Apollo’s Cabinet: Musical Wanderlust

Charles Burney’s European Travels in Pursuit of Harmony
Apollo’s Cabinet, Alexander Armstrong narrator
Prima Classic PRIMA036CDEN

What a jolly time Dr Burney must have had! This is a proper romp around Europe – with performances by the children of Red Priest and an excitable percussionist. The musical items include some balletti by Schmelzer, movements from a Vivaldi concerto pushed to its limits among a smorgasbord of bleeding chunks (Goldberg Variations, a Tuma partita, some Loeillet of Ghent, an aria from a Telemann opera, some folk tunes among them. I fear few of the composers would recognise their music, but who cares? This sort of disc isn’t an academic recreation, it’s taking Burney’s diaries (extracts of which are read by Mr Pointless, Alexander Armstrong) and fleshing out his comments on music and entertainment with lively (sometimes bonkers) arrangements of music he might have heard on his travels. It’s the sort of disc that will sell VERY well after live gigs, and will thrill concert-goers when they play it and remember a fabulous evening’s entertainment. And – very appropriately for Mr A – it’s absolutely perfect for Classic FM listeners!

If I get a chance to see these guys live, I will leap at it – while I don’t think it’s the sort of CD I will often listen to at home, I can certainly imagine how gripping they’ll be in the flesh. Check out their website

Brian Clark


Mondonville: Grands Motets

Choeur & Orchestre Marguerite Louise, directed by Gaétan Jarry
Versailles  Spectacles CVS 063

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This continues the invaluable Versailles Spectacles series devoted to the grand motet, large-scale psalm settings for soloists, chorus and orchestra that were the principal form of sacred music in the France of Louis XIV and Louis XV. Those of Mondonville belong among later examples, succeeding and indeed vying in popularity with those of Rameau, whose small output was the subject of the previous release in the series, performances given by the same ensemble. My review of that outstanding CD can be found on this site.

Jean-Joseph Cassanéa de Mondonville was born in 1711, a member of a poor but aristocratic Languedoc family. At the age of about twenty, he went to Paris, quickly establishing himself as a composer of instrumental music and a violinist. The cover portrait of him by Quentin de la Tour depicts an agreeable and handsome man in his late 30s whose social skills won him favour at court from the likes of Mme de Pompadour. Mondonville gained a number of posts in the Chapelle Royale, including in 1739 that of master (Intendant) and his music was so successful at the famous Concert Spirituel in Paris that he became its most frequently performed composer of all time. A number of his motets were first performed there. Although Isbé (1742), his first work for the Paris Opéra, was a failure, Mondonville’s later operas achieved considerable success, the ballet-héroique Le carnaval du Parnasse (1749) in particular opening with a run of no fewer than 27 consecutive performances.

The present recording includes three of Mondonville’s nine grands motets. Of these Dominus regnavit (a setting of Psalm 93), composed in 1734, is the earliest and indeed the first of the motets, while Coeli enarrant gloriam Dei (Psalm 19) and In exitu Israel (Psalm 115), dating from 1749 and 1753 respectively are late works that represent his final examples of the genre. Of these, In exitu is an outright masterpiece, a superbly dramatic work that fully captures the grand sweep, colourful diversity and rich harmonic texture of a text that tells of the flight from Egypt. The passages narrating the miraculous crossing of the Jordan are vividly depicted, the seething swirling river parted to the stuttering wonderment of the chorus alternating between declamatory homophony and contrapuntal writing. Perhaps even more remarkable is the succeeding haute-contre solo, later with chorus, coloured by dark bassoon sonority, ‘Montes exultaverunt’ (The mountains skipped like rams’) and following rhetorical bass solo, ‘Quid est tibi, mare …? (What aileth thee, O thou sea). Also noteworthy is the Italian influence of a passage such as the soprano ariette ‘Qui timent’ (Ye that fear the Lord). The entire work bears more than eloquent testimony to Mondonville’s mature style.

