22 Feb 2009

Farnaby's Dreame: 20 pieces from the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book

Originally published on musicalcriticim.com
22 Feb 2009

We are indeed fortunate that The Fitzwilliam Virginal Book survives since it contains a host of musical treasures, a substantial amount of which have yet to be found elsewhere.

This manuscript was thought for a long time to be the work of Francis Tregian, an imprisoned recusant Catholic, however, recent handwriting analysis suggests it is the work of many copyists, probably professional. Had it not survived at all then we would have precious little music by Giles Farnaby as these twenty pieces saved from oblivion by just one source represent almost half of his surviving output.

This delightful album, recorded in 2003 by the early keyboard specialist Timothy Roberts, is a wonderful example of how solid research and keen musicianship can be wed to form insightful performances. Roberts is a major performer with the Gabrieli Consort and director of His Majestys Sagbutts and Cornetts to name just two of his ventures. His blend of research and passion comes across just as loud and clear in the accompanying notes as it does in the recorded performances. Farnaby is an interesting choice for an album; indeed, since the manuscript that bequeaths these pieces to us is riddled with points that are far from clear it takes a performer of Roberts' stature to tackle the necessary speculation that inevitably arises.

Often overlooked as a minor composer and overshadowed by the exceptional works of Byrd and Gibbons his pieces are actually rather revealing in their rustic quality. The music, often dashing and improvisatory in feel is vivid and immediate and I feel that Farnaby nods towards both Byrd and Italian composers when at moments his music gets quite funky.

Throughout this recording Roberts displays a keen but graceful sense of rhythm which, in my opinion, is absolutely essential when negotiating the divisions and the longer pieces such as the Fantasia (Fitzwilliam Virginal Book no 233).

The instrument itself is also a contributory factor to the sense of excitement of this disc. A copy by Malcolm Rose of a 1579 London-made harpsichord, it has a really sprightly tone that allows for clarity in even Roberts' most astonishingly deft passagework. This responsiveness brings a lot of the music to life but most striking of all is the sweet-and-sour zing in the tuning. At a quarter-coma mean tone there are some fantastic textures as the music runs through scale-like passages, often making sense of what would otherwise have been indifferent harmonic progressions. Tuning systems like this only highlight how accustomed many of us are to the prosaic qualities of equal temperament and how refreshing it is to step away from that domination from time-to-time.

This is really one of the best albums of its kind and well worth getting to know. The music may not be as ravishing as Byrd but it is energetic and exciting. Farnaby is a minor-composer well worth the effort. More like this please.

Timothy Roberts, Harpsichord (Early-music: EMCCD7756)

18 Feb 2009

Hildegard von Bingham & Birgitta von Schweden

Originally published on musicalcriticism.com
18 Feb 2009

The multi-talented 12th-century Abbess Hildegard von Bingen was, amongst other things, a naturalist, scientist and visionary and one of the most prolific writers of her times.
Amazingly over 70 compositions of hers survive and here the Scandinavian ensemble Les Flamboyants present a selection from her Symphonia Harmoniae Caelestium Revelationum. Interwoven with these pieces are works from Cantus Sonorum by St. Birgitta von Schweden, a 14th-century nun whose life has certain parallels to Hildegard.

Les Flamboyants are formed from the singers Miriam Andersen, Kelly Landerkin and Marilia Vargas, with Susanne Ansorg on medieval fiddle and recorder/flute by Michael Form. For this album instrumentalists do more than provide the expected drones, in four pieces they give extended improvisations on the music of both women which, on the whole is very successful and often mesmeric.
Hildegard is famous for many reasons. She came to wide attention in the early 1980s with award-winning recordings from Gothic Voices and Sequentia and she had also been discussed in 1970 when Oliver Sacks wrote his book on migraines in which he suggested that her many and detailed visions were, in fact, migrainous. I find that the beauty of the music contained in this new release sounds a million miles away from the torment of such neurological disorders but there is no denying that whatever the cause, her vivid visions provided much inspiration throughout her life. A chief characteristic of Hildegard's music are long flowing melismatic passages that encompass huge ranges to give a feel of 'stretched' plainchant. The singers of Les Flamboyants are clearly comfortable in these often challenging vocal passages and have a luminous and unhurried style which lends an air of enchantment to their performances.

The more syllabic music of Birgitta von Schweden provides a wonderful companion to Hildegard. Not only is it surprising that almost two hundred years separate these women but also the smaller range of Birgittas' compositions only further illustrate how unique Hildegard actually was. This observation is not intended to downplay Birgitta's own works but I was struck by the differences in style that one inevitably notices on an album such as this.

The choice of acoustic space, vast and generous, is typical for this repertoire and I presume that such long echoes are preferred because the Gothic style was emerging during Hildegard's lifetime but I occasionally feel uncomfortable with the relentlessness of the reverb in this offering. Maybe performers worry that we won't enjoy monody without much ethereal wafting but if, like Les Flamboyants, there is going to be a lot of creative recorder playing as well as the usual drones then I think I could do with slightly less so that the texture does not become so hazy.

