30 Dec 2019

Nowell synge we bothe al and som

Nowell synge we bothe al and som
A Feast of Christmas Music in Medieval England
Gothic Voices

It seems extraordinary that this should be Gothic Voices’ first Christmas-themed album; nevertheless, it has been worth the wait to hear these well-known works performed by this ensemble. Choosing music for the Advent and Christmas season, including the Feast of the Annunciation (commonly referenced at Christmas in medieval times), Gothic Voices certainly don’t shy away from much-loved treasures such as the 14th-century Angelus ad virginem, where solo verses alternate with sprightly three-part harmony. Their textures are always buoyant: listen for the fourth verse, which describes the Virgin’s swollen womb, where they use an atmospheric vocalised drone. [...]

To read the full text of this article please visit www.gramophone.co.uk (Jan 2020)

29 Dec 2019

Antoine Brumel: From Darkness Into Light

Antoine Brumel: From Darkness Into Light
The complete Lamentations of Jeremiah for Good Friday
Musica Secreta

A tale of two Florentine manuscripts copied by the scribe Fra Antonio Moro leads the intrepid musicologist Laurie Stras to create another superb album with Musica Secreta. The first manuscript yields the complete Lamentations for Good Friday by Antoine Brumel (c1460-c1512), previously recorded by The Tallis Scholars (Gimell, 9/92), when only the verses beginning with letters Heth and Caph were known. Stras’s discovery almost doubles the length of the work and delightfully complicates its function. Falling, now, into five sections, liturgical performance seems unlikely, pointing instead to devotional use. Musica Secreta begin rather carefully, the almost equal part-ranges suiting their mix of female voices as singers’ personalities delicately delineate vocal lines. The work, and indeed the performance, really begins to reveal its true richness at the first refrain, ‘Ierusalem convertere ad Dominum Deum tuum’. Supported by the gentle uplift of Claire Williams’s organ-playing and the sinewy tone of Alison Kinder’s viol, the sopranos find a sweet resonance as they lean into the phrases without losing overall blend. The result is a wonderfully radiant sound that allows individual voices to ring through. [...]

To read the full text of this article please visit www.gramophone.co.uk (Jan 2020)

8 Dec 2019

Gesualdo: Madrigali, Libri primo & secondo

Gesualdo: Madrigali, Libri primo & secondo
Les Arts Florissants and Paul Agnew
Harmonia Mundi HAF890530708

Some 30 years ago Iain Fenlon referred to Les Arts Florissants’ initial Gesualdo disc as their ‘first foray into the schizophrenic world of Gesualdo’s five-voice madrigals’ (10/88). His words encapsulated perfectly a common overarching view of Gesualdo’s virtuoso chromaticism which suited the text-centred, quick-fire responses of William’s Christie’s original singers so well. Now the ensemble return to Gesualdo’s madrigals with Paul Agnew at the helm and a new generation of voices as they celebrate their 40th-anniversary concerts. Beginning with Books 1 and 2, we encounter lesser-known and less extrovert works but find the ensemble crackling with that same intellectual energy.


With the sound of their Award-winning Monteverdi madrigals (1/15, 7/15, 2/17) fresh in our ears, this new disc, also made from live recordings, offers fresh views of that famous madrigalian fork-in-the-road: Monteverdi’s experimental laboratory veered towards monody, Gesualdo’s led him to push further into the polyphonic web, fracturing texts and harmonies. The sheer inquisitive delight that these singers bring to Gesualdo’s extraordinary world indicates a very exciting series ahead.

To read the full text of this article please visit www.gramophone.co.uk (Dec 2019)

7 Dec 2019

Palestrina: Lamentations

Palestrina: Lamentations
Hyperion CDA68284

Palestrina’s second book of Lamentations is surprisingly passionate, and this performance in particular is a gentle reminder that the spacious, clear polyphony of the Ars Perfecta did not preclude a great deal of passionate nuance. Cinquecento – like a European chapel choir of the Renaissance – brings together a fine selection of singers from across the continent, forming a true European union. Their performance of these Lamentations adheres closely to the text, balancing each madrigalian nuance within the overall phrase architecture. Their sound is reminiscent of The Hilliard Ensemble, particularly in the delightful interplay of their two well-matched tenors and the warmth of the overall blend captured through a close, warm recording technique.


