16 Oct 2021

Icons: James Bowman

In celebration of James Bowman's forthcoming 80th birthday, Edward Breen looks back on a long and splendid career which established the countertenor voice in mainstream musical life.

For more than three decades James Bowman was the figurehead of the countertenor revolution: his discography spans Leonin to Britten and beyond, he has performed with crumhorns, sung about Eglantine and firmly obliterated any notion of the countertenor as a limited voice.

As a teenager I was first bewitched by his recital with the Ricercar consort: Cantate Ad Alto Solo, especially his performance of Vivaldi’s Vestro principi divino, RV 633 (04/93) with its smooth lines and stylish sense of rhythm. I envied his warm, immediate sound and tried in vain to emulate the evenness of his lower register. It wasn’t long before I heard him sing Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and I was captivated anew. Like those who discover new films through the work of a favourite actor, I followed James Bowman through the countertenor repertoire unaware that at the same time his very performances were defining new boundaries for that voice. Coming a generation after both Alfred Deller - who spearheaded the countertenor revival in England - and the impressively stentorian-toned Russel Oberlin in America, Bowman offered something more straightforward, joyful and, crucially, robust. Live and on record his energy and enthusiasm were palpable.


To read the full text of this article please visit www.gramophone.co.uk (Awards issue 2021)

8 Oct 2021

Regnart: Missa Christ ist erstanden & other works

Regnart: Missa Christ ist erstanden & other works

Hyperion CDA68369

Regular readers will know that I hold Cinquecento in especially high regard so it will come as no surprise if I open by saying that this new disc, their third to feature works by Jacob Regnart (c1540-1599), maintains their exquisitely high quality of both performance and progamme. The most famous of five musical brothers, Jacob (Jacques) Regnart was one of several Netherlanders to hold posts at the German Hapsburg court, and his music at times reminds me of the sonorous contrapuntal density of Gombert (c1495-c1560) but, as Stephen Rice points out, a much closer comparison can be made with Lassus (c1530-1594) both in terms of clarity of texture and especially when considering the variety and sheer quantity of output.


Missa Freu dich, du werthe Christenheit (Rejoice, O worthy Christendom) offers a more bewitchingly tuneful texture reflecting the longer phrases of its model. The gentle unfurling of the imitative Kyrie phrases are magical on this recording and listen out especially for a joyful countertenor moment in the Gloria at Qui sedes ad dexteram Patris (who sits at the right hand of the Father); it’s not called Ars Perfecta for nothing.

To read the full text of this article please visit www.gramophone.co.uk (Awards issue 2021)

31 Jul 2021

Johann Rosenmüller: Magnificat and Sacred Concertos

Johann Rosenmüller: Magnificat and Sacred Concertos
Ensemble 1684, Gregor Meyer
CPO 555174-2

That Johann Rosenmüller (1619-84) is still something of a rarity in modern performance is particularly surprising considering the quality of music on this second disc devoted to his works by Gregor Meyer and Markus Berger’s Ensemble 1684. [...]

This new album opens with Rosenmüller’s Magnificat a 18, a compositional tour-de-force in the Venetian style. It is presented here with gripping attention to detail, particularly in the delicious contrasting instrumental textures where the silvery violin tone is particularly pleasing. My tastes, however, favour a more demonstrative vocal tone and whilst I enjoyed the different personalities of these singers, I would have preferred them to be more prominent in the overall balance, particularly at Deposuit potentes de sede (he hath put down the might from their seat) where the musical contrasts between the ‘putting down’ and the ‘exalting’ are so inviting. Similarly, I wanted more yearning from the solo voices at Esurientes implevit bonis (He hath filled the hungry with good things). [...]

To read the full text of this article please visit www.gramophone.co.uk (August 2021)

30 Jul 2021

Isaac: Missa Wohlauff gut Gsell von hinnen & other works

Isaac: Missa Wohlauff gut Gsell von hinnen & other works
Hyperion CDA68337

Heinrich Isaac (c1450-1517) is one of Josquin’s greatest contemporaries. He had a glittering career working for Lorenzo de’ Medici in Florence and then Maximilian I in Vienna, and alongside the towering achievement of his Choralis Constantinus his masses and motets always catch my attention on disc. Missa Wohlauff gut Gsell von hinnen is an intriguing work: written during his early years in Vienna it is based on the popular song Comment peult avoir joye? (How can one have joy whom fortune opposes?) which is also performed on this disc in Josquin’s 4voice setting from the early 1490s. Isaac had already written a 4voice mass based on this song during his time in Florence, but for the 6voice version recorded here he revisited, reordered and expanded many of the sections of that earlier work to make a much larger-scale setting which is both rich and intricate.

[...] What I admire most from Cinquecento though is their sense of polyphonic momentum and on this disc in particular, they find a perfect balance of long-range phrasing with surface detail. The result is a sonically beautiful performance which holds my attention.

To read the full text of this article please visit www.gramophone.co.uk (August 2021)

2 May 2021

Book review: Ina Lohr (1903–1983): transcending the boundaries of early music

Smith Anne, Ina Lohr (1903–1983): transcending the boundaries of early music, Schola Cantorum Basiliensis Scripta 9 (Basel: Schwabe-Verlag, 2020), Edward Breen

Early Music, caab012, https://doi.org/10.1093/em/caab012
Published: 15 April 2021

Described by the composer Sven-Erik Bäck as ‘much more glamorous than her French counterpart, Nadia Boulanger’ (p.297), Ina Lohr is little remembered today. Yet she was vital to the musical life of Basel, in her roles as ‘co-founder and pedagogical inspiration for the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis and musical assistant to Paul Sacher, a major patron of contemporary music in the 20th century and conductor of the Basel Chamber Orchestra’ (to quote from the book under review, p.xvii). Anne Smith’s new biography is a rich and engaging study which does much to secure Lohr’s legacy.

