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)