Unsurprisingly neither of the other motets quite matches this quality, though the colourful text of Psalm 93, which also speaks of floods, evokes a powerful pictorial response to ‘the surges of the sea’ and praise of the ‘voices of many waters’. Coeli enarrant, planned on a less ambitious scale, opens more conventionally, but is elevated to near transcendence in a wonderful passage that speaks of God’s creative handiwork, the setting of a ‘tabernacle for the sun, which is as a bridegroom coming out of his chamber’. There is a marvellous sense of mystery in Mondonville’s setting, a bass solo, rising from the darkest pianissimo to full glory and the restrained entry of the chorus.    

I gave the highest praise to the performances of the Rameau motets by Gaétan Jarry and his supremely talented forces, praise that can be fully reiterated in the present case. On every level, this is another issue that demands to be heard by anyone remotely drawn to the music of the French Baroque.

Brian Robins


Purcell: Dido and Aeneas

Purcell Society Edition, volume 3
Edited by Bruce Wood
ISBN 978 0 85249 966 5 | ISMN 979 0 2202 2644 1
xlv (including 6 plates), 112pp. £60 (Hardback)

This beautiful volume contains the most comprehensive appraisal of the sources and review of the current thinking on the work’s genesis you will find in one place. Bruce Wood has a long association with Dido and here, as well as the superb musicology, he makes two musical contributions – he has composed the missing chorus, “Then since our charms have sped”, and adapted a movement from Circe for the ensuing “Groves dance”. I’m surprised – given that this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity – that he (and The Purcell Society) didn’t go further and supply even more of the missing music; for example, why print an overture almost certainly from the Prologue without any music for the prologue? One excellent feature of the edition is the inclusion of the Tenbury version of the Sorceress music (where the words are sung by a mezzo-soprano rather than a bass, but the string parts are also subtly different) in parallel with the more familiar setting. The inclusion of a realisation of the figured bass makes this also a valuable performing resource. At this price, this impressive volume is an absolute bargain, and I commend it to anyone planning a production of Dido.

Brian Clark


Dominico Mazzocchi: Prima le Parole

Madrigali a Cinque Voci, Roma 1638
Les Traversees Baroques, directed by Etienne Meyer
ACC 24384

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Over-petalled garlands of lyric poetry by Tasso, Ciampoli and others are responded to in the most extraordinary ways by Domenico Mazzocchi. This Roman composer is less known than his older contemporary, Monteverdi, whose influence can be heard, extended by later developments and by Mazzochi’s own fecund imagination. We need not hear the words to know that here we are descending a staircase of sleep or despair, there on a mountain top, open to breezes or distant echoing valleys. Particularly vivid are the tumbling mountain streams, swathes of swaying flowers and rumbles of bad weather – and all symbolic of course of the one universal topic. These effects are wonderfully enhanced by the imaginative choices of instrumentation in the continuo mix and concerted instrumental parts. A remarkably flowing and lyrical cornett sound, along with truly breath-inspired recorder playing, judicious use of dulcian and a varying spectrum of continuo sounds provides appropriate background canvasses for the vivid vocal parts. These vary from dramatic dialogues to rich quintets, sung with not a little ebullience. Another illuminating recording from this creative ensemble.

Stephen Cassidy


Cabinet of Wonders, Vol. 2

Works for the violin and basso continuo from the 18th-century Schrank II Collection, Dresden
Kinga Ujszászi violin, Tom Foster harpsichord
First Hand Records FHR121

