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Recording

Binder & Clavecin Roïal : Chamber Music at the Dresden Court

Ricardo Magnus, Ensemble Klangschmelze
68:33
Etcetera KTC 1753

The programme note for this intriguing CD is quick to answer the first of two obvious questions raised by the title. The Clavecin Roïal is a type of square piano, specially reconstructed for this recording, which has the facility to change from one timbre to another at short notice. In fact, under the fingers of Ricardo Magnus it is not so much rapidly changing tones but its constantly tinkling presence, soothing and absolutely charming, that is its distinguishing feature. To my ears, it combines the virtues of the clavichord and the early piano. In his introduction to the instrument, the builder Johann Gottlob Wagner announced it has a number of stops which reproduce the sounds of clavecin, harp, lute, pantaleon, and fortepiano – some explanations raise as many questions as they answer! The second question – who or what is a Binder? – is answered almost as quickly. Christlieb Siegmund Binder is the composer of the chamber music featured on the CD: two keyboard quartets and a trio for obbligato keyboard and flute, all receiving their premiere performances, as well as a further trio for obbligato keyboard and viola. This innocuously entertaining repertoire, sensitively and expressively played by Magnus and his ensemble, helps further to confirm the role of the Dresden Court as an important focus of music-making in 18th-century Germany. Binder was born and died in Dresden, and in his youth played the pantaleon, a type of large hammered dulcimer invented by Pantaleon Hebenstreit, so would certainly have appreciated the Clavecin Roïal’s ability to reproduce its sound.

D. James Ross

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Recording

Early European and Hungarian Dances

Capella Savaria, Zsolt Kalló
54:06
Hungaroton HCD 32881

Founded in 1981, the Hungarian period instrument ensemble Capella Savaria are veterans in the field and have assembled an impressive discography over the forty years of their existence. Their playing combines precision and energy, and these are the predominant features of this recording of Telemann’s Ouverture-Suite in B flat major ‘Les Nations’, in which the composer characterises the nations of Europe in appropriate movements. The ever-imaginative Telemann warms to the task, and produces some strikingly original music which suggests that he had some passing acquaintance with folk music from Turkey, Switzerland and Russia. The transition into the second half of the programme, which opens with a couple of dance movements by Hungarian composers of the early 19th century – essentially concert music with a slight Hungarian flavour – is a bit of a jolt. Soon we are into more distinctive traditional Hungarian melodies and dances from a selection of 19th-century manuscripts. With their instinct for their native music, we could expect no better guide to this material than Capella Savaria, and they find the ideal blend of classical ensemble and gypsy folk band. I recalled the recordings of earlier Hungarian material made by the late great Rene Clemencic, and this CD has some of the flamboyance and smouldering energy with which he invested his accounts of his native music. In the final analysis, this had the feeling of two very different programmes sharing a CD. I have heard more imaginative accounts of the Telemann, and in a way I would have preferred a whole CD of the later fascinating Hungarian material. I hope this isn’t as annoying for the performers as the suggestion from a member of one of our audiences, after we had finished an intense programme of Renaissance music lightened with an encore of Ronald Binge’s Elizabethan Serenade, that we should perform a whole programme of ‘that kind of music’! Anyway, the music from Pest, Nagyszombat and the Poszony Manuscripts has considerable charm and character, and Capella Savaria clearly enjoy playing it.

D. James Ross

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Recording

Monteverdi: Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria

Christina Fanelli Amore, Lauranne Oliva Giunone, Fortuna, Emőke Baráthe Minerva, Rihab Chaieb Penelope, Alix Le Saux Ericlea, Mathilde Etienne Melanto, Philippe Jaroussky L’Humana fragilità, Anders J Dahlin Pisandro, Philippe Talbot Eumete, Zachery Wilder Telemaco, Emiliano Gonzalez Toro Ulisse, Fulvio Bettini Iro, Álvaro Zambrano Eurimaco, Anthony León Anfinomo, Giove, Nicholas Brooymans Tempo,  Antinoo, Jérôme Varnier Nettuno, I Gemelli, conducted by Emiliano Gonzalez Toro
177:00 (3 CDs)
Gemelli factory GEFA006

Emiliano Gonzalez Toro’s Monteverdi Orfeo won high praise from me when it was released on Naïve in 2020. He has now turned his attention to Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria, Monteverdi’s penultimate opera, first staged at the Teatro San Giovanni e Paolo in Venice in 1640 to a libretto by Giacomo Badoaro. The set is the first to be issued under the name of the ensemble founded by Gonzalez Toro and artistic director Mathilde Etienne, who is excellent in the role of the lascivious maid Melanto. It is an extraordinarily lavish affair issued in book form, with the English edition consisting of 234 pages printed on high-quality paper. There are no fewer than five major articles including an interview with Etienne and Gonzalez Toro and a highly speculative piece peppered with inaccuracies (San Cassiano, Venice’s first public opera house was not purpose-built for opera but adapted from an existing theatre and so on) on the history of Monteverdi’s operas and their supposed debt to the commedia dell’arte, Orfeo excepted. Nowhere are the considerable doubts that surround the attribution of Il ritorno even mentioned in the interview or the other articles. On a practical level the libretto, the most essential bit of literature for most people, is paradoxically printed in a smaller – and in English lighter – font than the articles, making it difficult to follow.

