31 Mar 2009

Josquin: Masses: Malheur me bat; Fortuna desperata

Originally published on musicalcriticism.com
31 March 2009

The Tallis Scholars have made an enormous impact on our modern understanding of Josquin des Prés (c. 1440-1521) and without their contribution it is very likely that he might still be considered as a minor composer. In 1987 The Tallis Scholars (Gimell Records) became the first independent label and the first early music recording to win The Gramophone magazine Record of the Year with their album of Josquin's Missa Pange lingua & Missa La sol fa re mi, and after this success the L'homme armé Masses followed in 1989 and Missa Sine nomine & Missa Ad fugam last year (Diapason D'or, Choc du Monde de la musique). This is their fourth disc devoted to his masses and a fifth is due out in 2010 by which time they will have recorded more-or-less half of his (attributed) masses.

The first work on this newest album is the magnificent missa Malheur me bat, based on a popular song which is currently thought to be by Malcort, a little-known Flemish composer. Little-known maybe but his beautiful song was used extensively by composers as a model for their masses at the turn of the sixteenth century. The second mass, missa Fortuna desperata is also a parody mass based on a song thought to be by Busnoys. What links these two works is that Josquin chose not to limit his use of the borrowed song to a single voice part (known as a paraphrase) but to take the entire polyphonic model and submit it all to his musical reworking. The fluency of Josquin's style disguises how complicated this compositional procedure really is; no formula or pattern to the borrowing has revealed itself as yet but rather Josquin moves between the three voices of the song-model with ease absorbing the material into his own composition seemingly at will until by the Sanctus of missa Malheur me bat fragments of the song appear in all parts simultaneously. But of course you don't need to know about such technicalities to enjoy the music – it is enough for me to say that the resulting work is outstanding, and so is this recording.

The Tallis Scholars sing both masses with their trademark clarity and stylish phrasing. Peter Phillips paces the music beautifully and, as ever, negotiates Josquin's tricky section changes with panache. This is an ensemble with considerable experience of the idiom and the quality of their performance can be heard as clearly in the exposed two-voice textures as it can when the ensemble is augmented in the latter Agnus sections.

Finding a unique and immediately identifiable sound has been one of the major achievements of The Tallis Scholars throughout their recorded history. A whole generation of musicians has now grown up listening to their performances and as a result Peter Phillips and his ensemble can safely claim to have influenced the current success that the sound of British singers in early music enjoys all over the world. However, it would be wrong to assume that this meticulous style has remained entirely unchanged. I would like to think that The Tallis Scholars allow themselves to be influenced by the music they sing - like in this album, with it's lower superius parts that steer away from the characteristically stratospheric soprano sound lending themselves to a gentler, mellow tone backed up by the use of high-tenors on the Altus. In the second mass the Altus (the top part here) is shared by Tessa Bonner, Caroline Trevor and David Gould – a soprano, a mezzo and a countertenor – this highlights the outstanding versatility of these singers and the wide variety of textures that they can produce. I can also detect a small but definite move towards a bigger vocal sound when comparisons are made with much earlier albums which suits Josquin's music very well.

Touchingly, this album is the last that Tessa Bonner recorded with The Tallis Scholars before she died following a year's battle with cancer on New Years Eve. Her distinctive sound and keen musicality, so prevalent across her 37 albums with this ensemble, will be much missed. Apart from being another musical triumph this album is therefore also of great sentimental value to those of us who have been touched by this music through Tessa's singing.

For a limited period of time Gimell Records are providing a free download track from this album on their website. Gimell have one of the most comprehensive websites that I have seen in the classical music industry and they offer downloads for the vast majority of their catalogue in many formats including the standard Mp3 but also FLAC lossless format encompassing Studio Master and Studio Master 5.1 releases. So if you have advanced hi-fi equipment you can now, finally, download in a format worthy of such reproduction, which is a great comfort for those of us that have previously found that digital compression has tended to champion convenience over quality.

