Mozart: Piano Concertos

K238, 242, 246
Robert Levin, tangent piano, Ya-Fei Chuang, fortepiano, Academy of Ancient Music, Laurence Cummings conductor & harpsichord

I referred to this performance of the three-piano concerto, K242 in my review of its previous incarnation in the series in December 2023. On the earlier disc, it was played by husband and wife team Robert Levin and Ya-Fei Chuang in the adaptation for two pianos made by Mozart, the third piano part being near-redundant (it was composed for the young daughter of one of Mozart’s patrons). As I mentioned at the time – and please refer back to the earlier review for a more detailed introduction to the work – the idea of doing it again in its original version seems to be carrying the concept of the intégrale to extreme lengths. Ah, but there’s a gimmick (or fresh idea, if you prefer) here too, for the performance is given on three different instruments, with Levin playing a modern reproduction of a tangent piano built by Spath and Schmahl in 1794, his wife a copy of an Andreas Stein fortepiano of 1787. Oddly, given the usual sumptuous booklet provided by AAM, the harpsichord played by Laurence Cummings is not identified, hardly a major problem in this case given the instrument is virtually inaudible for much of the time.

The line-up is of course one that Mozart would never have employed and thus rather pointless, though Cliff Eisen argues for it in his usual scholarly fashion. This is particularly pertinent given that the sonority of the tangent piano is not particularly appealing, its upper register being weak and thin, to my ears considerably less attractive than the fuller-bodied, mellow sound of Chuang’s Stein. Unsurprisingly the performance is not greatly different from that on the earlier disc, as the relative timings suggest. As with that performance, the most satisfying and sensitive playing comes in the central Adagio, with, dare I say it, Mrs Levin just edging it for expressive playing over her one-time teacher when she takes up the theme. Needless to say, Levin’s spontaneous extemporary embellishment is as much a pleasure as ever; moments such as the playful second return to the rondo theme of the finale are sheer delight.

Both K238 in B flat and K 246 in F (Numbers 6 and 7) were composed in Salzburg during the first half of 1776. They mark the end of Mozart’s apprenticeship as a piano concerto composer; his next essay in the form would to be the Concerto in E flat, K271, dating from the following year, his first outright masterpiece in the form. Nevertheless, K238 in particular is an especially lovable work, with a slow movement that is the first in the long line of dreamy, moon-lit andantes, here played with real sensitivity. I sensed the opening Allegro aperto (meaning ‘brightly’) was taken a trifle brusquely, but it is slower than that of Malcolm Bilson (Archiv), a warning of the dangers of paying too much attention to timings when other factors may also be involved. The final is spirited and emphatic,  Levin’s imaginative treatment of the final appearance of the rondo theme again joyously improvised. K246, written for Countess Lützow, makes fairly modest demands on the soloist and is less distinctive, though the thrusting energy of the opening movement is compelling. The rondo finale is again played here in slightly too staccato a style for my taste, but otherwise the performance is unexceptionable.

Throughout Levin is capably accompanied by a smallish body from the AAM. As with previous issues since this series was resurrected the sound is not ideal, being a little restricted through speakers, although less so through headphones. If my calculations are correct there’s now just one to go in this valuable series.

