5 Nov 2009

John Gay: The Beggar's Opera (realized by Benjamin Britten)

Originally written for musicalcriticism.com
05 November 2009

There are so few recordings of Britten's version of The Beggar's Opera that this attractively packaged release on the Chandos label is immediately a very welcome addition. It is also a superb performance as we have come to expect from the Curnyn-Chandos partnership, which has been growing from strength to strength since their release of Handel's Partenope recorded back in 2004.

John Gay (1685-1732) may have made his fortune from The Beggar's Opera but he only wrote the libretto, as this 'ballad opera' cleverly combines spoken dialogue with popular tunes arranged by other musicians including the famous Johann Christoph Pepusch. Having been declined by Drury Lane the work was first performed at John Rich's theatre in Lincoln's Inn Fields on 29th January 1728 and ran for a remarkable sixty-two performances with revivals every season for another seventy years. This unexpected success delighted both John Gay and the impresario, John Rich, leading to the witty observation that the opera made Gay rich and Rich gay. The two men certainly became considerably wealthier as a result of this show and its success was not just confined to London; further performances were given around the United Kingdom and America. Interestingly enough, a revival in 1920 at the Lyric, Hammersmith ran for over a thousand performances in a revised edition by Frederic Austin and Arnold Bennett and many other composers have turned their hand to the music throughout the twentieth century including a new score by Kurt Weill with its famous number 'Mack the Knife'.

Britten's adaptation was not met without some controversy back when the English Opera Group performed his realization in their 1948 season. The overture – attributed to Pepusch – was replaced with one of his own that used tunes linked to the principle characters, and he kept sixty-six of the original sixty-nine airs which was considerably more than the forty-five Austin had chosen back in the 1920s. Britten's arrangements took note of the 'toughness and strangeness' of the original tunes as well as the lyrical qualities that previous arrangements had, in his opinion, over-indulged; and the new orchestration called for flute, piccolo, oboe, cor anglais, clarinet, bassoon, horn, percussion, harp, string quartet and double bass. One critic, Frank Howes, from The Times wrote that 'Some of the tunes get lost in Britten's clever and elaborate settings,' but listening to Curnyn's careful and detailed direction on this new recording it seems to me that the tunes are not lost as such, but simply that Britten's writing is so convincing that it is memory of other arrangements of those tunes that are lost.
Christian Curnyn is, of course, a name firmly associated with Handel's operas but in this recording he shows that his detailed and quick-witted performance style is transferable across the ages. His cast is well chosen too; Peter Pears received some pretty upsetting remarks about his performance as Macheath with implications that he was not manly enough for it, but on this disc Tom Randle oozes both masculinity and naturalness in this character. Susan Bickley is particularly enjoyable as Mrs Peachum (think Peggy Mitchell with attitude) and the Ladies of the Town and Gentlemen of the Road give really spirited performances.

Despite the complexity of some of Britten's realizations I do find that one or two of the soloists tend towards an overly operatic interpretation whereas my own taste favours a more simple and direct manner of singing in music that has after all sprung from folk tunes. This is a balance that both Randle and Bickley achieve very skillfully as does the delightful Frances McCafferty (Mrs Trapes) and it is a tribute to their artistry that they can be so engaging in this difficult medium. Once or twice the spoken parts from some of the other soloists sound a little too close to over-annunciated Radio drama, which is always a problem when one asks opera singers, who have spent many years developing their voices, to try and talk naturally. However, at such points Curnyn keeps the music moving along to prevent the spoken word from stagnating, and throughout the album he brings many of Britten's inspired and beautiful orchestral textures to life in an impressive way.

Gay composed his own epitaph, which sprang to mind several times as I listened to this album: 'Life is a jest and all things show it/I thought so once but now I know it.' Maybe this isn't an opera to be taken too seriously after all. What really matters is that this performance captures a wonderful sense of fun and it is certainly most enjoyable throughout.

Bickley, Jones, Fox; Randle, White, Maxwell; City of London Sinfonia/Curnyn (Chandos CHAN10548(2))

21 Oct 2009

From the Vaults of Westminster Cathedral

Originally written for musicalcriticism.com
21 October 2009

This latest album from one of the world's most famous choirs is a collection of chant, polyphony and organ improvisations marking the start of the church year, Advent, and running through Christmas to Epiphany and the Presentation of our Lord. Chant and polyphony have formed the backbone of the repertoire at Westminster Cathedral ever since R. R. Terry became choirmaster in 1902 and bought with him a wealth of experience in early choral music at a time when it was still a rarity in Britain. The choir continues to be a leading interpreter of this music and, as this disc illustrates, they also have a healthy appetite for modern repertoire and regularly commission works for liturgical use.

The disc contains three masses. Advent opens with the plainsong Rorate caeli with its beautiful opening motif begun by a single treble voice and then continues with Victoria's magnificent Descendit Angelus Domini. It's always thought-provoking to hear plainsong sung at Westminster Cathedral since the trebles have a particularly distinctive timbre that, although mellowing in recent years, is an important ingredient in the unique sound of the choir. The mass ordinary is the plainsong setting Mass X – Alme Mater accompanied by Matthew Martin, assistant master of music. Propers are settings from William Byrd's Gradualia, 1605, for the Lady Mass in Advent. The polyphony is characteristically exciting although, in my opinion, possibly too robust for a few of Byrd's more nimble passages.

The Christmas mass begins with a plainsong psalm and then Martin's sublime setting of Adam lay bounden which was originally written for the Cardinall's Musicke. This is possibly the best performance from the trebles on the whole disc and the effect is quite mesmeric as fragments of the chant Ave maris stella weave over a more medieval-inspired harmony. George Malcolm's Missa Ad praesepe then provides a kitsch injection of Christmas fervor into the middle part of this disc with a thrilling improvised organ strepitus (a wild celebratory noise) by Martin Baker in the Gloria. This is a mass setting that bears some repeated listening as it contains a few beautiful moments as well as some fine singing.

For Epiphany and the Presentation, plainsong – Ecce advenit – is followed by Monteverdi's four-voice mass and the motet Omnes de Saba by Lassus. This motet is superbly sung with plenty of time left for the generous double-choir phrases to roll around the cathedral. The Monteverdi however, is slightly too fast which leads to some rather untidy melismas particularly noticeable in 'laudamus te' of the Gloria and at the beginning of the Agnus Dei. This is fiendishly difficult music at the best of times but with big voices in a big space I feel it needs slightly more time to breath than it is given here.

The disc ends with a beautiful Magnificat setting by Maurice Beven which alternates with mode 8 chant and Martin Baker's organ improvisations used as festal accretions. Wood's luscious Nunc Dimitis shows more of this remarkable choir's versatility before Martin Baker closes the disc with a really fabulous improvisation Marche des Rois mages which not only showcases his talent and Westminster Cathedral's organ, but also gives a sense of the sheer size of the building that that choir sings in on a daily basis. Only when we understand the expanse of Westminster Cathedral do we begin to understand how singing so much early repertoire in this space has influenced the sound of the choir.

From the Vaults of Westminster Cathedral is therefore not only a procession through the cathedral for the beginning of the church's year but also a revealing glimpse into the daily work of this famous choir and the huge repertoire that it performs. Accompanied by some of the best CD notes that I have read in a while (by Jeremy Summerly) this album is well timed for the next advent season and should please choral enthusiasts everywhere.

The Choir of Westminster Cathedral / Martin Baker (Hyperion CDA67707)

Don't talk – just listen!

Originally written for musicalcriticism.com
21 October 2009

The Clerks, like many early music ensembles, have a strong interest in contemporary music and regularly perform new works. This album is a collection of their specially commissioned pieces reaching back over a decade and as such it draws together a selection of music that finds common ground in the exploration of early techniques. As Edward Wickham says of these works: 'they each represent a fascinating and innovative engagement with the compositional techniques, genres and motivations of late Medieval and Renaissance music.'

The disc opens with five motets by Robert Saxton in which biblical texts alternate with his own poetry to represent a journey. In the first motet, Dixit autem Dominus ad Abram, the biblical journey is from the book of Genesis: Abram and Sara travel from Ur to Caanan, and the parallel musical 'journey' is an exploration of parody techniques using Taverner's In Nomine melody from his Mass Gloria Tibi Trinitas. These are complex works that make for somewhat dense listening yet they yield several really beautiful moments such as the opening of Motet 2: Distant, a family travels.
The next two works are my favourites in this collection. Thou wast present as on this day by Antony Pitts is written for three pairs of voices building on a Messianic theme combined cleverly with Josquin's famous Nymphes des bois which, incidentally, featured on The Clerks' first recording back in 1993. These diverse sources lead Pitts into some really interesting harmonic territory and there is an exquisite example of this on 'glory be to thee oh lord' about 1'30' into the track.

