14 Dec 2016

Classics Reconsidered

Caroline Gill and Edward Breen discuss the merits of The Tallis Scholars’ Gramophone Award-winning recording of Josquin’s Missa Pange lingua.

The Tallis Scholars sing Josquin
The Tallis Scholars

Edward Breen: I first heard this recording on a chrome cassette (remember them?) that I bought from a cathedral gift shop when I was about 12 years old. At that time I had no particular idea who Josquin was, but as a choirboy I’d noticed that my favourite music was in The Oxford Book of Tudor Anthems, and so I was mistakenly drawn to this recording by the name Tallis rather than anything else. Thankfully, I loved it and soon wore the tape out by repeatedly winding back and forth to rehear the ‘Pleni sunt caeli’ duet (much to the relief of my parents, who by default listened to Bob Dylan in the car). Considering how little unaccompanied Renaissance polyphony had lodged in the public subconscious at that time, I wonder how many others discovered Josquin or even just the sound of professional early music vocalists through this groundbreaking Gramophone Award winner?

To read the full text of this article please visit www.gramophone.co.uk (December 2016)

7 Oct 2016

Palestrina: Missa Papae Marcelli / Motets

Palestrina: Missa Papae Marcelli / Motets
Sistine Chapel Choir / Massimo Palombella
Deutsche Grammophon 479 6131

The Sistine Chapel Choir in partnership with Deutsche Grammophon continue to deliver supremely atmospheric and intriguing performances of Palestrina’s polyphony. It is perhaps inevitable that this world-famous choir, newly energised under the direction of Massimo Palombella, would record the Missa Papae Marcelli early in their discography, the mass famous for having ‘saved’ sacred polyphony by presenting the texts clearly and intelligibly. Their recording draws on editions from 1567-1600 lacking the seven-part Agnus Dei II and, as such, it is not sung on this disc.

Previously in their album Cantate Domino (479 5300) I found the Sistine Chapel choir reminiscent of Westminster Cathedral Choir under George Malcolm. This new recording is different, partly due to the broader style of the mass, and partly due to a cleaner, less mannered performance from the choir.


To read the full text of this article please visit www.gramophone.co.uk (October 2016)

16 Sept 2016

The Seven Lamentations: Cristóbal De Morales

The Seven Lamentations: Cristóbal De Morales
Utopia - KTC 1538. Etcetera Records

Founded just a year ago, Utopia are among the proliferating number of young ensembles to combine a softer continental sound with  steely accuracy in one-per-part Renaissance polyphony. The result, according to their tag line, is ‘Belgian handmade polyphony’. The singers have between them a respectable heritage including Collegium Vocale Gent, Nederlands Bach Society and Huelgas Ensemble to name but a few, and in terms of sound they are similar to the ensemble Beauty Farm, with whom they share two singers.


A relatively recent recording of three sections of these lamentations by The Brabant Ensemble calls for a comparison. As Fabrice Fitch observed in this magazine, The Brabant Ensemble have a high ‘centre of acoustic gravity’ in renaissance polyphony (Jacquet of Mantua review, June 2015) that I feel lends sheen to their sound. Utopia, conversely, have a much lower centre of gravity yet maintain similar clarity whilst simultaneously warming the texture with soft Flemish-tinged vowel sounds. The results are beautiful, intimate and thoroughly engaging. 

To read the full text of this article please visit www.gramophone.co.uk (2016: Awards Issue)  

15 Sept 2016

Monteverdi Madrigali Vol.1 Cremona

Monteverdi Madrigali Vol.1 Cremona
Les Arts Florissants / Paul Agnew
Les Arts Florissants Editions AF005

In this splendid selection of madrigals from Monteverdi’s first three books, as lovers bare their souls so the singers are also starkly exposed. This album, live and intimate, is one of the most closely recorded discs of its kind. More modest than the emotional quick-fire performances of, say, La Venexiana or Concerto Italiano, the close-up world of Les Arts Florissants is what TV acting is to stage acting. Such extreme intimacy allows for whole worlds of nuance to hang on the smallest of gestures: a slight quavering on a long note, or a snatched breath. For the listener this album is as close to sitting in the middle of the performance as it is possible to imagine. Interpretatively, it pays homage The Consort of Musicke’s performances from the1980s by lending a greater sense of personal profundity to the words and suggesting an affinity with earlier madrigalists such as Marenzio. [...]