Having said that, I applaud the way the liner-notes state that despite accompaniment by flute and vielle being expressly against Birgitta's wishes Les Flamboyants have decided to use them anyway to create a modern performance and in doing so present more than just the historical elements of this music. This sort of reasoning shows a pleasing move away from abdicating one's responsibility as a performer in deference to a blind form of instruction-following but, I must say, overlapping phrases between singers and flute can get rather dreary after a while.

This is a beautifully recorded disc and contains many fine and uplifting performances of music which, whatever your tastes, is absolutely fascinating stuff. If you need introducing to or re-acquainting with Hildegard and Birgitta then this will not disappoint. And whether or not you approve of the improvisatory element there is still no need to worry about migraines, as the only remotely uncomfortable thing on this album is the computer-generated pattern of the booklet cover!

Les Flamboyants (Raumklang 59802)

9 Feb 2009

A Spotless Rose

Originally published on musicalcriticism.com
09 Feb 2009

This new album from the Gabrieli Consort follows the successful design of their previous release Road to Paradise which took listeners on a musical pilgrimage from Medieval to present times. Similarly, A Spotless Rose draws on works by European composers from Josquin to Adès to explore music which honours the Virgin Mary, the most venerated of all Catholic saints and the inspiration for much devotional music throughout the ages.

The programme is organized around key events in Mary's life and is performed a cappella in the beautifully resonant Lady Chapel of Ely Cathedral. It opens with a slow and sensuous performance of Tavener's A hymn to the Mother of God which uses the acoustic space to allow the emerging and merging harmonies to envelope the listener. The setting of 'Ave Maria, virgo serena' by Josquin which follows is a remarkable piece and in this performance Paul McCreesh avoids any sense of hurry to create a surface stillness which is most beguiling. In fact, this stillness which is conjured up so sensitively in the first two tracks pervades all of the early works on this disc and also carries over into 'A Spotless Rose' (Howells) and 'The Fayrfax Carol' (Adès), creating a meditative framework which underpins this whole programme and demonstrates the incredibly high standard of choral discipline of the Gabrieli Consort.

McCreesh's singers have beautiful voices and show an innate sensibility for the linear as well as the harmonic qualities of much of this music. In terms of expression I feel that they would like to give more than they are allowed here, especially in the Palestrina Stabat Mater where really tempting glimpses of heightened emotions begin to shine through the inevitable Oxbridge filter. In some respects this album, like its predecessor, also represents a journey; a meditative journey, since a subtle but persuasive crescendo works its way through this whole programme gaining in intensity and passion until the final section when bigger voices begin to emerge - most notably in the works by Bax, MacMillan and Górecki.

However, in an otherwise beautifully crafted trajectory, one can't but help feeling that the meditative atmosphere is momentarily shattered by Giles Swayne's Magnificat I. Despite the sheer beauty of the soprano's ending, this sudden bawdy outburst makes the programme feel a bit like a choral-sampler when, in so many other respects, it is much more than that. In other contexts I quite like this piece but here it feels gimmicky in comparison to the textures of the works that surround it.

These are, of course, personal reactions to the album and we all bring our own cultural, intellectual and spiritual baggage with us when we listen to music, especially devotional music which appeals directly to the fundamental beliefs of a faith. However, I feel sure that listeners will be united in admiration for the transcendental beauty of the music-making on offer. The Gabrieli Consort and Paul McCreesh have made another fine disc and they remain on top of their game as some of the finest interpreters of choral music.

Gabrieli Consort/Paul McCreesh (DG 477 7635)

3 Feb 2009

Dowland: In darkness let me dwell

Originally published on musicalcriticism.com
3 Feb 2009

Possibly one of the most attractively packaged early music issues in recent months, this new CD of music by John Dowland is, according to the rather quirky liner-notes, a response to Sting's recent album of the same composer.  It's actually rather a clever ruse; first they thank Sting for bringing the repertoire to greater attention, then move on to say that since there was a 'slight discrepancy between his performance and how we think this music can actually function', they were inspired to record their own interpretations. I like that idea very much.

It is interesting that the artists also acknowledge a debt to Emma Kirkby since even in these post-revival times the influence of her great artistry resonates strongly in many of the young sopranos who make up our current early music tapestry. Dorothee Mields is no exception since one can immediately hear that she is much influenced by the holistic approach that Kirkby pioneered with The Consort of Musicke. Unfortunately Mields' biography is somehow lost-in-translation and she ends up being described as '…so extremely adequate for this music', but I think she is more than that, she is radiant and despite the slight flutter she gives to longer vowels her feminine sound and heartfelt approach are most beguiling.

The Sirius Viols are exquisite both as instruments (by Tilman Muthesius), and as an ensemble. Viols sound mournful to us by their very nature and their mellow tones infuse this whole album with many more shades of melancholy than the standard seven! Coupled with this audaciously beautify playing,  the Viola da Gambist Hille Perl and Lutenist Lee Santana are most sensitive accompanists and consort players with a robust and healthy sound. So, all in all, there is little to fault here and much to praise.

