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Recording

Haydn: Symphonies 15 – La Reine

Kammerorchester Basel conducted by Giovanni Antonini
66:29
Alpha Classics Alpha 696

Most enthusiasts will by now surely need no introduction to this treasurable series of the complete Haydn symphonies, a project planned to reach completion by 2032, thus marking the 300th anniversary of the composer’s birth. For those that might be making their first acquaintance with the series, the recordings are divided between the Kammerorchester Basel and Giovanni Antonini’s own Il Giardino Armonico and is intended to eventually include Haydn’s entire symphonic output.

From the outset, the performances have been marked by a rare and felicitous combination of strongly incisive playing of diamantine clarity combined with warm sensitivity.  In the present set of performances one need only, for example, bring to mind the celebratory opening movement of Symphony No 50, with its trumpets and timpani cutting through the texture like a sabre to illustrate the first point, while the delicacy of the light-footed Romance of No. 85 serves ideally as an example of just how sensitive and elegant Antonini’s direction can be.

The symphonies on the present CD most obviously have in common that all three have a slow introduction, but there are more subtle links, too.  The earliest is No 50 in C, a fully scored work with a pair of trumpets and timpani dating from 1773. Its first two movements are believed to have originally formed  part of the now-lost incidental music for Der Götterrath, which forms the prologue to Philemon und Baucis, first given in the marionette theatre at Esterháza for the Empress Maria Theresa. The Andante moderato (ii) is notable for its richly warm colouring – here beautifully captured – with obbligato cello doubling the melodic line, while the Minuet brings back the trumpets and drums for one of those dance movements you find it difficult to imagine being actually danced.  Symphony No 62 in D probably owes its existence to a familiar modern problem – building works overrunning their completion date. In this case, it was the new theatre at Esterháza that opened in 1780 on St Theresa’s Day, the name day of the empress. It had been intended to open with Haydn’s new La fedelta premiata but the elaborate stage machinery not having been installed it was replaced with a play. In order that his Kapellmeister should still be represented, Prince Nicolaus apparently asked Haydn for a new symphony. Haydn obliged with the present hybrid work, one with a history too complex to go into here. Suffice it to say the unusual Allegretto that forms its second movement is a remarkably individual passage that proceeds into curiously mysterious territory.

Much the best known of these symphonies is No. 85 in B flat, one of the six so-called ‘Paris Symphonies’ (no’s 82-87) probably written in 1785 as a commission from the famous Concert de la Loge Olympique. It acquired its nickname ‘La Reine’ very early on, a reference often mistakenly attributed to Maria Theresa, but in fact referring to her daughter Marie Antoinette, who had become Queen of France in 1774. The opening Adagio – Vivace provides a perfect example of the supreme merits of the mix of robust energy and lyricism Antonini brings to his Haydn, the lovely cantabile oboe solo that dominates the secondary idea here splendidly played. And there could be no better illustration of the deliciously featherweight lightness of touch he obtains from his players than the opening of the Presto finale before it bursts into forceful operatic drama to carry the symphony surging to its conclusion.

This is quite simply another splendid addition to a series at present bidding fair to be the set of Haydn symphonies.

Brian Robins

Categories
Recording

Charpentier: Médée

Véronique Gens (Médée), Cyrille Dubois(Jason), David Witczak (Oronte), Le Concert Spirituel conducted by Hervé Niquet
170:43 (3 CDs)
Alpha 1020

It is nearly 50 years since William Christie’s first recording of Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s Médée (harmonia mundi) vividly illustrated that French Baroque opera meant more than Rameau and the occasional nod in Lully’s direction. Since then Médée has become firmly established and acknowledged not only as Charpentier’s operatic masterpiece – though I would argue that David et Jonathas (1688) should be considered its equal – but one of the peaks of the repertoire.  First performed at the Paris Opéra (Académie Royale de Musique) in 1693 it was one of the first operas given there after Lully’s monopoly was ended by his death six years earlier. Despite the presence of Louis XIV at the premiere, the opera was not a success, receiving ten performances before being withdrawn and not revived until the 20th century.

