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Mésangeau’s Experiments

Alex McCartney lute
Veterum Musica – details below the review
Suites in B flat, f and C

[dropcap]R[/dropcap]ené Mésangeau (fl 1567-1638) was one of the pioneers of what was to become the Baroque lute, not least through his experiments in lute tuning that led to the ‘standard’ Baroque lute tuning based around a D minor chord. After a time in Germany he returned to his native Paris and the Court of Louis XIII. Three Suites are included on this CD, in B flat, F minor and C, the latter Suite including two movements by an anonymous composer. Each suite opens with an unmeasured prelude following by groups of Allemandes and Courantes, finishing with Sarabandes or a Chaconne. The playing is sensitive and musical (albeit with a fair bit of finger noise), the acoustic adding a nice resonance to the sound, particularly in the many pieces at low pitch. The sleeve notes are minimal, and there is no indication of track or total timings – something to watch out for if you want anybody to broadcast tracks.

Andrew Benson-Wilson

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The Famous Weiss

David Miller baroque lutes
68:21
Timespan TS1401
Sonatas 5 in d & 30 in g, Prelude & Fantasie in c, Prelude in D, Campanella in D, Passagaille in D, Giga in D

[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he thoughtful and reflective mood of the opening D minor Prelude sets the scene for this enthralling CD of lute music by Silvius Leopold Weiss. I was introduced to the music of Weiss by David Miller in a Dartington concert in the mid 90s. An almost exact contemporary of J. S. Bach and Handel, Weiss spent time in Rome (alongside Handel and Scarlatti) before settling as lutenist to the Dresden Court. His visit to Berlin produced the ‘Famous Weiss’ comment from the sister of the future Frederick the Great. The two Sonatas (in practice, multi-movement suites) from the Dresden manuscripts are nicely contrasted, the simpler D minor suite forming a foil to the more substantial, elaborate and musically advanced G minor set. Of the six other pieces from a British Library manuscript, the Prelude in C minor, with its distinctive octave opening, shows Weiss’s imaginative use of harmonic modulation, a factor specifically mentioned in relation to a competition with Bach in Dresden. As the opening Prelude demonstrates, David Miller plays with a particular sensitivity to musical ebb and flow, as well as producing a beautifully rich and refined tone.

Andrew Benson-Wilson

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Giuseppe Sammartini: Concertos for the organ, op. 9

Fabio Bonizzoni, La Risonanza
63:17
Glossa GCD C81505

[dropcap]T[/dropcap]his is a re-release of a 2000 recording. Giuseppe was the elder brother of the better known Giovanni Battista. Born in 1695, he left Milan for London in 1728, where he stayed until his death in 1750, making quite a name for himself. These concertos, published after his death for “Harpsichord or Organ”, are domestic in scale, with just two violins, cello and bass alongside the organ. It is not clear when they were composed, but they have more of a Rococo than Baroque feel to them, rather enhanced by the playing style on this CD. The spiky solo registrations are not in keeping with the English organ of the period, and nor is the over-articulated performance style. Bonizzoni keeps to the two-part structure of most of the organ solos (without infilling the harmonies, a debatable point for this repertoire), but it is a shame that he doesn’t make more of the organ when in its continuo role – it is more-or-less inaudible. The notes give no information on the organ, but I have a feeling it is later than this repertoire. It is certainly not in any English or Italian early to mid 18th-century style. Two lively little Sonatas by Giovanni Battista Sammartini complete the disc.

