21 May 2023

OBRECHT Missa Maria Zart

Missa Maria zart
Cappella Pratensis / Stratton Bull
Challenge Classics CC72933

Described by my colleague Fabrice Fitch as ‘one of renaissance music’s hidden gems’ I think it’s now true to say this mass is finally out in the open. This new release from Ensemble Pratensis is one of those rare, landmark albums that offers a striking alternative performance of a piece already afforded a major entry in the catalogue from The Tallis scholars (CDGIM032) as well as Beauty Farm (reviewed Gramophone 09/19) and the venerable Prague Madrigal Singers (1969 Supraphon). As such we now have a range of approaches to help us know better this extraordinary polyphonic behemoth.

Cappella Pratensis use lower male voices (the top line sung by countertenors, as with Beauty Farm), Germanic pronunciation, and read from a specially commissioned choirbook which demands they stand in close formation. The result is a warm huddle of sound, more intimate than grand. Framing the mass with the monophonic lied which forms the cantus firmus, and two polyphonic settings further increases a sense of intimacy with this material before it is broken up into intriguing segments by Obrecht which ebb and flow stylishly in this polished performance.


The Credo has a more exciting energy although Qui propter nos homines, et propter nostram salutem skates along too impatiently for my liking, but I love the superb change of texture at ... et vitam venturi seculi and it’s here the large-scale planning of this performance is most apparent. This new release is a happy marriage of musicality and musicology.

To read the full text of this review: Gramophone June 2023

16 Apr 2023

Ludwig Daser: Polyphonic Masses

Ludwig Daser: Polyphonic Masses
Huelgas Ensemble / Paul Van Nevel

DHM G010004950859B

Poor Ludwig Daser (ca.1525-1589), if you’ve heard anything about him it was probably that he once retired as Kapellmeister to the Catholic Court at Munich to make way for Lassus, or that he had a brush with the Inquisition. Less well known is that he was both pupil and successor of Senfl and knew Cipriano de Rore. Daser contributed to 'a high point of German polyphony' as Paul van Nevel puts it; and the two masses recorded here - Missa Preter rerum seriem à 6v and Missa Fors seullement à 4v - date from his Munich period. The Huelgas Ensemble already plan to record more from his later years as Kapellmeister in Württemberg.

Missa Preter rerum seriem is a parody mass based on Josquin's motet which in turn incorporates the Gregorian chant. It's a tuneful and intricate setting, comparing favorably to Rore's more famous mass. The Huelgas Ensemble use two or more voices per part in accordance with the size of Daser's own court chapel choir and this larger ensemble creates a rich, well-balanced sound which at times I found attractively wistful. [...]

Missa Fors seullement is an altogether different beast, drawing on a popular chanson it's direct, unpretentious, and full of confident homophony and sonorous lower-voiced textures. This is a brassy, sumptuous performance. I'm already looking forward to the next volume.

For the full text of this review please see Gramophone magazine (May 2023)

18 Feb 2023

Christ Church Cathedral Choir, Oxford

Christ Church Cathedral Choir, Oxford
Christ Church Cathedral Choir, Oxford
Simon Preston
Decca Catalogue No: 4852118

This timely collection of rereleases includes two heard for the first time complete on CD and covers a decade of recording from one of the key partnerships in choral music and period instruments of the 1970s. I admit upfront that I listened through rose-tinted headphones, transported back to a time when my local WHSmiths accepted book tokens as payment for LPs. I can still picture my mother appearing at the bottom of the stairs in her candlewick dressing gown to chastise me for playing Vivaldi’s Nulla in mundo pax sincera loudly at breakfast (“for Chrissakes Ed, your father just woke up and thought he’d died in the night!”) I quickly learned to associate those distinctive L’oiseau-Lyre covers with the sort of music and the type of singing I liked, whilst enjoying how they made my parents worry openly that one day I would grow up to be a musicologist.

