Monteverdi: tutti i madrigali

Concerto Italiano directed by Rinaldo Alessandrini
707:62 (11 CDs)
Naïve OP7547

There are many cases where it is possible to chart the development of a composer through a specific genre, Haydn’s symphonies being a good case in point. But I know of no comparable example when it comes to plotting the development of musical history to the madrigals of Monteverdi, which starting with Renaissance polyphony transitions unfalteringly through eight published books into the new world of the Baroque. To explore the intégrale within a brief period is to feel a sense of privilege, to wonder afresh at the genius of their creator.

The present opportunity comes via the set recorded by Concerto Italiano under their founder and director Rinaldo Alessandrini over a period of nearly thirty years. The final instalment, featuring Book 1 and the posthumously published Book 9, has unlike the other books not been previously issued. Needless to say, the vocal ensemble utilised over the years has involved many different singers, the prize for the greatest number of appearances being soprano Monica Piccinini, who participates in no fewer than seven of the books. In the succeeding review it is not my intention to comment to any extent on individual performances, except in the case of solos. In general terms, I find the ensemble singing in the earlier contrapuntal madrigals to be extremely satisfying to a degree that perhaps is not quite so rewarding in the later books, where solo work is liable to reveal more flaws. This applies particularly to the important contribution of the two tenors in the later works. But in general terms the overall level of performance is not only very high but admirably consistent given the period over which the recordings were made. Given the bargain price – you should expect to pay around £45 – there are unsurprisingly no texts or translations, though there is a 96-page booklet that includes helpful notes by Alessandrini. It is also possible to download the texts and English translations provided with the complete Naxos set,  one of two currently available rivals, the other being the excellent La Venexiana recording (Glossa).

Like all great works of art, the magnificent madrigal legacy Monteverdi left us with did arise from a void. The first three books, published respectively in 1587, 1590 and 1592, all of which exploit the ‘pure’ unaccompanied one-voice-per-part polyphonic madrigal stem from Monteverdi’s studies with Marc’Antonio Ingegneri (1535-1592), the composer of eight books of madrigals and himself the pupil of one of the most distinguished of madrigal composers, Cipriani de Rore (1515/6-1565). The most famous of the madrigals included in Book 1 is ‘Baci soave e cari’, a sensually lovely work to a text by Battista Guarini, the writer of Il pastor fido and a poet Monteverdi would turn to frequently. Like all the madrigals of the first three books, it is in five parts and like many combines contrapuntal writing with simpler homophonic passages, a favourite device of Ingegneri in his sacred works.

Book 2, published at much the time Monteverdi moved from his home city of Cremona to the court at Mantua, is particularly notable for the domination of texts by Torquato Tasso (1544-1595). Nearly half the contents are settings of Tasso and commentators have noted that his poems seemed to have particularly inspired Monteverdi. In keeping with the time-honoured tradition of putting something especially striking at the head of a publication, Monteverdi opens the book with the two-part ‘Non si levava’ancor l’alba novella’, a Tasso narrative in which two lovers that have a spent a blissful night without sleep greet the dawn with reluctance, knowing parting is close. This is one of several magical evocations of dawn in Monteverdi’s madrigals, while the sweetness and passion of the night are drawn with unerring tenderness. The preoccupation with Tasso continues into Book 3, which also features poems by Guarini, the lighter pastoral moods of the latter contrasting with the deeper expressions of emotions found in Tasso, two of the madrigals extracts from his great epic poem Gerusalemme liberata. Also apparent is the greater level of virtuosity making its way into the madrigals, possibly as a result of Monteverdi having become familiar with the music associated with Ferrara and its famous ‘concerto delle donne’, an ensemble of virtuoso women singers employed by the court and renowned for its virtuosity. This kind of ensemble would be emulated at the Mantuan court, spurring Monteverdi  to introduce more bravura solo work in madrigals of the most up-to-date type.

The greater emphasis on virtuosity, solo episodes and fragmentation undermining the contrapuntal texture becomes more emphatic in Book 4, published in 1603, a long gap during which Monteverdi became a fully- mature composer who had been appointed director of music in Mantua. It is likely the contents were assembled from works composed over a period of time. Here the texts are concentrated on Guarini, although it is worth noting that ‘Sfogava con le stelle’ one of the most radical settings has a text by Ottavio Rinuccini (1562-1621), the librettist of the earliest operas and Monteverdi’s lost opera L’Arianna (1608). It opens with an appropriately thoughtful narrative employing the title words – ‘Communing with the stars’ before suddenly exploding like a star burst as the lover takes up his anguish; ‘O sweet images of the one I adore’. Gone completely is the balance of contrapuntal writing, replaced by mannerist solo writing that pushed the virtuosity of the singer ever further. It’s an astonishing example of the way in which Monteverdi is pushing the limits of the classical madrigal ever closer to breaking point.

