29 Jan 2009

The Byrd Edition vol 11

This review was originally published on musicalcriticism.com
29 Jan 2009

It may have been quite a long time coming but this eleventh disc from The Cardinall's Musick in their monumental exploration of William Byrd has certainly been worth the wait. The programme is built from the Cantiones Sacrae of 1591 and the Gradualia of 1607 and focuses on Byrd's recusant music. Throughout their series of recordings this method of interspersing the three books of Cantiones Sacrae with the two of Graduallia has been highly successful and what is most exciting is that it allows Andrew Carwood to be the first director to record the entire music from the Gradualia in liturgically appropriate combinations.

Opening this album is the exquisite six-voice setting of Descendit de caelis which immediately confirms that these are performances that are every bit as good as the previous award-winning volume. There can be very few singers in the world just now that have such an understanding of Byrd's vocal works as The Cardinall's Musick and here they give impassioned and immediate performances that move on from the early music stereotypes that used to dominate in this field. But however passionately they are sung, these later Cantiones Sacrae motets are not easy listening. Carwood never flinches from the glimpses of despair that Byrd and his Catholic friends would have felt as they clung on to their faith in troubled times, nor is he tempted to over-represent the more hopeful moments in an attempt to sugar-coat the situation either. This is deeply emotional music and it is astonishing to think that Byrd could have published it in such times.

There is a different atmosphere to the movements from the 1607 Gradualia however. These were written after Byrd had relocated from London to the relative tranquility of Essex; but even in Stondon Massey, the Byrd family were not quite beyond the reach of the law and many of these pieces were performed in secret at Ingatestone Hall. I wonder if the intimacy of these original performances is reflected here by the one-voice-per-part approach with Rebecca Outram and Caroline Trevor complementing each other so beautifully on the on the upper lines? Indeed it is pleasing to hear women's voices in this music rather than high countertenors as it conjures up images of the Gradualia as chamber music, performed in the home of recusants who would have avoided the more obvious settings of private chapels to celebrate mass.

Certainly Hodie Simon Petrus has madrigalian traits, the jangling of the keys of heaven, and in Solve, iubente Deo there is similarly quick and intricate music at the casting off of chains. The detail in these later works from the second book of Gradualia never ceases to amaze and it is wonderful to have it all so brilliantly realized by The Cardinall's Musick.

Despite the outstanding performances it is ultimately William Byrd himself who is the star of this disc; with eleven volumes of Latin church music recorded so far there is still no hint of his inspiration drying up. It takes a very exceptional talent to find so many varied and interesting ways to set the word 'Alleluia' as he does in the Gradualia and an equally special ensemble to sing each one in such a fresh way.
This bigger, bolder style of singing polyphony that The Cardinall's Musick have pioneered seems, to my modern ears, very suitable for Byrd's impassioned music but whether or not it stands a longer test of time remains to be seen. Fashions in singing are fickle and on these grounds one can understand why many conductors seem to prefer a less interpreted 'urtext' approach to their recorded work. I often think that The Cardinall's Musick is what happens when The Tallis Scholars let their hair down, and in this music – at least – it seems that they are taking us on an exhilarating voyage of discovery, the importance of which cannot be overestimated.

17 Jan 2009

Bach: Goldberg Variations

Originally published on musicalcriticism.com
17 Jan 2009

Harpists regularly perform works by Bach but this recording of the Goldberg Variations by Sylvain Blassel is not only a first but also a very persuasive demonstration of just how well this instrument is suited to his music.

The harp, and in particular this 1904 Erard harp that Blassel plays, creates an intimate sound-world in which one feels like an eavesdropper rather than an audience-member and it is this sense of listening-in on the music that is one of the most immediately attractive features of this disc. Such intimacy brings to mind that oft-repeated story of how Bach was commissioned to write these pieces to help ease Count Keyserlingk's insomnia, and this performance whilst not merely a lullaby is certainly 'calm and rather joyful' enough to make the old legend seem quite plausible.