Brian Robins


Fantaisie Romantique

19th-Century Eastern European Guitar Music
James Akers
resonus RES10334

With this charming CD, James Akers continues his exploration of guitar music from 19th-century Ukraine and its neighbours. He plays music by seven composers on three different guitars: by Pietro Pettoletti (c. 1795-c. 1870) on a six-string guitar; by Johann Dubez (1828-1891), Nicolai Petrovich Makaroff (1810-1890), and Johann Kaspar Mertz (1806-1856) on an eight-string guitar; and by Mikhail Polupayenko (1848-1902), Johann  Decker-Schenk (1826-1899), and Nicolas Pavilstscheff (1802-1879) on a nine-string guitar. All three instruments have their first six strings tuned the same as a conventional Spanish or classical guitar from Western Europe (EAdgbe’), and although some of these composers also wrote for the seven-string Russian guitar with its distinctive open G tuning (DGBdgbd’), none of that repertory is included on the present CD. The instruments with two or three extra strings may at first sight look weird, because the extra strings are fixed equidistant from the other strings at the bridge, but splay out away from the sixth string to their own separate nut leaving quite a gap between the sixth and seventh strings. I guess that this enables the instruments to feel the same at the nut end, and allows the player space for his left-hand thumb to reach round the neck to stop notes on the sixth string.
The harmonic palette of these guitarist-composers is at times somewhat restricted – take away all the tonic, dominant and diminished seventh chords, and there is not always so very much left – but the simple melodies decorated with appoggiaturas and acciaccaturas, occasional chromatic touches, flourishes of arpeggios up and down the neck, and a tessitura widened by extra strings in the bass and extra frets at the treble end of things, combine to create an overall effect which is pleasing to the ear, and would have provided easy listening for salon audiences. No doubt the listeners would have felt at home if they recognised popular folk melodies or well-known tunes from operas, and would have been impressed by the virtuosity of flashy, extrovert variations. Each item is quite short – a total of 39 tracks lasting a mere 63 minutes.
From Oleg Timofeyev’s interesting and informative liner notes we learn that Mikhail Polupayenko was born in Kharkiv, studied medicine in Kharhiv and Kyiv, and gave guitar recitals throughout the Ukraine. His last performance was in Bakhmut in 1902. His Fantasia on Zaporozyhe Themes consists of five short contrasting movements, now slow, now fast, ending with an exciting Allegro vivo where repeated riffs get faster and faster. It brings to my mind Cossack dancers wearing furry hats, with baggy trousers tucked into their boots, kicking out as they crouch down, and calling out with triumph and joy. One thing is for certain: Polupayenko’s music is pleasantly brought to life with Akers’ interpretation and his subtle contrasts of tone colour.
Polupayenko’s Fantasia was dedicated to his friend, the Austrian-born guitarist Johann Decker-Schenk, who moved to Russia in 1861. There is much variety in his music too: Ukrainische Weise is enhanced by some delicate harmonics, and the third movement of his Fantaisie Romantique has a tremolo effect sounding like a Neapolitan mandoline.
Unlike the other composers represented here, Johann Dubez was Austrian. He was a versatile musician who played the violin, harp, mandoline and zither, as well as the guitar. His flamboyant Fantaisie sur des motifs hongrois pour la Guitare consists of 11 short items, including Tempo di Marcia, a setting of the well-known Rácóczi March. The music for the Fantaisie is available online for free download from the IMSLP website, where you can see evidence of his extravagant style, including an Allegretto with fast, arpeggios up and down the neck of the guitar followed by five sextuplets, a passage of descending quavers, rounded off with a super-fast rising scale in broken octaves, diatonic for the first octave and chromatic for the second.
Virtuosity is a constant feature of the music of Nikolai Makaroff, and his Fleurs du Nord, Op. 3, No. 1, also available on IMSLP, are no exception. He finds various ways of catching a casual ear’s attention, including a tricky passage in “Down on Mother Volga”, where the melody is played entirely in harmonics. James Akers makes it all sound so easy, but it most certainly is not.
Pietro Pettoletti was born in Norway, lived for a while in Germany, moved to Sweden when he was 25, and eventually settled in St Petersburg. In his liner notes Oleg Timofeyev explains that Pettoletti’s Fantaisie sur une Romance favorite de Paschkoff, Op. 31, consists of variations on the song, “He fell out of love with me”, by Alexander Guriliov (1803-1858), and that there are no apparent links to the eponymous Paschkoff.
Akers ends his CD with Nicolas Pavilstscheff’s Grande Fantaisie sur un motif de l’Opera “La fiancée” d’Auber, Op. 25 – a splendid showpiece deserving much applause.
Stewart McCoy

Monteverdi: Vespro della Beata Vergine

Pygmalion, Raphaël Pichon
102:00 (2 CDs in a cardboard box)
harmonia mundi HMM 902710.11