The lavish presentation seems to be of a part with that devoted to the production itself, which was recorded over a 23-day period, an astonishing amount of time these days. The cast list, too, speaks of generous support for the project, with no fewer than 17 different singers to cover 20 roles. Furthermore, four very brief scenes that were not set by Monteverdi (or any collaborator he may have employed) have been composed especially, that for Nereids and Sirens (act 1, sc 3) being particularly appealing. It might seem, therefore, that the scene is set to report another great success to set alongside the I Gemelli Orfeo. And indeed there are certainly things to commend, but Il ritorno is not Orfeo, which poses relatively few problems to a director if they follow the composer’s beautiful printed score – a rarity for the period – and detailed instructions as to instrumentation. While Orfeo still has slightly more than one foot in the Renaissance, ll ritorno is an unashamedly Baroque opera posing all kinds of problems that need solving by anyone mounting it.

It is the failure to provide satisfactory answers to two of the most important of these questions that to my mind mars this set considerably. The first concerns instrumentation. Gonzalez Toro has gone for a large orchestral body of some 30 players, far exceeding the pair of violins, bass and modest continuo most authorities accept is the norm for mid-century Venetian opera. As Gonzalez Toro makes clear in the interview he is well aware that his orchestra is not historically accurate, rather lamely suggesting that since the first score of the opera to be re-discovered was in Vienna, where the court employed a sizable number of instrumentalists, the work may have been given there. There are in fact two good reasons for the modest scoring of Venetian operas of this period. The first is practical. The explosion of interest in opera in Venice (and subsequently elsewhere) resulted in a number of new opera houses being built in Venice. Invariably they were small and we know from surviving designs and images that the ‘pit’ (often an inverted shell-like structure) would have been incapable of housing more than some half-dozen instruments comfortably. The second is the more important because it concerns the nature of operas of the period, which relied heavily on the heightened recitative or recitar cantando, songs or more lyrical passages being only occasionally introduced. Such writing, as is the case with the later plain recitative that evolved, needs only the support of the continuo bass. To add fuller instrumentation to vocal writing risks obscuring the all-important vocal line. That’s what happens here far too frequently. For a single example from among many go to act 1, sc 5 and 6, where first Neptune is swamped by sackbuts, then Jupiter is drowned out by cornetti not just playing but adding agile improvisation that ensures it is impossible to hear what the god is singing. Certainly there is no prima le parole, dopo la musica here and it is surprising to find a musician with Gonzalez Toro’s experience with this repertoire making such a fundamental error.

Equally as surprising is that he chose for the critical role of Penelope – Ulisse’s long-suffering wife – a singer who had never previously performed Baroque repertoire. Rihab Chaieb is a young Tunisian-Canadian mezzo who has been making waves in later repertoire – go to YouTube and listen to her beautiful, glowing voice soaring in Richard Strauss. But the casting experiment fails disastrously. Much of the role lies just under what I would guess to be the ‘break’ in her voice, where there is little colour and none of the dramatic personality the role requires. Both in the opening monologue and the final reconciliation with her husband, this Penelope misses point after point and is not within hailing distance of the superlative performance by Lucile Richardot in the Versailles set under Stéphane Fuget, a set I have described elsewhere as setting new standards of performance for this repertoire.

Let’s turn to what is good. The set is directed by Gonzalez Toro with a keen awareness of tactus, which means he obtains a fluent flow with plenty of scope for flexibility within the beat. To hear this at its best, listen to Ulisse’s opening monologue (act 1, sc 7), where the warrior awakes, finding himself on a beach after the Phaeacians are shipwrecked. Here the stream of thought and reaction is brilliantly echoed through the constant screwing up and subsequent release of tension. Throughout the tenor’s singing and portrayal of the role is as outstanding as his Orfeo; if less spectacular than that achievement that is only because the role itself is.

It is not my intention to minutely detail every singer’s performance, not least because some of the singing is more than acceptable without being especially notable. This is no doubt because of the director’s declared belief that additional ornamentation to that already provided by Monteverdi is not required. Given the poor articulation of some of what there is, he may be right, but it contributes to some rather featureless performances. Among those that are certainly not featureless are the bright, lively Minerva of Emőke Baráth, the Antinoo and Tempo (Time) of Nicolas Brooymans, the Anfinomo and Giove of Anthony León and the ripely comic Iro (which is a true commedia nell’arte) of Fulvio Bettini). Also commendable is the splendid madrigalian singing of the suitors in their trios of act 2, sc 13 and the choral passages generally.

So much has gone into the making of this set that it seems churlish to conclude by reiterating that it is flawed by what are in my view two serious errors of judgment. Admirers of Gonzalez Toro (of whom I count myself as one) will certainly wish to hear it, but for a general recommendation the recording cannot compete with that of Fuget.