Cast in five acts with the usual prologue, Médée is a tragédie en musique that for once lives up its genre, a feature that may have some bearing in its contemporary unpopularity. By the end of the opera not only are Créon, King of Corinth and his daughter Créusa, the new amour of Jason dead, but in her fury at Jason’s treachery the sorceress Médée (Medea) has committed filicide. Yet it is measure of the quality of Thomas Corneille’s libretto that far from being simply an irredeemable villain poisoned by jealousy, Médée emerges as a deeply ambivalent character driven to madness by the ingratitude of Jason. The picture becomes more opaque still if her earlier services (the Golden Fleece) to Jason are taken into account. And it is more than just the text, for Charpentier gives to Médée not only music that is highly dramatic but in her act three air ‘Quel prix mon amour’ the most touchingly beautiful music in the score. Musing on whether she should murder her sons, the product of her love for Jason, also give momentary relief from the derangement from which Médée  now suffers, her servant Nérine a little earlier having spoken of her ‘Eyes staring wildly, her steps unsteady’. The role is one tailor-made for Véronique Gens, one of the great tragediennes of our day and a singer to compare with the creator of the role, Marthe Le Rochois, the creator of all the leading female roles in Lully’s tragedies lyriques and who was considered without parallel for her mastery of the declamatory styleGens’s mastery of the role ranges from the imperious in the infernale scene at which she is at her most powerful, displaying some awesome chest notes, to the sheer, pure beauty of her singing in the air noted above.

Her errant husband is given a poor hand by comparison, at his best in the tenderness he displays toward his new love Créuse, its cynical political implications drowned out in the exquisitely sensitive music Charpentier gives the couple in their scenes together (act 1, sc 5 and act 4, sc 2). The experienced Judith Van Wanroij (the cast listing spelling is used in the heading but here the more usual spelling is adopted) is at her best in this kind of gentle heroine role and here she is utterly engaging. There are, too, few finer stylists in haute-contre heroic roles than Cyrille Dubois, though here the fast vibrato that is a part of his voice does occasionally threaten to be a distraction. The only other significant role is that of Creon, which asks for little more than Thomas Dolie’s richly authoritative baritone until the great scene in which he is made mad by Médée (act 4, sc 8/9). Then considerable vocal acting powers are called upon, a demand met admirably by Dolié. 

Among smaller roles baritone David Witczak’s Oronte, the deposed suitor of Créuse, should be noted, as should the enchantingly fresh soprano of Jehanne Amzal in several comprimario roles. Her singing of the Italian air included in the act 2 divertissement is one of the delights of the set. Hervé Niquet’s direction of the prologue, the customary panegyric dedicated to Louis XIV with Glory, Victory and Bellone (goddess of war) doing the honours, is curiously – if arguably understandably – briskly uninvolved. Thereafter it improves significantly without ever becoming one of his finest achievements. Notwithstanding the set is required listening for all Gens’s many fans, who will also encounter a great opera and much excellent singing.

Brian Robins 

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Sheet music

Croft: Three odes with orchestra

Edited by Alan Howard
Musica Britannica MB108
ISBN: 9780852499696 ISMN: 9790220228100
xlviii + 127pp, £115.00
Stainer & Bell

This excellent volume contains the two pieces Croft wrote to celebrate the Peace of Utrecht in 1713 – an earn his Oxford doctorate – and an ode (the editor Alan Howarth argues) to mark the Peace of Ryswick in 1697. if, as likely, that is the case, the composer would still have been a teenager, so the infelicities identified in the informative introduction might be forgiven. The main problem with the source (a later copy by one of Croft’s students from the 1720s) is the labelling of the instrumental parts – in the opening movement, there is a trumpet line (or two trumpet lines?) with unplayable notes, and the editor interprets the next four lines as violins where it strikes me as more likely that the first pair are oboes and the next pair violins. In the following movements, an alto is accompanied by recorders, the soprano and bass by strings, the bass by violins, and the full ensemble renders the short concluding chorus. The Utrecht pieces, whose performances in Oxford were noticed in the press, are far more substantial and it is clear that in the intervening years, Croft has matured as a composer. His debt to the Purcellian court ode is self-evident. Where we nowadays tend to think of him as being obscured by Handel, there is no sense in which this music is overshadowed by the German’s music for the Utrecht celebrations – indeed, some of his best choral writing might suggest that the influence worked in the opposite direction! I hope the availability of these fine pieces will inspire musicians to take up his cause – there really is a wealth of beautiful music here!

