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.