2 Jul 2010

Ireland's Enchantment

Originally written for musicalcriticism.com
02 July 2010

When George Frideric Handel travelled to Ireland in 1741 to work in the city of Dublin, he enjoyed a year-long creative sojourn working with many local musicians who sang in his concerts at the new Music Hall on Fishamble Street. Considering that London was a thriving musical city at this time, Handel's decision to work in Ireland raises interesting questions that the conductor and harpsichordist Bridget Cunningham has been exploring through a scholarship from The Finzi Trust. That her research into this period of Handel's life has become the inspiration for further research into early Irish music is a reflection of the multi-disciplinary approach that Cunningham takes to her work, and this album represents much more than one might realize at first glance.

Ireland's Enchantment is an unusual programme which defies categorization either as early music, folk or crossover. When Cunningham's research began to turn up ancient Irish tunes in the archives of Dublin, she realized that they could be performed by a baroque ensemble, and Emerald Baroque was born. The musicians are Laura Justice (recorders), Farran Scott (baroque violin), Jennifer Bullock (viola da gamba, cello and psaltery), Breda McKinney (soprano) led by Cunningham on the harpsichord. Each member of this ensemble has a classical background as well as Irish music in their heritage and as a result, their sound segues between the folk and 'classical' (baroque) genres with a fluidity that is delightfully refreshing.

The programme draws most notably on tunes by Turlough O'Carolan (1670-1738), the blind harpist who is sometimes called the 'National Composer of Ireland'. Already the subject of many excellent recordings - most notably by Andrew Lawrence-King (Deutsche Harmonia Mundi 77375, 1996) – his music in this programme offers a familiarity to connoisseurs of Irish music and establishes a springboard from which Emerald Baroque dive into less familiar territory. Of all the anonymous compositions represented here, the bewitching 'She Moved Through the Fair' stands out as particularly worthy of mention. For those of us who grew up listening to cross-over singers, such as Maddy Prior, Breda McKinney's delicate soprano voice can sound rather unconfident on first hearing. But despite the lack of grit in her sound the innocence of this performance is mesmeric and creates a haunting atmosphere. Handel is reported to have said that he would have gladly forgone a few of his own compositions to have written 'Eileen Aroon', and it is clear that Emerald Baroque have also found a special connection with this song as it is by far the finest performance on this album.

Elsewhere I am less convinced by several stylistic decisions these performers make. That they are so strong in the jigs such as 'Humours of Dublin' and 'Port Chuil Aodha' highlights a lack of definition in the more introspective music such as 'Si Beog Si Mor' which, for my taste, needs more rhythmic direction. Particularly pleasing, however, is Bridget Cunningham's own composition 'Day of Deities' based on a baroque ground. The new works are thought-provoking as they not only suggest that the tradition of improvising and arranging of existing folk tunes is alive and well, but they help us to hear baroque instruments anew.

Ireland's Enchantment is the first album by the independent label Rose Street Records, one of a burgeoning number of small companies who have recently emerged into the commercial market. Future projects with Emerald Baroque include 'Handel in Dublin', which explicitly explores Handel's musical life in Ireland and includes concert music by Dubourg, Roseingrave and other baroque Irish composers. If Ireland's Enchantment is a fantasy inspired by the musical world in which Handel would have found himself during his Irish odyssey, the next programme promises to explore this fascinating chapter of music history further. This album will appeal to Handel-lovers, folk musicians and music historians alike.

Emerald Baroque (Rose Street Records)

26 Jun 2010

Willaert: Missa mente tota; Motets

Originally written for musicalcriticism.com
26 June 2010

Given the astounding volume of high quality sacred polyphony that survives from the sixteenth century, it is not surprising that major figures like Adrian Willaert (1490-1562) are still somewhat under-represented on disc. Hyperion are, as ever, doing much to improve this situation and their latest release by the ensemble Cinquecento is a valuable addition to the catalogues.