Brian Clark 

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Sheet music

Early Tudor Organ Music

Early English Church Music 65 (volume 1) & 66 (volume 2)
Edited by John Caldwell
Vol. 1: xxxvi + pp 1-206 £100
ISMN 979 0 2202 2852 0, ISBN 978 0 85249 971 9
Vol. 2: pp 207-403 £85
ISMN 979 0 2202 2853 7, ISBN 978 0 85249 972 6
Stainer & Bell Ltd

These two magnificent landscape volumes will be essential for anyone interested in this repertoire. The wealth of information presented in the introduction (xii-xxxvi in volume 1) is incredibly valuable. The main source of the music itself is British Library Additional MS 29996, with 12 secondary sources also discussed and their significance assessed. The volumes are organised by liturgical function, beginning with 14 settings of the Miserere and ending with 21 anonymous hymn settings (the last incomplete). Caldwell supplements this with music from secondary sources and three appendices (intabulations, plainchant melodies, and hymns and faburdens).

Each of the sections has a title page with critical notes on each of the pieces. The music itself is set out beautifully. Organists familiar with the style will have no trouble with the Mensurstrich-style subdivision into regular bars, and I suppose the brain adapts to final notes before the end of a piece (indicated by “pause” marks) are sustained until the end, even though they have the same note value as the “other” finals. The more I looked at the edition, the more it became apparent that it is a thoroughly annotated, modernised facsimile of the originals (except that “original barlines are not shown”). I do not fully understand the need to leave all the shorter notes unbeamed, not to add a bracketed flat for the B below middle C on the treble staff where there already is one in the bass clef (as in modern usage). I am also puzzled by some of the placements of the 3:2 indication of coloration – surely it should either be in the middle of the grouping, or at the beginning, but consistently so. I am sure, though, that anyone using these invaluable volumes will not worry about such things – they will just get on and play the music! And hurrah to that!

Brian Clark

Categories
Sheet music

Requiems by Giovanni Croce and Giovanni Rovetta

The Requiem Mass at St Mark’s, Venice, in the Seventeenth Century
Edited by Jonathan R. J. Drennan
Recent Researches in the Music of the Baroque Era, 238
xvii, six plates + 50pp $140
ISBN 978-1-9872-0865-8

This is the first of three volumes surveying Requiem settings at the basilica of San Marco from the 17th to the 19th centuries. After a detailed introduction, Drennan presents the two settings in the traditional A-R format, meaning that my usual gripes about wasted space and dumbing down of time signatures apply. Both works are written for ATTB choir and were intended to be sung from the bigonzo, a large raised “tub” (the edition includes two excellent photographs of the space); only Croce’s setting splits into two groups – and even then only for the Dies irae. Several pages could have been saved if, instead of printing eight staves every time one choir answered the other (on p. 21 meaning Choir 1 has ONE BAR at the end of the page), they were simply both presented on four staves and clearly labelled. This almost certainly have meant that the Sanctus and Agnus Dei would have appeared on an opening, rather than over two pages. Rovetta adds continuo to his setting but – again – space could have been saved (by printing the chant as a single line, for example!) and those two last movements would fit a spread. The music itself is written in the stile antico; polyphony is limited but both composers know how to use rhythm to keep their music interesting while fulfilling the necessity to declaim the text clearly. Both settings are extremely brief; Drennan suggests that has more to do with restrictions set by church authorities than the composers.

Brian Clark

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Recording

Virtuoso harpsichord music

Melody Lin
51:30
CRD 3546

What should a young harpsichordist include in their first recording? The traditional choices are either to pick a minor composer and concentrate on making their music available, or to present a mixed recital that displays ability over a broader range of repertory. The Taiwanese harpsichordist Melody Lin has chosen the latter course in this short CD which ranges from the English Virginalists Farnaby and Byrd, through J. S. Bach, to Rameau and Forqueray. She has recently completed a doctorate in performance at Claremont Graduate University in California and this recording presumably reflects her work for that degree. The informative programme notes have been written by her teacher Robert Zapulla, who has also produced the disc. He praises Lin’s virtuosity, which is indeed much in evidence here. This is a formidable programme and, on the whole, Lin steps up to the challenge. Her virtuosity is still a bit self conscious, and the simpler sections can be a bit plodding at times; there are occasionally some awkward joins between sections in the earlier music. That said, there is some excellent control of contrapuntal writing in the Byrd A minor Fantasia and Bach’s D major Toccata. Lin plays on a William Dowd harpsichord, after an instrument built by the Blanchets around 1730.  It is a good compromise instrument, at its best in the French music, but bringing good clarity to the more contrapuntal pieces. The recording quality is excellent. There is much to admire here, even if there are more polished recordings of these pieces available elsewhere. We can look forward to her next recording, where Lin might perhaps concentrate on a particular area of the repertoire and further refine her playing.