Gabriel Jackson's The Armed Man is a cantus firmus work which uses the famous 15th century Burgundian Chanson and a prayer-like poem by Robert Palmer (1888-1916). It is typical of Jackson to find such a thought-provoking contrast; the belligerence of L'homme armé juxtaposed with the quiet disbelief of a poet surveying the battlefields of the first world war, and out of these he construes haunting sonorities especially in the middle section when the soprano sings 'lord, how long / Shall Satan in high places…' over a chorale form of L'homme armé. It's really arresting stuff and The Clerks never sounded so good.

Robert Fox contributes an interesting piece; A Spousal Verse, full of rich alto sounds and gentle spiraling harmonies. Then his cycle 20 Ways To Improve Your Life forms the central section of this disc. It is a collection of short settings of advertising copy and some bespoke prose - a take on Cries of London if you will - resulting in a miscellany of punchy pieces with amusing words. In such short bursts it's hard to discern a compositional procedure as such but there are obvious examples of word painting that work nicely and are quite humorous. I am not entirely convinced that they suit The Clerks so well as they are bitty and, frankly, I find it frustrating that they almost never get going. 'Found' texts such as these often make for great compositions (I'm thinking in particular of Jocelyn Pooke's Box Story) and these settings by Fox are certainly great fun, but I don't find them particularly engaging.

Three Contrafacta by Ian McMillan (a 14th century Caccia), Edward Wickham (So ys emprentid: Walter Frye) and Ian Duhig (anon. Ite Missa est) honour the old tradition of setting new texts to old music. Ian Duhig's After the Mass is particularly good. The album ends with a monumental setting of the Te Deum by Gabriel Jackson which, despite its complexity and density The Clerks (and singers from the Choir of St Catherine's College, Cambridge) sing with panache.

This music is incredibly well performed by The Clerks who never fail to impress with their keen musicianship and vocal prowess. In particular, Wickham's female altos make a lovely blended sound and there are several moments where the sopranos are simply sublime. This is a really fascinating album; it illustrates how inspiring early music is to modern composers and how inspiring modern music is to early musicians.

The Clerks/Edward Wickham (Signum Classics SIGCD174)

14 Oct 2009

Alessandro Scarlatti: Davidis pugna et Victoria

Originally written for musicalcriticism.com
14 October 2009

When opera was banned during the season of lent, such was the demand for oratorio that Alessandro Scarlatti wrote 38 in his lifetime, most of which were for performance in the Roman church or private palaces.

Davidis pugna et victoria was written for a company of Roman noblemen – Arciconfraternita del Santissimo Crocifisso – and first performed in Holy Week, 1700.

This setting of the story of David and Goliath is much expanded to allow a deeper exploration of the characters and, in particular, to explore Saul’s concerns about the forthcoming battle. Concentration on Saul's worries makes for quite a long first part which also dwells on a more general idea: the uncertainty of fortune, which, as Carrie Churnside explains in her notes, would have been a familiar poetic theme for seventeenth-century audiences. On this recording Saul is sung by the countertenor Martin Oro and he brings a particularly mournful hue to the opening concertino ‘Heu perii’ (Alas, I die). Oro has a very rich and dark sound that can occasionally become a little too covered for my tastes, but in this oratorio he is very well cast for so much introspective material.

Apart from the inevitable development of the biblical characters, one notable deviation to the story as related in the book of Samuel is the addition of Saul's own son, Jonathan – sung by soprano Robin Johannsen. Jonathan only features in the first half and then mostly as a sounding-board for Saul's reflective arias but the appearance of this character allows the libretto to explore Jonathan and David’s infamous closeness after the battle. Johanssen’s is a crystal-clear soprano with a beautiful tone and as such is well matched to David, sung by soprano Roberta Invernizzi. Invernizzi is probably my favourite singer on this recording; she has a real bloom to her voice, which allows her to negotiate fiendishly tricky passages with ease, and in several of her arias she executes a wonderful messa di voce.
The romantic undertones to the shared aria In flore labente are quite obvious where Jonathan and David speak of the dew on flowers and the sunset. Both sopranos enjoy the texts and the sounds of the language which lead them into the duet Sic et mortis and the inevitable chorus looking forward to victory. When Goliath does arrive it is in the form of the bass Antonio Abete. There are some wonderfully low arias with hints of buffoonery that are delightfully understated by Abete who, thankfully, resists the temptation to send his character up, resulting in a powerful performance.
The Academia Montis Regalis was born out of orchestral courses specializing in seventeenth and eighteenth century repertoire lead by leading international early music specialists. Now a busy professional ensemble under the direction of Alessandro De Marchi this is their third oratorio recording for Hyperion. The orchestra has a particularly energetic style that suits the many short sections of this work and De Marchi keeps tempi on the brisk side whilst coaxing some graceful gestures out of the instrumentalists – most notably the nimble concertino players.

This is a great oratorio and very well presented recording. However, it is difficult not to make comparisons with The King's Consort who used to occupy this niche in the Hyperion catalogue but there are a few moments where the solo singing from Academia Montis Regalis can be slightly too heavy compared with the lightness usually heard from an English group or from many of the other leading European ensembles.

Academia Montis Regalis/Alessandro De Marchi (Hyperion CDA67714)

9 Sept 2009

Flying Horse: Music from the ML Lutebook

Originally written for musicalcriticism.com
09 September 2009

Volumes of music that contain many different sources of handwriting as well as short pieces written in the left-over spaces at the bottom of pages often convey clues as to their owners and the history of their usage. MS 38539 in the British Library is just one such volume and it is from this interesting collection that Elizabeth Kenny has compiled her latest programme, Flying Horse.

The manuscript has a fascinating history but one which is not easily forthcoming. For many years is was thought to be related to the composer Matthew Locke since the cover bears the initials ML. However, since the dating of the manuscript has disproved this theory it became known simply as the 'ML Lutebook.' As Elizabeth Kenny explains in her notes, it contains a few doodles of the name 'Margaret' that suggests it was compiled for the private performance of a lady and she may have passed it on after marriage further indicating that some of the pieces may have been intended for 'Margaret's' lute lessons, and so a picture begins to build. Whatever the story it is a fascinating volume and one that charts an interesting point in musical history for lutenists, as Kenny says 'wondering where they had collectively ended up after the confident Golden Age of the Elizabethan lute.'

The programme begins with The Battle Galliard by Dowland which is also known as The King of Denmark's Galliard in another source. It's a rousing piece, which Kenny plays with an immediate and energetic style, and it is one of four Galliards on this album including Dowland's beautifully complex A Gallyard Upon The Gallyard Before which is based upon A Gallyard By Mr Dan Bacheler and the anonymous The Battle in which Kenny finds many textures and colours which belie the soft nature of the lute. A collection of Pavans include three pieces by Robert Johnstone, two of which are dark melancholy works using the lower lute strings to great effect. The third by Johnson, in F Minor, is a fascinating piece in which Kenny plays some elegant divisions from Herbert Cherbury's Lutebook. Courants also appear in this programme with their sprightly rhythms first taught by the French dancing masters. It is easy to see why the form became such an obsession since they are so tuneful, a quality that Kenny brings to the fore in her playing.

Finally, the group of Tunes and Grounds is the most instantly appealing on this album. Full of old favourites such as the delightful John come kiss me now and other well-known pieces from the theatre like Gray's Inn Maske. These tunes punctuate the programme with more familiar reference points for those unfamiliar with the lute repertoire and provide a delightfully interesting comparison with counterparts in other collections.

Kenny is one of those exciting performers who is also an academic in her own right. Not only is she Head of Early Music at Southampton University and a professor of Lute at the Royal Academy of Music but she is also a principle player with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and a regular collaborator with Les Arts Florissants and Concordia. This solo recital disc stands as a really fascinating exploration of an important musical manuscript but is also one of the best solo lute recordings that I have heard.  Excellently programmed and beautifully recorded it showcases Kenny's virtuosic skills and sensitive playing without compromising the sense of intimacy that much of this lute repertoire seems to demand. I am a little disappointed that the booklet notes, which are otherwise excellent, did not include details of the instrument that Kenny plays, but the amount of other information provided on the music more than makes up for that small oversight. This album comes highly recommended.