Raphael Pichon’s account of Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610 has been through a process of metamorphosis since a rather unsatisfactory Proms performance in 2017 followed by a much more convincing account, filmed live in the Versailles chapel which I reviewed enthusiastically in 2019. This version still attempted to set Monteverdi’s music in something of a liturgical context, while unfortunately the DVD subtitles and support materials did a poor job in identifying the interleaved plainchant. This latest CD version for harmonia mundi accepts the current thinking that, far from being a discrete ‘piece’, the publication is a collection of Monteverdi’s best service music written for lavish celebrations of St Barbara at the Gonzaga court of Mantua and gathered together in a portfolio dedicated to the Pope in the hope of employment in one of the important papal institutions in Rome. The failure of this enterprise and Monteverdi’s subsequent career in Venice has frequently influenced performances of this extraordinary music, but actually the important point of reference ought to be the musically flamboyant court of Mantua. The practice of combining the sacred and secular musical resources for the most magnificent Mantuan services for St Barbara justifies the truly epic scale of Pichon’s presentation. It also obviates the need for a liturgical context, and even allows for the aesthetically satisfactory return to the opening fanfare set to relevant text to bookend the whole performance. Epic is the word that keeps coming to mind in describing this latest version of the Vespers, with over seventy musicians performing in the resonant acoustic of the Temple du Saint-Esprit in Paris. Pichon’s control over these large forces is breath-taking, and as previously his line-up of superlative soloists provides us with exquisitely decorated accounts of the solo and small ensemble material. Also prominent in these more intimate moments, although also adding magically to the tutti textures, is a superb team of continuo players, including two harpists, three theorbists, and three harpsichordists, one doubling organ. Their contribution is wonderfully imaginative and perfectly responsive to the voices. The brass and string sections, particularly the two double basses, provide an impressively rich texture to the tutti passages, while the four cornettists contribute virtuosic cadential embellishments which are simply stunning – just listen to them in the concluding doxology of Laetatus sum! Singing at ‘high’ pitch, Pygmalion’s chorus exudes energy and musical purpose and is a model of perfect phrasing and unanimity, while the harmonia mundi engineers have captured this whole remarkable sound in all its vividness. You can tell that this is a performance of a now familiar work which I found thrilling and engaging – it caused me to look back at my favourite accounts by Suzuki, Christophers, and Gardiner’s three versions, and further back to pioneering accounts in the early 1950s by Eugen Jochum and even Leopold Stokowski. What struck me is that for all their scholarly and stylistic shortcomings, the earliest versions had an epic sweep, which has sometimes been missing in later versions. It strikes me that Pichon has managed to embrace the scholarly and the epic dimensions of this music, while modern standards of recorded sound capture this in all its richness and subtlety. This version is not without its quirks – not everybody will like the rather ‘romantic’ dynamic variations (including the curiously ‘cowed’ opening of Dixit Dominus), while the decision to perform the opening and concluding verses of Ave maris stella a capella, when previous conductors’ instincts have been to combine the vocal and instrumental forces accrued in all the other verses, is a curious one. The fact is we have very little idea of the details of performance styles at the time, but knowing that opera singers joined forces with sacred musical forces for the larger-scale religious celebrations suggests that the inherent drama of the music might have been further enhanced for these courtly spectacles.

D. James Ross


Monteverdi: L’Orfeo

Le Concert des Nations, La Capella Reial de Catalunya, Jordi Savall
109:06 (2 CDs in a card triptych)
Château de Versailles Spectacles CVS080