I always find it impossible to consider the Goldberg Variations without acknowledging the towering genius of Glenn Gould and whilst I would not attempt make comparisons between Blassel and Gould there are some interesting similarities. Firstly, and quite facile in many ways, is the creak of Blassel's chair which is a charming illustration of the level of intimacy achieved on this disc and secondly, harder to quantify, is the sense of both artists being utterly lost in their act of performance. Like Gould, Sylvain Blassel clearly has an astonishingly good technique, and over the course of this album he demonstrates an intuitive understanding of Bach's music which, in my opinion, never falters.

The control that Blassel exhibits is calm and studied since he shows no loss of the linear or contrapuntal qualities of this music as he nuances each line with a personal character which he is never afraid to make astonishingly soft even when the music must be reaching the limits of what is possible on the harp. Most touchingly, when he plays the aria da capo there is a real sense of having been on a whole journey and ending up back at the start yet quite changed by the experience. This sense of change comes as a surprise to the listener because Blassel's playing is so subtle that the range of emotions one experiences en-route happen almost subliminally. There are, of course, countless layers of understanding to the Goldberg Variations and even those who listen to them regularly are always finding fresh insights with each performance, but on this disc, more than most, we hear the texture and the detail quite anew since the harp brings a different and exciting spectrum of possibilities to the music.

Blassel is joined by his teacher, Fabrice Pierre for his own arrangement of the fourteen canons which were discovered in a copy of the Goldberg variations in 1974. These two harpists are almost telepathic in their ensemble and, artistically, are as well-matched as their instruments (Pierre plays a 1966 Erard) making their playing seamless in the extreme. I thought it would be difficult to want to listen to these canons after the enormity of the Goldberg Variations but they are just so good, both in musical content and performance that I found I couldn't resist enjoying them in the same sitting.
This is a beautifully balanced programme and so well executed that I feel sure it will appeal to all Bach-lovers. I am reminded of Glenn Gould's interview with Tim Page following the release of his 1981 Goldberg variations recording when they discussed the debate surrounding Bach's works played on the piano. Gould referred to Bach's appetite for transcribing both his own music and that of others and went on to say that because of this he was sure that Bach would have felt the spirit of the performance was more important than a specific sonority. With that in mind, I do hope that this recording won't upset the purists, since it is a beautifully realised project and one which gives us a new perspective on both the harp and these beautiful works.

Sylvain Blassel, harp (Lontano 2564 69199-6)

12 Jan 2009

Remoter Worlds: Choral Music by Judith Bingham

This review was originally written for musicalcriticism.com
12 Jan 2009

Judith Bingham is one of the many distinguished alumni of The BBC Singers and her collaboration with them over the past few years as associate composer was, in my opinion, an inspired choice and one which this recording clearly justifies. Following on from the success of her Mass for Westminster Cathedral Choir in 2003 and the Naxos recording of her choral works by Stephen Jackson and The BBC Symphony Chorus in 2007, this new disc by David Hill and The BBC Singers should firmly establish Judith Bingham as one of our leading choral composers; I hope it will encourage more choirs both amateur and professional to consider her works in their own programmes.

Here Signum have produced another attractive and well-recorded album for which Bingham herself wrote the CD notes. These notes provide an excellent guide to this programme for which the opening work, 'Gleams of a Remoter World', provides the atmospheric title. Along with 'Water Lilies', 'Gleams' is one of the most touching and reflective pieces on the disc – 'Water Lilies' being the work that Bingham contributed to Linda McCartney's tribute album A Garland for Linda in 2000. These are deeply woven tapestries of memory, at once fond, melancholic and richly descriptive and Bingham herself explains how they both come from the same period in her life. The BBC singers take to these soundscapes with their trademark appetite for good music, and being equally at home across so many styles they seem unphased by Bingham's own refusal to be categorised into a particular style-bracket. The singers glide through her ravishing harmonies with an effortlessness that makes this music sound a lot easier than it really is.

Of the other works on this disc, The Shepheardes Calender is, for me at least, the most enjoyable, even if it is rather dominated by the brilliance of its own second movement, 'Spring'. This is a setting of 'The Lord to me a Shepherd is' from the Bay Psalm Book that quickly establishes itself as an Ohrwurm with a maddeningly fascinating collage of humming and singing. The BBC singers are at their very best here, clearly enjoying the mesmeric chord patterns which are an unsettling accompaniment to the shimmering spread of harmonies from the upper voices. There are moments of ravishing beauty from the sopranos where their phrases end by fanning out into chords. Listen out for the climactic word-painting when their cup overflows; this is really wonderful writing and beautifully executed by The BBC Singers.

