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Hildegard portraits

Voice (Victoria Couper, Clemmie Franks, Emily Burn)
67:33
SOMM recordings SOMMCD 0652

At the heart of this recording by the vocal trio Voice is a seven-movement work “Hildegard Portraits” by contemporary composer Laura Moody with works by Ivan Moody, Marcus Davidson, Tim Lea Young, Stevie Wishart and, of course, Hildegard herself. For Hildegard’s music, Voice produce a beautifully focussed pure sound and in their unison singing move with absolute unanimity. Occasionally, a sympathetic drone emphasises a particular section of music, and the whole proceeds with what I can only describe as an attractive swing. The vocal quality is ‘whiter’ than other comparable groups with a pleasing naïve quality. In the contemporary music, the voices split more consistently into three-part harmony, and this too seemed to me beautifully balanced and perfectly tuned. Interestingly, Laura Moody selects her texts for her “Hildegard Portraits” from the abbess’s letters, thereby revealing a more worldly and human side of this remarkable woman than we are usually privy to. Interweaving adventurous polyphony with episodes of pseudo-speech, these pieces – receiving their first recording here – are constantly engaging and intriguing in these virtuosic performances by Voice. The other contemporary works, some written specifically for the ensemble, exploit other aspects of the singers’ talents. The programme note emphasises the group’s customary creative use of space in live performance and there is some attempt to replicate this in the recording, with the singers moving through the church in one of the Hildegard tracks. While this is quite effective, I found the default acoustic a little immediate and wanted a little more space to allow the voices to bloom. On balance though, these are lovely performances, and a valuable opportunity to hear Hildegard’s music sung to a very high standard, and presented in an unusual context of music that comments on her everyday life and her music.

D. James Ross

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Recording

Carlo Filago: Sacri concerti a voce solo

Ariana Lanci, Ensemble Les Nations
74:06
Tactus TC 580610

Born in Rovigo, Carlo Filago came to prominence in the early 17th century, primarily as an organ virtuoso in Treviso and later in Venice, where he was appointed first organist at San Marco in preference to Claudio Monteverdi. As one might expect from an organ player admired for his florid style, Filago’s sacred concerti for solo voices are ornate to a degree more normally associated with the secular music of this period. In this recording of 14 of the 16 concerti – including one of two such pieces for contralto and the only one for tenor with the rest for soprano – we are very much in the hands of the vocalists. Ariana Lanci, who sings all but two of the concerti, has a full operatic voice, and the deft ornamentation of Filago’s vocal writing sounds heavily laboured, while she is also inclined to swoop and undercut. The alto Marcella Ventura shares many of these characteristics, while the tenor Giovanni Cantorini also struggles with intonation in his upper range. A capable accompanying selection of instruments tended to fade into the background, and really none of the music here sounds comfortable. This is a pity, as I found myself largely unable to judge the quality of Filago’s writing, which I suspect is much better than this recording suggests. Nowadays it is surprising to hear a recording with these shortcomings, coming from the context of an Italian early music scene which is generally producing performers of a very high calibre. I think Filago probably deserves better.

D. James Ross

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Recording

Gratia plena: Hans Memling

Psallentes, The Royal Wind Music, Hendrik Vanden Abeele
71:04
Le Bricoleur LBCD 14