Younger listeners might not grasp the essential fondness many of us retain for this choir and would, wrongly in my opinion, focus on the lack of finesse in several places – such as the opening of Bach’s Magnificat – or wonder at the dogged adherence to demonstrative choral discipline – the surge on ‘MOrtis nostrae’ in Bruckner’s Ave Maria, perhaps. But few could disagree with John Steane’s early judgement in this magazine: ‘Simon Preston is surely producing one of the best choirs in the country.’ (07/74). Not only were they one of the best but these discs have aged exceptionally well thanks to their superb production techniques. Any small stylistic misgivings I have are outweighed by countless instances of choral excellence: the long, spinning phrases of the trebles in Fauré’s Ave verum, or the sheer enjoyment of Vivaldi’s Gloria and the zippy chorus Domine, Fili unigenite in particular. Considering these nineteen albums in chronological order of recording reveals an enormous musical appetite to say nothing of an impressively demanding schedule fitted around substantial weekly liturgical commitments.

In the renaissance works it is striking how robust the choir sounds under Preston, drawing, perhaps, as much influence from the strident confidence of Westminster Cathedral as is does from the detailed, careful work of King’s College Cambridge. Notable is the pleasingly prominent alto tone, a feature I also associate with recordings by The Clerkes of Oxenford around the same time. Beginning with Byrd’s five- and four-part masses, despite the familiarity of these works and the changing styles of Latin pronunciation this has aged rather well. The debt to Sir David Willcocks (and Boris Ord) is obvious in the somewhat sculpted phrasing, each carefully crafted section replete with expressive dynamics and meticulous rallentandos at cadences. In many ways it’s a masterclass in choral discipline but overall Preston’s interventionist approach occasionally denies the polyphony chance to flow. Easy to say now, but nearly half a century ago this was ground-breakingly uncluttered I’m sure. With Lassus, however, the sound is grand and confident, possibly closer to Westminster Cathedral's style, especially in Omnes de Saba venient which has a thrilling, if not slightly relentless energy. Preston and his singers seem to have been particularly inspired by these larger textures and it is the more expansive moments that provide their most impassioned arch-shaped phrasing and steely tone. Listen also for glorious alto moments in Salve Regina. [...]

For the full text of the article please see Gramophone magazine (March 2023)

17 Feb 2023

The Golden Renaissance

The Golden Renaissance: William Byrd
Stile Antico
Decca 4853951

Byrd’s later years are a fascinating time for Tudor music, and for this 400th anniversary Stile Antico dedicate a whole album to his works. It's the second release in a trilogy which also celebrates anniversaries of Josquin des Prez and Palestrina.

Beginning with the potentially autobiographical song, Retire, my soul, consider thine estate, Stile Antico pitch the music slightly lower and more wistfully than The Sixteen’s recent release (Psalmes, Songs and Sonnets 1611) and comparing the two there is an instant warmth about Stile Antico’s version; a fond, Werther’s Original hue that goes on to infuse this whole programme. And who’s to say that’s wrong? Certainly not Byrd Scholar Kerry McCarthy whose superb programme note emphasises the 'relative peace' offered to the composer in his twilight years as he lived 'under the protection of local Catholic gentry.' Built around a deeply moving performance of his Mass for Four Voices, the Propers for the Feast of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary are also performed. These are notoriously difficult pieces but Stile Antico sing them with great poise, particularly the complex flourishes in Propter veritatem. As an ensemble they also deftly navigate the many textural changes that Byrd demands such as the exquisite three-part verse Assumpta est Maria in which I especially enjoyed the imitation on gaudet exercitus. [...]

For the full text of this review please see Gramophone magazine (March 2023)

28 Jan 2023

Book review: The Pursuit of Musick

The Pursuit of Musick: Musical Life in Original Writings & Art
Available from October 2022 at www.taverner.org

The first time I reviewed a book by Andrew Parrott I confidently called him the éminence grise of early music (Composers’ Intentions? Gramophone, 2015) and by and large my view remains unchanged. [...]

It's an astonishingly varied collection of primary sources, numbering over 2,500 entries, some familiar from the standard reference works such as the indefatigable Strunk's Source Readings in Music History (Norton), and some less familiar, as well as paintings long studied by art historians but less so by music students. The immediate attraction of this collection is in the juxtaposition of such diverse primary sources in a format which will truly pay dividends in sheer serendipity.