Alongside Nicolas Gombert (c.1495 – c.1560) and Jacobus Clemens (c.1510 – 1556) Willaert formed the core of what has become known as the post-Josquin school. But this title can be both helpful and misleading. Indeed Willaert was a pupil and disciple of Josquin des Prez, but to refer to him only as 'post-Josquin' is to imply that composers in the first half of the sixteenth century were merely treading water whilst they waited for the music of Orlando di Lasso. Yet Willaert, at least, is lucky enough to be guaranteed a certain stability of position due to his famous pupil, the theorist Gioseffo Zarlino who referred to him as il eccelentissimo Adriano.

So what it is about Willaert that inspired Zarlino to describe him so? Willaert is part of what Howard Mayer Brown calls The High Renaissance, an incredibly fertile period when several key composers strove to perfect the Mass and Motet genres. Interlocking phrases, freely composed, were fused with the older style of writing over a cantus firmus which in turn still incorporated forms such as the canon in order to pursue a perfect marriage of poetic form and music. Willaert was, as Richard Taruskin writes, 'the great mid-century stylist'. Apart from embracing the triad as a consonance, Willaert will be remembered for his smooth compositional technique that gives a truly seamless texture which, in turn, allowed him to incorporate dissonance discreetly into his music.

This ingenious programme by Cinquecento gives a wonderful portrait of the composer. Firstly they sing Josquin's motet 'Mente tota' (just four voices), followed by Willaert's mass setting based on this model. It is remarkable music since not only does each movement contain a double canon, but the whole mass is built towards a climactic 'Agnus Dei'. The selection of motets that follow contain two particularly interesting choices. O iubar, nostrae specimen salutis is a vast ten-minute Hymn for the Holy Shroud, possibly the famous Turin Shroud that had been damaged just ten years before the publication of this work and, freshly restored by the Poor Clare nuns, would have been touring Italy about this time. The other is Quid non ebrietas, notorious in academic circles for containing a musical puzzle. It's a setting of a simple poem about drunkenness but the music is scored in such a way that without the correct understanding of musica ficta the tenor and cantus parts end E against D. The Cantus part is unambiguous but since the tenor part gradually accrues 'flats' through ficta it ends up on E double-flat. Roger Wibberley, whose edition is recorded here, believes this is a demonstration of Syntonic tuning and a particularly good exploration of this remarkable music can be found in his paper in Music Theory Online

Singing this music, Quid non ebrietas in particular, requires some impressive skills not only of tuning but also of ensemble, it's Willaert at his most quirky. Here, Cincequento offer one of the best performances that I've ever heard of this piece; their rich tone and vocal agility allows them to move with supreme confidence through the twists of the music especially at 'ad proelia trudit inertem' (encourages the unarmed into battle).

Elsewhere I am less convinced by the finer points of their ensemble. The 'osanna' about 3 minutes into track 5 is noticeably less polished, and there is a rather disappointing start to Cipriano de Rore's joyful Concordes adhibite animos. As so often in this music, it boils down to vowel-sounds. Cincequento are six singers from five countries and, as they say, this structure harks back to the imperial chapel choirs of the sixteenth century but it does mean that subtle vowel-inflections obscure the tuning. Concordes against Concardes is always going to sound messy; and thus it ever was perhaps?

What is truly impressive about this recording is Cincequento's magical interpretation of Willaert's style. The seamless polyphonic texture for which he was so famous is reflected in their rich and covered sound. It's quite indulgent compared to the crisp Oxbridge style that usually prevails in this music, and that's one of the reasons I find it so exciting. If you haven't already heard this ensemble then I highly recommend you seek them out.

Cinquecento (Hyperion CDA67749)

22 Apr 2010

Victoria: Lamentations of Jeremiah

Originally written for musicalcriticism.com
22 April 2010

Back in 1990 when The Tallis Scholars were celebrating Gimell's tenth birthday, David Fallows wrote of their first disc 'It is hard to think of a record label having had a more auspicious debut or one that so clearly forecast what was to come over the next decade, in terms of both repertory and performance quality'. Their combination of ultra-refined and disciplined singing has had an enormous effect on the way polyphony has been sung for 30 years, and it's a great pleasure to see that their influence and excellence shows no sign of waning. David Fallows' comments are just as pertinent today as they were twenty years ago.