Unusual to have one CD based on a famous old master painting, but along with The Sword and the Lilly, a meditation on van der Weyden’s ‘The Last Judgement’ (Inventa INV 1008), we have another musing, this time on ‘The Annunciation’ by Hans Memling. His exquisitely detailed rendition of angelic musicians has allowed instrument builders to reconstruct instruments which have not survived in any other form, so he is an obvious inspiration for a CD programme. Like the Inventa CD, this CD programmes music relevant to the subject and details of the painting, assembling polyphony by de Ghizeghem, Agricola, Obrecht, Dufay, Compère, Mouton and Josquin played on recorders by The Royal Wind Band and sung by Psallentes, who also provide plainchant. The performances from these splendid Flemish ensembles are, like Memling’s painting, exquisitely detailed and wonderfully evocative. The sounds conjured up by consorts of beautifully tuned and blended Renaissance recorders are a delight, as are the female voices of Psallentes, also beautifully pure and focussed. My favourite tracks are where the voices and recorders combine in the larger-scale polyphony and culminating in a stunning account of the Gloria from the famously demanding Missa Maria zart by Obrecht, given a delightfully transparent performance here. With the imaginative blending of voices and recorders and the sheer musicality of these accounts, I was more persuaded by this painting-based musing, although the rather shallow supporting booklet in which Vanden Abeele writes a ‘Dear Hans’ letter to Memling and offers Gratias agimus tibi to him for the CD’s artwork rather trivialises this excellent project. I am on record elsewhere opining that a serious scholarship-based musical programme, such as this most definitely is, deserves a seriously scholarly programme note rather than some self-indulgent performer’s flight of fancy.

D. James Ross

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Recording

Lovesick

Randall Scotting countertenor, Stephen Stubbs lute
57:29
Signum Classics SIGCD736

The musicians have ranged far and wide for the repertoire for this collection of music on the general subject of lovesickness. There is the anticipated music of Purcell, Lawes, Dowland and Blow, though by no means the most obvious repertoire by these masters, and interleaved with this we have traditional ballads from the Scottish, Irish and English traditions as well as songs by Marc Antonio Cesti, Danielle da Castrovillari and Pierre Guédron. Scotting has a flexible and rich countertenor voice, deft in ornamentation with a not unpleasant regular vibrato, which he applies intelligently and expressively to his chosen repertoire. Stephen Stubbs provides sympathetic accompaniments on lute and Baroque guitar, although his instrumental set from King Arthur as well as his brief account of Packinton’s Pound, both thematically a little at odds with the lovesick contents of the rest of the CD, are slightly puzzling choices. I found the accounts of the ballad material the least satisfying of the repertoire – it really belongs to another world from the earlier material and to my ear didn’t entirely suit Scotting’s refined vocal production. However, this CD is obviously a very personal project, and these two fine musicians’ enthusiasm for this wide-ranging repertoire communicates itself very well.

D. James Ross

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Recording

Vivaldi: Serenata a tre (RV 690)

Vivaldi Edition Vol. 70
Marie Lys Eurilla, Sophie Ennert Nice, Anicio Zorzi Giustiniani Acindo, Abchordis Ensemble, Andrea Buccarella
72:03
naïve OP 7257

The Serenata RV690 is a two-part dramatic cantata for three soloists and orchestra set in an arcadian world of shepherds and shepherdesses and revolving around the romantic intrigues of the three central characters. Written as light entertainment for a special occasion, in this case an aristocratic wedding, Serenatas generally entertained through melodic felicity and colourful orchestration rather than intellectual demands, and the present work is particularly engaging in its musical originality. Three excellent and expressive soloists are sympathetically supported by a period string ensemble, enhanced by horns, oboes, and bassoon as required for local colour. There is evidence in the manuscript that Vivaldi originally intended to include recorders too, and it is interesting that he reworked the score several times, suggesting that he valued this composition and took time to perfect its details. This detailed and musically sensitive account is volume 70 in a superb projected complete recording of Vivaldi’s music, which has already unearthed several unsuspected masterpieces, and through the engagement of excellent Italian vocalists brought much overlooked material vividly to life. Thus too this apparently inconsequential occasional piece is revealed as much more important and substantial than it first appears, and a worthy companion piece to Vivaldi’s operatic writing.

D. James Ross

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Recording

Louis Couperin: Complete Harpsichord Music

Massimo Berghella harpsichord
329:00 (5 CDs in a cardboard box)
Brilliant Classics 96238

There is a disparate cabal of musical individuals united in the belief that Louis Couperin is a greater composer for the keyboard than his more famous nephew Francois, and/or that Louis is the greatest of the French keyboard composers of the Baroque era, and/or that Louis is the greatest of all composers for the harpsichord. Given this degree of acclamation, it is appropriate that there should now be no fewer than three commercial recordings of his complete music for that instrument (numbering over 130 pieces in the 2022 Lyrebird edition by Jon Baxendale) of which the one under review is the most recent. It is also the best.