That point arrives in Book 5, which quickly followed in 1605. Again the lion’s-share of texts are by Guarini, while the increasing part played by solos and homophonic writing at the expense of polyphony is again apparent. At times that affects the present performances negatively, the greater demands for the communication of text not always met by singing that perhaps concentrates too much on beauty. The moment where Monteverdi takes the madrigal firmly into the 17th century arrives some two-thirds of the way through the book. In ‘Ahi, com’a un vago sol cortese giro’ we hear a lute accompanying the singers, a capella works henceforth absent. The span of the madrigal is greater, the texture now freed to allow for more concentration on solos and a greater degree of melismatic writing and its attendant bravura. The book concludes with ‘Questi vaghi concenti’, a virtuoso madrigal about music itself, complete with instrumental introduction (string ensemble) and accompaniment.

The subsequent close relationship of the madrigal with opera is apparent from the outset of Book 6, published in 1614, the year after Monteverdi arrived in Venice to take up the post of choirmaster of St Mark’s. Monteverdi’s own first experience with opera had come with Orfeo in 1607, succeeded the following year by the lost L’Arianna. All that remains of it is the ‘Lamento d’Arianna’ that the composer put at the head of Book 6. In the course of its four parts, the tortured Ariadne pours out her feelings after being abandoned by Theseus, her emotions veering wildly from distress to vengeful anger. The madrigal became a seminal work in 17th-century music, imitated in a thousand laments. On the present set, it is powerfully sung by Anna Simboli. It is followed by one of Monteverdi’s most enchanting works, ‘Zefiro torno’, its scherzo-like lightness (but for the devastating final line) providing an effective contrast between serious and light, a hallmark of Book 6.

The two final books published in Monteverdi’s lifetime take us into realms undreamt of by earlier composers of the classic a capella madrigal. Book 7, published in Venice in 1619, includes madrigals for 1,2,3,4 and 6 voices, in other words anything but the disposition of the earlier standard 5-part madrigal. The texts are by a variety of composers, not excluding the composer’s favourites, Guarini and Tasso. Among a dazzling variety of forms are two pieces employing the new recitative or rappresentativo style, both solo monologues for lovers, the one in the form of a letter written to the beloved, the ‘lettera amorosa’, the other the parting words of a lover, ‘partenze amorosa’. Book 7 closes with what is in effect a miniature opera, the pastoral love of Thysis and Chloris in dialogue leading into a choral dance of the kind familiar from Act 1 of Orfeo.

If Book 7 is wonderfully variegated, Book 8 ends Monteverdi’s career as the man that split the madrigal asunder with a set for which the term tour de force hardly suffices. Published in Venice in 1638, Monteverdi divided the contents into two, the ‘madrigali guerrieri’and ‘madrigali amorosi’, madrigals of war and love, though the topics are more frequently concerned with wars of love than being literally concerned with military war. It should be noted that while the two groups were published with their contents grouped together Alessandrini does not perform them in this order, preferring his own juxtapositions and contrasts. Given no one would perform the whole book in sequence there can be no objection, though it does make following the text and translation rather more challenging. To do justice to this magnificent collection in a line or two is impossible, but it is interesting to note that Alessandrini opens with another quasi-opera that is one of its greatest glories, the Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda. The text, taken from Tasso’s Gerusalemme liberata, tells the story of the tragedy of Tancredi, who in battle unknowingly kills Clorinda, the woman he loves. It thus fulfils a story that is both one of literal war and its metaphor of love. It is also significant for introducing a new musical device, the stile concitato – the rapid reiteration of notes – used here for the battle sequences and frequently thereafter by composers to signify great agitation. The other major extended work is very different and involves song and dance. Il ballo delle ingrate relates the story of the fate awaiting proud women that scorn love. The Book also includes what is perhaps the greatest of all madrigals, ‘Hor che ’l  ciel’, a wonderful poem of Petrarch’s that is a corollary of ‘Sfogava con le stelle’. Here there is no joyous dawn awakening but the lover that has passed a tormented night alone, text and music a vivid description of his intense suffering.

Finally Book 9, published in Venice in 1651, nearly a decade after the composer’s death, consists mainly of lighter canzonette for three voices, a relatively insignificant supplement to one of the great glories of musical literature, here given performances that match its stature.    

Brian Robins


Tallis · Byrd · Gibbons

Friederike Chylek harpsichord & organ
Oehms Classics OC 1727

The succinct title of this recording is a rollcall which names three of the finest English composers for keyboards. Byrd and Gibbons without question, but Tallis? Yes, because his two huge settings of Felix namque are the final pieces in the development of keyboard music in England before the tipping point which led to the sequence of fantasias composed by Byrd: the sacred narrative of the plainsong replaced by the secular narrative of the composer’s own imagination and creativity. Friederike Chylek (FC) bookends her programme with these two pieces, performing both on the organ – primarily a harpsichordist, she is unnecessarily modest about her capabilities on the other instrument. Apart from one rather jarring change of registration in Felix namque #1 her interpretations of both pieces are models of clarity, played on a Swiss instrument of 1715. Many recordings of these two pieces give the impression of imposing some sort of point or “agenda” on them, emphasizing their length, their difficulty and/or their intricacy, whereas FC is content to express Tallis’s own creativity and allow his musical narrative to develop without intrusive gestures.

