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)