On this note I particularly admire ‘Magna est enim velut mare contritio tua’ (For your downfall is as great at the sea) from the Lamentations for Good Friday, where the sea almost literally sweeps in for this verse. But perhaps the most arresting and unexpected touch is the eight-voice setting of ‘Jerusalem, Jerusalem’ at the end of Lectio III for Holy Saturday, where three extra tenor parts fill out the texture and create a magical ending. Throughout this album Cinquecento offer a performance which is truly reflective and tender.

To read the full text of this article please visit www.gramophone.co.uk (Dec 2019)

6 Nov 2019

Josquin des Prés: Missa mater Patris

Josquin des Prés: Missa mater Patris & Noel Bauldeweyn: Missa Da pacem
The Tallis Scholars, Peter Phillips

As one of the most important accounts of Josquin’s Masses in recent decades, Peter Phillips’s albums with The Tallis Scholars continue to sparkle and inform. Already in these pages I have admired the clarity of vision and consistency of sound that this ensemble bring to his works; but with this new album there is a particular sheen to the performance that places it among their recent best.

Phillips recently wrote how he feels each of Josquin’s Masses has its own ‘sound world’ (The Musical Times, autumn 2018). As we approach the end of his recording project, this comment comes into sharper focus, and particularly so in the case of Missa Mater Patris. One can argue that this is a late work on the grounds it is potentially a lament for Brumel, who died around 1512 and whose motet provides the model. But also, as Phillips suggests, this ‘forthright’ and ‘bracingly simple’ style could be the refinement of a lifetime’s work. One could say that of this performance as well: it is scored for low voices and these singers find a warmth in the homophonic writing that blooms into an unhurried grandeur. Compared with Chanticleer (7/94) this is a much tighter ensemble in both tone and phrasing, and there are several outstandingly well-controlled spans of two-voice polyphony. Listen especially for the way these singers glide through the exotic chord-chains in the Sanctus: I can’t help but be reminded of the confident sweep of the Andrews Sisters. This is glorious stuff indeed.


To read the full text of this article please visit www.gramophone.co.uk (Nov 2019)

5 Nov 2019

Air Music: Tales of Flying Creatures and Heavenly Breezes

Air Music
Capella de la Torre
Katharina Bäuml
Deutsche HM

This third instalment in Capella de la Torre’s series of the four elements is every bit as fresh and thoughtful as one would expect from one of Europe’s leading early wind ensembles. The programme consists largely of Renaissance and early Baroque music and opens with an instrumental performance of Thomas Ravenscroft’s canon The wind blows out of the west introduced by wind machine and accompanied by gentle percussion. The sprightly opening and chirrupy fanfare calls are exactly the sort of perky texture that these musicians serve best. Continuing with Westron Wynde in a section of the programme called ‘Gone with the Wind’, John Sheppard’s Gloria from his Mass ‘The Western Wynde’ is performed by soprano and instrumental ensemble. This is an extraordinary work, so different here with the warm reeds and occasional embellishments from the classic vocal recording by The Tallis Scholars (Gimell, 9/93). Instead of high, soaring phrases we have something contained and brisk. It’s not unattractive, but at some of the more complex passages such as ‘Suscipe deprecationem nostram’ and the change to triple time for ‘Cum Sancto Spiritu’, metrical accuracy takes precedence over musical flow.


This enjoyable album has a stylish snap, especially in the dance music that Capella de la Torre perform so well. And, as ever with this superb ensemble, the percussion subtly steals the show at every opportunity. I defy anyone to sit still through Praetorius’s Ballet de bouteile.

To read the full text of this article please visit www.gramophone.co.uk (Nov 2019)

4 Nov 2019

Peñalosa - Lamentationes

Peñalosa - Lamentationes
New York Polyphony

It’s wonderful to hear more music from Francisco de Peñalosa (1470-1528), and particularly pleasing that it comes on this stylish release from New York Polyphony complete with superb booklet notes by Ivan Moody. Peñalosa’s life coincided with the beginning of the Spanish ‘Golden Age’ and he was a key figure in the generation before Cristóbal de Morales (1500 53). A useful elevator pitch would be ‘Flemish polyphony with a twist’.