In three previous recordings – go to Early Music Review website, click on “Search” and type “Chylek” – from 2015 onwards, FC has emerged as a major exponent of the keyboard music of Byrd. Having recorded an entire disc of his music in 2020, she devotes nearly half of the current release to him in this, his quatercentenary. Like Tallis’s pieces, Ut re mi fa sol la is entrusted to the organ, a sound decision since this outstanding work benefits from the organ’s ability to sustain notes, whether maintaining the cantus firmus or affirming a dash of piquancy in some cadences. There are fine performances on the 1699 Neapolitan harpsichord of masterpieces such as the Third Pavan and Galliard, Walsingham and Fortune. Finest of all, and indeed the finest of any commercially recorded version of the work, is O mistress mine – one of Byrd’s gems that should be heard much more often, given here in a performance of perfection encapsulated in the balance and delicacy of the concluding cadence.

Like Byrd, Gibbons is allocated seven pieces. Most of these are lighter works like the modest Whoop do me no harm good man, the significant exception being the Fantasia in C (MB20/14) which illustrates how much Gibbons learnt from Byrd whether the older composer was his teacher, mentor or influence. That said, Gibbons’s compositional voice is clearly audible, especially in his exploitation of the harpsichord’s lower register.

This is an altogether delightful recording, with an outstanding exponent of early English keyboard music performing a well-chosen selection of works by three composers whose individual pieces always provide edification and pleasure.

Richard Turbet


Telemann: Trio sonatas & quartets

Campagnia Transalpina, Andreas Böhlen
aeolus AE-10366

Telemann’s cultivation of the trio form was truly prodigious, and we have ample proof of this with some 150 extant examples, as well as about 50 quadros. The timeline for these works spans from the early Eisenach period right up to the 1740s. There is already a rich scattering of recordings of many, with just the double violin trios seeming under-explored. The recorder and oboe trios are amongst the most often tackled, and in my own listings, I find two real gems: Tel-Strad: Teldec (a double CD) and the superb Stradivarius (STR 33595) with Tripla Concordia (Alfredo Bernardini et al). Some of these trios featured on this current CD were recorded as long ago as the 1980s, and even the quartets here have had numerous recordings, and feel like fine euphonic friends.

The writing for recorder and oboe is most satisfying, and the dialogues between these instruments are both languid and sensual, fluid and dynamic; Campagnia Transalpina has captured this aspect very well indeed, their voices balanced, and with unforced expressivity. The recorded sound quality is crisp, full and measured. This feels like a well-polished concert, with perhaps a touch of understatement in the finales. The oddest thing to my ears was the opening Largo from TWV42:F15, where a pile-up of ornaments from both the main instrumental protagonists dismantled the normally sensual flow of this beautiful slow movement. This aside, this recording demonstrates Telemann’s admirable prowess in writing fine chamber music.

The playing cards on the cover of the booklet may have shocked the composer, recalling the substantial gambling debts and infidelity of his second wife! Fortunately, the music offers some elegant conversations from a great musical esprit, the familiar G-major work displaying this in spades.

David Bellinger


Byrd: Sacred Works

The Saint Thomas Choir of Men and Boys, Fifth Avenue, New York, conducted by Jeremy Filsell (2022) with Nicholas Haigh, Assistant Organist; and Gerre Hancock (1981)

Recorded in St Paul the Apostle, Columbus Circle, New York (2022) and St Mary the Virgin, Times Square, New York (1981)

Mass for Four Voices, Propers for Corpus Christi (2022),
The Great Service (1981)
1441:01 (2 CDs)
Signum Classics SIGCD776

This double album has a bland title, “Sacred Works” but … what wonderful works. We cannot have too many recordings of music this good, and when it is performed as well as it is here, we are all winners. After 2023 marked Byrd’s successful, enjoyable and rewarding Quatercentenary, 2024 is the centenary of the rediscovery of Byrd’s Great Service in Durham Cathedral, by his indefatigable cheerleader E.H. Fellowes, and of its first performance in (probably) three centuries, which took place in St Margaret’s Church, Westminster sung by the Newcastle upon Tyne Bach Choir under W.G. Whittaker, himself no mean Byrd scholar. So it is excellent to welcome back into the catalogue St Thomas Choir’s recording of the complete work made in 1981 and hitherto only available as an LP. What sounds as if it might be intrusive traffic noise from Times Square, outside the recording venue, can be heard but this is a small price to pay for the privilege of having access to this stunning performance. (Credit to the engineers who made the transfer from the original LP, a copy of which I used to own.) Of five other available complete recordings, only two are by Anglican church choirs – King’s College, Cambridge, and Westminster Abbey – and neither of those are, like St Thomas New York, unaccompanied. So this is also a unique recording. The performers set out their stall right from the opening verse passage of the Venite, the first canticle in the Service; this is delivered with crystal clarity, the fleeting dissonance on “strength” distinctly audible in the generous acoustic. The recording was made just too soon to take advantage of Craig Monson’s imminent edition (1982) with its new thinking as regards certain verse and antiphonal passages, but there is still some variety between the verse, antiphonal and full passages as laid down in Fellowes’ edition (1948).