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This CD of 18th-century music for violin and continuo associated with Dresden offers premiere recordings of works by Martino Bitti, Henricus Albicastro and Carlo Fiorelli, as well as two anonymous works, possibly by Nicolò Laurenti and Antonio Montanari. They are from a collection probably compiled by the violin virtuoso Johann Georg Pisendel, an almost exact contemporary of J S Bach. Pisendel was the leading violinist of the Dresden Hofkapelle, becoming its official concertmaster in 1730. An eclectic and assiduous collector of music, Pisendel subsequently left his library of music to the Court, where it was preserved in Schrank II, the cabinet of the title, which found its way in due course into the Saxon State and University Library in Dresden. It is indeed a cabinet of wonders, both in the range of flavours of the music it contains and the varying demands the music places on the players. These performances by Ujszászi and Foster are delightfully expressive, while the decision to have the harpsichord play the continuo part alone rather than supported by a cello lightens the texture and creates a compellingly informal and spontaneous atmosphere. It is extraordinary to think that none of this music has been recorded before, and it is a mark of the sheer volume of fine music lying tucked away in archives that nobody has hitherto touched this resource. I have enjoyed both volumes of this series, and look forward to this rich collection providing us with further volumes of unanticipated treasures.

D. James Ross


Telemann: The trio sonatas for recorder and viola da gamba

Erik Bosgraaf recorder, voice flute & alto chalumeau, Carl Rosman, tenor chalumeau, Lucile Boulanger & Robert Smith gambas, Alessandro Pianu harpsichord/organ
Brilliant Classics 96393

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Any CD bringing recorder works by Telemann to our attention will have to surpass merely going through the motions! There are swathes and piles already in our collections, in various compilations going back quite a while. Indeed, these very sonatas featured on an excellent Brilliant Classics five-CD box set (94831) by ensemble Opera Prima under Cristiano Contadin, “Complete Concertos and Sonatas with gamba” (Highly recommended!). Fortunately, here we are in safe hands, or rather fingers, as the gifted Dutch recorder player, Erik Bosgraaf, displays an enviable mellifluence and proficiency! The German adjectives “flink” and “geschliffen” (nimble and refined) came to mind as we enjoyed some familiar encounters, yet these were given just the right measure of spice and élan, with some superb transitions of mood and tempo. Track 13’s Largo to 14’s superb Allegro in TWV42:g9, and again from TWV42:d7’s Adagio into its slick Allegro. The technical assurance here is obvious, as the rich, accommodating acoustic of the Kruiskerk in Bergum which lends its own magic. Never over-stressed or ostentatious, the playing is truly admirable and in those moments of rustic Polishness just the right amount of gusto is applied!

The two nicely chosen extras make this a well-rounded recording; the quartet TWV43:G10, usually two bass viols and transverse flute, here tackled on the “voice flute” (tenor recorder in D) which adds a slight tonal twist without transposing requirement. As is typical in many of Telemann’s instrumental pieces, the “replying” and “counter-replying” themes bounce along merrily in lively, elegant dialogue!

The final item is a delight to hear, a double-chalumeaux work, done in such a warm, playful and spirited way, Bosgraaf takes the alto chalumeau and Carl Rosman the tenor. The delightful Gigue rounds off a most entertaining CD that feels ideally suited for all settings, wrapped in a lush church acoustic for welcome tonal warmth.

David Bellinger

Recording Uncategorized

Festive masses from Lambach Abbey

St. Florian Sängerknaben, Ars Antiqua Austria, Gunar Letzbor
Accent ACC 24358

There are obscure composers and then there are the likes of Benjamin Ludwig Ramhaufski and Joseph Balhasar Hochreither! The latter was born halfway through the lifetime of the former and, mostly on account of the prominent trumpet parts, there is not much to distinguish their music; indeed, on a blind listening, I defy even a seasoned lover of 17th-century music not to assume it’s either Schmelzer or Biber… Such is the quality of the polyphony and the lyrical ease of the melodies. Combining boy’s voices with those of six men works very well and the instrumentalists clearly enjoy the chamber music feel. Gunar Letzbor’s quest for “true sound” typically gives a dry edginess to his recordings, but here the rather warmer acoustic allows the sound to blossom a little without detracting from the detail. I have enjoyed having this CD in the car for the past few weeks – it is bright and uplifting, and I highly recommend it.