Andrew Benson-Wilson

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Les ombres heureuses: Les organistes français de la fin de l’Ancien Régime

Olivier Baumont organ & piano organisé
63:31
Radio France TEM316053
Music by Balbastre, Beauvarlet-Charpentier, Benaut, Corrette, A-L Couperin & Lasceux

[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he CD was so tightly jammed into the central jaws that it snapped in half as I tried to get it out of the box. However I found snippets of all the pieces on the internet. The period leading up to the French Revolution formed the technical peak of the French Classical organ although the music written for it didn’t reach similar heights. In France, the musical highlight came around 1700 with De Grigny, after which pieces became increasingly secular and fanciful in character – and more fun. Pushing the earlier Baroque forms and colours to extremes, the likes of Balbastre ended up providing entertainment for the revolutionary populace in the newly desig-nated Temples of Reason, saving many important organs from destruction in the process. This CD covers most of the composers of the mid to late 18th century, along with the varied musical styles, most loosely based on the earlier Baroque concepts of registration and form. The 1748 Dom Bedos organ in Sainte-Croix, Bordeaux, is one of the finest surviving organs of this period, with a rich palette of tonal colours. The 1791 Erard-frères piano organisé used for several central tracks produces a fascinating and unusual sound and brings the sound world into the domestic scene. Olivier Baumont takes this repertoire seriously, as he should, and is a compelling advocate for an often-criticised period of French music.

Andrew Benson-Wilson

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Dialoghi a voce sola: Italian music of the 17th century

Ulrike Hofbauer, Ensemble &cetera
71:53
Raumklang RK 3306
Music by Berti, Carissimi, Castaldi, Ferrari, Frescobaldi, Huygens, D’India, de Macque, Mayone, Mazzocchi, Merula, Nauwach, Orlandi, Rasi, Luigi Rossi, Barbara Strozzi & Trabaci

[dropcap]T[/dropcap]his CD takes us on a tour of the rich 17th-century Italian repertoire for solo voice and continuo. The success or failure of such an enterprise relies heavily on the prowess of the soloist, and Ulrike Hofbauer has a lovely voice and a ready sense of the drama inherent in the music she is singing. She is helped considerably here by a small but inspired consort of instruments consisting of arpa doppia, chitarrone and lirone alternating with a treble viol. They come into their own in the lovely instrumental works which punctuate the programme and which they play with a wonderful freedom and spon-taneity. These are qualities which they also bring to their accompanying, allowing them to respond appropriately to Hofbauer’s creative interpretation of the vocal lines. The programme note addresses the rather oxymoronic title of the CD by explaining that the voice is in dialogue with the listener, and certainly this is a recording which demands your undivided attention and, with its constantly changing colours and moods, fully earns it. All the big names of the period are here – Trabaci, Carissimi, Gastoldi, Frescobaldi, Strozzi, D’India, Merula and Luigi Rossi – but the performers have looked beyond the obvious to the less familiar and have included works by the likes of Camillo Orlandi, Giovanni Pietro Berti and Giovanni de Macque. Accounts of the singing of the 17th-century Roman soprano Leonora Baroni suggest that she augmented her singing with gestures and appropriate movements like an opera singer, and listening to this music it is easy to imagine such dramatization working extremely effectively.

D. James Ross

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Schütz: Matthäuspassion

Georg Poplutz, Felix Rumpf, Dresdner Kammerchor, Hans-Christoph Rademann
70:27
Carus 83.259
+Litania SWV458, O du allersüßester SWV340, In dich hab ich gehofft SWV446

[dropcap]T[/dropcap]his eleventh volume in the Dresdener Kammerchor’s projected complete recording of the works of Heinrich Schütz brings them to a work of his extreme old age, his Matthew Passion. According to Dresden Schlosskapelle edicts up to the end of the 17th century, instruments were forbidden from playing during passion tide, as a result of which three quarters of Schütz’s Matthew Passion consists of unaccompanied recitative while the balance is made up of a cappella choral singing. The former can be a little wearing for modern audiences, although the undoubted power of the choral contribution is undoubtedly heightened by the minimalism of the bulk of the work. The huge dramatic and musical responsibility which lands on the shoulders of the Evangelist and Jesus is easily born by Georg Poplutz and Felix Rumpf respectively, who sing with engaging expression and drama. And if you like your 17th-century part-music sung by a small choir, as opposed to a group of soloists singing one to a part, you couldn’t ask for more effective advocates than the Dresdener Kammerchor who sing with admirable focus and unanimity. The fillers are also small treasures, particularly the late setting of Luther’s Litania, which in this performance takes on an almost narcotic quality, with its statement and response pattern. Particularly touching are the translation of the Agnus Dei and Kyrie which occur at the end, almost like a folk memory of the Catholic Mass. I noticed an occasional small degree of distortion on the Evangelist’s microphone as if he was sometimes overstepping the max setting, or perhaps standing too close to the microphone, but otherwise the recording is of Carus’s usual high quality.