Of course, this past year or so cannot have been an easy period for The Tallis Scholars. The untimely death of Tessa Bonner robbed them of one of the most individual voices in early music and a much-loved and respected colleague. But such is the strength of Peter Phillips' vision that his ensemble has quickly evolved to continue their work with new voices, and this disc lives up to the high standards we have come to expect. I have mentioned before when reviewing The Cambridge Singers that the combination of sopranos Amy Haworth and Amy Moore is a particularly delightful one, and here they are joined by Amanda Morrison and long-time 'Tallis Scholar' Janet Coxwell to create the bright soprano sound for which The Tallis Scholars are noted.

At first glance it seems an odd choice for an ensemble renowned for their 'purity' and 'clarity' to take such an interest in Spanish polyphony. As Phillips says right at the beginning of his notes, 'The Spanishness of Spanish polyphony is often evoked', and The Tallis Scholars performing style could not be further away from the fiery emotions we often associate with the Iberian Peninsula. I suspect that the tempestuous reputation we attribute to Victoria in particular spans from several earlier and influential recordings, chiefly, Westminster Cathedral's hair-raising 1960 recording of the Responsories for Tebebrae (also from 'Officium Hebdomadae Sanctae') directed by George Malcolm. A long tradition of singing Victoria at Westminster Cathedral still thrives, and shades of their steely continental tone have continued to dictate a gutsy style that many others have tried to copy. The Tallis Scholars, however, are one of the few groups to remain pretty much immune from the temptation to make such music more beefy than the Italian or Flemmish schools, and I for one am grateful for the contrast they bring to this repertoire.

Excelling in the exquisite delicacy of Victoria's upper-voiced sections, there is something radiant about the way this whole disc is performed. Rather than being sung at, we are invited to eavesdrop on a very intimate and refined sound world that is rarely heard in settings of these famous Lamentation texts. Peter Phillips eschews obvious dynamic surges in the darker verses and maintains delicate phrasing at all times. Intensity is never lost, but neither is it forced. His interpretation is true to the original battle cry of the early music revival: letting the music speak for itself. Without the thickness of interpretation that choirs often bring to Victoria, his Italian qualities come to the fore and one can hear, quite starkly, what a debt his music owes to Palestrina.

Despite the obvious beauty of this disc I do find it slightly too cool at certain points. Phillips makes such subtle distinctions between the letters and the verses, for instance, that they are, at times, hard to spot. And whilst the resulting performance is infinitely listenable and engaging, it does lack a feeling of religious commitment. This is, of course, a matter of taste. Peter Phillips likes it subtle, and I like it more deeply penitential. Either way – this is a fantastic recording.

The Tallis Scholars / Peter Phillips (Gimell CDGIM 043)

14 Apr 2010

William Byrd: Infelix ego (The Byrd Edition Vol. 13)

Originally written for musicalcriticism.com
14 February 2010

The Byrd Edition finally comes to an end with this highly impassioned volume that closes with a long-awaited recording of Infelix ego. Regular readers will know that I have been extremely enthusiastic about this entire recording-project which I see as important both for understanding the magnitude of Byrd's compositional achievements and for the way that The Cardinall's Musick have established new expressive possibilities in early choral singing. In short, the importance of The Byrd Edition is not to be underestimated and this last volume is certainly a desert-island disc if ever there was one.

The Gradualia is an astonishing achievement and throughout The Byrd Edition, Andrew Carwood has presented the work in liturgically appropriate combinations that, due to the 'modular' nature of its conception, lead to some repetition of short movements. The Propers for The Feast of All Saints, performed on this disc are intriguingly scored for SSATB and the double soprano parts, sung so beautifully by Carys Lane and Rebecca Outram, lend a lighter and, dare I say it, more hopeful tone than we hear in the Cantiones Sacrae pieces.

However, the fact that these Propers appear at the end of the five-part fascicle of the Gradualia (1605) is interesting because before them comes what Philip Brett once famously described as 'a non-liturgical zone', which he thought was there to reassure people that the collection did not 'represent acquiescence or resignation to the political situation facing Roman Catholics in Protestant England', indicating strongly that any hopeful tone we detect conveys something of Byrd's spectacular defiance rather than a settling down in later life. For example, listen for the way the tenor part climbs high in Timete Dominum on the words 'onerati estis' (you who are burdened) and the flurry of music that immediately follows on 'et ego reficiam vos' (and I will refresh you). It's an astonishing setting and a wonderfully intelligent performance. The upper voices cleverly phrase 'onmis laboratis' (all ye who labour) in preparation for this sequence of musical events, which indicate their deep understanding of the significance that this text had to Byrd and his recusant friends.