To read the full text of this article please visit www.gramophone.co.uk (2016: Awards Issue) 

21 Aug 2016

GRANADA 1013-1502

GRANADA 1013-1502
Dirección: Jordi Savall (Alia Vox AVSA9915)

The indefatigable Jordi Savall continues to unite musicians from East and West as he traverses five centuries of musical traditions in Granada. Describing it as ‘one of the most important and admired cities in Muslim Andalusia’ the majority of performances on this new album were recorded live in 2013 at a concert in the Alhambra Palace to celebrate the 1000th anniversary of Granada’s foundation.

Savall is consistent and unflinching: he states that this album ‘is a passionate testimony to the power of music in bringing about intercultural dialogue’. With this message I feel he joins Daniel Barenboim and Edward Said in a pantheon of intellectual icons calling for cultural understanding across political divides.

To read the full text of this article please visit www.gramophone.co.uk (September 2016)

17 Jul 2016

Gramophone Collector

Wanderlust and exile
Edward Breen listens to a collection of discs exploring the boundary between East and West

Early musicians look east not because they find it quaintly exotic, nor because they learned from Disraeli that is a career. They look, and have always looked, because they realise the roots of the ‘Western’ story are as inextricably intertwined with The East as is its present.

The modern early musician (if you forgive the oxymoron) is heir to an important lineage of musical thought, one that has fundamentally shaken the broader frame of classical music in which it perches. Whereas early twentieth century performances tended to come straight-from-the-page in the prevailing chamber music style, things changed in the 60s when, for instance, performers like Thomas Binkley looked to Andalucían improvisatory practices to inform the performance of medieval dance, he and others began to view monody as a starting point rather than an absolute. By the 1980s Christopher Page moved away from what he once described as the ‘medieval-banquet, rosy-cheeked-wench, sucking-pig view of the medieval past’ towards a more ‘cathedralish’ middle ages and perhaps it was no coincidence that around this time Peter Phillips also discovered an urtext renaissance suited the clean digital sound of CD.

Having now established a canon of early music, the movement is restless again and seems to be revisiting its 1960s roots. I for one detect wanderlust.

To read the full text of this article please visit www.gramophone.co.uk (August 2016)

16 Jul 2016

Chorus vel Organa

Chorus vel Organa
Choir of Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge 

Geoffrey Webber director, Magnus Williamson organ.
Delphian DCD34158

There is much to be celebrated here as early music scholarship inspires joyful performances from the Choir of Gonville & Caius College. The album presents pre-Reformation liturgical music for the Feast of St Stephen (26th December) alongside plainsong and its alternatives; chanting in chords, faburden and organ improvisations. Consequently, the jewel in this particular crown is the St Teilo organ, a reconstruction in the early English 16th-century style following research from John Harper at Bangor University’s “The Experience of Worship” project. Organist, Magnus Williamson, revives improvisatory techniques appropriate for both plainsong and polyphony leading to an album whose polyphonic delights are embedded in a liturgical soundscape likely to reflect practice in the chapel of St Stephen during Henry VIII’s reign.

To read the full text of this review please visit www.gramophone.co.uk (August 2016)

4 Jul 2016

Firminus Caron: Twilight of the Middle Ages

Firminus Caron: Twilight of the Middle Ages Huelgas Ensemble / Paul van Nevel
Deutsche Harmonia Mundi 88875143472

[...] The sublime and despairing rondeau, Le despourveu infortune, one of the most popular in the second half of the fifteenth century, here showcases this ensemble at their best, mourning and yearning with wonderfully judged delicate vocal lines cascading like gentle tears. The contrast could not be greater with their grittier, wittier tone in the delightfully smutty Corps contre corps where sequential vocal entries reveal a mischievous plan: no-holes-barred [sic] lusty singing from the lower voices and a smooth upper line which makes sense only when you read the text closely…

