Antico tastame

Organi storici dell’Arcidiocesi di Monreale
Giovan Battista Vaglica
Tactus TC 720003

This recording has been a labour of love by Giovan Battista Vaglica who is heavily involved in cataloguing and restoring organs in the Archdiocese of Monreale in Sicily. He plays on three of these instruments here: a 17th-century organ, originally by Antonino La Valle but much altered, in the church of Maria SS. del Carmelo; an anonymous 18th-century instrument in the Chiesa Madre of Terrasini; a 19th-century instrument by an unknown maker in the church of S. Vito in Monreale. The music – all by Sicilian or Neapolitan composers – is well chosen to show off the variety of stops on each of the organs. The two earlier instruments are used for Toccatas by Alessandro Scarlatti and Francesco Durante, as well as a fine fugue by Domenico Scarlatti. A rather over-long set of partite on the Follia di Spagna by the elder Scarlatti provides a good opportunity to put the Terrasini instrument through its paces. The majority of tracks on the recording are played on the Monreale organ, featuring music by Cimarosa, Paisiello and Pergolesi, as well as the lesser-known Neapolitans Pietro Altieri and Fedele Fenaroli. This is all attractive music, without taking itself too seriously, and successfully showcases the surprising variety of timbres available – with only five stops – on the Monreale organ. This recording is a useful reminder of the riches that survive in just one small area of Sicily and the importance of keeping organs such as these in playing condition.

Noel O’Regan


Bernard Storace In Modo Pastorale

Marouan Mankar-Bennis harpsichord & organ
L’Encelade ECL2101

This is an endearing recording which plunges the listener into a South Italian Christmas via a church bell and a bagpipe-like Pastorale, played on a 1768 Spanish organ by Buenafuente del Sistal (now in the church of Saint-Éloi de Fresnes near Paris). In this and other organ pieces, some subtle – and some not-so-subtle – percussion is added which provides a sense of theatre. Storace described himself as vice-choirmaster to the City of Messina, when publishing his only print in Venice in 1664; otherwise, nothing is known about him. His compositions represent a generic post-Frescobaldi idiom using familiar dance and variation forms: the Ciacona, Follia, Monica, Passacagli, and Ruggiero all feature, as well as as a couple of Recercars and a Toccata-Canzona pairing. One of the Recercars uses the ‘Sancta Maria’ refrain as its starting point, before introducing a chromatic subject and then moving on to a further one, eventually combining all three in what is a very effective piece. The other is entitled ‘di legature’ and was probably intended for the Elevation, though played here on a spinet: it strays into some strange chromatic territory towards the end.

While using familiar genres, Storace proves to be an inventive composer and Mankar-Bennis is a persuasive advocate. He adds a couple of his own short improvisations, on the Bergamasca and the Trombetta/Girometta. As well as the organ, with its blaring Spanish trumpets, he plays on an Italian-style harpsichord by Sean Rawnsley, after Giusti, and an Italian spinet by Jean-François Brun, based on a 1626 instrument. Recording quality is clear throughout and there is a very good variety of tone colours between the three instruments. The recording is sited within a putative grand tour of Sicily by the performer, imagined during the Covid lockdown, taking with him a series of readings by Alexandre Dumas, Guy de Maupassant, and others. Some random short street recordings are added as a preface to many of the tracks; these do add atmosphere, rather than being just a distraction. This may not be to everyone’s taste, but I rather enjoyed the conceit. Full texts are given in the booklet (and online), though only in French, with just a short summary in English. This is an imaginative approach to the music of a neglected composer and making it more accessible.

Noel O’Regan


Winged Hands

Handel: The Eight Great Suites & Overtures
Francesco Corti harpsichord
147:00 (2 CDs in a card triptych)
Arcana A499