Noel O’Regan

Categories
Recording

Johann Ludwig Krebs: Keyboard Works volume 3

Steven Devine harpsichord
77:30
resonus RES10329

Steven Devine continues his highly successful series of recordings of the complete surviving keyboard music of Krebs, a favoured pupil of J. S. Bach at Leipzig who went on to settle in nearby Altenburg.  As well as the substantial 6th partita, this volume includes six sonatas which only reappeared in 1999 in Kyiv, the manuscript having been moved from Berlin during the Second World War; this is their first appearance on disc, in Devine’s own edition.  In a standard three-movement Italian form, they show Krebs revelling in the new galant style.  More predictable than those of his contemporary, CPE Bach, these sonatas make a delightful listening experience, relying on logical sequences and echo effects, with some resonances of Handel’s keyboard writing.  Devine has registered them expertly, bringing out both sequences and echoes and wearing his virtuosity very lightly.  He revels in these contrasts and plays throughout with great versatility and verve.

The sixth partita, one of only three surviving from a presumed set of six, shows a fascinating mixture of styles and is a reminder that, although we now see Bach’s partitas as iconic, other versions were available.  There are reminders of the 17th-century toccatas and ricercars of Froberger in the Prelude, echoes of Handel elsewhere, while the chromatic quirkiness of the Sarabande suggests C. P. E. Bach.  There are added galanterien which give a nod to those of J. S. Bach.  With ten movements in total, this work is a compendium of possibilities, all expertly exploited by Devine.  The two surviving sources for the work vary considerably, pointing to continued revision, and the playing here brings out all the possibilities inherent in Krebs’s treatment of the various dance movements. 

Devine plays throughout on a double-manual harpsichord by Colin Booth after a single-manual by Johann Christof Fleischer (Hamburg, 1710), the same instrument he used for the previous volumes in the series and one which suits this music admirably.  His control of the instrument allows the listener to have complete confidence in the playing and in the interpretation.  This recording is definitely to be highly recommended.

Noel O’Regan

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Recording

Charpentier: David & Jonathas

Clément Debieuvre David, David Witczak Saul, Edwin Crossley-Mercer the ghost of Samuel/Achis, Jean-François Novelli Joabel, Jean-François Lombard Pythonisse, Natacha Boucher Jonathas, LesPages et les Chantres du Centre de musique baroque de Versailles, Orchestre Les Temps Présents, directed by Olivier Schneebeli
122′ (2 CDs in a CD-sized book)
aparté AP342

David et Jonathas owes its existence to the tradition of the Jesuits of the Collège Louis-le-Grand in Paris staging plays and musical dramas during the course of carnival season. It dates from 1688, when it was staged between the acts of a now-lost spoken drama. It should be recognised that it is an opera, not an oratorio and as such has a framework familiar for the tragédie en musique, that’s to say a prologue and five acts. Only the relative brevity of the work, with less importance attached to the divertissements and fewer dances than usual mark it out as unusual in that respect.

As was widely recognised from its first performances David et Jonathas is a powerful masterpiece. It is indeed one of the great pieces of late 17th-century French theatre, apparent from the outset of the prologue, which to the best of my knowledge is unique in being a part of the action. In concerning itself not with the usual royal panegyrics but rather with the visit of Saul to the Witch of Endor (Pythonisse) and the fateful utterances of the ghost of Samuel, it provides an introduction to the drama that will unfold, drama culminating in the final tragedy of the deaths in battle of Saul and his son Jonathan. Yet because the opera has a didactic purpose its ending is not tragic, but rather a brilliant paean of praise to the victorious David, the man who remained obedient to God’s laws, in contrast to the defeated Saul, who has not. More importantly still, the opera is an investigation of human relations on a psychological level rare in opera of this period, specifically the complex love between Saul and David, and those of the brotherly love between David and Jonathan. At their heart are the great monologues given to all three, their lyricism again a distinguishing feature of an opera in which récitatif plays a smaller than usual role.