Two standout pieces are the Stabat mater by Pedro de Escobar (fl1507 14), a short but arresting setting of the first two verses. Rich and vibrant in texture, it again draws on this ensemble’s deep palette of vocal colours. The second is the Credo from Missa L’homme armé, which sits like a declamatory jewel in the middle of this disc. Previously known only by The Orlando Consort’s brighter, sparkling performance (Harmonia Mundi), it is here taken slightly slower and with more gravitas. However, with only six surviving cyclic Masses by Peñalosa, not all of which are yet represented on disc, my gripe is that this Missa L’homme armé is incomplete, lacking its five-voice Kyrie and the Sanctus/Benedictus. While not musically problematic, it is something of a shame not to have the opportunity to hear the whole thing, especially considering the quality and beauty of performance in the other movements.

To read the full text of this article please visit www.gramophone.co.uk (Nov 2019)

20 Oct 2019

Recording of the month: Anamorfosi

Allegri Monteverdi
Le Poème Harmonique / Vincent Dumestre
Alpha 438

In Kafka’s Metamorphosis Gregor Samsa may have woke up one morning to find that he had been transformed overnight into a giant insect, but in the story of music history there are few such hard-borders. In fact, it’s pretty much one long slide from beginning to end. On the way there are famous moments, nodes that define a style, but even between seemingly opposed categories there is often a veritable riot of frictionless trade. This is a programme which delves deep into the slippage between sacred and secular through a host of exquisite works appropriated and transformed for counter-reformation interests. The title, Anamorfosi (Anamorphosis) is drawn from the visual arts, a deliberate distortion that requires the viewer to occupy a particular perspective or vantage point. In short, this is one of the best programmes that I have encountered in recent years both in concept and execution and it begins with an icon of early music, Allegri’s Miserere.


This superb Miserere performance sits alongside lesser-known and rather ingenious contrafacta. These are works which were originally secular—madrigals and dramatic recitatives—pieces which, in short had already become famous in their original contexts before being transformed by swapping in a sacred text as the church harnessed the power of the very music of actors and theatres that it sought to suppress. An arresting example of this comes from mezzo soprano Eva Zaïcik who gives an absolutely gripping performance of Luigi Rossi’s (1597-1653) Un Allato Messagier, a poetic lament on the death of Christ which was formed by an anonymous author who re-texted Rossi’s ‘Lament of the Queen of Sweden on the Death of her Husband’ (Un ferito cavalier). Of the sacred counterpart I have long admired Suzie Le Blanc and Tragicomedia (Challenge Classics 2001) for their crisp intensity and here, in this sacred re-working, Zaïcik maintains a similarly crisp edge to her mourning but constantly undercuts it with deeper, purpler hues. Much encouraged by the superb instrumentalists this is a performance all enthusiasts of Roman cantatas will find spellbinding. Followed by Monteverdi’s mesmeric (1567-1643) Si dolce è'l martire (a re-texting of Si dolce è'l tormento) with a sparklingly bittersweet performance from soprano Deborah Cachet, the genius of the programme is clear by the third piece.


To read the full text of this article please visit www.gramophone.co.uk (Nov 2019)

19 Oct 2019

BLOW; PURCELL Countertenor duets (Davies & Hall)

Purcell & Blow: Countertenor duets
Iestyn Davies, James Hall, The King’s Consort / Robert King

Vivat 118

This latest disc from the King’s Consort on the independent label Vivat is absolutely on point: with two wonderfully matched countertenors and superb recorder playing bound together in the intimate acoustic of Alpheton New Maltings, Suffolk there is much to enjoy here. The big draw is, of course, countertenor Iestyn Davies and for me his performance of Purcell’s O Solitude is a clear stand out. Davies sings the entire song in falsetto maintaining his tone’s silvery thread through even the most fiendishly low passages. His word painting is nuanced, subtle and intimate. Paired with the deliciously warm tone of Reiko Ichise’s bass viol, the cushion of the chamber organ and Lynda Sayce’s ever-sensitive theorbo this is surely one of the best countertenor performances on disc rivalling even perhaps King’s previous account with James Bowman (Hyperion King3).