The title of this collection refers to a comment by Cardinal Benedetto Pamphili, Roman patron of the young Handel, who is reputed to have said: ‘he has wings in his right hand, indeed with that hand he does works that are more than mortal’. This has been taken as praise of Handel’s virtuosity at the keyboard, though Pamphili might also have been referring to the young composer’s expressive ability. Both traits are on full display in this fine recording by Francesco Corti. He is a player of great fluency, with a deep understanding of the styles of the period; he also shows an exceptional talent for idiomatic ornamentation. Sometimes he gets a bit carried away and I find the Gigues a bit rushed and breathless. But when the tempo is right, as it is for most of these movements, there is time for breath without ever losing the sense of the line. His right hand does indeed take flight, slightly behind the left in slower movements, and with good use of agogic accents and a fluid application of notes inégales. There is a real sense here of the impact the young Handel’s playing must have had on his listeners, a long way from other, more literal and careful, recordings of this repertoire. Played in this way, Handel’s music covers a very wide gamut of emotions and styles. I particularly liked his treatment of the introspective F minor Suite (HWV433), but all the suites have their highlights. Registration is imaginative and the harpsichord – by Andrea Restelli after Christian Vater’s Hannover 1738 original – is very well suited to this music. The recording is quite reverberant and more distant than some, mimicking a large public room rather than a smaller one. As well as the eight Suites there are arrangements of opera overtures and other movements from Radamisto, Rinaldo, Rodelinda and Teseo by Handel and William Babell. While excitingly played, I found these rather less satisfactory and often rushed. The Menuet from Rinaldo, for instance, lacks the poise and elegance which David Vickers points to in his excellent sleeve notes. That apart, this is very welcome recording indeed and can be very highly recommended.

Noel O’Regan


Handel: 8 Great Suites for harpsichord

Asako Ogawa
135:32 (2 CDs in a card triptych)
First Hand Records FHR142

Coming in the wake of Francesco Corti’s recent recording of this repertoire, Ogawa’s CD inevitably invites comparison, and I am pleased to report that her playing stands up very well. While not by any means eschewing flamboyance, Ogawa is more sparing in her displays and concentrates on lucidity of sound and clarity of voice leading, with a subtle use of ornamentation. She is reflective in slower movements and exciting in faster ones like the Courantes and Gigues, while retaining a sense of poise. Occasionally, some stodginess creeps into her use of notes inégales, particularly in the Allemandes. As well as the eight Suites, she includes the Chaconne in G major, HWV 435, where effective registration and a strong sense of momentum keeps the music alive throughout. Climaxes in this and other pieces are built steadily, for instance in the so-called ‘Harmonious Blacksmith’ variations in HWV 430: this builds inexorably to a thrilling ending, with Ogawa giving us an extra repeat of the final section where she metaphorically pulls out all the stops. Her reading of the G minor Suite HWV 432 particularly impressed me. She plays on a harpsichord by Klaus Ahrend 1973, based on a model by Dulken, with a beautifully mellow sound; it is quite closely miked, but with just enough reverberation for beauty of tone and clarity. Ivan Moody manages to cram lots of relevant information into his liner notes. Overall, this recording is a considerable achievement and can be recommended for many gratifying insights.

Noel O’Regan


Sturm und Drang 3

The Mozartists, conducted by Ian Page
Signum SIGCD759

This is the eagerly anticipated third volume in what is planned as a seven-disc series of so-called ‘Sturm und Drang’ (storm and stress) works. Applied to music, as previously noted, it’s a slippery concept that takes its origination from the literary genre of that name, a movement typified by Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther (1774) and driven by the expression of fierce, sometimes uncontrollable passions. A forerunner of 19th-century Romanticism, it is applied notably to literary works from the early 1770s until c.1790.

The most common usage of the term in music is to a group of stormy, dramatic symphonies composed by Haydn from the mid-1760s to around a decade later, the present ongoing series having to date featured three of them: No. 39 in G minor (1765) on vol 2; No 49 in F minor ‘La Passione’ (1768) on vol 1, and No 44 in E minor ‘Trauer’ (c.1771), which is included on the present CD. It’s a work Ian Page describes as the greatest of the composer’s ‘Sturm und Drang’ symphonies, while I, throwing caution to the wind, would describe it as one of the greatest of all his symphonies. It will be noted that these works are in a minor key, one of the main characteristics of ‘Sturm und Drang’ compositions, and also that two of them pre-date the literary movement, making it difficult to tie them into any suggestion of a defined ‘Sturm und Drang’ movement. As Ian Page suggests in his general note on the topic included, another and more tenable explanation is that it is a reaction against the Rococo charm of the mid-century.

