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.

Saturday, 5 August 2017

Scheibe - Sinfonoas - Concerto Copenhagen/Manze

Rating: 4/5

Very enjoyable

This is a very enjoyable disc.   Scheibe was a new composer to me but I tried this because I thought that if Andrew Manze thinks it's worth performing then it's probably worth listening to.  I was right.

These Sinfonias aren't great music, but they are well crafted, tuneful and very satisfying.  There are some echoes of Bach and Handel, and even of the Venetian composers of the time.  There isn't a vast degree of melodic and harmonic invention, but it's enjoyable music to listen to.  This is due to a considerable degree to the playing of Concerto Copenhagen, who are excellent.  They bring a lightness of step to the music without ever trivialising it, and the whole thing has the feel of an ensemble who care about what they are playing, enjoy it and have the ability to perform it really well.

The recorded sound by Chandos is very good and if you have any interest in the music of this period I can recommend this disc.

Tuesday, 1 August 2017

Bach - Goldberg Variations - de Maria

Rating: 3/5

Not for me

I'm not all that keen on Pietro de Maria's Goldberg Variations.  There are a lot of truly great recordings of these pieces, but I don't really think that this stands among them.

De Maria is plainly a very good pianist.  He is technically up to the challenge and his tone and touch are very lovely in places.  However, I don't think he does Bach all that well.  In the opening Aria, for example, there is a halting, almost stumbling feel to the rhythm at times which loses the pulse and flow which so vital to Bach.  He also manages something similar to what I hear in Ashkenazy's recent French Suites: somehow the lines of counterpoint don't gel into a whole at all in places so even more of the coherence is lost.  Then Variation 1 comes crashing in; I understand the need for contrast of mood, but the opening bars just seems like unsympathetic thumping.  I'm afraid I found both the thumpiness and disconnectedness in Variation 4, the staccato left hand seems almost elephantine in parts of Variation 14…and so on.

This doesn't happen everywhere.  I like the lightness and flow of Variation 5, the rhythmic flexibility works very well in a lovely Variation 13, and there are other good moments.  Overall, though, I think Bach himself gets rather lost in de Maria's interpretation and I'll be sticking to my treasured recordings by the likes of Angela Hewitt, Richard Egarr and others. I can only give this a very qualified recommendation.