Bingham's music is not always an easy listen though: there are also bleak landscapes here especially in the Irish Tenebrae which can be quite demanding at times, and she does not flinch from leading us to these darker places. Olivia Robinson's rich voice is well matched to these poems and her performances here are quite wonderful.

There are times, however, when the choir makes phrases feel slightly more laborious than I'm sure they ought to be. The BBC singers are quite big-voiced and whilst I welcome the opportunity to hear larger voices in a choral context I notice that their notion of blend can sometimes become lost amongst so much vocal individuality. This boils down to that awkward vibrato question again and I am loath even to mention it but there are moments when vibrato is the elephant-in-the-room and not just because the singers use so much vibrato, but rather because they all have such individual vibrato. However, when one hears the high quality of the solo singing (and whistling!) throughout this disc it does go a long way to explain why this individuality is so prominent and maybe it is just a question of us as listeners needing to reconnect with a larger choral sound amidst the prevailing dominance of current early music ensembles.

These are, of course, mere questions of personal taste and should not deter anyone from being inspired by this selection of choral music. The BBC Singers and Judith Bingham are a wonderful collaboration and this new album is not to be missed.

The BBC Singers/David Hill (Signum Classics SIGCD144)

I Love All Beauteous Things: Choral and Organ Music by Herbert Howells

Originally written for musicalcriticism.com
12 Jan 2009

In his sleeve-notes to this disc, Dr Paul Andrews points out that the continuing good reputation of the composer Herbert Howells rests on far too few works and, judging by this new album, he is absolutely right. It seems that there are quite a few more of Howell's choral pieces out there than one might hear on a regular basis in Cathedral repertoires and this disc clearly demonstrates that they are all worth getting to know.

Central to this album is the mass setting: Missa Aedis Christi written for Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford and first performed in 1962. Whilst not exactly 'lost' from public consciousness this recording will hopefully do much to convince us all that it is worth restoring to more regular performance. This Mass is quintessential Howells and the beauty of the vocal lines come through clearly on this recording.

I have always been aware of feeling that something is being remembered in Howells' music, as if worship were an act of communication that draws on previous conversations as much as the present and future ones. Judy Martin coaxes this reflective quality out of her singers and they give a wonderfully inspiring performance here. There is also a strong sense of this music as an enhancement to worship rather than a distraction from it and once again I find that that quality is beautifully observed; '…the worshippers are surrounded by a sensual, impressionist waft of sound…' as Dr Andrews elegantly explains.

Interlaced with the Mass setting is a charming collection 'Six Short Pieces for Organ' stylishly played by Tristan Russcher and most interestingly explained in the booklet notes. These pieces alone must hold quite a bit of attraction for Howell's fans and the organ at St Bartholomew's Church in Dublin (where this whole album was recorded) proves itself to be a very fine instrument for Howell's music indeed.

The Choir of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin conducted by Judy Martin are an adult choir of some twenty-two singers and have a beautifully balanced sound and a calm, unhurried style which make them very much at home in Howells' music, and with their organist, Tristan Russcher, they maintain a standard throughout this recording that all cathedral choirs would be proud of.
It is particularly pleasing to hear a mixed-voice Cathedral Choir making such an accomplished disc as this at it should do much to reassure purists that music conceived originally for choirboys is well served by the female voices that have finally been allowed into the cathedral choir system. Listening to these sopranos in 'Sweetest of Sweets' (for example) it is obvious that they are female voices, and I respect the fact that they sound like women rather than women-trying-to-sound-like-choirboys, but I don't find this femininity at all musically distracting. It is a very becoming sound and the fact that it ends up not a million miles away from the traditional male cathedral timbre has more to do with the expert way that Judy Martin has balanced and directed her choir rather than mimicry on the part of the ladies.

So this album is a welcome addition to the recorded works of Howells both on account of the repertoire it covers and because of it's fine performances. This choir and Signum records might well have hit on a winning formula here, and their association is defiantly going to be one to watch.

The Choir of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin/Judy Martin; Tristan Russcher (Signum SIGCD151)