Placing works from the Cantiones Sacrae of 1591 either side of these Propers allows Carwood to exploit the full potential of his remarkable singers as they move between what are often quite different styles. Both collections are intellectually demanding, as Byrd never ceases to set not only the text in hand but also the thoughts behind it and their significance to his target audience. And Byrd takes his music to some extrovert places that often make significant vocal demands on singers of the Cantiones Sacrae. Such demands make Alan Brown's reasoning that both the Cantiones Sacrae of 1589 and 1591 are vocal chamber music collections that were sung in the same context as madrigals seem even more convincing, especially as we hear these powerful performances on this disc.
Even Haec dies, well known to every chorister from its inclusion in the famous Oxford Book of Tudor Anthems, is sung will deep consideration. In 1601 it was reported that Mark Bosworth sung this text 'with a joyful accent' at the gallows. His was a double execution, and the other condemned man, Roger Filcock, is said to have joined him 'in the same tone' at 'Et laetemur in ea'. What better setting than Byrd's outrageously joyful music to demonstrate that the Catholic spirit would not be quashed? I feel that something of this history comes through in Carwood's interpretation, as impossible to quantify as that may seem.

Reflecting on the changes in the way that renaissance polyphony has been performed over the last forty years, it seemed to me that there was a time, post-Munrow, when the early music movement was characterised by a desire to refuse things. By saying no to vibrato, portamento, big dynamic changes and overtly text-based approaches, performers hoped that they might get closer to the 'music itself'. Certainly, stripping polyphonic textures back to their bare scaffolding was an instructive phase for both the performers and listeners but as the philosopher and aesthete Theodor Adorno said back in the 60s, 'Objectivity is not left over once the subject is extracted.' Even so, the once ubiquitous clinical urtext-style of performance has repeatedly proved highly marketable and, paradoxically, extremely moving.

Throughout the 80s and 90s ensembles such as The Tallis Scholars (building on earlier work by Sir David Wilcox and David Wulstan) regaled us with performances of great delicacy which were not unlike Glenn Gould's Bach; the inner voices of musical textures being revealed through a clarity and luminosity of performance. Such performances did much to rescue choral music from the heavy sound that 60s performers like The Prague Madrigal Singers had once published. Somewhere along the line audiences voted with their feet and light, agile (Oxbridge) voices were found to be most favoured for this repertoire. Yet despite an influx of 'purity' to the music, emotion was never fully suppressed; The Hilliard Ensemble, expressive and instantly recognisable, have always brought a noticeably involved approach to their performances as have The Choir of Westminster Cathedral and now, finally, with The Cardinall's Musick one feels that a larger sea-change in performance practice may well be afoot.

Such expressivity in Byrd is not entirely new of course, The Cantiones Sacrae have inspired fine performances in the past – I'm thinking of New College Choir, Oxford in '83 and '86 in particular, but this latest release is surely the best available to date. The Cardinall's Musick have utterly convinced me of Byrd's genius and it is astonishing to think that a full exploration of his Latin church music was never attempted before.

Particular highlights from the series – for those new to this collection – would be volume three which ended with Philippe de Monte's setting of 'Super flumina Babylonis' and Byrd's 'Quomodo cantabimus' and just about all of volume ten (Laudibus in Sanctis), which was utterly sublime. Now we must add the present volume and its powerful performance of Infelix ego to that list. My only concern is that the older volumes on ASV may become harder to obtain now that the later volumes have moved to Hyperion. It remains to be seen what sort of arrangement can be organised between record companies; will there ever be the one boxed-set or will it forever be Byrd-part-the-first, and Byrd-part-the-second?