The duets, sung with James Hall are superb throughout, carefully balanced and well controlled, although perhaps too modest for my tastes: consider the opening duet: Hark how the songsters, which shies away from the sheer giggly joy of the recent improvisatory performance by L’Arpeggiata (Erato 2564633750). This is also the case in Sound the trumpet, that most famous of countertenor duets, the emphasis here being more sprightly than extrovert. It lacks the grandeur of King’s earlier Bowman/Chance pairing, especially on the opening long notes (Essential Purcell, Hyperion KING2) but compensates with nimble energy. Hall is certainly a voice to listen out for and he contributes many ravishing moments to this disc.


To read the full text of this article please visit www.gramophone.co.uk (Nov 2019)

9 Sept 2019

Guillaume de Machaut: The single Rose

Guillaume de Machaut: The single Rose  
The Orlando Consort

David Fallows called them a ‘dream team’(Gramophone Awards shortlist 2014, p 23), Fabrice Fitch described their fourth Machaut album in this series as ‘ one bulls eye after another (Gramophone Awards shortlist 2018, p 20) and it will come as little surprise that now I’m about to lace them with more compliments. I love a big recording project planned with superb scholarship, lively programming and consistent performances and this Machaut series on Hyperion has it all.


I particularly like the interplay of tenors in the 3voice motet Bone pastor Guillerme / Bone pastor, qui pastores / Bone pastor. It is unusual to have all three voices starting with the same words but The Orlando Consort again avoid taking this as a cue to smooth performance: keeping the tempo brisk, and the words crisp they make the most of the harmonic throb where Guillerme’s head is adorned with a Mitre. Again, the results are arresting and immediate, particularly when compared to the smoother, ethereal approach of, say, Musica Nova (AECD 1108, 2002). Having said that there are also moments of great intimacy such as the Rondeau Merci vous pri an exercise in delicately imploring a lady of high birth.

To read the full text of this article please visit www.gramophone.co.uk (Sept 2019)

10 Aug 2019

Messes de Barcelone et d'Apt

Messes de Barcelone et d'Apt
Ensemble Gilles Binchois, Dominique Vellard
Evidence Classics EVCD060

This programme is built around two mass settings and two manuscripts thought to preserve polyphonic music from the Papal liturgy at Avignon around 1400. The first mass is the ‘Messe De Barcelone’ whilst not a cyclic mass it contains two troped movements, Gloria and Sanctus, which create a pleasing symmetry around a substantial credo (tantalisingly labelled as by ‘Sortes’). Performing in a combination of voices, vielles and gittern, Ensemble Gilles Binchois cultivate an attractively unhurried, brooding quality; particularly in the hymn-like Kyrie which showcases the rich vocal quality of the singers. Compared with a relatively recent performance by Capella de Ministrers / Carles Magraner (CdM 08/15) this is a conservative, but sensitive offering. The Gloria has a nicely varied texture with surprisingly mellifluous tropes given over to countertenor and vielles. The Credo is performed with alternating groups of lower voices emphasising the gravitas of this large central movement. Characterised by gentle reedy countertenors and bright, light tenors, this ensemble has lots of vocal personality; they keep phrases buoyant whilst generally avoiding an accelerating towards those delightfully angular Ars Nova cadences.


To read the full text of this article please visit www.gramophone.co.uk (Sept 2019)

9 Aug 2019

Obrecht: Masses
Missa Fortuna Desperata & Missa Maria Zart

Beauty Farm


[...] let’s compare three recordings of Missa Maria zart. This hour-long cyclic Mass is one of the biggest of the Renaissance, a surprising feat at odds with Obrecht’s modest modern profile. The Prague Madrigal Singers in 1969 (Supraphon, 6/72 – nla), singing pre-‘break in interpretation’, took a robust approach alternating a chamber choir – complete with consistent/persistent vibrato – with passages of staunch-toned vocal duets. They also employed a feast of instrumental colours on the cantus firmus. The Tallis Scholars in 1992, presumably emblematic of a ‘break in tradition’, made much lighter work of Obrecht’s busy contrapuntal textures. Their smaller ensemble and minimal vibrato created forwards momentum through gracefully phrased arcs, and they subtly embedded the long-notes of the Maria zart song in the polyphonic texture. Beauty Farm sit between these two approaches but much closer to The Tallis Scholars: their tone is richer, without persistent vibrato, and with one voice per part they delineate each polyphonic strand through different hues of vowel-sounds and shades of vocal effort. They are more confident in busier passages where they have a nice tone, balance and momentum. Longer, two-voice textures spawn occasional sour tuning (‘Qui tollis I’ in the Gloria in particular) but in general they sing with tenderness and maintain attractively brisker tempos than either other recording.