The Tallis Scholars / Peter Phillips (Gimell CDGIM 042)

30 Mar 2009

Ambrose Field: Being Dufay: Music based on vocal fragments by Guillaume Dufay

Originally published on musicalcriticism.com
30 March 2009

ECM records prove that time and time again they have some really creative artists in their catalogue and as a result, their albums are always intriguing and seldom, if ever, disappointing. This new release from Ambrose Field and John Potter is no exception; it is part of a fascinating project which takes fragments of late mediaeval music and uses them to present 'Guillaume Dufay in the present tense' as Field puts it. The project originally started life as a commission from a festival in the Italian town of Vigevano (near Milan) and following that success has grown, over some three years, into the seven linked pieces on this album.

The artists are in interesting pairing. John Potter was, for seventeen years, a member of the Hilliard Ensemble and sung on the majority of their albums including the famous ones with Jan Garbarek (another ECM triumph) and now combines his solo career with academic work – he is an important authority on the history of vocal production. Ambrose Field is an award-winning composer who specializes in digital techniques and computer processes which draw on environmental sound sources, and, in this instance, a digital map of Potter's voice. The result of their work is a rich series of soundscapes which have been set to a backdrop by the video artist Mick Lynch. Some of this live version can be seen on YouTube (search for 'Being Dufay') but the audio experience of this album stands alone perfectly well.

Fragments of Dufay's work run throughout the album in various guises. In the first work, 'Ma belle dame souveraine', Potter's vocals float on a minimalist ribbon of music, the result is a wistful sound world which Field describes as 'a picture of resonances, hanging in the empty air of a great cathedral…' and indeed, for me it is that sense of huge spaces that pervades all seven pieces and binds them together. More obvious electronic intervention characterizes 'Je me complains' in which the full power of the digital Potter is unleashed towards the end when it 'explodes into full audio technicolor'. The labyrinthine qualities of Italian castles and Dufay's musical technique combine over the next two tracks 'Being Dufay' and 'Je vous pri' until there is a reflective pause in the form of an electronic intermission 'Presque quelque chose' after which the vocal processing in Sanctus is turned up several notches and the album finally finishes with the melancholic 'La dolce vista'. The listener can choose to be guided, as I have, by Field's brief but enlightening liner notes or can just let their listening experience take its natural course.

These works are often as intricate as Dufay's compositional technique, borrowing and reworking from the musical fragments, from Potter's voice and from nature. Thankfully, Field steers clear of loud aggressive electronic sounds so the net result is a deeply reflective (possible introspective?), fond memory of Dufay which merges into the modern landscape. Time also plays an important role, the transcendence of the age of Dufay –as he steps into the present, and the timing of the vocal fragments, never hurried, never over-repeated. This latter point is illustrated in the touching way Dufay's biography sits alongside Field and Potter in the booklet as if his involvement were contemporary. There is a pleasing sense of irony in these works; Dufay the great borrower of other people's music is himself borrowed and the great user of the cantus firmus becomes the cantus firmus for someone else's composition.

This is not the future for early music, and they don't try to claim that – but it is a future and one which deserves investigation with this kind of integrity. It offers beautiful and thought-provoking sound-scapes and I hope that the live performances start cropping up at more and more festivals in the near future.

John Potter, tenor; Ambrose Field, live and studio electronics (ECM 4766948)

27 Mar 2009

The English Stage Jig: Musical comedies from the 16th and 17th centuries

Originally published on musicalcriticism.com
27 March 2009

Lucie Skeaping and The City Waites deliver imaginative and interesting programmes that shed light on otherwise little-known English music-making practices from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries; this one is no exception. Many people, myself included, would immediately associate Jigs with dances but this programme reminds us that the term is wider than that and came to describe a form of after-show entertainment at the theatre – a comic chaser to the main event. Jigs were quite frequently rude, salacious and smutty and it was often just for this short entertainment that crowds were drawn to the theatre. A good Jig could prop up an unsuccessful play.