The Cardinall's Musick / Andrew Carwood (Hyperion CDA67779)

7 Apr 2010

O praise the Lord: Restoration Music from Westminster Abbey

Originally written for musicalcriticism.com
07 April 2010

When musicians with such a rich history as that of The Choir of Westminster Abbey choose to research and record their musical inheritance, we can be pretty certain such a project will be both exciting and illuminating. That this disc has also been fuelled, one suspects, by some impressively thorough musicological investigations makes for a satisfying and beautifully presented programme.
This album, O praise the Lord, is billed as 'a day in the life of the choir around the time of the English Restoration', and indeed it follows the music of services throughout the Abbey's day, including two psalm-settings in 'Anglican chant' when it was still in early development. Cleverly, the music chosen can be either traced to the Abbey (as appearing in the Abbey Library) or is likely to have been sung by the Abbey choir at the time. The exceptions to this are, of course, the Latin works, which would have been for domestic performance, or at least billed as such. Having already recorded Byrd's 'Great Service' and more recently an album which explored both traditional and reformed religion (Mary & Elizabeth at Westminster Abbey: 'Sisters in hope of the Resurrection') to great acclaim, we might be forgiven for thinking that Restoration music from almost forgotten figures such as William Child would be thin gruel in comparison. But this – at least in these performances – is not the case at all. James O'Donnell finds a grandeur and sincerity in this music that is often overlooked during the hastily sight-read liturgical-performances that take place around our country every day. And even if the promise of well-sung William Child does not convince you, there is always the towering figure of Henry Purcell, whom The Choir of Westminster Abbey sing so well, to catch your attention.

Starting with Purcell, there are many recordings of his music of course, but the canticles from his Complete service in B flat sound really fresh when sung by this famous choir. Recent recordings by Westminster Abbey choir have been noted (in my book at least) for the clarity of their diction and their ability to make the English language sound musical, something that many performers have tried to do with varying degrees of success. The effort needed to crisply annunciate lines like 'Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace' can really kill the thread of a musical line when executed too pedantically, but this choir get it just right and as a consequence these canticles are rarely sung better than here.

But, however well the choir sing, there is a noticeable difference between music that is Purcell's and that which is not, since no amount of keen musicianship can smooth over the gap between this towering genius and his contemporaries, although I admire the choir for trying so hard. Having said that, particularly worthy of note is some of the music by John Blow. There are delightful verse sections in 'God is our hope and strength', which are sung beautifully, as is the ravishing 'Salvator mundi, salva nos'. And special mention is due for their beautiful psalm-singing. Anglican chant doesn't always work very well out of context – it can often sound quite pedestrian on CD – but here these short tracks are alive with intelligent use of language. It is particularly refreshing to note that The Choir of Westminster Abbey do not subscribe to the fashionable practice of over-egged Italianate pronunciation that one hears so often on 'choral evensong'. I'm pleased to report there isn't a single 'keeeng' or 'seeng' in the 'Venite'.

The solo organ music is played with great panache by Robert Quinney, although unfortunately the notes do not tell us what on. Purcell's organ would not have been the Harrison and Harrison instrument that currently occupies the building but rather a single manual instrument situated in the choir. Presumably something similar is used on this disc, and, whatever it is, it is certainly beautiful and has a pleasing 'chiff' that provides something of a parallel to the crispness of the choir.

This music is part of the choir's living tradition, and while we ought not to confuse that with any automatic claims of special insight on their part, James O'Donnell and his singers have much to teach us about a performance style which projects clearly in the Abbey building, and this, at the very least, is very valuable information to anyone interested in historical performance practice. It's great to hear boys' voices in this quintessentially English music. Choral singing is constantly evolving – thank goodness – and even though I am a great supporter of female voices in our Church and Cathedral choirs, there is something particularly evocative about the treble sound that this album captures completely, and it is wonderful to know that this tradition continues to flourish alongside the new mixed choirs. This is a really beautiful album from some of our most famous choral musicians, and I highly recommend it.

Westminster Abbey Choir/James O'Donnell (Hyperion CDA67792)

4 Apr 2010

Rogier: Missa Ego sum qui sum; Motets

Originally written for musicalcriticism.com
04 April 2010

There are still surprisingly few recordings available of music by Philipe Rogier so a new release, especially one of such high quality as this, is particularly welcome. On this disc, their first for Hyperion, The Choir of King's College London directed by David Trendell present Rogier's magnificent parody mass in a release well-timed for the Eastertide season.