Even among those unfamiliar with the sheer extent of his oeuvre Louis Couperin is famed for his unmeasured preludes, and this recording goes off to the best possible start with the astoundingly beautiful example in G minor, number 3 in the collected edition by Davitt Moroney (whose numbering will be used in this review). This work also proclaims Massimo Berghella’s manner of performance, in which, like Pieter-Jan Belder in his recent complete recording of Byrd’s music for keyboard, he restrains himself from imposing overly elaborate interpretations on these already eloquent works, while still showing a cogent awareness of the appropriate playing style. Disc 2 begins with an equally memorable prelude, number 2, in D. Other keyboard genres in Louis Couperin’s output include chaconnes and their close relations the passacailles, with sarabandes, allemandes, courantes, a few gigues and gavottes, plus the legendary and very great pavane in F sharp minor. Two of the passacailles are quite the equals of the two preludes which I have cited: number 98 on disc 1, and number 27 concluding disc 3, both of which flaunt examples of Louis’s rare and discerning employment of the false relation; any English Tudor composer would have been immensely proud of either.

While every piece in this collection has been created fastidiously, they each exude a sense of inspiration which mere compositional technique has to accommodate, rather than technique circumscribing the inspiration. There is a wonderful inevitability about the stately progress of the sarabandes numbered 48, 49 (exquisite conclusions), 50, 51, 87, 109, 110 and particularly 65, in which Berghella unpicks some notably subtle rhythms towards the end. Along with the preludes already mentioned, number 7 shows a fine sense of momentum without excessive reliance on elaboration exhibited in other recordings. Also worth pointing out is the allemande number 58, sprightly but with an irresistible inner logic. And no discussion of music by Louis Couperin is complete without an admiring reference to his powerful yet poignant Tombeau de Mr Blancrocher, the admired lutenist so unfortunate to fall to his death, yet his memory so fortunate to be celebrated by two of the finest works ever composed for the keyboard, the tombeaux by Froberger and this one by Louis Couperin. Both pieces piteously depict his actual falling, and Louis Couperin includes a tolling motif which is wonderfully affecting in its sonorous and sombre dignity.

Massimo Berghella plays throughout with clarity and insight. It is as though he acknowledges that we were not there at the time, and he relies on Louis Couperin’s notation and the surviving evidence of his contemporaries plus the best of modern research for his interpretations, without resorting in them to exaggeration or swagger. It is of course possible to listen to “a little but often” from this recording, but such is the variety and quality of Louis’s oeuvre and such is the judiciousness and sheer excellence of Massimo Berghella’s playing that listening to an entire disc is both pleasurable enrichment and spiritual illumination.

Richard Turbet

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Recording

Senfl

Singer Pur, Ensemble Leones
66:30
Oehms Classics OC 1726

This collaboration between the vocal group Singer Pur and the instrumental Ensemble Leones presents a programme of motets with a block of Senfl’s secular music in the middle. This latter element consists largely of no fewer than seven settings of the song “Ich stund an einem Morgen” and three of “Was wird es doch” – perhaps as much of both as one could wish for. While, with the exception of the extended consort piece ‘Das lang’, Senfl’s secular idiom is perhaps quite familiar and ultimately pretty conventional, his sacred music is altogether more complex and interesting and generally underperformed and recorded. A student of Heinrich Isaac, Senfl found employment with the Hofkapelle of Emperor Maximilian I in Vienna and Munich, so it is hardly surprising – with considerable musical resources at his disposal – that Senfl wrote such demanding and richly textured sacred music. Singer Pur present most of the sacred music unaccompanied, and produce their usual lovely vocal blend and intelligent readings of the music. The rich combination of voices and stringed instruments in the opening “Sancta Maria virgo”, such as would have been commonplace in the Munich Hofkapelle, home of the Bavarian State Orchestra, made me wish that both groups had combined forces in more of the sacred music on the CD. Be that as it may, this CD makes a strong case for Senfl’s sacred music being afforded more attention and respect than it is currently. His setting of “Media vita in morte sumus” is a masterpiece.