Elizabeth Kenny (Hyperion CDA 67776)

Henry Purcell: The Complete Ayres for the Theatre

Originally written for musicalcriticism.com
09 September 2009

One of the really wonderful things about the anniversary industry that consumes our current music programming are the re-releases that invariably accompany the celebration of a major composer. This generous 3-CD set makes a welcome reappearance almost fifteen years after it was recorded and it is a testament to the quality of Hyperion's engineers that it has lost nothing of its original impact, sounding as fresh today as it did in the mid 90s.

A total of 34 players appear in this anthology, a bigger consort than we are usually used to with The Parley of Instruments and the music is directed from the violin by Roy Goodman who first shot to public fame as the treble soloist with King's College Choir, Cambridge in Allegri's Miserere recorded in 1963 under Sir David Willcocks. He co-founded The Parley of Instruments in 1977 with Peter Holman.

This programme, A Collection of Ayres, Compos'd for the Theatre, and upon other Occasions (1697), or Ayres for the Theatre, as it was known, was published in the inevitable flood of memorial volumes that followed the composer's death. It was the first printed collection to be comprised solely of incidental music used in the London theatres yet it doesn't present the music at it would have been heard in such establishments but rather reordered by an editor – possibly Daniel Purcell – who took great care to preserve key relationships and to include song tunes and even theatrical dances. Music that originally served a theatrical purpose, from the warning of the audience that the play was about to start to the music that came between the acts therefore migrated from the theatres into public concerts and domestic life.

One of the really fascinating parts in this anthology is the use of song-tunes by the editor in the suites for Purcell's semi-operas, Dioclesian, King Arthur, The Fairy Queen and The Indian Queen to make instrumental versions of vocal numbers. Being among the most popular songs of their day these instrumental versions would have been very popular and they reveal new dissonances that add spice not found in Purcell's original. Such is the care and skill of these arrangements however, that Peter Holman suggests in his notes that these versions may have originally been preludes or ritornelli in the original productions. Whatever their function, they make for delightful and thought-provoking listening.

The anthology presents Ayres for the Theatre complete as a publication in a form that would have been recognizable under Purcell's direction. Great care, as ever, has been taken by The Parley of Instruments to use the instrumental forces of Restoration Theatre and they have also included the appendix of pieces that were omitted from the publication. This careful musicological reconstruction combined with some truly outstanding performances make these recordings an ongoing joy for any collector. There is a great vitality in the string-playing and the continuo instruments crackle with energy even in the slower movements. Listen out too for some wonderful trumpet playing by Crispian Steele-Perkins and Stephen Keavy in the Sonata While The Sun Rises from The Fairy Queen.

This wonderful set is a most-welcome addition to this year's Purcell celebration.

The Parley of Instruments Roy Goodman (Hyperion CDS44381/3)

31 Aug 2009

Lamentations — Victoria, Gesualdo, Palestrina, White

Originally written for musicalcriticism.com
31 Aug 2009

The six-voice a cappella vocal ensemble, Nordic Voices, was formed a little over ten years ago to specialize in both Renaissance and Contemporary music. In this, their fifth album, they present a moving programme of renaissance Lamentations. These are settings of Old Testament verses written by the prophet Jeremiah as he witnessed the destruction of Jerusalem and the fall of Judah in 586 B.C. and, as Nordic Voices highlight in their booklet, are still of relevance today as they chart the horrors that humans are capable of inflicting on one another.

This whole album is beautifully conceived and presented with its message made clear by the stark cover-image of the aftermath of a vehicle bomb at a Baghdad checkpoint in 2004. Keen to remind us that amidst all this suffering there are rays of hope, Nordic Voices donate a portion of their royalties from the sales of their disc to UNICEF 'to help achieve a better existence' for children innocently caught in today's conflicts.

Many of the major Renaissance composers who wrote for the Catholic Church composed at least one set of Tenebrae lamentations and this programme offers a diverse selection of works by Victoria, White, Palestrina and Gesualdo. Vocally, this is demanding territory; their use at the night-time office of matins (known as Tenebrae – literally 'darkness') coupled with the expressivity of the texts has tended to inspire exceptionally dark and torturous musical textures which can be hard to sustain over a whole programme. The Hebrew lamentations were originally an acrostic but this device did not survive into their Latin translations so instead the Hebrew letters are spelled out, usually in long melismatic phrases that offer brief respite from the harrowing text of the lamentations themselves. Nordic Voices manage the moments of repose very well so that when the music becomes more pleading the effect is heightened.

It is rather enlightening to hear Nordic Voices sing this repertoire so well. For so long recordings of renaissance vocal works have been dominated by the English choral scene (and similar continental groups) that they have become fixed in a very particular sound-word. Whilst Nordic Voices are not so very different from the English style, subtle differences in pronunciation affect the overall texture by bringing a new palette of colours to familiar harmonies and a very brilliant sheen to their tuning. Whilst their blend is clearly aided by the generous acoustic, it can sometimes lead to muddy textures between tenor and baritone voices – this is a balance that many groups ensembles struggle to find and I prefer this 'live' side of the fence to the alternative dry acoustic. All of the singers are very expressive and clearly have formidable techniques, something that is especially noticeable with the sopranos Tone Elisabeth Braaten and Ingrid Hanken who manage Robert White's high tessitura with ease. I also like the solid low-notes from bass Njål Sparbo which underpin the performances and lend an important sense of gravitas to some of the more difficult passages in Gesualdo's Tenebrae factae sunt, for instance. This is actually one of the most convincing recordings of his work that I have heard.

With the combination of thoughtful programming and skilful singing Nordic Voices remind us that these Lamentations have a relevant message in today's world. Using lamentations to signify hope in this way not only makes for a beautiful album but also gives us listeners much to think about.

Nordic Voices (Chandos Chaconne CHAN0763)

William Byrd: Assumpta est Maria — The Byrd Edition Volume 12

Originally published on musicalcriticism.com
31 August 2009

This is the twelfth volume of The Byrd Edition from The Cardinall's Musick and it covers three settings of Mass Propers celebrating the life of the Virgin Mary through her Nativity, the Annunciation and the Assumption as well as Four Hymns from the Little Office of the Virgin. Leaving behind the Cantiones Sacrae of 1591 of recent volumes, this later music written in the quiet of the Essex countryside shows a marked difference in style from Byrd's middle-years of melancholy. The Gradualia is, in some respects, more madrigalian and the short texts highlight Byrd's superb compositional versatility as he responds to the subtleties of each.

Although there were few, if any, contemporary models for Byrd to follow when he devised his modular scheme of presenting music proper to Mass, a complex system of transfers between the various Propers means that each musical setting can be used in several different contexts. Now that Andrew Carwood and The Cardinall's Musick are on their third volume devoted entirely to Gradualia collections we begin to hear some of these musical sections returning for a second time and that is noticeable in the first track of the album, Salve sancta parens which here is the introit for the Nativity of the Virgin but was previously heard on Volume 10 ('Laudibus in sanctis') when it functioned as the introit in the Propers for Lady Mass in Eastertide, a Mass which also contains familiar offertory and communion music. It may strike listeners as odd to hear some of these short works repeated across the albums, but due to the complexity of the Gradualia no other options would result in a satisfying musical experience that also made any theological sense. Diffusa est gratia, for instance, is never performed as it was printed in the Gradualia, and on this recording appropriate to the feast of the Assumption it begins at the words 'Propter veritatem' whereas seven tracks earlier during the Annunciation it began at the start of the printed text:'Diffusa est gratia'. Carwood is the first director to present this music in appropriate liturgical combinations (i.e. unravelled), and through his programming the true ingenuity of Byrd's achievement becomes apparent.