It may sound flippant to say that Rogier (c.1561-1596) was typical of his age, but it was not that unexpected for a Flemmish priest and composer to enjoy the patronage of the pious Philip II, since his Spanish Court maintained a chapel of Flemish musicians that had been established during the reign of Charles II. Rogier had not, however, been introduced to the Court as an established composer, but rather as a choirboy under an earlier maestro de capilla, Geert van Turnhout; so it seems he simply remained in Spain's service for the rest of his short life. As a result, his music absorbed many of the influences we associate with his Spanish contemporaries such as Christóbal de Morales and Francisco Guerrero, but it also displays a mastery of the Flemish style developed by composers such as Clemens non Papa and Nicolas Gombert. For such an accomplished composer whose music, according to sources as diverse as the English composer Thomas Morley and the Spanish poet Lope de Vega, seems to have been influential on many other major figures of his time, it feels uncomfortable to dismiss Rogier as a minor master. This disc is one that may do much to revise our opinion of this overlooked artist.

Missa Ego sum qui sum is based on an Eastertide motet by Gombert (worth hearing on a recording by Philip Cave's ensemble Magnificat: Linn records) yet Rogier takes this motet more as inspiration than as a strict framework for dogged reference. His overwhelmingly fluent use of imitation and expressive dissonance leads Trendell to suggest that 'it must rank as one of the finest settings of the Mass ordinary of the late sixteenth century', and after hearing this disc I couldn't agree more. The Choir of King's College London clearly has a healthy appetite for this music and a firm grasp of its imitative style. As a choir, rather than a smaller ensemble, their overall tone is softer-edged than the recording by Magnificat, and as such one can hear that they have to work harder to bring clarity and attention to heightened moments in the vocal lines. Having said that, the pay-off from a choral performance such as this is that the vertical harmonies are more effortlessly explored, and longer-range harmonic features become more apparent.

Interesting parallels with Montiverdi's Missa In Illo tempore are highlighted by Trendell in his notes to the recording (these are on Hyperion's website if you prefer to download), and in particular he mentions the spiraling harmonic sequences at the end of all movements apart from the Sanctus. This is not unlike Monteverdi's own ravishing Christe eleison setting which lends further weight to the argument that Rogier was much more influential than has previously been suspected. Such moments are good examples of the benefits of a choral performance and also a neat illustration of how thoughtfully prepared this recording has been. It's so easy simply to present late sixteenth century polyphony in one big mellifluous serving, but the attention to detail in this performance really shows how expressive and impassioned Rogier's music can be and how his compositional ideas are conceived in the larger-scale movements. The addition of The English Cornett and Sackbut Ensemble in the first and last motets creates a pleasing frame for this programme and brings a richness and grandeur to the music. Just listen to the exquisite setting of 'aurum, thus et myrrham' in Videntes stellam, where both the singers and instrumentalists show how incredibly stylish they can be.

Overall I love this choir's sound. It's warm and expressive and there is enough individuality in the voices to keep the sound alive and continually interesting. Once or twice at some of Rogier's unexpected dissonant twists I wondered if they could have leant further into the suspensions that are created but on the whole Trendell makes the right decision not to over-play these features – as the old adage says: less is more.

Of course, when presented with a disc of music as good as this we are left wondering why there are so few devoted to Rogier's music? I suspect the answer is that early music has unwittingly created a canon of works that are endlessly recorded, serving as benchmarks on which new ensembles are expected to cut their teeth. This is a vexing situation since early music once sought to escape just such a canon of 'classical' works that dominated the mid twentieth century; so how did it end up promoting a whole new canon of its own? Could it be that we listeners are unadventurous in our purchasing habits or that choirs find it easier to give us yet another Byrd Ave Verum rather than venture into new territory? Either way, we should be enormously grateful to David Trendell for bringing Rogier's music to our attention as the programme and the performances he has directed are utterly compelling and make a handsome addition to the recorded repertoire available.

The Choir of King’s College London/David Trendell (Hyperion CDA67807)