Modern trends in Byrd scholarship also impinge upon the rest of the album, the disc and a half recorded over forty years later, which feature the Mass for Four Voices and Propers for Corpus Christi. And these are proper Propers, as they include not only those items for the Feast which are in book one of Gradualia (1605) but also Byrd’s expansive unpublished setting of Sacris solemniis – all nine and a half minutes of it – composed while he was still influenced by Sheppard, whose mentorship of the fledgling Byrd is unfailingly neglected in favour of Tallis. Current scholarly thinking advocates performances of Byrd’s masses by small mixed ensembles, resembling those documented as performing such music in secret recusant chapels during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, ironically a closet Anglo-Catholic … allegedly. Nevertheless, these masses have now become staples of choral Holy Communion in (protestant) Church of England cathedrals, churches and chapels, as well as in similar Roman Catholic establishments. Also, they are so well composed as to sound as fine in great spaces as in small. The Choir of Saint Thomas Church, New York sings the mass with as much beauty, feeling and expertise as any historically informed ensemble, and I say this as one who favours authenticity so far as it can be achieved in early music. The generously reverberant acoustic takes some getting used to, but once the ears are, so to speak, tuned in, the sound becomes quite ravishing, and although tempi are varied judiciously during the course of the Mass, this is never to the detriment of the clarity of Byrd’s eloquent polyphony, with its sublime melodies, harmonies … and dissonances! In each of his works, Byrd relates a narrative. In liturgical performances, tempi can be varied, subtly or otherwise, but usually in response to musical criteria, such as Classical or Romantic models, or in a perceived need to push on or put the brakes on. St Thomas’s interpretation seems rather to respond to Byrd’s narrative, his response to the text and his inflections in his music that propel his vision. Jeremy Filsell’s subtle pacing does not routinely include sudden bolts after passages of restraint: for instance, in the Credo it is appropriate to show some animation at “Et resurrexit” but he keeps the Choir’s powder drier at the equally tempting “Et unam sanctam” which then allows the singers to wind up over a longer span towards an effective climactic conclusion. Also in the Credo is one of the most sublime passages of singing that I have ever heard in a Byrd Mass on disc, where the layclerks alone sing “et ex patre natum ante omnia saecula”. That said, I must also compliment the boys on their fine singing throughout the entire work, not least those trebles entrusted with the solo passages. A word of congratulation also to the Rector, Revd Canon Carl F. Taylor, who fulfils his roles as Celebrant and Gospeller consummately.

This is a truly radiant recording. As I said of another recent Byrd release, whatever the number of versions you possess of the Mass for Four Voices – many, few, one, none – do, please, give serious thought to purchasing this one … and then buy it! It comes with two priceless bonuses: Byrd’s incandescent Propers for Corpus Christi including that early unpublished setting of Sacris solemniis with its echoes of Sheppard, not Tallis, and its pre-echoes of the treasures to come in Byrd’s music; plus the greatest of all settings of the complete Anglican Service, sung by a Choir as fine in 1981 as it would still be four decades later.

Richard Turbet


Richard Bratby: Refiner’s Fire

The Academy of Ancient Music and the Historical Performance Revolution
Elliott & Thompson
256pp, ISBN: 978 1 78396 760 5

The somewhat curiously titled Refiner’s Fire – the name inspired by a passage of recitative in Handel’s Messiah  – will make some of us feel rather elderly.  It was commissioned to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the founding in 1973 of one the first of Britain’s period instrument orchestras, the Academy of Ancient Music. The birth of the AAM came in response to the 20th-century revival of interest in period performance practice and the use of instruments of the era (or copies of them).  The name given by its founder, the Cambridge musician and scholar Christopher Hogwood, was in itself a revival, since it had been the name of an 18th-century concert-giving organisation, originally founded as the Academy of Vocal Music, devoted to performing the music of the past. 

For those of us starting to become interested in period performance the early 70s was an extraordinary time. It witnessed the sudden and exponential growth of a movement that was already some twenty years old, largely in the shape of such Continental ensembles as Nicolas Harnoncourt’s Concentus Musicus Wien and Gustav Leonhardt’s Leonhardt-Consort in Amsterdam.  In addition to the AAM within a short period Trevor Pinnock’s English Concert (1972), Andrew Parrott’s Taverner Singers, Consort and Players (1973), and, slightly later, John Eliot Gardiner’s English Baroque Soloists (1977) and Robert King’s King’s Consort (1980) were all established. In the field of opera during the same period, Kent Opera under the musical direction of Roger Norrington introduced revelatory productions of Monteverdi’s three extant operas using period instruments, events that would radically change my own approach to Baroque opera.