As with so much of this informal music, it was founded upon oral and folk traditions, so where the dialogue or lyrics have been written down, music notation generally has not. Despite the lack of manuscript sources Jigs achieved a huge popularity in their day, much to the chagrin of Ben Johnson who felt that they drew too much attention away from serious plays. Due to the troublemakers such bawdy antics attracted, by the seventeenth century attempts were made to suppress the Jig, but these were short-lived since there was something of a public outcry and London's Southbank remained the centre for this entertainment both in the theatres and in booths set up along the riverside. This is, of course, just the sort of repertoire in which The City Waites excel; cheeky, witty and full of funny accents. But underpinning their huge sense of fun is some pretty impressive research leading to thoughtful reconstructions. Problematically, Jigs were set to the popular tunes of their day and so the name of the tune often doesn't get mentioned, leading Skeaping to search for clues in the surviving texts to identify which the tune might have been used where. It's not always an easy job and the resulting album is as much a tribute to her impressive knowledge of the period as it is to the fine performances.

Central to this form of entertainment was the comic figure of Bumpkin, an accidental hero usually with a thick regional accent or dialect and on the receiving end of the audience's mockery. This character is played hilariously well by Thomas Padden in the first Jig 'The Black Man' so much so that this disc almost spills over from a musical entertainment into a full blown radio drama at some points. There is also often what can best be described as a 'busty wench' usually chased by at least one of the male characters and/or being unfaithful to her husband. Skeaping herself is unsurpassed in this role. And indeed it is down to the performers to really make this music work – it's not about standing and delivering a beautiful sound (although they can do that too), it's really a bit more about acting and acting-up while the instruments, unruffled in the background, chase the singers around the score.

All of the Jigs are performed with an obvious glee but the one that really caught my attention was the shortest – 'The Bloody Battle at Billingsgate' – which pits two Fish-Women (Catherine Bott and Lucie Skeaping) against each other in a slanging match. What impresses me most about these performances is the quality of the extra vocal effect, the sighs, the coughs, the laughing; all are such an integral part of the performance that one is really drawn in – just like a good drama – and despite best intentions to listen po-faced, inevitably one starts giggling along. The only drawback, if indeed it is one, is that having a number of Jigs in a row like this is too manic for a single listening, that would be rather like trying to watch several episodes of Faulty Towers in a row. This is definitely a disc to keep in your car for frustrating traffic-jams or other such moments when a little hilarity would be the perfect tonic. After all, who wouldn't be cheered at the prospect of hearing Catherine Bott and Lucie Skeaping scratching each others eyes out. Laugh? I couldn't stop.

The City Waites / Lucie Skeaping (Hyperion CDA 67754)

23 Mar 2009

Music from The Chirk Castle Part-Books

Originally published on musicalcriticism.com
23 March 2009

The Brabant Ensemble have become something of a hot-ticket over the past few years and have been steadily demanding more and more attention within the early-music community since they started in 1998.

It was in 2006 that they firmly staked themselves out on the map when their recording of Crecquillon was awarded a 'Choc du Monde de la Musique' and received overwhelmingly enthusiastic reviews. Three years on and much music-making later, their newest disc, Music from The Chirk Castle Part-Books, is, I am sure, set to become a firm favourite in what is already a healthy year for early music recordings.

Chirk Castle, near Wrexham was begun by Edward I in 1294 and has guarded the Welsh valleys of Dee and Ceiriog for over 700 years. It was bought by Sir Thomas Myddelton in 1595 and subsequently given to his son, also Thomas, who instituted choral services in the chapel. William Deane –the organist of Wrexham Parish Church – who was appointed to the castle's chapel following the restoration work of 1630 - began the part-books from which the music for this album is taken. Choral services were interrupted by the Civil War and resumed after the restoration of the Monarchy in 1660 when the part-books were once again in use and music copying resumed. Amazingly for such an important source of pre-restoration music these books remained in the castle library for about 300 years until, in 1969 they were sent by the Myddelton family for auction minus their organ book (which had at some point migrated to Oxford) and also lacking the quintus book which is sadly lost.