This series of recordings, made in conjunction with live concerts at the Palace of Versailles, presents exciting new artists an revisits memorable milestones of authentic performance – the present recording belongs to the latter category. Jordi Savall’s presentations of Orfeo in the early 2000s with the principal role played by Furio Zanasi and the role of Musica unforgettably taken by Savall’s late wife, Montserrat Figueras, are remembered fondly by all of us lucky enough to see a live performance, and it was transferred very successfully to CD. This time the role of Orfeo is taken by Marc Mauillon, and like Zanasi before, he combines a stunning technique with a believable dramatic presence. It is good to hear the famous virtuoso aria “Possente spirto” sung with such complete technical assurance, but also with bravura – perhaps not since the legendary account by Nigel Rogers have we heard so many of the incidental notes in exactly the right places, and indeed Mauillon’s voice is reminiscent of Rogers’ distinctive timbre. Here and elsewhere in the opera, Mauillon succeeds in articulating the eye-watering degree of ornamentation without allowing it to interfere with the dramatic sweep of the music. This is a remarkable account of this extremely demanding role! The clearly generous budget of the Versailles concerts allows musical directors to indulge themselves, and Savall fields a lavish instrumental team, probably many times larger than anything Monteverdi could have mustered but providing a superb range of textures, and en masse a rich and impressive sound. This is matched by a capable and splendid vocal chorus, while an equally impressive line-up of other soloists animates the multiple distinctive solo roles. Savall’s earlier productions featured him sweeping down through the audience to his instrumental ensemble for the overture clad in a Magus’s cloak, and he has lost none of the old magic in what is much more than a revival of his earlier account of Monteverdi’s masterpiece. He has brought a lifetime of experience to bear on this remarkable piece, and has mustered an ensemble of all the talents to allow him to realise his vision. A final virtue of the Versailles Concerts CDs is their lavish presentation, and this release is no exception with a richly illustrated booklet including an intriguing essay by Jean-François Lattarico and background details about all the participants.

D. James Ross


Ensaladas by Mateo Flecha ‘El viejo’

Ambronay AMY 315

We have to thank the Eeemerging programme for introducing the vocal quartet Cantoría to a wider audience, and on the basis of this excitingly dynamic selection of ensaladas by the 16th-century Spanish composer Mateo Flecha ‘the elder’ they are a group deserving of exposure. Eleven ensaladas by Flecha survive of which we have seven here. These extended episodic songs in four and five parts, offer graphic depictions of a wide variety of situations and events, and were hugely popular throughout Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries in the hands of the likes of Clément Janequin, Adriano Banchieri and Orlando Gibbons. While Flecha probably also wrote church music, it is his Ensaladas that have survived and which have established his reputation. With its restlessly changing tempi and harmonies, this is demanding music to perform successfully, and Cantoría find the perfect combination of vocal blend and solistic characterisation, while maintaining an engaging impression of spontaneity. Particularly impressive is their account of La Guerra, a hectic sound-picture of a Renaissance battle complete with sound effects, battle cries and shouts of victory. The war movie of its time, the battle chanson was a way for Renaissance aristocrats to relive their battlefield successes and for their courtiers and partners to share in their experiences. The Joust provides another fine opportunity for a vivid sound representation of more organised combat, and again Cantoría rise to the challenge with some wonderfully powerful fanfaring and some entertainingly jazzy galloping.

D. James Ross


Il n’y a pas d’amour heureux

La Palatine
Ambronay AMY316

This young ensemble, brought to us by the excellent Eeemerging programme promoting new early music performers, does exactly what it says on the tin, presenting a lovely selection of works for voice and instruments on the subject of unhappy love from the pens of Monteverdi, Rossi and Merula. These are beautifully sung by the group’s soprano Marie Théolyre, who imparts passion and intelligence in performances that are also wonderfully precise and musical. While they provide lovely responsive accompaniments to the songs and cantatas, the instrumentalists of La Palatine also take their turn in the spotlight with beautifully executed instrumental works by Alessandro Piccini, Giovanni Salvatore, Bellerofonte Castaldi and Angelo Michele Bartolotti and a lovely set of diminutions by Riccardo Rognoni on Amor che col partire by Cipriano de Rore. These instrumental interludes are both an imaginative and inventive device for breaking up a sequence of mainly plangent vocal music, but are so much more than this, showcasing the importance of instrumental composition in early 17th-century Italy while also depth of talent in this young ensemble. They have thrown their net wide when selecting repertoire, and side by side with a powerful rendition of the classic Lamento d’Arianna by Monteverdi, we have the premiere recording of Fermate, occhi, fermate by Mario Savioni, an exciting discovery indeed.