The one thing above all that allowed the meteoric rise of all these ensembles was the record industry. By coincidence, their rise in the 70s and consolidation in the 80s coincided with a period that witnessed first a significant expansion of stereo recording followed by the arrival of the CD. In the case of the AAM, they were fortunate to fall in from the outset with Decca and Peter Wadland, a visionary producer who would (in conjunction with Hogwood) build an extensive catalogue on L’Oiseau-Lyre Florilegium, in effect a label created for early music. The first recording made was of Arne’s Eight Overtures. The sessions took place in September 1973 and represented the official birth of the AAM. Today it is fashionable to sneer at the Arne and other early period instrument recordings, pointing to their lapses of string intonation, honky oboes and doubtful natural horns, but for those of us that heard them with fresh ears at the time they had (and retain today) the visceral excitement of a thrilling voyage of discovery of a kind lacking in many of today’s routine early music performances.  

The subsequent story of the AAM is one that can fundamentally be divided into two halves: the era of Christopher Hogwood’s sole directorship of it and the post-Hogwood years (from around the turn of the century) that have witnessed no fewer than four directors, with at one time both the oboist Paul Goodwin and the mercurial violinist Andrew Manze jointly at the helm. It is this story that is recounted by Richard Bratby in Refiner’s Fire. He tells it in largely straightforward terms, mercifully avoiding the baroque (in the original sense of the word) contortions frequently encountered in his Spectator reviews. One of the strengths of the narrative is the inclusion of a substantial number of interviews with those that accompanied the AAM on its journey down the years. A listing includes nearly 50 such contributors and their reminiscences and anecdotes enliven the book considerably. This is especially true when filling in the details of some of the little scandals that have occurred down the years, perhaps most notably the smoking row between cellist Anthony Pleeth and American harpsichordist William Christie that led to a Musicians Union dispute with the AAM’s non-union members, including Hogwood himself.

In general, however, Bratby avoids dwelling on such incidents, which is fair enough in a celebratory volume where the aim must be to remain neutral, even to the point of occasionally approaching hagiography. He is not noted as an early music person, which shows at times in such slips as the reference to the 18th-century organisation as the Concerts, rather than Concert, of Ancient Music (p.3) and a reference to the modern instrument Swiss cellist Christoph Croisé in error for the period instrument French cellist Christophe Coin. One senses also a greater sympathy for the flamboyant if not always scholarly Manze than for the AAM’s founder. The importance of Hogwood’s scholarship in the context of the AAM evokes only a muted response from Bratby. Although he covers the 1999 recording of Handel’s Rinaldo as Hogwood’s swan song as a recording artist for Decca, he quotes only a few tepid generalised comments from the review in Gramophone. He fails to record the fact that this was one of the first performances and recordings of a Handel opera that took a scholarly approach not only to the instruments employed but also to the strength of the composer’s orchestra, using no fewer than twenty strings. Though slightly differently deployed, this is the same number as that employed by the Queen’s Theatre in 1710, the year previous to Rinaldo’s premiere there. This kind of attention to scholarly detail was arguably Hogwood’s greatest strength and one rarely emulated today when, for example, most Handel opera recordings muster about half that number of string players.  

More recent developments are probably too close to the present to analyse in a historical context. I do however find it hard to agree that the unlikely completion of the Mozart piano concerto series with Robert Levin on the AAM’s own label has maintained the quality of the issues made before Decca abandoned it over twenty years ago. And it is curious to find Laurence Cummings talking of taking on the Beethoven symphonies with the AAM as ‘new repertoire’ for them when Hogwood recorded a complete cycle in the 1980s. The rapid turnover of music directors and chief executives in recent years has not assisted stability and what happens in a future in which early music in this country is presently in a poorer state (in all senses) than I can recall remains very much an open question.  In conclusion, it should be noted that there are eight pages of evocative photographs and a good index, although the Parrott on p.58 is the artist manager Jasper, not the musicologist and conductor Andrew.

Brian Robins


Muffat: Missa in labore requies

Le Banquet Céleste, La Guilde des Mercenaires conducted by Damien Guillon
Versailles Spectacles CVS106

It would be hard to find a better example of the current strength of early music in France than this splendid collaboration between two ensembles based not in a major population centre but in the provinces. One, the vocal ensemble Le Banquet Céleste, is likely to be familiar to anyone who follows the early music scene, but La Guilde de Mercenaires, fundamentally a wind and brass ensemble and like Le Banquet based in Brittany may be a less well-known name. In a note Damien Guillon tells of how their mutual ambition to perform and record Georg Muffat’s monumental 24-part Missa in labore requies (‘rest in our toil’), words taken from the medieval sequence, Veni Sancte spiritus) came to be realised in the superb acoustic of the Chapelle Royale at Versailles.