Smith places Lohr’s musical activities within the context of other aspects of her family and spiritual life. As is often the case in...

© The Author(s) 2021. Published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved.

1 May 2021

Music for the King of Scots

Music for the King of Scots: Inside the Pleasure Palace of James IV
The Binchois Consort, Andrew Kirkman (conductor)
Hyperion CDA68333

This latest release from The Binchois Consort represents early ‘musicking’ at its finest: the programme is built around music from the Carver Choirbook through to be associated with the seat of the Royal Chapel in Stirling and an important source of pre-Reformation music in Scotland. There is, however, another layer: this is a historically informed performance within an historic performance space – Linlithgow Palace - itself recreated in virtual reality. Musicology and music production triangulate James IV’s visits to Linlithgow palace with veneration of Saint Katherine and the Carver Choirbook in this very clever project. There’s even an accompanying app which enables you to listen with and without the VR chapel acoustic. What feels at first to be an intense claustrophobia quickly reveals itself to be the intimate, tapestried space of a private chapel where every detail of the singing is clear and close.


To read the full text of this article please visit www.gramophone.co.uk (May 2021)

20 Mar 2021

Guerrero: Magnificat, Lamentations & Canciones
El León de Oro, Peter Phillips & Marco Antonio García de Paz
Hyperion CDA68347

This new disc by Spanish choir El León de Oro of music by Francisco Guerrero (1528-1599) joins an impressive line of recordings on the Hyperion label whose dedication to Iberian repertoire is notable. Opening with Magnificat quarti toni their radiant choral sound is carried by a convincing momentum. With nearly 40 singers the phrases are confident and broad but never strident, this approach lends an especially atmospheric air to the Lamentations where vowel sounds are soft and few consonances penetrate the warm glow of the generous acoustic. The result is a delightfully rich sonic bath which departs significantly from many British ensembles’ approach.


To read the full text of this article please visit www.gramophone.co.uk (April 2021)

19 Mar 2021

Gesualdo: Madrigali, Libri Terzo & Quarto

Gesualdo: Madrigali, Libri Terzo & Quarto
Les Arts Florissants, Paul Agnew
Harmonia Mundi HAF890530910

After winning last year’s Gramophone early music award, this second instalment in Les Arts Florissants’ Gesualdo series continues to offer performances which balance the chromatic adventurousness of these works with what Fabrice Fitch described as ‘the solid craftsmanship and dramatic sensibility’ that characterise Gesualdo’s early books of madrigals (Gramophone Awards 2020).

Opening with the exquisite Voi volete ch’io mora (You wish me to die) we experience all four seasons of expression in as many lines of poetry. There is despair in the opening, descending phrase, an immediate complication, a sudden blend of voices and then an extraordinary surge of energy on the last line which closes with kaleidoscopic harmony.


Will such fluency and naturalism hold as they approach the later works and Gesulado’s development of a more extreme chromaticism? If they pull this off, Agnew might well finally shift some focus away from Gesualdo’s murderous private life.

To read the full text of this article please visit www.gramophone.co.uk (April 2021)

10 Jan 2021

Machaut: The lion of nobility

Machaut The Lion of Nobility
The Orlando Consort
Hyperion CDA68318

The Orlando Consort’s latest album in their Machaut/Hyperion project features works from his ‘Prologue’, a fictional autobiography beginning his complete works manuscript. The selection features several famous works well-known from previous recordings, and illustrates—in the words of editors Anne Stone and Jacques Boogaart—‘the whole spectrum of Machaut’s poetic and musical art’[…]. As ever, the performing editions used here are from the forthcoming Complete Works of Guillaume de Machaut and just this Autumn The American Musicological Society awarded their prestigious Noah Greenberg Award to this Machaut project.

[...] Also of note is the solo voiced ballade Dame, se vous m’estes lonteinne (Lady, if you are distant from me) with its familiar theme of unobtainable longing which offers a moving moment of repose, beautifully sung by Matthew Venner whose mellow countertenor tone infuses this album with warmth. Another wonderful and fascinating instalment in this impressive series.

To read the full text of this article please visit www.gramophone.co.uk (Jan 2021)

1 Jan 2021

Vocal Traditions in Conflict

Richard Bethell, Vocal Traditions in Conflict:
Descent From Sweet, Clear, Pure and Affecting Italian Singing to Grand Uproar
reviewed by Edward Breen
Early Music Performer, Issue 46, Spring 2020

‘Whatever we know or don’t know about 13th century singing and, God knows, there’s very little we can say for certain about it, we may be certain that it didn’t sound like 20th century singing.’ The words of Michael Morrow, director of Musica Reservata, one of the first early-music ensembles to experiment with vocal sound and style. He worked with many musicians who would go on to define early-music performance in the last quarter of the twentieth century: Andrew Parrott, Anthony Rooley, Christopher Page, and the sounds that he asked of singer Jantina Noorman would go on to influence many later performers such as Dominique Visse. 

The author of this new volume about vocal traditions, and vocal vibrato – Richard Bethell – is another Musica Reservata alumnus who, alongside a business career, has remained a recognisable figure within British early-music circles as Secretary of the National Early Music Association (NEMA). In 2009 he helped organise a conference at York University on ‘Singing music from 1500 to 1900’ at which he presented on vocal vibrato. In many ways this book is rooted in Morrow’s ideas: it seeks to look beyond modern performance norms.