D. James Ross


Lully – Te Deum

Les Épopées, Les Pages et les Chantres du Centre de musique baroque de Versailles, directed by Stéphane Fuget
Versailles Spectacles CVS117

This is the fourth in the indispensable series of Lully’s grands motets being undertaken by Stéphane Fuget and his vocal and orchestral ensemble Les Épopées, recorded in the glorious acoustic of the Chapelle Royale in the Palace of Versailles. Here, tackling the Te Deum of 1677 – perhaps the most brilliant and theatrical of all the motets – they are augmented by the forces of the Centre de musique baroque de Versailles to form an ensemble close to 100 strong.

The Te Deum was first given at Fontainebleau not to celebrate some great military victory, the usual reason for running up a Te Deum, as might be supposed but rather the more intimate occasion of the christening of Louis, the eldest son of Louis XIV (whom he predeceased) and Queen Marie-Thérèse. The king, who one suspects was more the target of its praise than the infant, was so delighted with it that he asked for it to be given again the following day. Thereafter it was repeated on several occasions, the last of which was in January 1687 when it was given to celebrate the king’s recovery following an operation. This was the famous occasion on which Lully injured his foot with the staff with which he beat time, an accident that resulted in his death from gangrene some weeks later.

The Te Deum is preceded, as it surely would have been on ceremonial occasions, by a pair of marches by the Philidor brothers, the first for timpani including a fascinating piece of syncopation. Perhaps the most striking aspect of the Te Deum is that, unlike so many occasional ceremonial works of its kind, it is far removed from being just a spectacular tub-thumper. Even in the most brilliant sections employing all the performers, the level of musical invention remains on an impressively high level, while many of the more intimate passages for the petit choeur or soloists have a calm, inner radiance. As so often with this genre, just as you think the ear is going to be overwhelmed by sheer splendour and brilliance along comes an ineffable, lyrical passage of heart-stopping beauty, here memorably realised. In common with most works in this genre, the key is thus contrast, contrast that spans the splendour of the opening and closing pages to the supplicatory verses from ‘Dignare, Domine’ (Vouchsafe, O Lord), beautifully sung here by an unidentified  bass, through to the wonderful trio (two haute-contres and bass) into which the petit choeur steals almost imperceptibly.

The other motet included makes for an ideal companion piece given that it was apparently customary for Exaudiat te Dominus, Psalm 19 (20) to be performed after the Te Deum at major ceremonies, as it was indeed after the performance to give thanks for the king’s recovery mentioned above. Interestingly it is markedly different in style, a more succinct setting with more clearly defined sections and more solo passages. Less brilliant than the Te Deum, the trumpets and timpani are silent until the doxology, they are of course required to round off the coupling of the two works with a suitably flamboyant flourish .

The performances are electrifying in the more overtly ceremonial passages, at the same time achieving an interiority and prayerful grace in more intimate music. The involvement of all is underlined by remarkable diction, not easy in this building with its blessedly long reverberation, while the solo singing and that of the petit choeur is of exceptional quality as indeed is that of the full choir and orchestra. This is yet another quite exceptional and uplifting achievement from Stéphane Fuget and his exceptionally gifted forces. 

Brian Robins


Joseph Martin Kraus: Overtures

THERESIA, directed by Claudio Astronio
cpo 555 579-2

Prepare to have your attention seized from the very first bars of this amazing release! There are eleven openings on the programme, from operas (as you would expect) to cantatas for birthdays and funerals. Pretty much an exact contemporary of Mozart, Kraus (who died a year later) was the master of Sturm und Drang, but more than that, he was an excellent orchestrator, searching just the right timbre for his dramatic gestures – I am not exaggerating when I confess to having been tense throughout the equally excellent THERESIA’s rendition of the prologue to the composer’s “Æneas i Cartago”. The overtures to Acts 1 and 5 of that massive work also feature – the exemplary booklet note by Kraus expert Bertil van Boer explains that the programme is essentially a musical palindrome of keys with what he considers to be the epitome of Kraus’s writing in this style, the opening to Act 1. It is unbelievable to think that this outstanding recording on period instruments is the work of a youth orchestra. Of course, the members (whose names cover most European languages except English, of course… another Brexit benefit?!) have studied long and hard and obviously have talent oozing from their pores, yet still it is astounding that they reach such heights. The recording engineers have done well to capture all that youthful energy, which they certainly put to good use!