From a purely musical point of view this also offers us a really fascinating glimpse into how The Cardinall's Musick operate since none of these recurring works are performed in quite the same manner, each having its own definite mood. Propers for The Nativity of the Virgin, for instance, are marked by slower tempi and a more reflective atmosphere than was previously heard at Lady Mass, and the line-up of singers differs slightly also. All three sets of Propers on this album are for five voices and the first two have a lot of S, A, T textures that Carys Lane, Patrick Craig, and Jeremy Budd perform with a crystalline clarity and finesse. In the last set of Propers Rebecca Outram and David Gould bring a richer tone to their ensemble and although a subtle difference it adds interest to the album and allows some of the repeated sections to be heard with different voices. In between these Propers, The Hymns from the Little Office of the Virgin are presented in the order that they would be sung throughout the day. Four Hymns for ATB and two for four voices, one of which is an astonishingly beautiful setting performed SSST – Salve sola Dei genetrix. This paraphrase of the Ave Maria has a shimmering three-part upper-voice texture over the tenor line.

As I have written before, there can be few other ensembles that have achieved such a deep understanding of Byrd's music as The Cardinall's Musick and these volumes are notable for their conviction, their beauty of tone and also their integrity. This latter point is most noticeable in these Gradualia collections where the level of intimacy, especially in the three-voice settings, is palpable. However, as we begin to approach the end of the series I notice that there is still no recording of Infelix ego; could it be that Andrew Carwood is saving the best till last?

The Cardinall's Musick / Andrew Carwood (Hyperion CDA 67675)

25 Aug 2009

Pergolesi: Stabat Mater, Violin Concerto, Salve Regina in C Minor

Originally published on musicalcriticism.com
25 August 2009

Although we are currently occupied with Handel's anniversary performances it is worth taking time to reflect that 2010 brings a Pergolesi celebration; a composer who will surely benefit greatly from the reevaluation that inevitably accompanies such attention. This autumn's new album from Claudio Abbado and Orchestra Mozart is the first of three in their eagerly anticipated Pergolesi project and, interestingly, it comes some twenty-five years after Abbado's first recording of the Stabat Mater.
This album is recorded from live performances that combine a period orchestra with the sort of nimble operatic voices that more and more early music ensembles are beginning to use. This is a combination that I find particularly exciting as it allows for a very immediate delivery of the text and a far more overt use of expression than one often hears in this work. Rachel Harnisch and Sara Mingardo are beautifully matched both in vocal prowess and musical intelligence and this is most noticeable in the imitative passages and, in particular, the famous opening movement with its anguished use of dissonance. Harnisch sets the bar very high in 'Cuius animam gementem' with the tone-colours that she employs for the sword, 'pertransivit gladius,' literally cutting through the orchestra's texture.

Mingardo recorded this piece most memorably with Rinaldo Alessandrini and his Concerto Italiano ten years ago and during the intervening decade she has lost none of her fire; her trembling in 'O quam tristis' is every bit as skilful as before. Here, as in other places, Abbado has opted for less eccentric tempi than Alessandrini did but still manages to capture that same blend of despair and beauty that is so central to the success of a performance. How different this is to the Deutsche Grammophon recording he once made with Margaret Marshall, Lucia Valentini-Terrani and the London Symphony Orchestra. Revisiting that 1980s performance highlights how much has changed in the way we view Pergolesi's work as well as the orchestras we use to perform it. Listen out for some exceptional singing from Mingardo on 'Ob amorem filii' in 'Fac, ut porten Christi mortem.' She is a contralto with a tone and range of considerable distinction.

The programme also includes the Violin Concerto in B flat major with soloist Giuliano Carmignola who plays the 1732 Baillot Stradivarius in this, his first recording of the work. This is a particularly vibrant performance which I'm sure will become a firm favorite of Pergolesi fans everywhere and it's beautifully recorded too. I particularly enjoyed the lute playing of Michele Pasotti in the introduction of the slow movement and the interaction between soloist and orchestra throughout.

Soprano Julia Kleiter closes the programme with a heartfelt performance of the Salve Regina in C minor. She finds some exquisite expression in the second movement, 'Ad te clamamus,' and again Abbado leaves us in no doubt that his Pergolesi performances will be eagerly awaited throughout 2010. I'm just left feeling a little disappointed by the odd scruffy corner of tuning from the strings. That's part of the problem of recording a live performance but now that our ears are so used to the implied perfection of studio recordings it takes some getting used to – especially with repeated listening.

The Pergolesi year will continue to be marked by this exciting partnership between Abbado and Orchestra Mozart with two further releases: the Dixit Dominus (January 2010) followed by Messa di San Emidio (March 2010).

Orchestra Mozart / Claudio Abbado (Archiv 477 8077)

3 Aug 2009

Dominique Phinot: Missa Si bona suscepimus, Lamentations, Magnificat, Motets

Originally published on musicalcriticism.com
03 Aug 2009

This new album from The Brabant Ensemble is a powerful reminder that there are still considerable quantities of early sixteenth-century music to be explored. Much of it is of a very high quality indeed which suggests that we may have become too reliant on a core repertoire, an 'early music canon' that quenches our thirst for new discoveries. Have we, en masse, really lost our inquisitiveness? Thankfully there are a handful of ensembles that have not; and one of those is The Brabant Ensemble directed by Stephen Rice.

Dominique Phinot (c.1510-1561) probably slipped through the musicological net due to the paucity of his surviving biographical information. A musician in the service of Duke Guidobaldo II of Ubino and later cantor at the cathedral in Pesaro, there is little else known apart from a suggestion that he was executed for homosexual practices shortly before 1561. Nevertheless, he is rated highly by the contemporary theorist Hermann Finck who thought him a close second to Gombert. Phinot's general renown as a composer is well justified in this beautiful programme of his works which includes a mass, double-choir motets and a fantastic set of Lamentations.

The album opens with Sermisy's motet Si bona suscepimus which although slightly archaic for its time is a clear derivative of the Josquin school, with a sectional structure and homophonic textures that emphasize portions the text. Harmonically there are some pleasingly exotic moments that survive the transition into Phinot's Missa Si Bona suscepimus. This mass setting largely dispenses with Sermisy's overt sectionalization in favour of developing the model to include longer meslismatic phrases and the increased possibility for changes of mood.

The real eye-opener, however, is Phinot's motet Pater peccavi which tells the story of the prodigal son. Not only is it an absolutely gorgeous piece of music but it is one for the early music buffs as the application of musica ficta leads the singers into deliciously tortured territory during the second half. It was the scholar Edwin Lowinsky who first proposed the idea of a 'secret chromatic art' - later developed by Margaret Bent into a theory of 'contrapuntal descent' - whereby a flat is introduced by one of the singers in order to avoid a certain interval which can, in some cases, lead to a chain reaction of further flats accruing until the piece spirals down a whole semitone as every note is flattened. This is just what happens here when the prodigal son complains ('hic fame pereo…'). The Brabant ensemble manage this tricky device very well and ensure that this recording will be an important contribution to the debates surrounding such theories.

Overall I enjoy the blended sound that the singers make, there is plenty of clarity in the textures with an even balance between the voices and skilful transitions between the passages of plainsong and polyphony when they occur. There are, however, several moments when I feel that the music demands a more overtly expressive character – particularly in Pater peccavi where some of the dissonances could benefit from sounding slightly less 'efficient'. As highly skilled and technically able young singers The Brabant Ensemble sometimes forget to match Phinot's use of harmonic 'pain' with a little expressivity of their own. This is a matter of taste of course and their album, as it stands, is delightfully sung and sure to please many listeners, but for my tastes it is just a little too polite at points of passionate musical statements.

The Brabant Ensemble and Stephen Rice have carved themselves a distinct niche in the discovery of forgotten masters and I hope these discoveries keep coming. Future plans include a recording of music by Pierre Moulu which I, for one, will be eagerly awaiting. In many ways this is the cutting edge of early music.

The Brabant Ensemble/Stephen Rice (Hyperion CDA67696)

7 Jul 2009

David Munrow: thoughts on vibrato and a glimpse into his record collection

Written for the NEMA conference 2009: Singing music from 1500 to 1900:style, technique, knowledge, assertion, experiment
published by the University of York, edited by John Potter and Jonathan Wainwright

This paper explores the literature and discography that David Munrow used as the basis for his own opinions on vibrato. He collated his findings in an unpublished paper entitled, simply, ‘Vibrato’.
In his paper Munrow outlined some of the arguments about vibrato that he encountered in print and began to relate them to a number of recordings. However, without access to laboratory equipment he was unable to undertake a detailed analysis of the sort that can now be done easily with modern sound editing and analysis software. As such, the limits of his approach become apparent when modern techniques are applied. This chapter relates measurements taken from the recordings to Munrow’s own aural observations as set down in his essay.