To read the full text of this article please visit www.gramophone.co.uk (Sept 2019)

12 Jul 2019

Hieronymus Praetorius: Motets in 8, 10, 12, 16 & 20 Parts

Hieronymus Praetorius: Motets in 8, 10, 12, 16 & 20 Parts
Alamire / His Majestys Sagbutts & Cornetts / Stephen Farr (organ) / David Skinner
(Inventa Records)

The music of Hieronymus Praetorius is clearly influenced by Giovanni Gabrielli and the Venetian polychoral style which flourished at the beginning of the seventeenth century. Through this influence Praetorius became the first internationally famous composer of Hamburg and is best known today for his double choir Magnificats and arrangements of medieval tunes including in dulci iubilo. This new double-album explores larger-scale motets from 8 to 20 voices from his opus musicum (5 volumes 1599-1625) and is performed by combinations of cornetts, sackbuts, voices (with organ continuo) and solo organ.

The largest motet, Decantabat populus a20 is a text about singing praises. Despite grand forces and wide vocal ranges the textures avoid heaviness through use of word-rhythms and sprightly polychoral exchanges. David Skinner plays on these juxtapositions with a separation of voices and instruments. I love the warm, unhurried grandeur His Majestys Sagbutts & Cornetts bring to this performance and they are well balanced with the superb singers of Alamire in the acoustic of St Augustine’s, Kilburn.


To read the full text of this article please visit www.gramophone.co.uk (Aug 2019)

1 Jul 2019

LEONARDO DA VINCI La Musique Secrète

Leonardo da Vinci: la musique secrète
Doulce Mémoire, Denis Raisin Dadre

(Alpha Classic, 2019)

This new album and book from renaissance specialists Doulce Mémoire marks 500 years since the death of Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519). More than a thoughtful programme of music from a half-millennium ago, this personal journey through the Louvre’s Leonardo collection is the brain-child of director Denis Raisin Dadre who has matched paintings to exact musical contemporaries. Sparked by careful research and fruitful obsessions, the resulting performances—recorded in front of large reproductions of each artwork—are deliciously atmospheric.

[...] Unsurprisingly for a programme focussed on music-making in late 15th century Italy this is a selection dominated by oltremontani, and this Franco-Flemmish influence is crowned by Leonardo’s portrait of a musician now thought to be Josquin (1450-1521). This begets one of my favourite tracks on the disc: Josquin’s Planxit autem David has a Hilliard Ensemble-esque hue thanks to the richness of countertenor Marnix de Cat.

As the programme unfolds from deft Basse danses to Marchetto Cara’s sprightly Tante Volte si si si we hear an impressive and persuasive attempt to uncover Leonardo’s subliminal music. The Mona Lisa is a high point: Putrucci’s Per sonetti (1505) generates another charming performance from Clara Coutouly to the luminous sound of Baptiste Romain’s lire da braccio.

To read the full text of this article please visit www.gramophone.co.uk (Jul 2019)

27 May 2019

Imaginario: De un libro de música de vihuela

Imaginario: De Un Libro De Música De Vihuela
Armonia Concertada

María Cristina Kiehr, Ariel Abramovich
John Potter, Jacob Heringman
Arcana A460

Inspired by seven surviving vihuela song books published between 1536 and 1576, this programme proffers a new imagined book ‘as if published in Valladolid or Seville between 1570 and 1580’ with arrangements by Ariel Abramovich and Jacob Heringman. [...]

Kiehr has a ceramic glaze to her delivery: smooth and cool on the surface but warm and pleasingly textured underneath. Her dark vowels create a rich tone that never falters but just occasionally - in Arcadelt’s (c1504-1568) ‘Se per colpa del vostro fiero sdegno’ in particular - I would prefer more immediacy. Elsewhere she is supreme in bright, luminous textures: the refreshing wash of Arcadelt’s ‘Chiare, fresche et dolci acque’ is superb.


Undercutting all of this is the wonderful vihuela playing of Abramovich and Heringman. Beautifully recorded, their detailed execution of these complex polyphonic textures is as impressive and enjoyable as the programme they have created. 