Muffat’s Mass is one of a number of such works composed for Salzburg Cathedral as part of the Counter-Reformation assault on the senses, the creation of brilliantly theatrical liturgy. Salzburg Cathedral, with its separate galleries, offered an ideal venue (there is a strong temptation to say stage) in which to exploit the polychoral tradition that had developed in Venice in the 16th century. Such works required the disposition of both vocal and instrumental choirs distributed in the various galleries. The most famous of such works is, of course, the so-called Missa Salisburgensis, once attributed to the Italian composer Orazio Benevoli (1605-1672), but now firmly established as the work of Biber.

The Muffat has a strange history, having come down to us in an autograph score in Joseph Haydn’s estate. Even more oddly given its celebratory character no specific occasion is known to have inspired its composition, though Peter Wollny’s note is in little doubt that it was composed for Salzburg. However, the note by Ernst Hintermeier for the earlier harmonia mundi recording directed by Konrad Junghänel, postulates that it may have been composed for the induction of a new archbishop at the court at Passau in 1690, the year Muffat left Salzburg to become Kapellmeister there. The disposition of the Mass calls for two SATB vocal choirs, here with two voices each, plus three instrumental choirs, one of strings and the other two for wind and brass. A small continuo group completes the forces, which throughout are deployed in a dazzling array of combinations ranging from sumptuous passages for the full ensemble to passages of chamber-like finesse and interiority. As so often in large-scale works it is unexpectedly these moments of intimacy that tend to remain longer in the memory than the more overtly spectacular passages, impressive though those are. But the work as a whole seems to me richer in imagination and invention than the works of Biber of this kind with which I’m familiar. There are so many examples that it is difficult to single out individual moments. ’Laudamus te’ from the Gloria may however be one such, an exuberantly florid display of solo voices led by the soprano of Choir I over running bass, the whole creating a kind of perpetuum mobile. Shortly after that the dense fugal tapestry of ‘Qui tollis’ creates a passage of wonderful penitential breadth. Often the passages one expects to be highlighted are especially memorable. The crucial central part of the Credo, for example, is a sublime setting of ‘Et incarnatus est’ for two sopranos, while the ‘Crucifixus’ is a polyphonic solo SATB quartet accompanied by only organ continuo. Here the muffled drumbeats at the mention of Jesus’s death remind us of the essential theatricality of the music. The opening of the Agnus Dei inspires another exquisitely contemplative soprano solo before building to an impressive climax at ‘Dona nobis’. The Credo and Sanctus are punctuated by a Dixit Dominus from Biber’s Vesperae Longiores ac Breviores , the brevity and comparative simplicity the answer to the command for such discipline from freshly installed Salzburg Archbishop Ernst von Thun. Mozart it seems was not the only one to be hampered by such edicts in Salzburg!

The performance of the Muffat is on the highest level throughout both as to the vocal and instrumental contributions. I’ve mentioned the soprano soloists several times during the course of this review and Violaine Le Chenadec (choir I) and Myriam Arbouz (choir II) certainly deserve special mention, but it is to the credit of Damien Guillon that the whole performance deserves the highest possible praise. The same goes for the engineers who have gloriously wrapped the performance in the distinctive acoustic of the Chapelle Royale. It’s a performance I would tend to prefer to the fine but more objective Junghänel.

Brian Robins


Beethoven: String Quartets, opp. 74 & 130

Chiaroscuro String Quartet
BIS BIS-2668

As late as 1801, Beethoven – already 30 years of age – felt the need to write to a friend that ‘only now do I know how to write string quartets properly’. They are words that might be said to provide a telling introduction to the publication of the six quartets of opus 18 the same year. Beethoven’s admission that he had found the medium a difficult one to master is pre-echoed by both Haydn and Mozart. Haydn, more aptly given the appendage ‘father of the string quartet’ than the more familiar ‘father of the symphony’, had a near-decade gap between producing his six opus 20 string quartets and his next set, opus 33 in 1781. It was a lengthy period for such a prolific composer and one in which he intimates that the cause may have been the need to reconsider the medium and compose the recent group ‘in an entirely new and special way’. And we know even Mozart, too, had to work on the string quartet to satisfy himself, writing in his dedication to Haydn of his first set of mature strong quartets that ‘they were the fruits of long and laborious toil’.

