; Potter is a wonderful countertenor, Anna Maria Friman matches him perfectly in the duets and the instrumentalists are all superb – including the wonderful Hille Perl.  It's excellent musicianship, but…

I simply don't think that the music is suitable for this treatment.  A great part (perhaps the whole part) of polyphony is the interplay of human voices of largely equal importance.  Without this it loses almost all its beauty and emotional impact for me.  For example, the disc opens with Jean Mouton's sublime motet Nesciens Mater, whose real appeal is the exquisite, shifting harmonies and polyphonic lines which, when sung by a good choir, create a stunning sense of peace, beauty and spirituality.  One sung line and a vihuela accompaniment, however well done, doesn't come close to this and I'm afraid I felt the same about the whole of the disc.  It's an interesting experiment, I suppose, but to me it just misses most of the point of the music and I find it a bit dull.

I'm sorry to be so critical of the work of such fine musicians; plainly others like Nick Ross feel very differently about it and love the effect, but personally I can't recommend this

Monday, 9 October 2017

The Baroque Lute In Vienna - Hofstötter

Rating: 4/5

Good but not great

I think this is a decent disc of Baroque lute music, but not a great one.  Bernhard Hofstötter is a fine lutenist and it is good to have such a variety of music available; I do have my reservations, though.

The theme of this programme, pretty obviously, is lute compositions with a link to Vienna.  That gives a pretty wide choice and we get some better known composers like Gluck and Biber along with more obscure stuff, including an anonymous Suite – which, by the way, I like very much.  The music is generally good, although it doesn't really bear comparison with Bach or Weiss, say.  Nonetheless, it's enjoyable and quite rewarding music and the recorded sound is good.

For me, Hofstötter's style doesn't always fit this Baroque music.  He is pretty rhythmically free a good deal of the time, which gives a kind of Romantic expressiveness which I don't think fits this music well.  Some rubato and thoughfulness of phrasing is essential, of course, but it also needs a basic rhythmic solidity to allow the patterns and textures to show fully, and I found that lacking in some places here.

Overall, this is an enjoyable recording which does a good job in bringing some neglected music to our attention.  Despite my reservations, I can give this a recommendation, if a slightly qualified one.

Friday, 6 October 2017

Purcell - Complete Ayres for the Theatre - Parley of Instruments/Goodman

Rating: 5/5

Terrific Purcell

This is a wonderful, very welcome budget re-issue of the original, widely-admired recordings. It contains all of Purcell's hugely enjoyable music for the theatre (including the famous Rondeau from Abdelazer on which Britten based his Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra). The music is typical of Purcell - full of melody and harmonic invention, making it hugely enjoyable while not being in any way superficial or trivial - and the musicianship of the Parley of Instruments is simply brilliant. The players include Crispian Steele-Perkins, Pavlo Beznosiuk and Mark Caudle and these stars of the Baroque produce something really special. The dances really dance and the more reflective pieces shine with beauty and depth. It's a delight from start to finish.

The recording quality is of Hyperion's normal excellent standard, giving a fabulous lustre particularly to the bass viol and theorbo and a real sparkle to Steele-Perkins's natural trumpet, and the overall sound is truly seductive. I return to this set again and again with enormous pleasure. At this price for three excellent CDs you've very little to lose and I recommend it extremely warmly.

Thursday, 5 October 2017

Bach - Cello Suites - Narroway

Rating: 4/5

A good interpretation

I like Richard Narroway's interpretation of the Cello Suites, although I'm not sure it really stands out among the many fine recordings of these works. 

Narroway is a very fine cellist with a lovely tone and excellent technique.  He does bring his own personality to the music (as he should), but he allows Bach to speak without overlaying the music with a lot of unnecessary tricks and quirks.  It's a fine, solid and very listenable performance.

My minor reservations are largely personal feelings: perhaps the Courante of Suite No.1 is a little too halting in its rhythm; those magnificent wide arpeggios in the Prelude to Suite No.3 are taken too fast and lightly to really ring out; the Sarabande of Suite No.5 lacks the monumental weight and depth that it can sometimes have…that sort of thing. 