All four movements of the ‘Trauer’ symphony are outstanding, but it is arguably on the magnificent Adagio, placed as the third rather than second movement, that the symphony’s particular claim to exceptional quality lies. Employing muted strings throughout, it threads a path of utmost tranquillity disturbed only by momentary restlessness in the second half. It is supremely well played here with a sense of rapt beauty that further enhances it, as does the contrast with the fiercely uncompromising outer movements. By coincidence, the other symphony here also includes a remarkable slow movement with muted strings. This is the three-movement Symphony in G minor by the Bohemian composer Leopold Kozeluch (1747-1818), the last of a group of three published in 1787. Kozeluch was well-established in Vienna by the time Mozart arrived there in 1781 and in 1785 founded his own publishing house in the city. The outer movements of the G minor Symphony are splendid examples of ‘Sturm und Drang’, typical of the angst, tension, buzzing tremolandi and angularity familiar from the symphonies of Haydn and Mozart (and J C Bach in vol 2) in that key. The central Adagio, however, is a sublime movement, with some particularly felicitous writing; the whole movement sounds as if it is an anticipation of Così fan tutte. The final orchestral work on the disc is Mozart’s Adagio and Fugue for strings, K 546, two movements composed some while apart, with the new, deeply, almost spiritual Adagio composed in 1788 prefacing a fiercely inexorable fugue orchestrated from an earlier fugue for two pianos. The work as a whole is a Janus-like composition with the Adagio anticipating Romantic expressivity, the Fugue looking firmly back over its shoulder to the Baroque. It is projected with great depth and body by the strings of The Mozartists.

Another special feature of the series is the inclusion of vocal, mainly operatic, extracts. Vol 1 is especially valuable in this respect, including first recordings of arias by badly neglected composers such as Jommelli and Traetta, in addition to Gluck, all splendidly sung by Chiara Skerath.

I don’t feel the vocal contribution here to be as strong, either as to content or performance. The US soprano Emily Pogorelc is typical of the current vogue for singers that essay a wide range of repertoire rather than specialise in earlier music. She has a significant continuous vibrato – listen for example to the lovely cavatina that bridges the two stretches of accompanied recitative in Paisiello’s scena for Adrane from Annibale in Torino (Turin, 1771) – and there is a distinct lack of control in the upper range, especially in coloratura. The voice itself has a lustrous quality that brings its rewards, but I feel these are more likely to be appreciated in a later repertoire. The other, and to my mind, superior, vocal excerpt comes from Anton Schweitzer’s Alceste (Weimar, 1773). The opera is notable for having a German libretto by no less celebrated a writer than Wieland, though the music is thoroughly Italianate. Alceste’s  ‘Er ist gekommen … Zwischen Angst’ opens the opera in full dramatic flood, as the queen awaits news of her husband Admetus’s impending death. Pogorelc captures the drama well, but again too much of her singing is blustery and lacking control.

Overall, however, this makes for another exceptionally satisfying addition to a series that is special not just for the thought and scholarship that goes into it, but Page’s direction of his fine players. It is throughout beautifully balanced and paced, while at the same time musically highly insightful.

Brian Robins


John Sheppard: Missa Cantate

+ Laudem dicite; Jesu salvator saeculi, redemptis; Martyr Dei qui unicum; Gaude, gaude, gaude Maria; Beata nobis gaudia; Gaude virgo Christiphera

The Tallis Scholars conducted by Peter Phillips
Gimell CDGIM 053

Peter Phillips has done remarkable work with The Tallis Scholars (TTS), the choir he founded in 1973, recording, performing, broadcasting, editing, writing about and generally evangelizing for British (sic – Tomkins, though no Carver) and European music of the Renaissance. The standard of performance has always been high, sometimes transcendent – Josquin’s Missa Pange lingua, Sheppard’s Media vita and from left field the Agnus of Missa Da pacem by Bauldeweyn misattributed to Josquin, to name only a few at random. The choir’s personnel never stagnate, and nor therefore do their performances. This is illustrated by a concert which I recall attending in December 2014 at St John’s Smith Square, during which TTS sang the exhilarating but unfamiliar Magnificat by Edmund Turges, and the familiar Lullaby by Byrd which nonetheless received a revelatory rendition.

With their pinpoint tuning and use of high pitch, TTS have an ideal composer in Sheppard, with his thrilling melodies, enthralling counterpoint, spicy harmonies and startling dissonances. The works selected for this recording each contain all of the above. Every piece was intended for the Roman Catholic liturgy that passed into obsolescence in England almost simultaneously with the death of Sheppard himself. The mass, which is for six voices, runs for nearly half an hour on this recording, and two of the motets, Gaude, gaude, gaude Maria and Gaude virgo Christiphera, take over ten minutes, while all the others except Martyr Dei qui unicum take over five, all giving Sheppard ample scope for exhibiting his unique and remarkable style.