This struggle for mastery over the medium is mirrored in the demands made of performers of string quartets and none more so than the later quartets of Beethoven, among which we can include for the present purposes the E-flat Quartet, op. 74, ‘The Harp’ of 1809. It is probably at least in part for this reason that few period instrument quartets have to date tackled them, the wide range of tone and sonority, the extremes of expression making demands few feel confident of tackling. If there was one quartet one felt might be admirably suited to do so it is the Chiaroscuro Quartet, which has already demonstrated convincingly in Schubert’s ‘Death and the Maiden’ that it is quite capable of bringing off the big gestures of the early 19th-century repertoire, my review suggesting, ‘It is rare to hear period instrument playing of such technical accomplishment and perfect sense of balance’. Those qualities are again well to the fore in these superbly accomplished performances, embracing as they do an extensive range of sonority and colour achieved across a range of dynamics that extends from little more to a pianissimo whisper to, for example, the attack of the Presto (ii) of op. 130 in B flat, a headlong collision between music and performer. Just occasionally such extremes may be found by some a little too exaggerated, but throughout they fill the performances with vibrant immediacy.

At the other end of the scale, one need only listen to the manner in which the Chiaroscuros lure the listener into the opening Poco Adagio of op. 74, with playing owning to a rapt concentration that segues with the utmost naturalness into loving tenderness at the start of the Allegro. In the context of a performance that captures the general geniality of the quartet, the Presto scherzo brings the savagery of a galloping madman’s cavorting fury along with the grotesquery of the central trio vividly to life, providing a marvellously stark contrast.

For many op. 130 is the epitome of not just Beethoven’s string quartets but the medium itself. Yet associated with that perception are the myths that grew up surrounding the work, that this is music that gives up its secret only on a transcendental level. And then only to those granted some kind of spiritual insight into the work.  To remind those less familiar with it, the quartet is unusually cast in six movements, with four shorter inner movements framed by a large-scale opening movement that, like that of op. 74, opens with an intensely inward Adagio leading to a masculine, strongly muscled Allegro and a finale whose playfulness is affectionately toyed with in the present performance, especially in the feather-light spiccato playing. Equally at odds with the reputation of the forbidding aesthete Beethoven is the tiny Alla danza tedesca (iv), an enchanting German dance caught by the Chiaroscuros with beguiling charm and just a hint of rubato rather than the hefty nudge some quartets give it. And finally I hope it will be forgiven if a personal note creeps into a comment on the heart of the work, the Cavatina (v). But I cannot hear this movement without it recalling a dear friend, long dead. One of the most cultured people I have ever known, for her this was simply the most profound music ever written. She was no friend of period instruments, but I like to think even she would have been moved by the inner concentration and extraordinarily beautiful sonority of the Chiaroscuro Quartet’s playing here.

Brian Robins


Mozart: Piano Concertos

K242, K315f, K365
Robert Levin & Ya-Fei Chuang fortepiano, Bojan Čičić violin, Academy of Ancient Music, conducted by Laurence Cummings

Two reviews of the previous issue in this revived series appeared on EMR earlier in 2023, mine in July and that of my colleague D James Ross in October. Well, why not? It’s always interesting to read different reviews of the same concert or CD. On that occasion Ross was rather more enthusiastic than me about an issue that curiously included no music played on the piano (or of course in this case fortepiano). Both Ross and I provided an introduction to the resumption of a series that it seemed for some years was likely to remain incomplete, so I’ll simply refer interested readers to one (or both!) of those reviews.

There is no general shortage of fortepianos on the present CD, though there is a shortage of one such instrument in the case of K242 in F, which is the concerto for three pianos, but here played on a version for two, which Mozart himself later adopted as being more practical. The unusual combination of three concertante instruments  – at least in Salzburg, where it was written, if less so in Paris and Mannheim – is explained by it having been composed in 1776 for one of Mozart’s patrons, the Countess Lodron and her two young daughters, age 15 and 11. It conjures up a charming domestic scene, though the countess must have had a salon of substantial size to accommodate three pianos and an orchestra that includes oboes and horns. Not surprisingly most of the leading material is assigned to the first pianist but the demands made on the second are not far behind. Cast in the usual three movements, the most substantial expressively is the central Adagio, the poetic yearning of which suggests a later phase of Mozart’s life. The performance by Levin and Ya-Fei Chuang, his wife, is also at its best in this movement, finding sensitivity not always apparent elsewhere, though the performance is as fluent and agile as always from this source. According to the beautifully produced hard-cover booklet the three-piano version will be included in a future issue, which is surely pushing completeness to the limit.

The only query surrounding the more familiar two-piano Concerto in E flat, K365/316a is a date of composition, which as with the greatest of Mozart’s concertante works, the Sinfonia concertante for violin and viola in E flat, K364/320d, is unknown.  Both belong to Mozart’s final years in Salzburg, c 1780, but no purpose for their composition is known and the autograph scores are lost. The performance by the Levins again has a  pleasingly natural flow, though the rondo finale opens with a somewhat graceless, clipped orchestral introduction and a speed that could with advantage have been steadier. But there is considerable wit and sparkle in the playing and the wit and touches of rubato from the soloists, not to mention the ever-present fascination of Levin’s renowned improvisatory embellishments stand the performances in good stead. Cumming’s somewhat four-square accompaniment here as throughout again reveal him as a less idiomatic Mozartian than was Christopher Hogwood in the earlier Florilegium issues.