D. James Ross

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The sword & the lilly

15th-century polyphony for Judgement Day
Fount & Origin, James Tomlinson
67:57
Inventa INV1008

This CD of choral music from the 15th century is – in the words of the programme note – ‘a meditation on van der Weyden’s The Last Judgement’, a magnificent painting in the ‘doom’ tradition, dominated by a wonderfully winged St Michael. Rather than exploring the theme of the Last Judgement in music, the programme takes us on a tour of the painting in the manner of the Radio 4 “Moving Pictures” series, finding works or movements from works which reference its various visual elements. Thus we open with an episode from Ockeghem’s Requiem before moving on via a number of anonymous motets to the Missa L’Homme armé/Dum sacrum mysterium by Johannes Regis, a Magnificat by Johannes Martini and the Dies Irae from Brumel’s Requiem. The singing is elegantly idiomatic and expressive and perhaps the greatest virtue of the recording is the high percentage of anonymous pieces, works which tend to be overlooked when choirs are selecting repertoire for recordings. I am not a natural admirer of picking and choosing movements from larger works and combining them with a fairly random selection of shorter pieces from throughout Europe, and I found myself wanting the rest of pieces such as the Ockeghem, Regis and Brumel. As a taster for these larger works, I suppose this programme may serve to draw listeners unfamiliar with these pieces into exploring them further, while also offering the parts in a wider context of anonymous smaller works. Ultimately for me, this CD seemed a rather unsatisfying random selection of works, which had at best a tangential connection with one another.

D. James Ross

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Miércoles de Tinieblas

Ensemble Semura Sonora directed by Clara Espinosa Encinas & Lucien Julien-Laferrière
50:40
Seuletoile SE 07

This CD presents a set of Lamentations and a Miserere associated with Zamora Cathedral in Castilla y León in Spain by two composers new to me, Juan Garcia Salazar and his student, Alonso Tomé Cobaleda. The music demonstrates the quirky charm of late-17th- and early-18th-century Spanish composition and is performed with passion and musicality by the voices and instruments of the Ensemble Semura Sonora. There are impressive solo performances from alto Gabriel Diaz Cuesta as well as some engaging ensemble singing, ably supported by the instrumental ensemble. From the outset, I felt that a more resonant acoustic might have served this cathedral music better, and this became more apparent in the more lavishly scored numbers. Having said that, the occasionally pinched sound didn’t interfere too much with my enjoyment of this unusual repertoire, and the Ensemble Semura Sonora played and sang idiomatically and expressively. Particularly striking was the very pure and penetrating soprano singing, interacting wonderfully with the cornetto. The lack of an English translation and my limited French put much of the programme note out of my reach, but the internet served well to introduce these two very capable composers to me.

D. James Ross

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Recording

Septem dies: Seven Days with Music at Prague University (1360-1460)

Schola Gregoriana Pragensis, Corina Marti
63:51
Supraphon SU 4282-2

In their efforts to provide a snapshot of the complete musical lives of students at Prague University in the century from 1360-1460, Corina Marti and the Schola Gregoriana have drawn on the work of a number of musicologists on the University’s considerable collection of musical manuscripts to provide sacred and secular monophony and polyphony for this varied and beautifully executed programme. The singing is wonderfully idiomatic, the singers sounding equally at home in plainchant and polyphony, while Marti provides instrumental interludes and accompaniments on the clavisimbalum. In this way, liturgical music relevant to the seven-day round of religious services is punctuated by student songs and instrumental pieces of the sort they would have played for entertainment. A lavish book of background information provides an intriguing context for the music, and the whole package is a testimony to the very fruitful interaction of scholars and performers. Much of the music here has been freshly transcribed and is receiving its first performance in modern times. The whole team behind this admirable and vivid recording, made in the generous acoustic of the Basilica of the Visitation of the Virgin Mary in Milevsko, has more than achieved its stated aim of representing the musical landscape that would have confronted a student at Prague University in the 14th and 15th centuries.

D. James Ross