There are five other current recordings of this Mass, and while two of these are by other adult chamber choirs, the other three are by cathedral or collegiate choirs of men plus boys (and, in one case, boys and girls): The Choir of Westminster Cathedral; St Mary’s Scottish Episcopal Cathedral, Edinburgh; and the trebles of Salisbury Cathedral joined by the lower voices of the Gabrieli Consort, most of whom will have had ecclesiastical backgrounds. This version by The Tallis Scholars (many of whom also have ecclesiastical backgrounds) sounds the most secular of all these. It seems in places to come over as quite assertively accented, either on the beat in the Mass, or corresponding with changes of notes in the plainsong in works which are built around the chant in one of the voices. The versions sung by the ecclesiastical choirs seem to have more of an ethereal flow, appropriate to the acoustics of the buildings in which Sheppard’s works would be sung liturgically, while The Tallis Scholars’ interpretation is ideal for the sort of drier acoustic usually encountered in secular concert halls. This is the reality of the modern world: fabulous early liturgical music being rediscovered, cherished, and performed democratically, for mental and spiritual refreshment and delectation, as well as for sheer listening pleasure, outwith the sacred environment for which it was originally intended. Ironically in view of what I have just written, The Tallis Scholars made this recording in Brinkburn Priory, but it still comes across to this listener as an interpretation suited for the likes of Cadogan Hall. This in no way is any sort of denigration of a fine recording, expertly sung, which contains consistently wonderful music, sometimes achieving sublimity as in the case of the increasingly famous Amen to Jesu salvator saeculi, redemptis.

Three of Sheppard’s other four surviving masses (all a4) – Plainsong Mass for a Mean, Western Wind and Be not afraid – are available on commercial recordings, so it would be good to have the French Mass on CD etc. to complete the set, and to enable the listening public to hear more of this great composer’s music.

Richard Turbet


Festin Royal: Du mariage du Comte D’Artois, Versailles, 1773

Les Ambassadeurs – La Grande Écurie, conducted by Alexis Kossenko
125:56 (2 CDs in a card triptych)
Château de Versailles Spectacles CVS101

Following its completion in 1770 the magnificent Opéra Royal in the palace of Versailles played host not only to opera but also to large-scale court events such as weddings, banquets and balls. In fact, the day of its inauguration witnessed such an event in the form of the marriage of the Dauphin, the future Louis XVI, to Marie Antoinette, the youngest daughter of the Hapsburg Empress Maria Theresa. This was followed by a performance of Lully’s Persée. Three years later, having hosted the wedding celebrations of Louis XV’s next-in-line successor, the Count of Provence in 1771, came the marriage of the Count of Artois. As with all these sumptuous proceedings, music played an important role in the banqueting, in 1773 under the auspices of the current Surintendant de la Musique de la Chambre du roi, François Francoeur.

In contrast to previous incumbents, Francoeur did not write special music himself. Rather in conjunction with his close collaborator François Rebel he produced four suites for the occasion, utilising music taken not only from his works, understandably the lion’s share, but also successful operas by such as Rameau, Royer, Dauvergne, Mondonville and composers whose names are today less familiar: Pierre-Montan Berton (1727-1780), René de Galard de Béarn, marquis de Brassac (1698-1771) and Bernard de Bury (1720-1785). One of the fascinating aspects of the music included is not only how much of it is not recent, but also the number of works added to existing classics by the likes of Lully and Campra. Thus we have additions by Francoeur and de Bury for productions in 1761 and 1770 respectively of Lully’s Armide, providing a rare example at this time of a secular canon of works having become established as repertoire.

There are two particularly striking aspects of this recording produced at Versailles. The first is that the four suites are a rare example of music being performed in the exact location in which they were originally given. More fascinating still is that the performing forces were determined from a contemporary document that lists the number of instrumentalists that took part. From that, we learn that the orchestra consisted of 70 players, including 26 violins, six violas, no fewer than 14 cellos, four oboes, six bassoons, four horns and, interestingly, a pair of historic clarinets made in France. The results of putting together this large band are stunning, every bit as exciting as hearing Handel’s big occasional pieces played by the forces originally intended. As conductor Alexis Kossenko eloquently puts it: ‘This indulgence turned into exhilaration when we played the first notes of Francoeur’s overture [an addition to that from Lully’s Armide for a 1745 or 1761 production] … The density, the richness of the sound, the robustness of the attacks, but also the mellowness afforded by the 50 or so strings … All of this suddenly made sense, revealing the grandeur of this repertoire, royalty that asserts itself as much in magnificence as in grace …’ Both magnificence and grace are abundant in these splendidly played performances (well, I suppose the horns have their moments, but that’s all part of the fun) which far from being routine or dutiful exude an irresistible verve and character.

