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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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Bach: Weihnachtsoratorium

[Sunhae Inn, Petra Noskaiová, Stephan Scherpe, Jan Van der Crabben SATB], La Petite Bande, Sigiswald Kuijken
139:22 (2 CDs)
Challenge Classics CC72394

[dropcap]K[/dropcap]uijken’s Weihnachtsoratorium is a treat: it’s clear as a bell, with every note of every line audible, and the tuning very precise. As you would expect from La Petite Bande, it’s all one-to-a-part, except for doubling the upper strings, so the balance of voices, strings, wind and brass is as it is, and the liner notes say that this hasn’t been messed around with by the recording engineers! No finger-holes in the trumpets, so ringing D major chords and some lovely 6ths, and Sara Kuijken, the second violin, doubles elegantly as the echo soprano in Flößt, mein Heiland in IV.4.

The voices are a pretty good blend: Kuijken often uses Van der Crabben, and while the clarity of his real bass voice provides an excellent foundation for the singers, he can also offer a lyrical quality in arias like Erleucht auch meine finstre Sinnen with the oboe d’amore in V.5 or the duet with the soprano in III.6. Petra Noskaiová, the alto, is another of Kuijken’s frequent singers, and is very good too – she has all the clarity you need for the chorus work, and a robust and distinctive sound for the solo material: listen to her line in the Terzetto in V.9, where she offers a very distinctive counter-balance to the S/T duet. The tenor, Stephan Scherpe, is a real find, singing the choruses with control and restraint, the evangelista with effortless clarity and his arias – especially Frohe Hirten – with precision and panache. About the soprano I feel less sure. The voice quality is always more problematic as you go higher in the vocal range, and although she is fine when not under pressure (as in Flößt, mein Heiland in IV.4), Sunhae Im does not match the superlative boy, Leopold Lampelsdorfer, who recorded I-III with Holger Eichhorn and the Musicalische Compagney in 2012 (which I reviewed in EMR 153) in the ensemble work. (Eichhorn never did IV to VI with Lampelsdorfer.) There is something about sopranos singing OVPP which needs exploring: it is more audible, and so more distracting, if you press on a note tied over a barline, which can add an unhelpful and occasionally panicky-sounding edge, rather than floating these held notes as a viol player would; and then there is the question of whether the almost unconscious soloist’s vibrato – especially in concerted passages – confuses the choral texture. How can singers learn to judge the different style that is needed for an aria and then in the chorus of four voices? Having said this, the ensemble is excellent in the largely homophonic passage like Wo ist der neugeborne König (V.3)
     Tempi are judicious – perhaps a bonus from not having a driven conductor in charge? – and I imagine the layout is similar to the Petite Bande performances you can see on YouTube, where the singers stand together in front of the organ in the middle, and the players ring them on a raised box – strings on the left-hand side and the substantial bass violin next to the organ (there isn’t any 16’ of course – and I don’t miss it) with the brass and wind to the right. With Kuijken leading and directing the ensemble from the wing of the instruments, there are only occasional moments when I feel the lack of an independent conductor, but the players are attentive to each other, and know where to make the minute adjustments for the singers that give this performance its caressing chamber music quality without sacrificing its dancelike energy.
     I like this performance, and am very happy to live with it long-term.

David Stancliffe

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Telemann: Festive Cantatas

Miriam Feuersinger, Franz Vitzthum, Klaus Mertens ScTB/Bar, Collegium vocale Siegen, Hannoversche Hofkapelle, Ulrich Stötzel
58:04
Hänssler Classic CD 98.047
TVWV 1: 243, 284 & 413