Please follow this link for the full paper

5 Jul 2009

Alfred Deller: Portrait d'une voix (1976)

Originally published on musicalcriticism.com
05 July 2009

This fascinating documentary from 1976 is, somewhat surprisingly, one of the few filmed interviews with Alfred Deller. Surprising because Deller is really the first countertenor of the modern era, a countertenor as we know them today, and even though we are all aware of his legacy and many bons mots, it seems astonishing that there are so few extended interviews that try to give us an insight into his philosophy and artistry. It is particularly delightful that Harmonia Mundi have released this DVD set and it should galvanize scholars, performers and enthusiasts everywhere to reconsider the countertenor voice and revisit Deller's performances.

When Michael Tippett heard Alfred Deller sing in Canterbury Cathedral Choir during the 1940s he thought that 'the centuries rolled back' and after a solo debut in 1943 Deller proved to be an inspiration for many of the next generation of countertenors and composers throughout the western world. When asked on camera if countertenor was a natural voice he replied with a chuckle 'Am I a natural man?' neatly encapsulating the good nature which he bought to so much of the evangelizing he undertook as part of the popularization and development of his voice-type. His great skill and patience as an educator and communicator is one of the main themes in the interview sections of the film, Deller the consummate artist and raconteur. His eyes alight with enthusiasm as he explains that all male singers have a head voice and how he had to discover how 'to take the head voice into the chest so that I can get some real - what I call - bite in the lower part of the voice.' Now and again the camera lingers a moment too long after he has finished answering a question and one has a distinct sense of how uncomfortable he must have felt in these interviews – preferring to be a conduit through which music flows rather than as the object of an interview himself.

The film, as a whole, is well structured with short sections of musical footage between each interview segment that give us time to reflect on what Deller has explained and to see him put it in to action. The historian in me is irritated by the lack of information about co-performers either from sleeve-notes or subtitles; and frustratingly the credits are not enlightening either. The accompanying audio CD of solo song however, does list the other performers and offers a generous selection of solo song and the beautiful motet Infirmata vulnerata by Alessandro Scarlatti.

Where the impact of Alfred Deller's artistry really hits home is when he advises 'Do rehearse here [pointing to head], you can do that anytime; if you are waiting for a bus think about interpretation, think about how you will take a phrase because if you are technically in control […]the interpretation can be done in the mind.' And that is one of the neatest ways to explain Deller's approach to music – in the mind. His singing is so thoughtful and so unassuming that one feels there is still much to be learned through watching this documentary.

The film ends with footage of the Deller Consort enjoying a post-concert buffet in the grounds of a country house. 'Do you always wear such low cut dresses' Mark Deller mischievously asks one of the sopranos as he spies the camera approaching out of the corner of his eye. 'Yes Barbara, you must tell us' continues Alfred, enjoying the joke. It may be toe-curlingly English but it's a fascinating record of a really important era of change in the history of classical music and one which we have yet to fully comprehend.

A Film by Benoit Jacquot (Harmonia Mundi DVD HMD9909018)

30 Jun 2009

Victoria: Missa Gaudeamus etc.

Originally published on musicalcriticism.com
30 June 2009

Tomás Luis de Victoria is often described as one of the great composers of the mature polyphonic style and although his music is, broadly speaking, from the 'Palestrina School' he infused it with a uniquely Spanish atmosphere. Westminster Cathedral Choir are, of course, specialists in this area and have been performing the works of the English and Continental Renaissance composers since the cathedral opened in 1903 when the first master of music, Richard Terry, began to build the choir's reputation on such music. Renaissance works have remained the cornerstone of the choir's activity ever since.

This latest release by the Lay Clerks of Westminster Cathedral, and directed by the Assistant Master of Music, Matthew Martin is particularly exciting since the choir men don't often record on their own even though they sing several services without the boys voices each week. Missa Gaudeamus is presented within a celebration for the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, but rather than reconstruct an actual historic service they have chosen to record the mass within a 'liturgical offering illustrating the complex liturgical structures becoming available in a period when the resources for the enrichment of the liturgy were growing steadily' as Jon Dixon explains in his notes. And what better choir to navigate these complicated waters than one who sings this liturgy regularly.

In this 'programme' the Mass Propers are sung to traditional plainchant and I was pleasantly surprised by how mesmeric these performances prove to be. The tenors and basses have a solid and confident tone that suits the large acoustic and since plainchant is a central part of their daily routine they also have a highly developed musical style that prevents the monody from stagnating.

The Mass Ordinary is the Victoria setting Missa Gaudeamus based on the motet Iubilate Deo omnis terra, by Morales. The tenors and basses are joined by seven countertenors, all regular singers with the choir, who have a slightly metallic sound which works particularly well in this repertoire. There seems to be a slight approximation to a French 'eu' sound [y] from one or two of them when a more English vowel is used by the other voices and this discrepancy can be slightly distracting at times, particularly in the 'Gloria' where it is quite obvious on 'bonae voluntatis'. However, the Lay Clerks make a gloriously full-bodied sound with plenty of contrast and colour throughout the polyphony of both the mass setting and Victoria's beautiful motet Vidi speciosam. This is very impressive singing indeed.

Four organ works by Frescobaldi are played deftly by Thomas Wilson and they contribute strongly to the liturgical atmosphere of the disc as a whole. The last one, Frescobaldi's Recercar: Sancta Maria for organ and choir is a fascinating little piece since the plainsong of the choir's part has the angularity of an electrocardiogram trace yet the overall effect is actually rather calm and moving.

This is a really atmospheric disc and also a fascinating one because the history of Westminster Cathedral choir singing Victoria's music throughout the twentieth century and beyond has been recorded frequently enough for us to hear how their style has changed without losing that continental feel that is so hard to quantify. I suspect that singing this repertoire regularly in the same building influences much of their 'house style' but whatever the contributory factors, Westminster Cathedral Choir is one of this country's most spectacular choral offerings and this disc assures us that their important tradition is in safe hands.

Lay Clerks of Westminster Cathedral/Matthew Martin (Hyperion CDA 67748)

7 Jun 2009

Monteverdi: Sweet Torment

Originally published on musicalcriticism.com
07 June 2009

This is I Fagiolini's third release in their Monteverdi Series and, as always, the album is cleverly devised, well recorded and beautifully presented.

The programme opens with two madrigals from book five, the first of which, Questi vaghi concenti uses almost the whole I Fagiolini ensemble (voices and plucked strings) in conjunction with their colleagues from Barokksolistene (bowed strings); then the second, T'amo, mia vita!, employs a delicate soprano solo in alternation with four voices and continuo. These are followed by two astonishing settings of Petrach's poetry from the sixth book of madrigals Ohimè il bel viso and Zefiro torna, e'il bel tempo rimena. Petrarch provides a huge inspiration for both Monteverdi and I Fagiolini as the singers really excel in these unaccompanied five-voice textures which allow them to demonstrate a skilful balance between ensemble and soloistic expression. The following setting of Zefiro torna, e di soavi accenti (Scherzi musicali ...1632) for two tenors and a stirring ground bass played by the wonderful continuo team marks the start of three outstanding solo pieces with Ohime, dov'è il mio ben (seventh book) a lament for two female voices and a simple strophic song Si dolce è 'l tormento for tenor. This last song is probably the most arresting track on the album; Nicholas Mulroy is outstanding as the soloist accompanied impressively by Eligio Quinteiro (chitarrino) and Frances Kelly (harp).

Three madrigals from book eight form the second half of this programme. Or che 'l ciel e la terra returns to the poetry of Petrarch and contains some of the most ravishing music as each of the affetto is explored and the ending is absolute genius - executed with typical panache by I Fagiolini. Following the military humour of Gira il nemico insidioso the impressive Ballo delle Ingrate closes this album with, again, almost the full forces of the collected musicians.

I Fagiolini are more successful than most English ensembles at casting off the Oxbridge veil that early music performers once spent so much time cultivating, and they actually describe themselves as a solo-voice ensemble rather than a chamber ensemble. However, there were times when I was not entirely convinced that they were completely comfortable with being so extrovert and this tended to be where the need for ensemble and expression came into conflict. However, the overwhelming majority of their performances left me with very few qualms and the instrumental playing was consistently excellent.