It would be pointless to spend much time discussing individual tracks. It’s not that kind of issue and in any event there are too many items, over 40. But a few observations. To get a taster of the visceral excitement that frequently leaps from these CDs try Royer’s Chaconne from his Pyrrhus of 1730, relishing especially the episode with the cellos and basses chugging energetically away. That’s just one of four chaconnes, a magnificent form that I have to confess having a particular weakness for. The one by Berton, an addition to Iphigénie en Tauride, Desmarest’s 1761 production of Campra’s 1704 opera, is a noble, stirring structure running to some nine minutes. Although almost forgotten today, Berton enjoyed a high profile in French musical life, being joint director (with Jean-Claude Trial (1732-1771), also represented here) and then general administrator of the Opéra, in addition to taking on the directorship of the Concert Sprituel, the famous concert-giving organisation. One final thought. As is proved by this hugely enjoyable issue, 18th-century France was not short of fine composers, but one name obstinately stands out as a great one. That name? Jean-Philippe Rameau, of course!

Brian Robins


Gottfried Heinrich Stölzel: Ein Lämmlein geht und trägt die Schuld

Veronika Winter, Franz Vitzhum, Markus Brutscher, Martin Schicketanz, Rheinische Kantorei, Das kleine Konzert, Hermann Max
cpo 555 311-2
110:28 (2 CDs)

It is hard to underestimate the widespread influence of the powerfully evocative and image-laden libretto known as The Brockes-Passion!

Conceived by B. H. Brockes (1680-1747), the Hamburg statesman and poet, andpublished c. 1712, with various settings by several noteworthy composers of the day, Keiser, Mattheson, Telemann, Handel, Fasch and Stölzel; even Bach’s St John Passion contains several elements, as did Telemann’s early Hamburg Passions of the 1720s, sadly lost.

In 1992, great efforts were made to reconstruct Bach’s musical library, and the music of G. H. Stölzel appeared terribly under-represented, save the famous aria “Bist Du bei mir” from the Notenbüchlein for Anna Magdalena Bach. Gifted musically from a tender age, Stölzel was a Leipzig student in 1707, active in the Collegio Musico. After some private tuition, he made an Italian tour, meeting famous masters. After working in Gera and Bayreuth, (the latter a centre for early opera), then from 1719 was court kapellmeister in Gotha, gradually turning his hand from operas to sacred music. And so we find the setting of a passion-oratorio circa 1720, not long before he set the Brockes Passion in 1725. It has also been discovered that a cantata cycle (on texts by Benjamin Schmolck) was performed by Bach in Leipzig 1735-6, and Stölzel’s earlier 1720 Passion-oratorio on Good Friday 1734.

Much of Stölzel’s musical legacy was neglected and destroyed, in part due to Georg Benda’s careless disregard for it. Hermann Max is to be most heartily congratulated for diligently compiling the score from parts found in the Schloßmuseum SonderhausenBach obviously admired the music, since he re-worked the aria from the 13th Betrachtung: “Dein Kreuz, o Bräutigam meiner Seele” into “Bekennen will ich seinen Namen” from BWV200.

As per usual Hermann Max has drawn a fine team of performers around him, and the main soloists give a good account of themselves. For an early example of a Passion-oratorio, with 22 Betrachtungen (Contemplations) and 20 Chorales (all with clearly defined sources), it lacks the dramaturgic fluency of the Brockes Passions and others I can think of, yet does include passages for “Christliche Kirche” and “Gläubige Seele”, the latter acting like a kind of accompagnato leading into the reflective arias. Some of these arias (for example, tracks 6 and 12) exude a style close to that found in Graun and Telemann’s Der Tod Jesu (1755), yet others feel lacking in their overall effect and intensity, somewhat “underpowered”, given the vivid and descriptive wording. One senses an active, refined musical (operatic) mind at work, however, the musico-poetic grasp isn’t always alert or activated; nor is the broader instrumental palette. The Evangelist here gives a very good narrative link, using a device termed: Historic Present. The Duet of Gläubige Seelen (21) is rather fine, yet short-lived. The narration up to the lovely Aria “Allerhoechster Gottessohn” (27) seems a fairly weak response to the drama; so too the Aria (30) “Cease, ye murderous claws”! Finally, in the aria (33) we have some sensitive and emotive instrumentation, as the composer deploys a flute, yet it is again all too short-lived!