Others may disagree, and overall this is a good interpretation.  The recorded sound is good (although there's some rather intrusive breathing at times) and I don't think anyone would be disappointed in Narroway's interpretation.  For me, it's not up there with Watkin, Isserlis, Fournier and a couple of others which I regard as truly great, nor with the delightful individuality of Anne Gastinel, but Narroway holds his own in a crowded field and I can recommend it.

Monday, 2 October 2017

Bach - Works for Flute - Hazelzet, Ogg

Rating: 5/5

A terrific set

I think  this is a terrific set.  Wilbert Hazelzet is a very fine flautist indeed and he has made some excellent transcriptions here.

Needless to say, the A minor flute partita is beautifully played, and the transcriptions of the organ music work very well indeed – as such transcriptions so often do.  Bach's organ music lends itself so well to being played on groups of other instruments that it sounds here as though it had been written specifically for flute and harpsichord.  I was a little dubious about the idea of the Cello Suites played on the flute, but in fact they sound great.  Some of the sonorities are lost, of course, and there is the odd slightly disconcerting moment where the flute can't reach a deep bass note which is played an octave above, but the overall effect is a pleasure to listen to.  Much of the intellectual and spiritual depth of the music is preserved, and the lovely sound of Hazelzet's baroque flute adds its own charm and beauty.  I was surprised by how much I like these transcriptions.

The recorded sound is excellent and the whole set is a pleasure – and quite a bargain at this price, I think.  Warmly recommended.

Sunday, 17 September 2017

Bach - Keyboard Concertos Nos 1,2 & 4 - Perahia/ASMF

Rating: 4/5

Very good piano interpretations

I should say at the outset that the only reason this is not a five-star disc for me is personal taste: although I love to hear Bach's solo works well played on a piano (including Murray Perahia's fabulous recordings) I can't really get on with the concertos on the piano.  I don't know why, there's no real sense in it, but they just don't sound right to me unless they're on a harpsichord.

That said, these recordings are the best I've heard on the piano.  There is a lovely fluency and depth here which even the great Angela Hewitt doesn't match for me – and that's really saying something.  Perahia's magnificent touch and apparently instinctive understanding of Bach shine through and his direction brings similar sensibility from the always excellent Academy of Saint-Martin-In-The Fields.  There's a delightful dancing feel to the outer movements (as there should be) and the slow movements are very beautiful – the Larghetto from the A major Concerto, especially.

So, if you're looking for a piano interpretation of Bach's keyboard concertos, I don't think you can do better than this.  If this is your thing, then ignore my slight, very personal caveats and snap this up.  Even if you're not keen on Bach on the piano, this may well be worth investigating; it's the closest I've come to really enjoying the concertos played on the piano and it may possibly convert me yet.  Recommended.

Friday, 8 September 2017

Bach - Goldberg Variations - La Compagnie Pochette

Rating: 3/5

Not really for me

I'm afraid I can't really see the point in this recording.  It's OK in its way and I'm pretty sure there hasn't been a recording with violin, viola and violoncello da spalla…but I'm not sure we really needed one.

The arrangement is good, and the three musicians play well enough, but there seems to be little in the way of new insight here.  They are quite rhythmically free, tending toward more Romantic gestures, which isn't an approach I like in Bach and for me this wonderful, monumental work often just sounds a little dull – certainly when compared to the fabulous recording by the Leopold String Trio.

I'm afraid I can't really recommend this.  It's a worthy attempt, but not one which I really enjoy.  Others may like this more than I do – there's nothing actively wrong with it, after all – but I'll be sticking to my treasured Leopolds recording for the Goldbergs played by a string trio.

Thursday, 7 September 2017

Bach - French Suites (lute transcriptions) - Beier

Rating: 4/5

Good, but not flawless

I think this is a creditable achievement but it's not a disc I can wholeheartedly enjoy throughout.