By exploring works that move the emotions of the listener I Fagiolini present a sumptuous selection of madrigals which demonstrate both the huge variety of Monteverdi’s musical language and the flexibility of their artistry. Even with so many recordings of Monteverdi’s works now jostling for our attention, this new release from I Fagiolini is highly desirable and reinforces what an exciting project their Monteverdi series has been so far.

I Fagiolini, Barokksolistene/Robert Hollingworth (Chandos Chaconne CHAN 0760)

Handel: The Messiah

Originally published on musicalcriticism.com
07 June 2009

Handel's anniversary year is proving to offer many a rich feast on his larger-scale works with his oratorios and operas featuring in many of the major festivals around the world. Of course Messiah has always been famous for its enduring appeal, but even performances of this work seem to have increased as a result of the celebrations.

In this new recording from Frieder Bernius the soloists are an impressive selection. Carolyn Sampson is one of my favourite sopranos for Messiah performances and here the energy in her performance of the accompagnato-recitative sequence in 'Part the First' is terrifically exciting, and this carries over into 'Rejoice greatly' which is also incredibly impressive, although I do wish that Bernius had allowed just a little more time for the central section as 'And he shall speak' is just slightly too brisk for my taste. I also particularly enjoyed 'If God be for us' for which Sampson finds some rich and passionate vocal colours that must be the envy of many sopranos.

Benjamin Hulett and Peter Harvey are also appropriately commanding in this performance. Hulett is still relatively new to the early music scene but performs an impressive pair of arias at the beginning of the work and an especially touching 'Behold and see, if there be any sorrow' in the second part. Peter Harvey is, of course, one of the most experienced basses on the period-performance scene and it really shows. His aria 'Why do the nations' has astonishing gravitas and, with Bernius and his orchestra at their very best, makes for an incredibly exciting performance. However, I'm really surprised to say that I didn't enjoy Daniel Taylor's performances; undoubtedly he has an exquisite instrument but I just find his manner of singing too fey for this oratorio. In my opinion there ought to be a good element of declamation involved since one is, after all, telling a story which is arguably the greatest ever told. But rather than responding to this challenge, Taylor makes a self-consciously pretty sound which tends to get in the way of both the text and its pronunciation: 'Far he is like a refiners fire' for instance, and the resulting effect is rather anaemic. Some people like this style but I find it rather out of place in oratorio and would prefer some more meat on the sound to better reflect the enormity of the sentiments being expressed.

Kammerchor Stuttgart, however, are electric all the way through this album. I love the clear textures and the excitement in 'And He shall purify' and the sense of desolation in 'Surely He hath borne our griefs'. There are many different colours from this choir and their blend is well managed too. The score used is based on Ton Koopman's new urtext edition and Bernius opts for some brisk tempi that keeps the work moving forward nicely without overly rushing. The Barokorchester Stuttgart are a skillful ensemble who play with confidant phrasing and lots of personality throughout, and the beautiful transparency of this recording process allows the listener to hear all of their details clearly.

Frieder Bernius's new recording is a welcome addition to the ever-swelling catalogue of Messiahs and is particularly welcome on SACD format.

Sampson, Taylor, Hulet, Harvey; Kammerchor & Barockorchester Stuttgart/Bernius (Carus 83.219)

31 May 2009

Songs of Lennox Berkeley

Originally published on muciscalcriticism.com
31 may 2009

Sir Lennox Berkeley (1903 – 1989) is one of those composers whose life spans much of the twentieth century and many singers will know him through his much-loved choral pieces; the beautiful setting of The Lord is my Shepherd or maybe his Missa Brevis or even the Mass for 5 voices. But how many of us have had the opportunity of hearing a programme of his songs such as this new album by the English tenor, James Gilchrist?

Presenting these songs in a chronological order (with an exception for the central position of the cycle Five Herrick Poems, Op. 89) allows the listener a delicious opportunity to reflect on the long career of Sir Lennox and the astonishing artists with whom he mixed throughout his life. Berkeley was partly of French descent so his assured setting of French poetry from his undergraduate days at Merton College in 'D'un vanneur de blé aux vents' should not come as a great surprise despite his relative youth. It certainly impressed Maurice Ravel and on his advice Berkeley went to study with Boulanger in Paris in 1926, and his cycle Tombeaux of poetry by John Cocteau was written during his first year there. In Paris he met many leading artists through Cocteau, including the composers of 'Les Six' whose influence can be heard in the bitonality of this minature cycle.

'How love came in', the first English song in this programme, dates from 1933 when Berkeley was back in London and is a charming setting of a poem by Robert Herrick. It is followed by 'Bells of Cordoba', a setting of Lorca in English translation, and then the 1958 cycle Five poems of W.H.Auden, which are more exploratory in their compositional technique but so beautifully written that one can only feel renewed sadness at the loss of his undergraduate settings of Auden. The Five Herrick Poems written for Peter Pears and Osian Ellis come next and are one of the more surprising premiere recordings – surprising that they have not been recorded before. Then Berkeley's larger cycle Autumn's Legacy once again shows a shift in his harmonic language, probably influenced by his experiments with 12 tone rows. These songs are thick with the darkening atmospheres of autumn and contain some of his most ingenious and descriptive piano writing.

Three songs, 'Automne', 'Ode du premier jour de Mai' and 'Sonnet' precede the final cycle Five Chinese Songs written for Meriel and Peter Dickinson (Peter Dickinson provides some of the excellent sleeve notes). This cycle has a newly sparse feeling that Berkeley claimed in a 1974 BBC interview had been influenced by the Chinese language, less busy and wonderfully devoid of any firm tonality.

Gilchrist gives consistently wonderful performances of these works, with his clear voice and intelligent interpretations he is quite masterful at the English songs, in particular, and is well matched to his accompanist Anna Tilbrook, who responds admirably to Berkeley's keen grasp of counterpoint (presumably learnt under Boulanger) which underpins much of his keyboard writing. Alison Nicholls' deft harp-technique delivers a welcome change of texture at the mid-point of this recording and she makes light work of what is very difficult music indeed. In some ways I would have enjoyed more obvious changes of atmosphere between the French and English works, in particular, but such is the potency of Berkeley's textures that on repeated listening this ceases to matter.

As ever with Chandos, the album is beautifully presented and recorded with their characteristic clarity and depth of field, all of which really captures the enjoyment of these artists in their performances. It is wonderful to have such a collection of Berkeley's songs and this album is sure to inspire many listeners to discover more of his music.

James Gilchrist, tenor; Anna Tilbrook, piano; Alison Nicholls, harp (Chandos CHAN 10528)

26 May 2009

Not no faceless Angel — Choral music by Gabriel Jackson

Originally published on musicalcriticism.com
26 may 2009

Stephen Layton and his choir Polyphony have been performing and recording new choral works for several years now and this latest album of music by Gabriel Jackson can be seen as another installment in an inspired series which has included composers such as Thomas Adès, James MacMillan, Morten Lauridsen, Arvo Pärt, Eric Whitacre and, of course, John Tavener. Anyone who has heard this choir will know that their singing is quite simply sublime, so much so that the Daily Telegraph has already described them as 'one of the best small choirs now before the public'.

Similarly, Gabriel Jackson (b. 1962) has been steadily building his reputation over the past 20 years as a leading choral composer, even though his works are not limited to that medium by any means. A quick survey of his music shows a preoccupation with religious themes although in his sleeve-notes Stephen Johnson uses the famous description of Ralph Vaughn Williams as 'the Christian agnostic' as a way to deflect from overt Christianity and introduce Jackson's concept of 'private epiphanies'; by which he means those moments which give us insight to that which is beyond our comprehension. Aside from the tradition of religion there is an obvious preoccupation with the tradition of music itself – indeed one could say that of any composer – but Jackson is as likely to adapt compositional techniques from mediaeval and renaissance music-theory as he is to absorb the atmosphere of the Russian orthodox tradition or the rhythmic vitality of Stravinsky.

The programme opens with two songs in English – a setting of Blake's To Morning (2007) and Song (I gaze upon you) (1996) both displaying an unerring gift for the natural rhythms of language, resulting in delightfully unhurried miniatures that should suit any competent chamber choir. Cecilia Virgo (2000) is representative of Jackson's fondness for Tudor church music and draws on influences from Tallis' 'Spem in alium' and works by Browne and Carver, to name but a few. Here, deeply sonorous textures are spiced with delicate soprano details and one of the most arrestingly beautiful openings to a motet that I have heard in a long time. Polyphony sing it so well that, for a moment, one really couldn't imagine wanting to hear this piece any other way.