To read the full text of this review please visit www.gramophone.co.uk (July 2016)

3 Jul 2016

Alonso Lobo: Lamentations

Alonso Lobo: Lamentations
Westminster Cathedral Choir / Martin Baker

[...] Nothing, however, will prepare listeners for the beauty of Lobo’s lamentations. Those who know them from Bruno Turner’s 2002 recording with Musica Reservata de Barcelona will find this performance statelier. This is a good thing: as the cycle unfolds it becomes apparent that Lobo uses the Hebrew letters as elaborate weeping gestures, a point made by Bruno Turner in his sleeve notes. Listen especially to the first setting of Iod (track fourteen) as a heart-stopping example of the famous Westminster Cathedral treble sound. This, for me, is as good as it gets both in terms of performance and also in terms of a school of polyphony beyond the works of Victoria. [...]

To read the full text of this review please visit www.gramophone.co.uk (July 2016)

30 Jun 2016

Travel in Space, Travel in Time

Travel in Space, Travel in Time: Michael Morrow’s Approach to Performing Medieval Music in the 1960s

Medievalism and Modernity

Thurston Dart’s dictum “travel in space: travel in time” serves as a moniker for Michael Morrow’s London-based early music ensemble, Musica Reservata. Morrow developed a hard-edged performance style for medieval and Renaissance music throughout the 1960s and 1970s that baffled many critics. In particular, Morrow demanded “bite and attack” from singers to promote a congruent sound with period instruments. By using folk models for this philosophy, Morrow’s medievalism also displayed aspects of an orientalist approach.

The other then-major performing ensemble for medieval music in Britain was David Munrow’s Early Music Consort of London. Munrow took a different approach to performance, an approach driven by his belief that early instruments attempted to imitate the human voice. Both ensembles were regularly broadcast on BBC radio, and their interviews and scripts make it possible to contrast their convictions.

Taking Johan Huizinga’s notion of medieval contrast as a starting point, this essay traces several themes of medieval performance through the middle decades of the twentieth century to suggest ways in which such constructs of space and time are made manifest in Morrow’s 1969 recording of Landini’s yearning love-song Questa fanciulla. This striking performance is contrasted with another, made just days later, by David Munrow.

For full details of this publication please visithttps://boydellandbrewer.com/studies-in-medievalism-xxv-hb.html 

15 Mar 2016

Balkan voices and medieval music in the work of Michael Morrow and Musica Reservata

Guest Blog for Semibrevity: A blog about early music pioneers

Michael Morrow (1929-94) was the director of Musica Reservata, an early music ensemble active in the 1960s and 70s with a repertoire that spanned from medieval to baroque.

Although Morrow was the director and often the editor of the editions used by the ensemble, harpsichordist John Beckett conducted performances. The ensemble included many superb musicians such as the organologist and percussionist Jeremy Montagu; recorder player John Sothcott; singers Ian Partridge, Nigel Rogers, Grayston Burgess, Paul Elliot and Jantina Noorman; and other instrumentalists David Fallows and Christopher Page, David Munrow, Anthony Rooley and Andrew Parrott. Parrott, incidentally, also conducted the ensemble in the early 70s after Beckett’s departure. Musica Reservata was not of course the only early music outfit to boast such specialist personnel at that time, but it does appear to have been quite an important meeting place for those musicians who specialised in medieval repertoire.

For the full text of this article please visit: 

3 Mar 2016

Scattered Ashes
Magnificat / Phlip Cave
CKD 517 (Linn Records)

To celebrate their 25th anniversary, vocal ensemble Polyphony directed by Philip Cave have created a programme of renaissance polyphonic works inspired by Girolamo Savonarola’s (1452-1498) famous meditations written whilst awaiting execution. One contemplates psalm 50 Miserere mei, Deus and another on psalm 30 In te, Domine, Speravi. Savonarola was a Dominican friar burned at the stake for his reformist preaching, his ashes were scattered in a river to prevent supporters preserving them as relics.