The Brabant ensemble have used 12 singers which is roughly the expected size of the choir at Chirk and the editions are by David Evans (with assistance), who also provides the excellent notes for the album booklet and the reconstructed treble-parts in the Te Deum and Benedictus 'for trebles' by William Mundy opening the album. In many ways, this first setting is one of the most exciting in the programme, not only is it something of a 'new find' musically but the Brabant Ensemble make such a sublime sound right from the very start that one knows instantly that this disc is quite special. One of the keys to the success of their choral sound lies with the sopranos Kate and Helen Ashby; their clear and resonant voices, aided by the fine acoustics of Merton College chapel in Oxford, allow the high singing to be deliciously well executed without any hint of discomfort or monotony as can sometimes be the case with this style of music. These settings by Mundy are absolutely delightful and I would hope that this reconstructed setting will be heard more frequently from now on.

Stephen Rice maintains this well-balanced texture throughout the programme and although I can hear the influence of The Clerkes of Oxenford/David Wulstan and, more obviously, The Tallis Scholars/Peter Phillips, the sound of his young singers is definitely their own. Even in the better-known pieces by Tallis there is always something new to be heard and I think this is also due to the quality of editing as well as the performances themselves. Just enough imperfect qualities are in the mix to keep the sense of vitality from a live performance and hint at the intimacy of a chapel service. Over-editing often kills the atmosphere of choral music so I'm glad it has been avoided here.
The music of William Deane himself features too and although it is always hard to judge minor composers of this period alongside the towering figures of Tallis and Byrd, he comes across as gentle and charming. The last track – 'The Grace of Our Lord Jesus Christ' – is a particular treasure, and a fitting close to a fantastic programme. Stephen Rice clearly has a nose for under-represented music and this new disc is a worthy addition to Hyperion's impressive catalogue.

This recording was made with assistance from the University of Wales and the School of Music at Bangor University and it is good to have the notes in a Welsh translation. These Hyperion releases are always well thought-out and pleasingly executed and their partnership with The Brabant Ensemble looks like it has a very exciting future indeed.

The Brabant Ensemble/Stephen Rice (Hyperion CDA67695)

Tempus Est Iocundum

Originally published on musicalcriticism.com
23 March 2009

This latest re-release from Arte Factum and Francisco Orozco offers a selection of music from a vast expanse of time spanning from the 12th to the 15th centuries. It also surveys a number of different forms from dances and troubadour songs and selections from Carmina Burana and the Cantigas de Santa Maria of King Alphonso the Wise. The booklet contains notes on the music in three languages and the texts for all the songs with Spanish (but not English) translations where necessary.
The problems of performing this repertoire are, of course, well-explored arguments. What little music survives almost never includes clues about the intended instrumentation so that musicologists and performers must turn to other sources of evidence to inform their view of performance practice. In his booklet notes, Carlos Gonzalez Marcos explains that evidence from a wealth of disciplines has a huge influence over Arte Factum's current practice and to illustrate this he mentions iconographical sources in artworks and also quotes from Juan Ruiz (Archpriest of Hita c.1330) collating his observations to form a 'catalogue' of instruments. Using evidence from these different areas leads Arte Factum to a sound-world dominated by a colourful panoply of medieval instruments which, whatever your attitude to such combinations, offers an attractive and engaging sound-world and one reminiscent of that with which earlier pioneers like Noah Greenberg, Thomas Binkley and David Munrow first caught the public attention over 40 years ago.

The opening track 'En mai la roussee' sets the tone for the whole album with its lively percussion and sprightly instrumental playing and it is performed with such conviction that listeners will, at the very least, find themselves tapping a foot. Then come the Cantigas de Santa Maria with the Francisco Orozco's dazzling solos. Orozco is clearly a very talented and passionate communicator and although some of his emotion is over-done for my tastes, his performances are quite persuasive and definitely 'in the moment'. The level of intense communication in the singing makes this an album worth hearing for that reason alone.