Brian Clark


The Alehouse Sessions

Barokksolistene, Bjarte Eike
Rubicon RCD1017

Before I review this CD I have to declare an interest – some of you will have read my ecstatic EMR review from the St Magnus Festival in June of a series of appearances by the Barokksolistene (still available on the EMR website) in which I tried to capture the mixture of amazement and pleasure that I experienced at their live shows. Although it is impossible, I shall have to try to set my experience as an audience member to one side as I review this CD of one of the actual programmes I attended back in June. So how does this recording hold up as a heard experience without all the intriguing stage business, the charismatic presence of Bjarte Eike and the witty and profound theatrical dimension? Is it, as sometimes happens, a case of ‘you had to be there’? Well no. The superb technical prowess of these remarkable musicians, their uncanny sense of ensemble, their unparalleled familiarity with the material all shine through I think in this CD. Some of the eccentricities of presentation which at the live performance we rather took on trust, sound a little more outrageous on CD – Thomas Guthrie’s idiosyncratic vocal style perhaps needs his beguiling physical presence to be entirely convincing, while I was much more aware of the heavy level of arrangement of the source material which had clearly gone on. In some of the music, this involves updating the harmonies in an unsettlingly modern cabaret style, while the edges of the instrumental authenticity are a little blurred by the use of a mixture of Baroque and essentially modern instruments. Some of the musicians unashamedly bring their jazz roots with them onstage, but for me the type of music they are performing lends itself brilliantly to that sort of spontaneous improvisatory approach. At its best, this CD is wonderfully energetic and idiomatic, and even at its most eccentric it is never remotely unmusical or dishonest to its source material. Perhaps most impressive is the way in which the CD, like the show, captures the ambience of a bunch of young men ‘on the lash’ using musical performance to show off to one another, to challenge one another and ultimately to impress us with their innate musicality and technical assurance. Maybe it is after all impossible for me to divorce listening to this CD from the experience of the live Barokksolistene, and maybe the CD will mainly sell as an after-concert souvenir, but actually I would recommend that you buy the CD and then seriously try to catch the group live. You won’t regret either!

D. James Ross


Antegnati: 12 Ricercari

Federico Del Sordo organ and harpsichord
Brilliant Classics 95628

I must say that the prospect of 12 Ricercari (all that is mentioned on the front of the booklet) by even one as distinguished as Constanzo Antegnati was rather daunting but I need not have worried! The counterpoint flows suavely, enlivened by some athletic ornamentation, and the historic organ is a constant delight. Furthermore, contrasting music by other composers is interspersed among the ricercari and played on stringed keyboard instruments: modern copies of an early 17th-century harpsichord and fretted clavichord, this last a rare treat. Here and there, the keen-eared will detect a few inconsistencies of articulation but there is far more to enjoy than to carp at. The booklet is informative and interesting about the music, its context and the organ (though in English only) and detailed organ registrations are available online, though it wouldn’t have been difficult to include them. Recommended especially for early keyboard buffs.
David Hansell

Zelenka: Missa Sancti Josephi

Julia Lezhneva, Daniel Taylor, Tilman Lichdi, Jonathan Sells SATB, Kammerchor Stuttgart, Barockorchester Stuttgart, Frieder Bernius
Carus 83.279

THESE GROUPS have had a strong relationship with Zelenka’s music for many years – in fact, the first choral music I ever heard by him was their version of his Missa Dei Patris. This CD is evidence of the affinity they clearly have. As well as the mass (which, being for a saint, lacks a setting of the Credo, according to Dresden usage), the disc includes settings of De profundis and In exitu Israel, psalms that form part of Vespers for Sundays. There are many fine moments to enjoy in the music, such as the opening of the Gloria of the mass, and the bass trio that opens the De profundis setting, but throughout the singing and playing is simply superlative, and all beautifully captured by the recording engineers. It may seem an odd thing to highlight but I was particularly impressed that the packaging did not concentrate on the soloists – in a world in which that is increasingly becoming the norm, it is great to see Carus stick to their house style and let the music (and these first-class performances of it) speak for themselves.

Brian Clark