The final work is a fragment from another concertante work, a Concerto for piano and violin in D, KAnh56 (315f), one of a number of works Mozart for one reason or another stopped working on. This one dates from 1778 and his stay in Mannheim on his return journey home from Paris. From a letter to his father we know it was intended for the violinist Ignaz Fränzl, leader of a new ‘academy’ there, but it breaks off after 120 bars, an extraordinary fact given that the work was planned on an unusually ambitious scale not only as to scoring, which includes horns, trumpets and timpani, but scale, the opening orchestral ritornello being of such imposing length and grandeur that it caused Einstein to consider Mozart’s inability to complete the work a major loss. The opening Allegro is given in a reconstruction by Robert Levin, but is disappointing in that the violin tone of Bojan Čičić, at least as recorded, sounds thin. Overall this is a fascinating issue that those collecting the series will want to obtain, but it doesn’t convince completely.

Brian Robins


William Byrd: Keyboard Works

Stephen Farr, Taylor and Boody organ of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge
Resonus Classics RES10326

The distinguished and widely experienced organist Stephen Farr already has an impressive discography of early English organ music, and to this he adds the current disc of a dozen pieces most likely intended for the organ by Byrd, the quatercentenary of whose passing is being widely commemorated this year. Four of his great fantasias are interspersed with a mixture of works of comparable substance alongside some miniatures, concluding with a novelty which is, in its own way, a premiere. The great fantasia in A minor precedes two brief Misereres, the second of which has a particularly delightful conclusion. These are followed by the fantasia in C, possibly Byrd’s best-known work in the genre with its opening charge up the C major scale. After the modest Verse we are treated to Byrd’s longest fantasia, in G (BK 62) the opening point of which was later used by both Peter Philips, one of Byrd’s documented pupils, and the Flemish organist and composer Peeter Cornet. After the brief and very early Gloria tibi trinitas we encounter Byrd’s other fantasia in G (BK 63) which is in turn followed by the remarkable hexachord fantasia Ut re mi fa sol la (BK 64). The twists, turns and somersaults which Byrd applies to this basic scale are remarkable in their variety and subject to the guiding hand of his creative genius. The disc opened with a voluntary in C and, after another such work, the disc concludes with the novelty and premiere mentioned above. Keyboard intabulations of six of Byrd’s songs are known to survive, plus a single intabulation of a motet. None of the song intabulations are thought to be by Byrd himself, but recent scholarship has come to the conclusion that the intabulation of O quam gloriosum from his Cantiones sacrae of 1589 is likely to be by the composer himself, and it has been admitted to the canon of his accepted works. It has already been recorded twice on the harpsichord, but this concluding pair of tracks (one each for its two parts) is its first recording on the organ. It sounds sprightly on the harpsichord, while the organ can better sustain the notes and reflect the work’s choral origins.

It is a shame that Stephen has chosen to omit the fantasia in D, with its whisper of “Salve regina” at its outset. Some of his ornaments are distractingly elaborate, for instance in the fantasia in C, while on perhaps a slightly less elevated level of listening, in the fantasia in G (BK 62) Stephen deprives us of the thumping dissonance in bar 72 – though to be fair it occurs only in the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book, among the work’s four sources … but everyone else plays it! These quibbles apart, this is a fine disc of superb music well chosen to provide a rewarding and enjoyable programme, a veritable feast.

Richard Turbet


Coelho: Flores de Musica

pera o instrumento de tecla & harpa (1620) vol 1
Sérgio Silva
Inventa INV 1009

The first volume of this projected complete recording of Manuel Rodrigues Coelho’s Flores de Musica of 1620 doesn’t get into the music for harp but concentrates on the organ music, played by Sérgio Silva on the main organ and organ positive of the Pascoal Caetano Oldovino, both instruments from the mid-18th century, a little late for this 17th-century repertoire, but which produce powerful performances on a wonderful range of vivid and occasionally gritty registrations. This large volume is Coelho’s only known work. He spent his whole life in his native Portugal, rising to the position of organist of the Chapel Royal in Lisbon. He has a confident declamatory style, and Silva’s flamboyant performances bring this out to an admirable degree. A couple of vocalists provide incipits and cantus firmi for several works – as they are often heard singing along with the organ, it is a little puzzling why the incipits are recorded in a much quieter context than the ensuing organ music, necessitating a sudden background ‘rush’ before the organ comes in. The various aspirations of the bellows and clickings of the keywork are a necessary and not unpleasing accompaniment, but surely we would have been less aware of them if they hadn’t kept disappearing in the incipit recordings? Anyway, this is a small reservation about a magisterial account of some very unfamiliar Portuguese organ music, and we look forward very much to seeing in later volumes how this distinctly individual composer deploys the harp in his compositions.

D. James Ross