[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he three works here (all in world modern premiere recordings) come from the cycle that Telemann published for 1748–49, the so-called “Engel-Jahrgang” to texts by Erdmann Neumeister, all following a five-movement pattern: chorus, aria, recitative, aria and chorale. The first cantata on the disc Der Herr lebet for Easter Sunday shares the spoils between the three soloists, while in the others, Ehr und Dank sey Dir gesungen for Michaelmas and Der Geist giebt Zeugnis for Whitsun, the central movements are all for solo bass and alto respectively. Of the three cantatas, the last was my favourite, especially the second of the arias, “Geist des Trostes und der Gnade”, in which the soloist is not only accompanied by the strings but also by the two trumpets and timpani that feature in all the cantatas of the set. The choir sing well, but the booklet does not list names, so it is impossible to say how many are on each voice; nor are the players named. The texts are laid out alongside a nice English translation, but it is a pity that the Biblical quotes are printed as pseudo poetry, while the verse patterns of the arias are obscured by arbitrary line breaks. It is a pity, too, that there is not more music for Miriam Feuersinger, as she has a lovely voice for this repertoire. This is the second Telemann recording from these forces; I hope there will be more!

Brian Clark

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Rubino: Messa de Morti à 5 concertata

Cappella Musicale S. Maria in Campitelli, Studio di Musica Antica “Antonio Il Verso”, Vincenzo Di Betta
75:33
Tactus TC 601503

[dropcap]A[/dropcap] new composer for me, Bonaventura Rubino (1600-1668) was master of music at Palermo Cathedral from 1645 until his death. His Messa di Morti a 5 concertata was published as part of his Opera Quarta in Palermo in 1653. The music is as it says on the box – substantial late renaissance polyphony alternates with a kaleidoscopic array of affecting solos, duos and trios; try the extended and attractive Dies Irae for a good taster. The recording has been carefully prepared to reproduce the structure of a solemn Requiem mass, using three celebrants for the chant and interspersing organ and instrumental music at appropriate points in the service. The performance is generally enjoyable. Although comparatively large, the choir sounds focused and well blended. The soloists are good, and the instrumentalists, as well as providing excellent doubling for the choir, shine in the sinfonias. I particularly relished the delectable sound of the 1635 chamber organ. Occasionally, especially in the full sections, the music sounds a little rhythmically over emphasised, but this does not detract unduly from one’s overall pleasure in this important addition to the recorded repertoire.

Alastair Harper

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Casani: Il viaggio di Tobia

[Laura Antonaz Angelo, Claudine Ansermet Tobia Figlio, Mya Fracassini Anna, Jeremy Ovenden Raguele, Sergio Foresti Tobia Padre – SsmSTB], Coro della Radiotelevisione Svizzera, I Barocchisti, Diego Fasolis
122:43 (2 CDs)
Dynamic CDS 7055/1-2

[dropcap]T[/dropcap]his late 17th-century oratorio has both text and music by the little-known Giovanni Maria Casini, a Florentine who had gained favour at the court of Cosimo III and Ferdinando Medici, where he came into contact with Alessandro Scarlatti. The present recording has five solo singers and a choir for those movements called “coro” (I would have thought Casini would have expected the soloists to sing those, too) and a band of strings and continuo, with a pair of trumpets used sparingly, considering the fact that one of the leading characters in the drama is an angel. I think the strings are playing concertino and ripieno parts, but the booklet is as disappointing in this respect as it is when it comes to a decent translation of the note (concerto becomes concerto, not concert, for example!), let alone one of the text, or even an indication of how the five acts are spread between the 71 tracks! Although there is much to enjoy from the instrumentalists, I am afraid I derived much less pleasure from the solo voices – too much “me” and not enough “essence of the character I’m supposed to be portraying” for my taste.

Brian Clark

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Michel-Richard Delalande: Symphonies pour les Soupers du Roy

Elbipolis Barockorchester Hamburg, Jürgen Groß
61:48
Challenge Classics CC72664

[dropcap]T[/dropcap]his music is truly delightful – it’s easy to see why the Sun King made Delalande such a prominent figure in the musical life of his court. Reconstruction of the inner parts has been skilfully undertaken, though for my tastes and, I suspect, those of the time, the changes of sonority within movements are over-elaborate and unnecessary. I also doubt the use of the recorder at 4’ pitch. But what is done, is done very well. In the booklet, the note apparently from the point of view of one of the original players is unconvincing though the main essay is fine.

David Hansell

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