I am happy to report that the booklet also predicts more recordings on cpo from THERESIA – if they are half as good as this one, I will be more than impressed!

Brian Clark


Musik aus dem alten Stralsund

Musik der Hansestädte Vol. 1
Europäisches Hanse-Ensemble, Manfred Cordes
cpo 555 578-2

Like most of the cities that formed the Hanseatic League, Stralsund grew rich on the back of its trading activities. Much of the music on this disc (and the others that will join it in the series) will be at best little known; I had only heard of one of the three composers on the programme, Johann Vierdanck. Hitherto I had only known his instrumental music, though – through my studies of the musical life of the court of Anhalt-Zerbst – I was aware of his many publications of vocal music. Typical of Manfred Cordes, he has selected some truly wonderful music by him and by the even-less-well-known Caspar Movius (born five years after Vierdanck, he outlived him by 25!) and Eucharius Hoffmann, who was cantor at the city’s Latin School in the second half of the 16th century.

The disc is well balanced: four pieces by Vierdanck surround two by Movius, then four by Hoffmann (in a different style, as one would expect) then four more Vierdanck pieces frame another two by Movius. There are four instrumental pieces, all by Vierdanck; two sonatas a4 (one for pairs of violins and cornetti, one for cornetto and three trombones), a capriccio (two violins and gamba), and an extraordinary sonata a6 in D minor – I literally sat up straight when he had the instruments suddenly play in octaves! It was quite the unexpected effect. All of the vocal music is delightful, and beautifully sung. I am not surprised that the princes of Anhalt-Zerbst bought Vierdanck’s music for the local schoolboys to sing at weekly services. The first two Movius works are for double choir (sung one to a part here), while the second pair are for two sopranos and bass. Cordes deploys some instruments in three of the Hoffmann pieces, but the fourth is sung a cappella.

For anyone looking for an unexpected treat and a clear demonstration – if it were needed – that the 17th century in German music history does not just mean Schütz, Schein and Scheidt, this disc (and, indeed, many others curated by this innovative conductor), look no further! Buy this now.

Brian Clark


Telemann: Fantaisies pour violon

Patrock Oliva
Triton Trihort 581

This 2023 recording enters the lists (all senses of that phrase!) and will find itself immediately in a considerable pile of top runners and also-rans. There must be nearly 80+ adventures in the interpretation of these 1735 works coming from Telemann’s “Selbstverlag” along with the flute and gamba fantasies. Patrick Oliva’s versions are respectful to the very letter of the movement markings, and as shown by the length of this recording the slower movements are a little ponderous, perhaps mildly introspective, contrasting thus with the faster passages. The playing feels rather compartmentalised, and one senses the player has chosen to mark out each section with his annotated intentions and phrases. Compared to Tomás Cotik (Centaur) and Alina Ibragimova (Hyperion) the timing element tells its own story, Patrick Oliva’s trajectory through these works lasts some 18 minutes more than the others. Again, this is a respectful interpretation with some pleasant contrasts, but does tend to languish in the slower passages. The galant effects found in the final six are respected without pushing the bar. I recently heard Rachel Podger live, playing the E minor piece (the sixth of the set); it was most captivating with elegant immediacy.

All in all, this is a fair recording, but may come around middle of my ever-expanding pile; when I last looked, at least three recordings were spawned per month! The sound quality is good and the booklet notes are very good, even a quote from J. J. Rousseau on the back of the CD.

David Bellinger