The estampie and salterello featured later on this disc are now something like mediaeval 'hits' for the early music revival. The more Arabic/Moorish influence that one detects in Arte Factum's performances are closer to Binkley's recordings with Studio der Frühen Musik than they are to the more recent albums by The Dufay Collective. What is enormously pleasing is the sheer beauty of 'Kalenda Maia' (Vaqueiras) which has never ceased to amaze me in all the different guises I have heard, but here in particular there is, again, some of the most exhilarating percussion playing from Álvaro Garrido that is worthy of special attention.

Although these medieval compilation albums have largely disappeared from the new catalogues they are far from an exhausted art-form. This re-release has renewed my enthusiasm and also served as a catalyst for revisiting some of the even older recordings of this music by the artists I have already mentioned. It seems that the plurality of performing practices that must have coexisted in the Middle Ages is now beginning to be reflected in the plurality that currently characterises the early music revival.

Arte Factum/Francisco Orozco (Lindoro MPC-0711)

Oswald von Wolkenstein: Ritter und Minnesänger

Originally published on musicalcriticism.com
23 March 2009

History has bequeathed us a colourful view of medieval times aided, in part, by influential studies such as Huizinga's ever popular The Waning of The Middle Ages. As a result, characters like Oswald von Wolkenstein catch our attention not only because their lives are so comparatively well documented but because they also chime with our expectations of the extremes of dramatic adventure and political machinations. After all, as knight and minnesinger, shipwrecked and imprisoned, diplomat and traveler, Oswald experienced a life more colourful than most of us enjoy even today, so the attraction is obvious. But what makes him particularly interesting is that he reflects these connections in his music, a diplomat and aristocrat who writes poetry in the troubadour/minnesinger tradition demands our attention on so many fronts.

There are already several excellent recordings of Oswald's music notably by Sequentia, The New London Consort and, going further back in time, Studio der Frühen Musik to name but a few. But the Ensemble für Frühe Musik Augsburg have, in this re-released album, taken Oswald's music and poetry (some of it explicitly autobiographical) and used it to tell the story of his life. It's an attractive and successful concept accompanied with notes, translations and a chronology for those who are interested in following the narrative behind the music.

The performances are intimate and often delicate with the emphasis firmly on storytelling rather than formal concert-giving. It's a beguiling sound world and one in which their instrumental playing in particular has bags of personality, such as in 'Qui contre fortune' with its wonderful driving rhythms and reedy sounds. I particularly like the folksy voice of Sabine Lutzenberger who is at her best alongside some beautiful harp-playing in 'Der himel fürst uns heut bewar', and later in the ballade 'Je voy mon cuer'. In contrast to her voice there are some pretty rustic vocals from Rainer Herpichböhm that I found more challenging. This particular style of singing is quite prevalent in medieval music and, in my opinion, reflects more on our modern attitudes to folk traditions than it does to historically informed practice. However, with so little evidence on which to base performances of medieval repertoire it is a valid and useful style that may well serve some of this music far better than we realize; still I happen to find it difficult to listen to on a recording and would suggest that it is more apt to a live performance where eye contact and body-language fill the gaps left by such approximate tuning. These tuning issues are particularly noticeable with the countertenor's line in 'Herz prich', Oswald's interpretation of Italian trecento music which he presumably had direct experience of during his travels.

Having said that, I did particularly enjoy Herpichböhm's singing in the opening autobiographical song 'Es fuegt sich' which Oswald wrote later in life, reflecting back on his times as page to a wandering knight. Further strophes from this work are to be found throughout the disc and it gives a structural framework to the first part of the programme. Also worthy of special note is the exquisite setting of 'Ave mater o Maria' used here to represent Oswald's death in 1445. I am surprised that this piece is not more prevalent in the early music 'canon' and I would hope that this recording does more to bring it to a wider attention.

This is a particularly well-programmed album with good notes and lively communicative performances. The lack of English translations is slightly restrictive but this could easily be rectified when the English-language version of the ensemble's website is completed in the near future. So, in summary, this is a valuable contribution to our understanding of Oswald von Wolkenstein which is well worth having back in the catalogues and an enjoyable musical feast.

Ensemble für Frühe Musik Augsburg (Christophorus CHR 77304)