To read the full text of this article please visit www.gramophone.co.uk (Jun 2019)  

17 Apr 2019

Love is Come Again: Music for the Springhead Easter Play

Love is come again: Music for the Springhead Easter Play
Monteverdi Choir English Baroque Soloists John Eliot Gardiner

If, like me, you enjoyed the eclectic and beautifully poised Christmas disc ‘Once as I remember’ from Sir John Eliot Gardiner and his Monteverdi choir some two decades ago (Philips 462 050-2PH) you will be both intrigued and delighted by his Easter offering. ‘Love is come again’ revisits music from the annual mime-play held at Gardiner’s family home, Springhead, directed by his mother. The music was chosen by Gardiner himself when an undergraduate and in his words contains “a fantastic sort of mosaic of magnificent pieces all associated with the Easter story.” This recording includes several additions to that original programme and the booklet contains a history of the Easter festival experience with archive photographs.

If all that sounds rather quaint fear not, this is no sepia-tinged indulgence: it packs a punch. [...] wait for L'Héritier’s (c.1480-1552) ‘Surrexit pastor bonus’ to hear Gardiner’s midas touch: I love the slow sumptuous tempo, like honey dripping from a spoon.

[...] There is so much to explore on this disc, from an adaption of Britten’s ‘Canticle II’ to a glorious performance of ‘Ego sum panis vivus’ attributed to Leonora d’Este (1515-1575) that, on paper at least, it looks like the mosaic is too complicated for the programme to hang together, but in reality it really does work. Springhead must have been a magical place.

To read the full text of this article please visit www.gramophone.co.uk (May 2019)

26 Mar 2019

‘Ibn Battuta’ ‘The Traveler of Islam

Ibn Battuta: The Traveler of Islam, 1304 1377
Hespèrion XXI / Jordi Savall 
Alia Vox AVSA9930

‘Travel first leaves you voiceless, before it turns you into a storyteller’, according to Shams ad-Din Abu Abdullah Muhammad ibn Ibrahim ibn Muhammed ibn Ibrahim ibn Yussuf al-Lawati at-Tanji, the 14th century traveller and qadi (judge) known as Ibn Battuta (‘Son of the Little Duck’). His travels are captured in the famous rihla (travel narrative) he dictated to Ibn Juzayy al-Kalbi in the early 1350s. 

This double album with accompanying book spans episodes from this rihla over the course of two live concerts – 1304-35, recorded in 2014 in Abu Dhabi with English narration, and 1335-77, recorded in 2016 in Paris with French narration – and was inspired by a new translation: Travels of Ibn Battuta by Margarida Castells and Manuel Forcano (2005).

[...] At each turn Savall evokes the atmosphere of a time with results more cinematographic than drily historical. Such a diverse programme and impressive cast of musicians will surely inspire every listener with a sense of wanderlust. Yet it is perhaps the subtext of this album – travelling through the world before modern borders – which is the most poignant part of Savall’s message for us today.

To read the full text of this article please visit www.gramophone.co.uk (Apr 2019)

26 Jan 2019

Amarae Morti: Lamentations and Motets

Amarae Morti: Lamentations and Motets
EL LEÓN DE ORO / Peter Phillips

Now here is a delightful disc made to an interesting recipe: Lamentation texts in alternation with joyful settings of Regina caeli sung with passion and puppyish intensity by a large and charismatic chamber choir directed by the éminence grise of Ars Perfecta, Peter Phillips. The result has the air of joyful adventure about it; proudly choral (as opposed to consort) but with absolutely captivating clarity.

[...] Their sound is soft, warm and favours long flowing phrases over bulging points of imitation. In short, they sound the way Mensurstriche looks. Yet, in comparison to many British ensembles their balance is slightly bottom-heavy, but the lower voices make such an attractive sound in the resonant acoustic of Iglesia de Santiago el Mayor, Sariego, Asturias that it often works in their favour. In particular, I love the passage "Cervicibus minabamur" (Our necks were threatened) in Phinot’s Lamentation setting in which the lower voices create great shimmering puddles of rich polyphony. The words are occluded but the sound is sumptuousness itself.


To read the full text of this article please visit www.gramophone.co.uk (Feb 2019)