8 Dec 2019

Gesualdo: Madrigali, Libri primo & secondo

Gesualdo: Madrigali, Libri primo & secondo
Les Arts Florissants and Paul Agnew
Harmonia Mundi HAF890530708


Some 30 years ago Iain Fenlon referred to Les Arts Florissants’ initial Gesualdo disc as their ‘first foray into the schizophrenic world of Gesualdo’s five-voice madrigals’ (10/88). His words encapsulated perfectly a common overarching view of Gesualdo’s virtuoso chromaticism which suited the text-centred, quick-fire responses of William’s Christie’s original singers so well. Now the ensemble return to Gesualdo’s madrigals with Paul Agnew at the helm and a new generation of voices as they celebrate their 40th-anniversary concerts. Beginning with Books 1 and 2, we encounter lesser-known and less extrovert works but find the ensemble crackling with that same intellectual energy.

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With the sound of their Award-winning Monteverdi madrigals (1/15, 7/15, 2/17) fresh in our ears, this new disc, also made from live recordings, offers fresh views of that famous madrigalian fork-in-the-road: Monteverdi’s experimental laboratory veered towards monody, Gesualdo’s led him to push further into the polyphonic web, fracturing texts and harmonies. The sheer inquisitive delight that these singers bring to Gesualdo’s extraordinary world indicates a very exciting series ahead.

To read the full text of this article please visit www.gramophone.co.uk (Dec 2019)

7 Dec 2019

Palestrina: Lamentations

Palestrina: Lamentations
Cinquecento
Hyperion CDA68284



Palestrina’s second book of Lamentations is surprisingly passionate, and this performance in particular is a gentle reminder that the spacious, clear polyphony of the Ars Perfecta did not preclude a great deal of passionate nuance. Cinquecento – like a European chapel choir of the Renaissance – brings together a fine selection of singers from across the continent, forming a true European union. Their performance of these Lamentations adheres closely to the text, balancing each madrigalian nuance within the overall phrase architecture. Their sound is reminiscent of The Hilliard Ensemble, particularly in the delightful interplay of their two well-matched tenors and the warmth of the overall blend captured through a close, warm recording technique.

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On this note I particularly admire ‘Magna est enim velut mare contritio tua’ (For your downfall is as great at the sea) from the Lamentations for Good Friday, where the sea almost literally sweeps in for this verse. But perhaps the most arresting and unexpected touch is the eight-voice setting of ‘Jerusalem, Jerusalem’ at the end of Lectio III for Holy Saturday, where three extra tenor parts fill out the texture and create a magical ending. Throughout this album Cinquecento offer a performance which is truly reflective and tender.


To read the full text of this article please visit www.gramophone.co.uk (Dec 2019)

6 Nov 2019

Josquin des Prés: Missa mater Patris

Josquin des Prés: Missa mater Patris & Noel Bauldeweyn: Missa Da pacem
The Tallis Scholars, Peter Phillips
CDGIM052


As one of the most important accounts of Josquin’s Masses in recent decades, Peter Phillips’s albums with The Tallis Scholars continue to sparkle and inform. Already in these pages I have admired the clarity of vision and consistency of sound that this ensemble bring to his works; but with this new album there is a particular sheen to the performance that places it among their recent best.

Phillips recently wrote how he feels each of Josquin’s Masses has its own ‘sound world’ (The Musical Times, autumn 2018). As we approach the end of his recording project, this comment comes into sharper focus, and particularly so in the case of Missa Mater Patris. One can argue that this is a late work on the grounds it is potentially a lament for Brumel, who died around 1512 and whose motet provides the model. But also, as Phillips suggests, this ‘forthright’ and ‘bracingly simple’ style could be the refinement of a lifetime’s work. One could say that of this performance as well: it is scored for low voices and these singers find a warmth in the homophonic writing that blooms into an unhurried grandeur. Compared with Chanticleer (7/94) this is a much tighter ensemble in both tone and phrasing, and there are several outstandingly well-controlled spans of two-voice polyphony. Listen especially for the way these singers glide through the exotic chord-chains in the Sanctus: I can’t help but be reminded of the confident sweep of the Andrews Sisters. This is glorious stuff indeed.

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To read the full text of this article please visit www.gramophone.co.uk (Nov 2019)

5 Nov 2019

Air Music: Tales of Flying Creatures and Heavenly Breezes

Air Music
Capella de la Torre
Katharina Bäuml
Deutsche HM


This third instalment in Capella de la Torre’s series of the four elements is every bit as fresh and thoughtful as one would expect from one of Europe’s leading early wind ensembles. The programme consists largely of Renaissance and early Baroque music and opens with an instrumental performance of Thomas Ravenscroft’s canon The wind blows out of the west introduced by wind machine and accompanied by gentle percussion. The sprightly opening and chirrupy fanfare calls are exactly the sort of perky texture that these musicians serve best. Continuing with Westron Wynde in a section of the programme called ‘Gone with the Wind’, John Sheppard’s Gloria from his Mass ‘The Western Wynde’ is performed by soprano and instrumental ensemble. This is an extraordinary work, so different here with the warm reeds and occasional embellishments from the classic vocal recording by The Tallis Scholars (Gimell, 9/93). Instead of high, soaring phrases we have something contained and brisk. It’s not unattractive, but at some of the more complex passages such as ‘Suscipe deprecationem nostram’ and the change to triple time for ‘Cum Sancto Spiritu’, metrical accuracy takes precedence over musical flow.


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This enjoyable album has a stylish snap, especially in the dance music that Capella de la Torre perform so well. And, as ever with this superb ensemble, the percussion subtly steals the show at every opportunity. I defy anyone to sit still through Praetorius’s Ballet de bouteile.