D. James Ross

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Marenzio: Quinto Libro di Madrigali

La Compagnia del Madrigale
64:17
Glossa GCD922804

[dropcap]T[/dropcap]his CD by the superb Compagnia del Madrigale is something of a masterclass in madrigal singing. I decided to take the opportunity to try to analyse the secrets of the Compagnia’s impressive soundworld. The voices are all of course superb in their own right, rounded, supremely expressive and completely stable at whatever dynamic they are singing. However, I went on to detect two further features which I think help with this specific repertoire. The first may seem obvious but is by no means uniform or even universally regarded as a virtue among small vocal ensembles : this is the rigorous avoidance of vibrato. The soprano section is particularly striking in this respect, but on this CD there are also impressively ‘true’ entries from tenors and altos. Debate all you like about how singers of the period may have sung with or without vibrato, there is no denying that performances of madrigals which are largely vibrato-free allow the listener to appreciate the full power of the polyphonic writing. The searing power of vibratoless musical exclamations is also undeniable. The second feature is the perfect blend of clearly defined voices, achieved interestingly without a conductor. I wouldn’t like the superlative quality of the singing to overshadow the music in my review, so I should say that this CD confirms Luca Marenzio as one of the most underrated madrigal composers in spite of recent efforts to bring his music to wider attention. These six-part works are masterpieces of counterpoint using cutting-edge harmonic manipulation to match the twists and turns of the texts.

D. James Ross

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Gesualdo: Dolcissimo Veleno

La Dolce Maniera, Luigi Gaggero
54:23
Stradivarius STR 37010

[dropcap]L[/dropcap]a dolce maniera have adopted a highly original approach to the love madrigal here by taking at least one madrigal from each of Gesualdo’s published volumes, twenty madrigals in all, and arranging them into a ‘romantic song cycle’ charting the establishment, growth and eventual implosion of a romance. The sequence is indeed cumulatively effective, although perhaps mercifully it doesn’t culminate in the sort of bloodbath which accompanied Gesualdo’s own disappointment in love in real life! The group’s highly ‘affected’ style of singing works very well with this mercurial repertoire. Less convincing is the decision to sing the music untransposed, leaving some of the soprano lines painfully and awkwardly high. I can understand the principle of this, but we now live in world where the prevailing judgement of musicologists seems to be to ‘sing it where it feels comfortable’, and just occasionally here the sopranos sound seriously uncomfortable. The group’s director Luigi Gaggero would argue that this discomfort is just the effect Gesualdo was looking for, but the fact is that nobody wants to listen to distressed singers, and I began to wonder uncharitably whether he had developed this theory before or after listening to the recordings. The fact is these are not impossibly high notes in themselves and perhaps the sopranos just needed to develop a slightly different technical approach. Anyway I don’t want this relatively minor issue to overshadow an otherwise enjoyable and innovative recording.

D. James Ross

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Il Pianto d’Orfeo or the Birth of Opera

Nicholas Achten baritone, Deborah York soprano, Lambert Colson cornetto, Scherzi Musicali
75:49
Deutsche Harmonia Mundi 88843078722

[dropcap]T[/dropcap]his intriguing CD takes the Orpheus legend as a springboard to explore the world of early opera. To a surprising extent the legend dominated the early years of opera, providing in its story a powerful message about the power of music, but also a hero who conveniently performs monophonically to his own instrumental accompaniment. What Nicholas Achten has done here is stitched together a fantasy opera in which numbers from a range of these early settings are placed in sequence to retell the story. At first I determined to listen to the sequence ‘blind’ to see whether the music by Monteverdi stood out from his contemporaries as many commentators suggest that it ought to. Of course this proved impossible to judge as I already knew the Monteverdi well, but to my mind much of the ‘supporting’ music by Rossi, Merula, Caccini, Cavalieri, Piccinini, Falconieri, Landi, Sartorio and of course Peri seemed highly effective and, in the hands of Scherzi Musicali, powerfully expressive.