To read the full text of this review please visit www.gramophone.co.uk (March 2016)  

Christine de Pizan: Chansons et Ballades

Christine de Pizan: Chansons et Ballades

Berlin Classics 0300699BC

What at first glance might seem a little contrived about this programme quickly reveals itself to be a rather brilliant conceit. Christine de Pizan [/Pisane] (1364-c.1430) was a remarkable medieval writer, as Natalie Zemon Davis has described her, “France’s first professional literary woman”. The extraordinary ups and downs of her life, explored and reflected through her poetry offers commentary on the Hundred Years War, French/Italian culture and, famously, the life of Joan of Arc. Many will know Gilles Binchois’ 1430s setting of her ballade Deuil angoisseux (“Anguished grief”) marking the death of her husband, Etienne Castel, in 1390. But, surprisingly for someone of her stature and circulation, nothing else survives with music. And this is where VocaMe step in, setting her poetry; ballades, rondeaux and virelais; to music she may have known – a technique known as contrafactum. Basically: one-song-to-the-tune-of-another.

To read the full text of this review please visit www.gramophone.co.uk (March 2016)

1 Mar 2016

Orlando di Lasso: Magnificat

Orlando di Lasso: Magnificat
Die Singphoniker
cpo 777 957-2

Following their well-received 2012 release: Hymnus, die Singphoniker return to Lasso (Lassus) with a new programme. Lasso wrote over 100 Magnificat settings largely on the alternatim principle: odd verses of plainsong and even verses of polyphony. Here, we have six where the polyphonic verses reference (parody) existing madrigals and hymns by other composers rather than the plainsong tone of the odd verses. Each Magnificat setting is preceded by its model, allowing listeners to hear such borrowing in operation and highlighting how the exemplars are changed and often quite substantially rewritten in the process. Contemporary listeners would certainly have recognized such secular music reworked into sacred and musicologist, David Crook, has explained that this process exemplifies a desire to elevate secular music through repurposing it for a liturgical function.

To read the full text of this review please visit www.gramophone.co.uk (March 2016)

10 Jan 2016

A Wondrous Mystery: Renaissance Choral Music for Christmas

Stile Antico

harmonia mundi HMU 807575

This new disc of Renaissance Christmas Music from vocal ensemble Stile Antico offers a cleverly balanced selection of festive Lutheran and Roman Catholic works. Running through their programme is the sumptuous Missa Pastores quidnam vidistis by Jacobus Clemens [non Papa], and at its centre sits Hieronymus Praetorius’ astounding double-choir Magnificat with interleaved carols. 

To read the full text of this review please visit www.gramophone.co.uk (December issue 2015) 

Cantate Domino: La Capella Sistina e la musica dei Papi

Sistine Chapel Choir / Massimo Palombella

Deutsche Grammophon 479 5300 GH

The Sistine Chapel Choir celebrate their musical heritage through a selection of renaissance sacred music recorded inside the Sistine Chapel. Their programme includes works by Palestrina, and Allegri’s Miserere as preserved in the Sistine Codex of 1661. It is a beautifully recorded disc, as much a celebration of the building as of the music or the voices. They are a large ensemble, 30 ragazzi and 20 men with high tenors replacing falsettist-altos, and their performances favour low pitch resulting in a richer timbre than English counterparts. At times they are reminiscent of Westminster Cathedral Choir under George Malcolm, but the trebles are more rounded.

To read the full text of this review please visit www.gramophone.co.uk (Deecember issue 2015)

1 Jan 2016

Heinrich Isaac: Missa Misericordias Domini & Motets

Heinrich Isaac: Missa Misericordias Domini & Motets
Cantica Symphonia, Giuseppe Maletto

Glossa GCD P31908

Cantica Symphonia are a mixed vocal and instrumental ensemble long associated with the works of Guillaume Dufay to whom they have devoted 5 discs. Giuseppe Maletto and Cantica Symphonia now offer a whole album of works by Heinrich Isaac that includes the first recording of 'Missa Misericordias Domini', and a selection motets, four of which are also previously unrecorded. That there is so much of Isaac’s output still to be explored on record should come as little surprise: not only was he prolific but he has often been eclipsed by his more famous contemporary, Josquin Desprez.

To read the full text of this review please visit www.gramophone.co.uk (January 2016)