Rhythm is also a preoccupation of Jackson's as is the clever use of compositional devices gleaned from the Netherlanders-school which often surface in his works. In the following Orbis patrator optime (2006) the broken melismas somehow link ideas from composers such as Obrecht and Stravinsky creating a gorgeous effect, bordering on transcendental. But this meditative atmosphere reaches a zenith in the title-work of this album, a setting of a poem by Tanya Lake, Not no faceless Angel (2006), which deals with the big themes of loss and bereavement; here Jackson is at his most explicit, using his music to explain and to comfort when the words can go no further. The addition of instrumental timbres (cello and flute) in this piece seem especially poignant at the mid-point of the programme.

My favourite works, however, have to be the final two settings of Salve Regina. The first (2000) is only five minutes long and contains a beautiful soprano solo sung here by Laura Oldfield and then Salve Regina 2 (2004), which was written to celebrate the 850th anniversary of the foundation of Beaulieu Abbey. Here various strands of Jackson's style are brought together: Stravinsky in the rhythm and early music-theory in a skilful double-gimel for the upper voices. This is Jackson at his most fluid and Polyphony deliver an intelligent and gripping musical performance at a very high standard.

This sublime album comes highly recommended and the performances are another triumph for Polyphony and Stephen Layton.

Polyphony / Stephen Layton (Hyperion CDA67708)

A New Heaven

Originally published on musicalcriticism.com
26 may 2009

Throughout their first thirty years The Sixteen have remained faithful to a core repertoire of early music with various other explorations along the way and this new album is another one of their delightful excursions, this time focusing on the music of the Anglican church from Victorian times to the present day.

The programme itself is rather ingenious as it covers a time when the Anglican church enjoyed its long (and last?) relatively stable period as a major progenitor and patron of the arts in England. Starting with Parry's famous setting of Psalm 122 I was glad (performed here without the famous royal acclimations) written for the 1902 coronation of Edward VII, The Sixteen trace a line through the tranquility of those compositions that were unruffled by the persuasive march of modernism, such as Stanford's much-loved Beati quorum via and Balfour Gardiner's rather indulgent Evening Hymn to present-day settings of The Lord is my shepherd by Howard Goodall and John Rutter. It is a fantastic idea and makes for a wonderfully nostalgic programme of traditional works that is as evocative of evensong as it is thought-provoking. Surely these composers working within the Anglican tradition, developing and passing on their skills have been rather under-represented and maybe even slightly eclipsed by the coincidence of the early music revival with the rise of the recording industry? Of course these pieces are well covered by cathedral and Oxbridge choirs but it is pleasing to see a major label such as Decca present such a well-packaged and well-performed album of our recent choral heritage.

This is a bigger, richer and, dare I say it, more romantic Sixteen than we usually hear and it really suits this music. Of course, Harry Christophers' singers all have extensive experience of the Christian choral tradition but what is especially poignant is the sheer range of vocal colours that the sound of adult female voices offer, since we are mostly used to hearing boys sing the treble lines. In particular the beginning of Faire is the heaven (Harris) is delightfully paced and Harry Christophers demonstrates his keen affinity with the choral medium, and I was also deeply impressed with Evening Hymn (Balfour Gardiner) which can, in other hands, too often get lost amidst its own stodginess but here retains a clear text and musical direction without loosing any of its passion. Listen out for the great alto sound at the beginning of the 'Amen'.

The one difficulty I have with this album is with the settings of The Lord is my Shepherd in this programme. I agree that John Rutter, in particular, is an important living composer and I do appreciate the implicit suggestion that he carries on a choral tradition inherited from the late Victorians, but he feels like a bit of an afterthought stuck at the end of the disc like this, whilst Howard Goodall takes the centre of the programme. Personally I would have either swapped Goodall for Finzi or used a more chronological approach to make more historical sense.

Classical-music aficionados should not sneer at the obvious whiff of Katherine Jenkins-style marketing that Decca have given this album because underneath the slick exterior these performances have real musical integrity. Christophers breathes new life into pieces that have for too long been ossified in memories of uncomfortable pews and smells of wood polish. His ensemble, The Sixteen, are as always outstanding.

The Sixteen/Harry Christophers (Decca 179 5732)

10 May 2009

Handel: Chandos Anthems

Originally published on musicalcriticism.com
10 May 2009

These three Anthems for Cannons or Chandos Anthems as they are more widely known, make for a glorious programme from the choir of Trinity Choir Cambridge and their musical director Stephen Layton and at over 20 minutes each they deliver generous recording of Handel's music which maintains high standards throughout. The works date from about 1717 and were written to be performed in the church of St Lawrence Whitchurch which the Brydges family used until their own chapel attached to the Cannons estate was completed in 1720.

'O praise the Lord with one consent', like the other anthems, uses psalm texts but dispenses with the expected opening orchestra sonata in favour of a longish orchestral introduction. The choir respond keenly to the text right from the start as Layton sets an elegant pace that allows for generous phrasing and an emphatic choral delivery. The following solo arias are in mournful minor keys and beautifully sung by countertenor Iestyn Davies and tenor James Gilchrist. In particular, Davies negotiates the low passages with an enviable vocal colour that allows him to use a large palette of emotions in a part of the voice that many other countertenors often find problematic. Gilchrist is, as always, a wonderfully energetic singer and makes light work of some of Handel’s fiendishly difficult fast passagework. The mood changes for Neal Davies' bass aria 'That God is great' (spot the reworking from the Queen Anne Birthday Ode) which is a jolly (major key) aria and very stylishly sung indeed. Later in the work Emma Kirkby's solo 'God's tender mercy' suits her thoughtful delivery perfectly. Kirkby's voice has softened somewhat over the years without losing any of its vibrant personality, allowing her to execute some beautifully subtle phrasing in the lower passages that really pull at the listener's heart-strings.

The second anthem, 'Let God arise', gives us the opportunity to hear The Academy of Ancient Music on their own in the opening sonata. Their enviable violin-tone has always been one of my favourite aspects of their playing and I suspect this is in part due to Pavlo Beznosiuk, whose performances I always enjoy tremendously. Their oboist, Katharina Spreckelsen, also deserves a special mention for gorgeous phrasing and tone throughout. This anthem is sheer delight with the choir at the very best, especially as they enjoy the 'be scattered' figure in their opening chorus; they set very high standards for Cambridge choirs indeed even though I wasn't entirely convinced by the vowel-sounds in the opening figures of 'Praised be the Lord!' and 'Blessed be God'.

Lastly, 'My song shall be alway' is a tapestry of familiar Handel moments borrowed from or by other works. More glorious instrumental playing (and astonishing breath control from the oboist) characterises the opening Sonata and is followed by a particularly beautiful aria for Kirkby and the chorus. Similar high standards from the soloists are heard all the way through this anthem and Trinity College Choir deliver a fitting end to the programme with their confident closing chorus, 'Thou art the glory'.

This is the fourth disc that the choir have released with Stephen Layton and well worth buying for the sheer enjoyment that these performers communicate. Absolutely excellent.

Soloists; Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge; Academy of Ancient Music/Layton (Hyperion CDA67737)

Mathias: Choral Music

Originally published on musicalcriticism.com
10 May 2009

William Mathias (1934-1992) is one of just a few twentieth century Welsh composers to enjoy a truly international reputation largely due to choral and organ works which cathedral choirs and larger choral communities perform regularly. And Wells Cathedral Choir, one of England's great cathedral choirs, represents a tradition of singing to which Mathias dedicated so much of his artistic talent.
Mathias writes with a highly individual blend of styles drawn from twentieth century British, French and American composers – especially the young Benjamin Britten and also Peter Maxwell Davies – in the way that he absorbs influences from Mediaeval music, creating vocally engaging textures with intense rhythmic drive and pleasingly angular organ accompaniments. However, as Roderic Dunnett points out in his sleeve notes (of Hyperion's usual excellent standard), Mathias was also a symphonist and a master of the string quartet.

The album opens with the vibrant 'Let the people praise thee, O God', written for the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer in 1981, and Wells Cathedral choir bring an enthusiastic energy to this music right from the very start with their outstanding performance. This famous anthem is followed by what I would consider to be one of the best works on the album, the Jesus College Service: a 'Magnificat' and 'Nunc Dimitis' from 1970. The incredible confidence of the 'Magnificat' with is modal lilt and busy rhythmic patterns is balanced beautifully by the tender opening of the 'Nunc Dimitis'. Listen out for the astonishing setting of 'Amen' at the end of the 'Magnificat' which the choir sing with relish.