However, I am left with a nagging doubt about the overall impression this album creates. Had Dorotee Mields (if it is her) chosen not to include the spoken words 'From Silent Night…' then I might never have noticed, but she did and something about her delivery brought to my attention what was lacking. There is a very particular sense of misery in Britain, an underlying dissatisfaction that seems to pervade a lot of our culture and Dowland, despite his numerous travels, always strikes me as reaching right into the heart of this matter. Despite her obvious attempts to reflect this melancholy Dorothee Mields' delivery is just too well adjusted, too healthy and too continental for my tastes. As a technically agile singer with a pretty bloom to her voice she doesn't make songs sound laborious enough when I feel a sense of struggle might be appropriate. 'Flow my tears' for example, is just too accomplished and too deft to convey the full weight of the sentiment. That sense of internal (and vocal) torture that Sting had by the bucket-load feels muted in this 'response' and I feel what may have been over-done by Sting is now simply under-done by Mields.

In every other aspect it's a near-perfect album of outstanding musical performances but, for me, it's just not looking closely enough into that abyss of despair. Even the instruments are slightly short of this mark, despite their stylish 'The Earl of Essex his Galiard' their accompaniments can be too perky in the songs.

Having said that, this is so much more than just a stylish follow-up to a previous album and if only the listeners who were introduced to Dowland by Sting would now go out and buy this disc too then we might really be making serious progress as evangelists for early music. I fear that this disc will join the many other great recordings of Dowland out there that preach only to the converted, but I hope that's just my British sense of pessimism speaking.

Hille Perl, Lee Santana, Dorothee Mields (Deutsche Harmonia Mundi 88697225022)

1 Feb 2009

James MacMillan: St John Passion

Originally published on musicalcriticism.com
01 Feb 2009

James MacMillan's compositions must be among the most frequently performed works of all living composers and with the release of this live recording of his new St John Passion, it is not hard to see why. Sir Colin Davis, who has recently recorded other Macmillan works, chose him when he was offered the opportunity of a commission to celebrate his 80th birthday and consequently, this new Passion setting is dedicated to Sir Colin Davis and amounts to quite a big birthday present.

Lasting almost exactly 90 minutes, the work is crafted in two parts lasting for ten movements and scored for just one principle soloist, Christus, sung here by the baritone Christopher Maltman. There is also a Narrator chorus, and the London Symphony Chorus and The London Symphony Orchestra. This is the latest recording on the LSO Live label which was launched in 2000 and offers live recordings which provide an exciting snapshot of performance practice by one of our leading orchestras. It feels entirely appropriate, therefore, that a Passion setting should be presented in this way – unadulterated and live.

In his foreword printed in the sleeve notes Dr Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, says 'This is, after all, the story of an event which embraced the most extreme points of human sensibility…' and that seems to me to be the best way to introduce this work. From the very opening movement MacMillan shows that he can, and will, use a huge arsenal of colours to paint these extremes. Starting with the calm of the Narrators, the long melismatic entrance of Christus, and the first full chorus explosion 'Jesus of Nazareth' he neatly demonstrates the huge range of dynamics that run throughout this work. On the whole, louder passages dominate but there are cleverly woven textures that do allow time for reflection before one is recaptured by the swelling orchestral and choral forces.

Christopher Maltman has all the necessary presence for the part of Christus. His singing is supremely moving and impressively physical throughout and a lot of the excitement that he created in the live performance is captured on this recording. Davis and the LSO also seem to be on their best of forms; since there can be no doubt that this is a difficult and technically demanding score it is a full tribute to them that they can be so fluent across so many of MacMillan's demanding passages.

The choruses are equally impressive. The narrators are a tight ensemble of professional singers who fulfil the 'evangelist' role with an efficiency which is menacingly precise emanating a sense of foreboding throughout the work. It is, however, the larger chorus, the London Symphony Chorus who ultimately get the thrust of the story and they hurl themselves at the large and complex textures with an impressive relish. I admire their willingness to explore uglier realms of their voices when the dramatic thrust of the work demands; the traditional trap of trying to be too 'singerly' has been mercifully avoided here.

At the end of the work, after the high drama of 'The Reproaches', the 'Death of Jesus' is a quiet horror. The odd calmness like shell-shock that MacMillan so cleverly invokes is the culmination of what has been a very filmic score indeed. Then the tenth and final movement is an orchestral reflection, or as Macmillan explains 'a song without words'. This is both unexpected and necessary since the contours of this narrative leave us exhausted and in need of orchestral balm.

There are, of course, no comparisons to be made with other recordings yet but I cannot imagine that there could be any significant improvements on Sir Colin Davis' interpretation. This is a huge work blending film-score expanses of texture with complex and intellectualized references to other works and composers across a gigantic canvass that spans what is widely referred to as 'the greatest story ever told'. The only difference is that this Passion story feels like it is the first available in wide-screen, entirely enveloping and frequently overwhelming the listener. Not for the faint-hearted.

Christopher Maltman; London Symphony Orchestra & Chorus/Sir Colin Davis (LSO Live LSO0671)