Bach's French Suites were written for keyboard, so transcribing them for the lute is a significant challenge.  I think these transcriptions are well done, in that they capture much of the spirit and musical structure of the originals, which are quite magnificent works.  Paul Beier plays them well, but I do find that there is quite often a lack of the sense of ease and flow which, say, Nigel North or Paul O'Dette achieve in their Bach recordings.  There's a slightly halting feel which does impede the flow of Bach's rhythm; it's not a major problem, but I do find it's enough to intrude on my enjoyment more than I would like.

The recording quality is very good, with a fine, mellow sound to Beier's lute.  However, there is some intrusive breathing; again it's not terrible, but it's quite annoying at times.

So, a good disc but with some flaws to my ears.  Nonetheless, as a lover of the lute I think it's good to have such transcriptions available and I can still recommend this disc, with some minor reservations.

Saturday, 2 September 2017

Sheppard - Media vita etc - Westminster Cathedral Choir/Baker

Rating: 5/5

A fabulous disc

I love this disc.  Purely as a matter of personal taste, I haven't always got on well with Westminster's recordings, generally preferring the smaller ensembles to this choir's larger, more churchy sound.  However, this is simply stunning.

The music here is truly wonderful.  Media Vita, in particular, is one of the true gems of English Tudor polyphony, and Gaude, gaude, gaude Maria and the Missa Cantate are both also very fine works.  Westminster Cathedral's choir has been a world-class ensemble for many years, of course, and for me this music suits them magnificently.  There is something about the English structure and cadences here which they catch perfectly, so the whole thing just glows with beauty.  They manage to preserve the clarity of individual lines while blending into a truly lovely whole, and there is s real sense of spirituality and engagement with the text they are singing.  It's an exemplary performance, I think.

I already own and love the superb recordings of Media Vita by The Tallis Scholars and Stile Antico.  This is just as good.  The presentation and recorded sound are up to Hyperion's usual excellent standard and it's a fabulous disc all round.  Very warmly recommended.

Wednesday, 30 August 2017

Bach - English Suites - Stadtfeld

Rating: 3/5

Not an interpretation for me

I'm afraid Martin Stadtfeld's English Suites didn’t do much for me.  He is plainly a very fine pianist and some of the sound he produces is very beautiful, but it's not my idea of Bach's music.

Stadtfeld has quite a free rhythmic approach to Bach, and therein lies my problem with this disc.  The music does need phrasing and some rubato is important, but there is an essential pulse to all of Bach's work which has to beat through it – especially in suites of dances like these.  This means that although some individual phrases and even passages sound very lovely, as a whole the pieces don’t really hang together for me.

I recognise that this is a personal view and that plenty of people won't agree – and fair enough.  There are other very highly regarded recordings of Bach which I don't like much – including some of Glenn Gould's interpretations.  (There will now be a pause to allow the shock of such sacrilege to wear off slightly.)  These things are a matter of taste, but my taste is much more for Angela Hewitt, Murray Preahia, Richard Egarr and others and I'll be sticking to them.

Monday, 28 August 2017

Moulu - Missa Missus Est Gabriel angelus - Brabant Ensemble

Rating: 5/5

An excellent disc

This is another really good disc from the Brabant Ensemble. They have a mission to explore the work of neglected composers of the early to mid 16th Century and their outstanding previous discs of works by Crecquillon, Phinot and others have shown that there is a wealth of wonderful music of the period waiting to be recorded and this disc is just as good as any they have so far made. Moulu (whose name was completely new to me) is a thoroughly obscure figure from the early 1500s about whom almost nothing is now known but whose work was sufficiently well regarded by his contemporaries to have been included in several printed sources, so some at least has survived. And thank heavens it has, because the two masses, the motet and the responsory offered here are really fine and very beautiful works. They are enhanced here by Stephen Rice's excellent notes, which take the listener into the heart of the music's construction and show what wonderful feats of composition they are.