The beautiful macaronic carol 'A babe is born' displays a characteristic sense of urgency so particularly appropriate to the Christmas story and is followed by an earlier carol 'In excelsis gloria' (1954) which Dunnett's notes liken to the texture of organum. After a perky organ solo 'Processional' the central part of this programme is the 'Missa Brevis' (1973), a darker and more reflective work than the evening canticles, again punctuated by a glorious array of sounds from Wells Cathedral organ. The heavy and challenging passagework for men's voices which dominates the 'Kyrie' and 'Gloria' is finally dispelled in the 'Sanctus' with large blocks of joyful choral sound underpinned by more superb organ textures. This is a mass cycle which portrays a definite journey through the Eucharistic service culminating in a beautiful 'Agnus Dei'; if you don’t already know this work, then this disc is an excellent way to meet it.

The second half of the programme comprises three more anthems (and motets), another ingenious little organ solo and the 1964 Festival Te Deum and Jubilate Deo (1983). I was particularly drawn to the optimistic 'Lift up your heads, O ye gates' (1969) and I enjoyed the choir's performance, in particular, which was every bit as exciting a the music itself and provided a great set-up for the heart-stopping contrast with the slow hushed beauty of the following unaccompanied 'O nata lux'.

Wells Cathedral has a beautiful organ played skillfully and sensitively throughout this album by organist Jonathan Vaughan; he is a wonderful accompanist for Matthias' music which I suspect he makes sound a lot easier than it really is. The choir are also superb which is especially pleasing since I am a great supporter of mixed treble-lines and always welcome successful performances like this that prove they are supporting our priceless cathedral choral tradition rather than threatening to erode it. However, what is really most impressive about Wells Cathedral Choir is the sheer range of colours that their conductor, Matthew Owens, manages to coax out in such tricky music. They really rise to this challenge and can be forgiven the odd moment when they overshoot the mark and become slightly blustery. These are few and far between.
This is a fantastic album which I highly recommend.

Wells Cathedral Choir / Matthew Owens (Hyperion CDA67740)

4 Apr 2009

The Sacred Flame: European Sacred Music of the Renaissance and Baroque Era

Originally published on musicalcriticism.com
04 April 2009

The Cambridge Singers have been recording steadily since 1982 and although their line-up changes for each project their standard has always remained very high. This is partly because John Rutter tends to source his singers from a pool of recently graduated Oxbridge choral scholars which explains their keen musicality and contributes to their characteristic clarity and purity of tone. They are joined by La Nuova Musica (artistic director; David Bates), a small ensemble currently making a firm entrance to the early music scene.

The Sacred Flame is a presentation of religious music from the Renaissance and Baroque eras straddling the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation when churches (Catholic and Protestant) were among the leading patrons of the arts. The programme is shrewdly drawn from John Rutter's own anthology European Sacred Music neatly demonstrating what a useful (and weighty) volume it is.

The album opens with Gabrieli's exuberant Jubilate Deo and then Monteverdi's monumental Beatus vir. These performances are joyfully executed with the singers clearly enjoying the voluptuous phrases of the Gabrieli. Beatus vir is a fantastic piece with some beautiful solo singing especially from the two sopranos Amy Howarth and Amy More who blend almost telepathically. In the full choral sections however, I would have preferred a little more meat on the soprano-sound, noticeably in Cantate Domino which comes two tracks later and although beautiful, is a little too polite and maybe even slightly distant. This could well be a deliberate recording and editorial strategy rather than the singers' tone.

The next section of the disc comprises unaccompanied works of the Italian high renaissance, Palestrina, Anerio, Gesualdo, and a simply stunning performance of Ave verum Corpus by Lassus which has for too long been eclipsed by more popular settings. The singers exhibit an exquisite sensitivity making this one of the most beautiful choral recordings of such repertoire to appear for quite a while. However, again I would take issue with the balance; here it is the altos that feel slightly underrepresented. I miss the sound of one or two renegade countertenors searing through the texture at key moments and although this all-mezzo lineup is versatile and well blended it lacks that sort of personality. Absolute equality of all voices seems to be an important part of Rutter's vision for his choir but can, at times like this, be a little stifling when one yearns to hear the boundaries of ensemble nudged.

La Nuova Musica return for Sweelinck's sprightly Laudate Dominum and  Butehude's Magnificat with it's wonderful solos, in particular Melanie Marshall's rich alto phrases. Then the programme visits the music of Victoria, and on to Josquin's Ave Maria - exquisitely poised with the delicacy of spun glass. The programme ends with Shütz and Bach. The double choir setting of psalm 100 finally delivers an exciting texture while Bach's O Jesu Christ, meins Lebens Licht is a fitting closing that gives full exposure to the skill of the instrumentalists notably some really beautiful oboe playing from Joel Raymond and Sarah Humphreys.

This is a fine anthology that many listeners will treasure. John Rutter clearly knows and understands this repertoire well and, as a result, the sound and passion of this album stays with you for a long while after listening. I hope that his inspired combination of La Nuova Musica and the Cambridge singers will go on to future projects together.

The Cambridge Singers & La Nuova Musica / John Rutter (Collegium COLCD134)

1 Apr 2009

Eccles: The Judgment of Paris; Three Mad Songs

Originally published on musicalcriticism.com
01 April 2009

The Early Opera Company was founded by Christian Curnyn in 1994 and has steadily established itself as an important interpreter of Handel's Opera ever since and their productions are noted for their visual and musical style melded by Curnyn's keen musicality. This is their third album with the Chandos label and the first to step outside Handel's repertoire.

This work has an interesting history. It was written in response to an advert placed in the London Gazette in 1700 by a group of noblemen who wished to advance the cause of English opera which they saw as being in decline flowing the death of (Henry) Purcell. The result was four settings of The Judgement of Paris by Daniel Purcell, John Weldon, Gottfried Finger and John Eccles to a libretto by the leading playwright William Congreve. On this occasion the first prize was won by Weldon but, as Lindsay Kemp explains in his sleeve-notes, the 1989 Proms saw Anthony Rooley present these operas to an audience vote in which Eccles was at last triumphant.

This new release from Curnyn is the first complete recording of Eccles' opera and has been cast with fine soloists. The first of these is Roderick Williams (Mercury) who, after the stylishly played symphony, opens the opera with his commanding baritone and explains the task that is to be set before Paris. Benjamin Hulett (Paris) is delightful as the young and naïve shepherd gawping in delight at a trio of goddesses yet humbled by the difficulty of deciding who is the most beautiful. His light tone is backed up with a wonderful presence that really draws in the listener. The goddesses themselves are, well, goddesses – vocally speaking – and each of them has a pair of contrasting arias in which to put forward their case in an attempt to win the shepherd's vote.

Juno (goddess of marriage) offers Paris the opportunity to ditch his crook and become the ruler of an Empire. Susan Bickley is arrestingly brilliant in this role and her aria 'Let Ambition fire thy mind' is one of the most exciting due to a combination of her singing and the tight orchestral playing. Pallas Athene (goddess of war) offers victory and fame through future combats. Claire Booth's 'Hark hark' aria with four trumpets all sounding together for the first time is dazzling and vital. But then Venus (goddess of love) promises him the love of a woman such as Helen [of Sparta], and Paris, no doubt guided by his hormones, chooses Venus as the prizewinner. Lucy Crowe, accompanied by her soft flute, is feminine and beguiling – no wonder she wins the Golden Apple.

This Masque/Opera may only be 50 minutes long but it's exciting and well formed; it definitely deserves to be heard much more often than it is particularly as it is such an effective vehicle for the female soloists. And Curnyn is aware of just how versatile his singers are because to end the disc they each sing one of Eccles Mad Songs (from the 1704 collection) which are little gems in themselves. I was particularly impressed at the broad palette of colours they use and their dramatic timing in what is, quite literally, mad music.

Particular mention should be made of the quality of the recording itself. Curnyn's orchestra is sprightly and all of their meticulous detail is captured without any suspicion of over-mixing or excessive editing. The result is a very stylish performance that deserves wide recognition.

Early Opera Company/Curnyn (Chandos Chaconne CHAN0759)

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)