The role of Orfeo is taken by the Nicholas Achten, whose light baritone voice seems constantly on the verge of ornamentation and is perfectly suited to the music – his account of the Monteverdi’s superlative aria Possente spirto is one of the finest I have heard. His Euridice, who in keeping with the earliest settings plays a much smaller role in the drama, is Deborah York whose soprano voice is also convincingly expressive. The accompanying consort of strings plus two cornetts and a range of continuo keyboards including harpsichord, organ and virginals occasionally joined by theorbo, guitar, harp and bass cittern provides highly charged textures to support the singers as well as performing purely instrumental items with considerable delicacy and passion. This CD is a true pleasure to listen to, and provides the very useful service of bringing several early operatic composers out of the textbooks and into the limelight, if perhaps in the context of a co-operative effort which few of them would have countenanced in life.

D. James Ross

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La Lira d’Espéria II: Galicia Danças, Cantigas & Cantos da terra

Jordi Savall rebec, tenor vielle, rebab Pedro Estevan percussion
74′
Alia Vox AVSA9907

[dropcap]I[/dropcap] have to confess that I approached this recording with some doubts; the Cantigas de Santa Maria are all songs, over 400 of them, and here is a purely instrumental version with no singing! Of course, Savall and a number of others have recorded many of the Cantigas in both sung and instrumental versions. Here he performs instrumental versions of 12 alongside 11 traditional Galician dances from what he describes as ‘oral sources’. Thanks to the wonderful internet – which has the complete manuscript available – you can check out what he does with the material from which he is working.
Peter Dronke (The Medieval Lyric) says that accompanying dancing “was one of the prime functions of lyric throughout the Middle Ages”. Fra Angelico’s wonderful ‘Last Judgement’ depicts sixteen angels doing a round dance without any instruments apparent – clearly all singing as they danced. However, Johannes de Grocheio’s remark that “The good artist generally introduces every cantus and cantilena and every musical form on the vielle”, together with the large number of instruments depicted in the manuscript (many of which are reproduced in the lavishly illustrated booklet) well justifies a purely instrumental rendition. Anyway with so few surviving instrumental dances from the period, as much of dance music was improvised, or played by non-readers, one must needs be creative.
I shouldn’t have worried. By taking the notated music of the Cantigas, and putting it in the context of traditional, orally transmitted Galician dance music, he comes up with something that not only seems very true to the spirit of the older music, but is great listening.
He plays three different instruments: a Moorish rebec, waisted with four strings and frets; a 5-string rebec dating from the 15th century – also with frets, which looks to me more like a vielle, as it is also waisted; a 5-string tenor fiddle/vielle. The percussion ranges in pitch and timbre from a gorgeously boomy tambour, a bright sounding darbuka and tuned bells. The sounds of the three string instruments are beautifully varied. The ‘rebel morisco’ sounds as though it has a skin sound-board, and the illustration bears this out – giving an intriguing ‘hollowness’ to the sound.
As you would expect, the playing is fantastic, spontaneous, brilliant. I loved the Ductia & Rota with its uneven phrases – four measures and then three measures, a wonderful catchy rhythm, an intuitive reaction to the material.
Savall encourages us to consider the most ancient of our musical traditions in the context of living folk music. The 13th-century notation of the Cantigas is comparatively clear, but an approach like this can bring them so alive, an inspiring recording of what has been called “one of the greatest monuments of medieval music”.

Robert Oliver

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