CD2 opens with the tenor aria that Bach used, yet in my very honest opinion, the following numbers for alto and soprano are musically far superior; indeed, Veronika Winters contributions here are truly noteworthy and soar aloft! So too the chorus before the final section stands out. The closing sections are most effective, being woven around the famous chorale, O Traurigkeit, O Herzeleid. This actually feels more like a liturgical Passion with a few extra twists, than a Passion-oratorio. Every new Passiontide work should be judged on its own merits; alas, due to the sheer dominance of just a handful of works at Easter, many will fall foul of deep-rooted routines and certain perceived expectations, which is disappointing, as so many works will not even get to see the light of day, being held at bay until some fortunate discovery allows the spirit of these pieces to be heard alongside the more familiar. Hermann Max has once again presented on CPO another noteworthy Eastertide Passion, which is an historic document of finest musicology in action.

David Bellinger


The Honour of William Byrd

Helen Charlston mezzo-soprano, Chelys Consort of Viols
BIS BIS-2663

This fine tribute to William Byrd is one of many commercial recordings to mark the quatercentenary of his passing on 4 July 1623. Helen Charlston sings on twelve of the tracks, and of the other seven, six are consort pieces and the other is an arrangement, originally for recorders, by the esteemed F.H. Mountney and Walter Bergmann, published by Schott in 1966, of Byrd’s variations on Sellenger’s Round for keyboard.

Two of the vocal items are “choral” works arranged here for voice and viols: the six-part version of This sweet and merry month of May, one of Byrd’s few actual madrigals; and the church anthem O Lord make thy servant Elizabeth also in six parts, which became increasingly popular during the latter years of the second Queen Elizabeth. These work as well as such adaptations ever do. The other songs, all of which have received at least one previous commercial recording, are an appealing combination of familiar and unfamiliar. Two of them, Why do I use my paper, ink and pen and Blessed is he that fears the Lord, are familiar on disc and were printed by Byrd as partsongs but have only ever received recordings, albeit perfectly authentically, as solo songs.  Having heard the former sung “chorally” by the Marian Consort earlier this year during a recital in Norwich, it would be good to have both this and the other song on disc in their original printed versions. Come to me grief for ever has been recorded in both versions, and it is good to welcome these familiar pieces alongside the less familiar Thou poet’s friend, With lilies white, All as a sea and Wretched Albinus. The final song, and concluding track, on this disc is the most familiar item of all, Byrd’s lament for one of his teachers (not forgetting John Sheppard!) and closest mentor Thomas Tallis, Ye sacred Muses. One of the sublime qualities of this iconic work (and for once the adjective can be applied appropriately) is that it draws forth outstanding performances from whoever sings it on disc. This is no less the case here, which is arguably Helen’s finest interpretation of a song from this repertory, her searing yet restrained sincerity superbly supported by Chelys’s immaculate accompaniment in which every line is clearly heard, with each part perfectly balanced with one another and cumulatively with the voice.

While Dowland has acquired plaudits over the years from the likes of Britten for his word-settings, Byrd has a more subtle way with his texts, often dropping a “killer” musical phrase to clinch the psychological drift of a particular text. Several of the songs included on this recording have just such moments: the almost immobile phrase over a melodically and harmonically busy accompaniment at “works thine end” concluding Wretched Albinus (aka the doomed Earl of Essex); the suddenly incandescent “with lamps of crystal shining” in With lilies white; the uneasy “with troubles are beset” in Rejoice unto the Lord; the spiritually erotic “this love light not thy mind” in Ah silly soul; and the more overt “and sing with me” in Thou poet’s friend. All these are sensitively conveyed by Helen and Chelys.