Some 600 years’ musical activity are spanned from plainchant notation, memorably referred to as a moment when 'the curtain goes up' on music-making by Taruskin (The Oxford History of Western Music), to 1770 when Charles Burney began his chronicle of music history. Parrott has organised his sources in a 3-part structure: music & society, music & ideas, music & performance; divided across 25 main chapters, each beginning with enormously useful, but brief, thematic introductions (most by Hugh Griffith). [...]

For the full text of the article please see Gramophone magazine (February 2023)

27 Jan 2023

Wenn ich nur Dich hab

Wenn ich nur Dich hab
Ensemble La Silla, Richard Resch, Gianluca Geremia
Carpe Diem CD16330

This collection of early baroque North German sacred music uncovers several treasures, including premiere recordings of works by Gottfreid Phillip Flor and Johann Friedrich Meister. It is also the debut solo album from tenor Richard Resch and Ensemble La Silla.

And what a debut! Inter Brachia Salvatoris mei --likely by Christian Flor--is incredibly vivid as adventurous harmonies percolate through mournful, gentle strings. Resch sings with a balance of tenderness and authority, keeping text to the fore. He is rich in his lower register and his tone remains effortless as the impassioned phrases climb higher and all the while he is accompanied by the warm embrace of a superb string ensemble. Following this, I feel that Johann Friedrich Meister's substantial cantata Ach Herr, strafe mich nicht offers more opportunity than Resch takes for dramatic characterisation, especially in the opening section. His tone is engaging but unremittingly beautiful throughout, even on the quirkily repeated final word plötzlich.

I found the second cantata: Redet untereinander by Gottfreid Phillip Flor wonderous in all aspects. It’s a busy text and spiced with opportunities for imaginative word-setting which the composer clearly relished and offset with ecstatic string-playing from the start. Surely this was a catalyst for a young Handel who seems to have borrowed the instrumental opening of the final chorale Jesu lass mich frölich enden for Rinaldo’s duet Scherzano sul tuo volto? Yet it is Resch’s long flowing phrases in Franz Tunder’s An Wasserflüssen Babylon could well be the high point of this whole album, even if it does end rather too abruptly for my tastes. But then Buxtehude’s mesmeric ostinato bass in the psalm Herr, wenn Ich nur Dich hab is a good contender for the same accolade where great blushes of passion from the violin parts intertwine skilfully with the voice. This album is a very welcome addition to the catalogue.

For the full text of the article please see Gramophone magazine (February 2023)

4 Jan 2023

Tom and Will

For the joint 400th anniversary of Byrd and Weelkes in 2023, The King’s Singers and Fretwork have joined forces for a new album whose programme reflects the contrasts, and occasional parallels, between these two composers, finds Edward Breen

I love the British music scene and am convinced it’s one of our great exports, from Sumer is icumen in to Brit Pop and beyond. So, when I heard about this joint project of Renaissance music from The King's Singers and Fretwork, my attention was piqued immediately. Just consider that title: ‘Tom and Will’. The Will is, unsurprisingly, William Byrd whose 400th anniversary we celebrate in 2023. How about Tom? It turns out it's not him-of-40-part-motet fame, but another one, Thomas Weelkes, known for his exquisite setting of When David Heard and several madrigal evergreens, and it turns out that he also died in 1623 albeit at a younger age.

This project will be special to those of us who, back in the early ‘80s, were introduced to madrigals through The King's Singers' celebrated ‘Madrigal History Tour’ (EMI, 1983) or later through their all-vocal snapshot of the Elizabethan era ‘The Golden Age’ (EMI, 1995). Their clear, fresh sound was hugely skilful but presented with a light touch which helped bring this nuanced music alive. Crucially, they sang madrigals with more obvious humour than others had before them. Like so many early music enthusiasts, I also remember Fretwork's ‘Goe Nightly Cares’ (Virgin 1990), an album of Byrd and Dowland with Michael Chance giving arguably some of his best performances: the thrust of those Galliards, the sinewy sounds of their instruments, the clear soaring falsetto tone! The melancholy was so visceral that even now the mood of that pitch-perfect programme still lingers in my memory. It is therefore with some joy that I anticipate this new collaboration: it's a musical partnership that has been waiting to happen for some time.


For the full text of the article please see Gramophone magazine (January 2023)