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)