The consort pieces are all familiar but nonetheless welcome. Chelys’s reading of the In nomine a4 no 1 is both beautiful and profound, measured and thoughtful. The second of Byrd’s fantasias in six parts is a bit rushed, and the lower textures are occasionally muddy: for instance, the rhetorically crucial semiquavers in the second tenor at bar 41 are inaudible. Unlike some other consorts, Chelys commendably use the original instrumental notation in the first of Byrd’s fantasias in six parts, not defaulting to the slightly different rhythms in what became his motet Laudate pueri as being allegedly his revised thoughts on those passages (rather than simply his response to the text he chose to set to that pre-existing music). Chelys’s interpretations of the fantasias a4 no 1 and a5 and the Browning are excellent.

There are still a few of Byrd’s songs awaiting commercial recordings, although the only one without complications in its provenance is Ah golden hairs; and As Caesar wept has appeared only on LP. All but two of Byrd’s consort verses on Te lucis ante terminum have yet to appear on disc. Meanwhile, this is a thoroughly likeable and rewarding disc, a well-chosen combination of consort songs and consort music, and a fine contribution to Byrd’s quatercentenary.



Haydn – String Quartets op 33 / 1 – 3

Chiaroscuro Quartet
BIS 2588

Almost certainly the most quoted words on the six string quartets Haydn published in 1781 as opus 33 are those of the composer himself. Addressed to potential subscribers, he informed them that the quartets were written in ‘a new and special way, for I have not published any for ten years’, a reference to the set published as opus 20 (and incidentally recorded by the Chiaroscuro Quartet – see HERE for a review of the first three). Although there are indeed many things about op 33 that are innovative and special, Haydn’s publishing blurb should not, as it has often been, be taken too seriously since it was a standard advertising ploy by composers and publishers to attract attention to their latest offering.

For me, I think the most striking thing about opus 33 is the sense of quest and adventure, of a mature composer who has mastered a new and difficult medium and is prepared not only to exploit that mastery but have a bit of fun along the way. Take the order of movements, for example. In op 20 Haydn’s ‘slow’ movement is placed second  – its ‘proper’ place in established practice – in three of the quartets, while in op 33, it comes second in just two quartets. So Haydn is still experimenting, just as is also the case with deciding on either minuet or the rather faster scherzo. Then there is the humour, which with Haydn is never far away. The E-flat Quartet (No 2) was actually given the nickname ‘The Joke’ to mark the breath-taking piece of truly inspired wit that comes at the end of the work, when Haydn suddenly brings the hurtling thrust of the Presto finale to a halt to introduce four bars marked adagio. Pause. What will happen now? Well, a resumption of the Presto but now with pauses of a rest interpolated every few bars. Until the best part of the joke that is, the final six bars of the work, where the silence becomes a whole three bars long. Whether or not the oft-repeated quote attributed to Haydn is true – that he ended the work this way to catch out the ladies who always started talking before the end of a piece – is neither here nor there. It might perhaps be better to hope it isn’t true; in today’s humourless world, it would probably be enough to get Haydn cancelled. This final passage, which is in fact of course technically a coda, is incidentally beautifully handled by the Chiaroscuros.

Another moment to savour in these performances comes the third of the set, the C-major, which also carries a nickname, ‘The Bird’, for reasons that are obvious from the outset, where the frequent acciaccaturas or grace notes convey obvious suggestions of bird calls, as do other ornamental figures. In the development section of the opening Allegro moderato there is a marvellous passage in which Haydn introduces a crescendo with a clear bird call (that of a large bird?) followed by a decrescendo that leads to a few bars marked pp but without the suggestion of slowing the tempo. But here the Chiaroscuros do just that, creating for just a few bars an air of avian mystery and Hitchcockian menace. It’s a supremely effective moment and typical of the imaginative approach of the quartet, who are never afraid to apply judicious rubato or touches of portamento. This appropriate playfulness is one of the distinctive features of performances that constantly delight and impress by dint of superb playing that also shows off Haydn’s wonderful command of counterpoint.  This applies especially in the B-minor quartet (No 1), the most ‘learned’ of this group. Here one fully grasps the inspiration that op 33 gave to Mozart to put his own contrapuntal mastery to the test in the six quartets he dedicated to his friend. It’s worth noting that all essential repeats are taken by the Chiaroscuro, that’s to say all but those of the scherzo or minuet da capos.

I concluded my review of the Chiaroscuro Quartet’s opus 20 by expressing the hope they would record opus 33. It’s taken a while but here at least is the first instalment and well worth the wait it is.

Brian Robins