In 2022 the opera was given a superlative production and performance in the Chapelle Royale at Versailles, a highly appropriate venue given its original commissioning by the Jesuit fathers of the Collège Louis-le-Grand. That performance has already been issued on CD and DVD on Versailles Spectacles. The set to hand was made live at Versailles, but was a concert performance given in the Opéra Royal the previous year. Ironically it is this performance that seeks to come closer to the original 1688 performance than the staged production in the Chapelle by using a children’s choir for the upper voices and a child for the role of Jonathas, though in this instance a girl rather than a boy. The present performance also almost certainly comes closer to the original performance at the Collège by using considerably smaller orchestral forces, although the playing of the somewhat oddly-named Orchestre Les Temps Présents (it is a period instrument band) is excellent. Also giving a hint of the context of the Jesuit performance is the inclusion of brief spoken 17th-century ‘déclamations’ placed as introductions to each act and, especially movingly, immediately after the death of Jonathan. Thus rather than a play serving as the context, the spoken word provides interludes to a music drama.

One of the features of David et Jonathas is that in contradiction to the title, the leading character is neither Saul’s son nor his much loved David, but the king himself, his tortured soul revealed in a manner and to a depth rare in Baroque opera. The role is here taken by bass David Witczak, heralding the overwhelmingly searing and insightful  characterization he brought to the role just over a year later in the Versailles production. David is sung by contre-ténor Clément Debieuvre, an alumnus of the CDMBV. His voice is lighter and more youthful in timbre than that of Reinoud Van Mechelen, whose assumption of the role was one of the glories of the production. Since the biblical David was young, some may feel Debieuvre’s sensitive if less authoritative performance is more authentic, but there’s no gainsaying Van Mechlelen’s authority. There is of course no valid comparison between the respective interpreters of Jonathas, but the sweet-voiced Natacha Boucher achieves an immensely touching degree of sensitivity in the events leading up to his death (act 5).

The remaining smaller roles are all well filled, with the experienced Edwin Crossley-Mercer a resonant Ghost of Samuel (in the prologue) and Achis, Saul’s general.

There is no question that David et Jonathas is one of the masterpieces of Baroque opera. The story is dramatic, Charpentier’s music magnificent. And like all masterpieces, it is capable of responding to alternative approaches. This version – orientated as it is toward its original college production – is in any event very different to the magisterial Versailles recording. Both have a more than valid place in the catalogue, as indeed does the earlier Erato set under the direction of William Christie.      

Brian Robins

Categories
Recording

Haydn: Baryton Trios

Treasures from the Esterháza Palace 2
Valencia Baryton Project
62:55
NAXOS 8.573504

Haydn’s employer, Prince Nikolaus Esterháza, was a proficient player of the baryton, essentially a bass viola d’amore – with strings stopped over a bridge and played with a bow and a series of sympathetic strings that resonate and can be plucked with the thumb. The composer was commissioned to write new music for the Prince and he produced over a hundred trios with viola and cello. Each begins with its longest movement, followed by a minuet and trio (or a similar dance), and concludes with a short, quick movement. Many of them are in A major because of the tuning of the baryton, but this selection of six by the Valencia Baryton Project (Matthew Baker as the Prince on baryton, Estevan de Almeida Ries as Haydn on viola, and Alex Friedhoff on cello) includes one each in C, D and G major. The music is – of course – charming, especially so when the viola and cello accompany the main attraction with plucked notes. I have heard several recordings of this repertoire (though not these particular pieces) before and have rarely been so aware of the sympathetic strings, the metallic buzz of the plucked notes. I mean that positively – the engineers have done an excellent job of capturing the sound quality without distorting it or upsetting the balance with the other instruments. I was sure a couple of tracks would be more than enough, so imagine my surprise when the music stopped – I’d happily listened to over an hour of Haydn played by the same three instruments! It really was a very pleasant hour.

Brian Clark

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Recording

Sperger: String Quartets op. 1

Mitglieder der Kammerakademie Potsdam
55:51
cpo 555 470-2

Johann Matthias Sperger‘s three string quartets, opus 1, were printed by the renowned Berlin published Hummel in 1791, the year of Mozart’s death. Comparisons with the younger man’s work are inevitable. Although Sperger’s works very definitely deserve to be heard (and this excellent performance on modern instruments can only help lift the composer’s popularity), these three substantial pieces could have been written by a young Mozart, not the man who had just died. As noted in the booklet, Sperger’s more introspective moments (especially in the slow movements, but always when he wanders into a minor key) are his strongest. He was not a shy musician, dedicating his music to the Russian Tsar and the King of Prussia, and I think he had good reason to think his output good enough. There are at least six more quartets awaiting discovery – perhaps a period quartet out there would like to take up the baton?

Brian Clark