To read the full text of this article please visit www.gramophone.co.uk (Nov 2019)

4 Nov 2019

Peñalosa - Lamentationes

Peñalosa - Lamentationes
New York Polyphony
BIS2407


It’s wonderful to hear more music from Francisco de Peñalosa (1470-1528), and particularly pleasing that it comes on this stylish release from New York Polyphony complete with superb booklet notes by Ivan Moody. Peñalosa’s life coincided with the beginning of the Spanish ‘Golden Age’ and he was a key figure in the generation before Cristóbal de Morales (1500 53). A useful elevator pitch would be ‘Flemish polyphony with a twist’.

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Two standout pieces are the Stabat mater by Pedro de Escobar (fl1507 14), a short but arresting setting of the first two verses. Rich and vibrant in texture, it again draws on this ensemble’s deep palette of vocal colours. The second is the Credo from Missa L’homme armé, which sits like a declamatory jewel in the middle of this disc. Previously known only by The Orlando Consort’s brighter, sparkling performance (Harmonia Mundi), it is here taken slightly slower and with more gravitas. However, with only six surviving cyclic Masses by Peñalosa, not all of which are yet represented on disc, my gripe is that this Missa L’homme armé is incomplete, lacking its five-voice Kyrie and the Sanctus/Benedictus. While not musically problematic, it is something of a shame not to have the opportunity to hear the whole thing, especially considering the quality and beauty of performance in the other movements.


To read the full text of this article please visit www.gramophone.co.uk (Nov 2019)

20 Oct 2019

Recording of the month: Anamorfosi

Anamorfosi
Allegri Monteverdi
Le Poème Harmonique / Vincent Dumestre
Alpha 438



In Kafka’s Metamorphosis Gregor Samsa may have woke up one morning to find that he had been transformed overnight into a giant insect, but in the story of music history there are few such hard-borders. In fact, it’s pretty much one long slide from beginning to end. On the way there are famous moments, nodes that define a style, but even between seemingly opposed categories there is often a veritable riot of frictionless trade. This is a programme which delves deep into the slippage between sacred and secular through a host of exquisite works appropriated and transformed for counter-reformation interests. The title, Anamorfosi (Anamorphosis) is drawn from the visual arts, a deliberate distortion that requires the viewer to occupy a particular perspective or vantage point. In short, this is one of the best programmes that I have encountered in recent years both in concept and execution and it begins with an icon of early music, Allegri’s Miserere.

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This superb Miserere performance sits alongside lesser-known and rather ingenious contrafacta. These are works which were originally secular—madrigals and dramatic recitatives—pieces which, in short had already become famous in their original contexts before being transformed by swapping in a sacred text as the church harnessed the power of the very music of actors and theatres that it sought to suppress. An arresting example of this comes from mezzo soprano Eva Zaïcik who gives an absolutely gripping performance of Luigi Rossi’s (1597-1653) Un Allato Messagier, a poetic lament on the death of Christ which was formed by an anonymous author who re-texted Rossi’s ‘Lament of the Queen of Sweden on the Death of her Husband’ (Un ferito cavalier). Of the sacred counterpart I have long admired Suzie Le Blanc and Tragicomedia (Challenge Classics 2001) for their crisp intensity and here, in this sacred re-working, Zaïcik maintains a similarly crisp edge to her mourning but constantly undercuts it with deeper, purpler hues. Much encouraged by the superb instrumentalists this is a performance all enthusiasts of Roman cantatas will find spellbinding. Followed by Monteverdi’s mesmeric (1567-1643) Si dolce è'l martire (a re-texting of Si dolce è'l tormento) with a sparklingly bittersweet performance from soprano Deborah Cachet, the genius of the programme is clear by the third piece.

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To read the full text of this article please visit www.gramophone.co.uk (Nov 2019)

19 Oct 2019

BLOW; PURCELL Countertenor duets (Davies & Hall)

Elegy
Purcell & Blow: Countertenor duets
Iestyn Davies, James Hall, The King’s Consort / Robert King

Vivat 118

This latest disc from the King’s Consort on the independent label Vivat is absolutely on point: with two wonderfully matched countertenors and superb recorder playing bound together in the intimate acoustic of Alpheton New Maltings, Suffolk there is much to enjoy here. The big draw is, of course, countertenor Iestyn Davies and for me his performance of Purcell’s O Solitude is a clear stand out. Davies sings the entire song in falsetto maintaining his tone’s silvery thread through even the most fiendishly low passages. His word painting is nuanced, subtle and intimate. Paired with the deliciously warm tone of Reiko Ichise’s bass viol, the cushion of the chamber organ and Lynda Sayce’s ever-sensitive theorbo this is surely one of the best countertenor performances on disc rivalling even perhaps King’s previous account with James Bowman (Hyperion King3).

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The duets, sung with James Hall are superb throughout, carefully balanced and well controlled, although perhaps too modest for my tastes: consider the opening duet: Hark how the songsters, which shies away from the sheer giggly joy of the recent improvisatory performance by L’Arpeggiata (Erato 2564633750). This is also the case in Sound the trumpet, that most famous of countertenor duets, the emphasis here being more sprightly than extrovert. It lacks the grandeur of King’s earlier Bowman/Chance pairing, especially on the opening long notes (Essential Purcell, Hyperion KING2) but compensates with nimble energy. Hall is certainly a voice to listen out for and he contributes many ravishing moments to this disc.

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To read the full text of this article please visit www.gramophone.co.uk (Nov 2019)