The singing of the Brabant Ensemble is excellent, as we have now come to expect. They are technically flawless and have a very good blend. Combined with rather a resonant acoustic this creates a full, rich sound in which every part is clearly audible but combines to make a very beautiful whole. They are now widely considered to be among the finest ensembles in this repertoire and they fully live up to that reputation on this disc.

Hyperion's recorded sound is (of course) excellent and the presentation very attractive. It's a cracking recording all round and I recommend it in the warmest terms.

Friday, 18 August 2017

Wagner - The Ring Without Words - Maazel

Rating: 4/5

Wagner made bearable

I know that this is a rather shameful thing to confess, but I really don't like Wagner.  I've tried, really I have, but I cannot get on with him.  I'm pretty much with Rossini when he said "One cannot judge Lohengrin after on first hearing – and I certainly don't intend to listen to it a second time," and with person who said that Parsifal is an opera which begins at 6 o'clock and after it has been going for three hours you look at your watch and it says 6.20.  Knowing this, a friend sent me this disc and, while I'm not a convert, having listened to it I can at least see the point of Wagner.

Rossini also said that Wagner has some wonderful moments and some dreadful quarters of an hour, and this disc seems to contain quite a few of his wonderful moments.  I'm in no position to judge the quality of the interpretation, but the playing is very good and the recorded sound is nicely done, so if you're a Wagner sceptic like me, this may be a disc worth trying.  I shall certainly come back to it; I doubt that it will lead on to a love of Wagner, but it's a start.

Some true Wagnerians may regard this recording (and me, come to that) as a contemptible abomination, but I rather like it.

Thursday, 17 August 2017

Pepusch - Concertos and Overtures for London - The Harmonious Society Of Tickle-Fiddle Gentlemen

Rating: 5/5

Very enjoyable

I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this disc. I was completely unfamiliar with Pepusch's music, which is largely forgotten to day, and composers are often largely forgotten for a very good reason.  However, this is thoroughly enjoyable music, excellently played.

Pepusch doesn't have Bach's astonishing brilliance and depth or Handel's stunning melodic gifts  – but then almost no-one else did either.  He was, however, an enjoyable and quite inventive composer.  Mush of the music here sounds to me rather more Venetian than German, with distinct echoes of Corelli and Albinoni, which is just fine by me.  It's uplifting, often quite exciting and a pleasure to listen to.

A good deal of this is due to the playing of The Harmonious Society Of Tickle-Fiddle Gentleman.  Named after a real 17th-Century London ensemble, they play with real skill, terrific gusto in places and a genuine love of the music.  It's excellent and really brings this music to life.  The presence of the brilliant Crispian Steele-Perkins may give you an idea of the quality of the musicians here, all of whom are plainly extremely good.

So, my dubiety in approaching this was wholly unfounded.  It's a little gem, I think.  The recorded sound and presentation are both very good and it's a very recommendable disc all round.

Sunday, 6 August 2017

Schubert - String Quartet No. 15 in G major etc - Doric Quartet

Rating: 4/5

A bit overdone for me

I found the Doric's recording of Schubert's two great quartets Rosamunde and Death And The Maiden quite hard to take, but tried this because they are a fine quartet and I hoped this would be more to my taste.  I found it better but still had the same overall difficulties with it.

Really what I find difficult in these interpretations is what seems to me to be over-dramatic playing.  Schubert's music quite often undergoes quite wild variations of mood and key.  Just the opening of this quartet is a small example, as that warm G major chord jumps quickly, suddenly and rather disturbingly into G minor – not a conventional modulation, by any means.  The Dorics handle this pretty well, but at other times I think they overdo it badly.  The music has a lot of these striking and unexpected shifts in it which do need interpretation, but they are dramatic in themselves and to me don't need the over-emphatic hammering they sometimes get here.

This is a personal feeling, of course.  Lots of people probably won't agree, and I see that this recording has just been nominated for a Gramophone Award, so it's plainly highly regarded by people who know what they are talking about.  I have rounded 3.5 stars up to 4 because there is a lot that's good about the recording, but personally I'll be sticking to my versions by The Lindsays, the Belcea Quartet and others.