Brian Robins

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Recording

Charpentier: Te Deum

La Chapelle Harmonique, conducted by Valentin Tournet
64:31
Versailles CVS098

In the time of Charpentier the text of the Te Deum was particularly associated with giving thanks to God for victory on the battlefield. Within this context, Marc-Antoine Charpentier composed four settings, of which the present example, H 146, is much the best known and for reasons that extend beyond the use for many years of its instrumental prelude as a flagship theme for major Eurovision transmissions. Charpentier expert Catherine Cessac suggests that H 146 may date from 1692 and the victory of Marshall  Luxembourg at Steenkerque.

Like all such works, the Te Deum’s principal mood is by definition celebratory, enhanced here by the inclusion of trumpets and timpani. But there are, too, more reflective moments of contrast. ‘Te per orbem’, for example, is wonderfully expressive, originally in the hands of outstanding tenor Mathias Vidal, then as a trio involving the addition of haute-contre David Tricou and bass Geoffroy Buffière, the gradual addition of soloists to form an ensemble being a favourite device of Charpentier’s. The succeeding ‘Tu devicto’ for solo soprano is quite ravishingly projected, its long cantabile lines relished with near-sensual delight by Gwendoline Blondeel. Yet ultimately it is the sheer joyous verve with which Valentin Tournet directs the work – and his chorus is magnificent – that sets the seal on a terrific performance.

The opening work on the CD could hardly be more contrasted as to character or performance style. It is a setting of De profundis (H 189), Psalm 129 (or 130 in the Protestant Bible), one of the seven penitential psalms and the psalm set more frequently by Charpentier than any other, a total of no fewer than eight times. H 189 was composed in 1683 on the occasion of the death of Queen Marie-Thérèse. Scored unusually for five-part strings and nine vocal parts, it explores a rich variety of textures and colour. The mood is set at the outset by an orchestral prelude in spacious sentimental style. The breadth and depth carry on into the opening choral setting of the first words ‘De profundis clamavi’, directed by Tournet with quite remarkable concentration. The choral writing here is mostly syllabic homophony, the choir’s cohesion and balance near perfectly sustained. The next number, the deeply expressive ‘Fiant aures tuae’ is initially a soprano solo that brings a new feel to the music, the lyrical lines exquisitely drawn by Blondeel and ultimately by both she and second soprano, Cécile Achille. The final verse, employing words familiar from the Mass for the Dead, ‘Requiem aeternam, dona eis’, rounds off an immensely impressive and profoundly moving work with a return to the breadth of the opening.

The final major work is the Magnificat, H 79, one of ten settings by Charpentier. This one is modestly scored for four vocal parts and four-part strings with a pair of flutes and is dated by Cessac as 1692 or 3. The opening verses are set with a lively sense of the praise they involve, evoking an infectious exuberance. Later contrast comes with more reflective verses such as ‘Suscepit Israel’ an haute-contre solo exquisitely sung by Tricou. But it is the joyous spirit that prevails, the Gloria bursting in to thrust aside the more thoughtful words that precede it and end the work by returning to the elation of the opening.

Finally the Magnificat and Te Deum are separated by four short ceremonial pieces for brass and timpani, the final one for timpani only, by J D Philidor, in some ways an odd idea as it means the prelude to the Te Deum fails to open with quite the startling impact it normally has, its thunder stolen by nearly two preceding minutes of timpani! A quite outstanding addition to the Charpentier discography from one of the rising stars in the already crowded constellation of outstanding French early music musicians.

Brian Robins

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Recording

Antico tastame

Organi storici dell’Arcidiocesi di Monreale
Giovan Battista Vaglica
63:20
Tactus TC 720003

This recording has been a labour of love by Giovan Battista Vaglica who is heavily involved in cataloguing and restoring organs in the Archdiocese of Monreale in Sicily. He plays on three of these instruments here: a 17th-century organ, originally by Antonino La Valle but much altered, in the church of Maria SS. del Carmelo; an anonymous 18th-century instrument in the Chiesa Madre of Terrasini; a 19th-century instrument by an unknown maker in the church of S. Vito in Monreale. The music – all by Sicilian or Neapolitan composers – is well chosen to show off the variety of stops on each of the organs. The two earlier instruments are used for Toccatas by Alessandro Scarlatti and Francesco Durante, as well as a fine fugue by Domenico Scarlatti. A rather over-long set of partite on the Follia di Spagna by the elder Scarlatti provides a good opportunity to put the Terrasini instrument through its paces. The majority of tracks on the recording are played on the Monreale organ, featuring music by Cimarosa, Paisiello and Pergolesi, as well as the lesser-known Neapolitans Pietro Altieri and Fedele Fenaroli. This is all attractive music, without taking itself too seriously, and successfully showcases the surprising variety of timbres available – with only five stops – on the Monreale organ. This recording is a useful reminder of the riches that survive in just one small area of Sicily and the importance of keeping organs such as these in playing condition.

Noel O’Regan

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Recording

Festin Royal: Du mariage du Comte D’Artois, Versailles, 1773

Les Ambassadeurs – La Grande Écurie, conducted by Alexis Kossenko
125:56 (2 CDs in a card triptych)
Château de Versailles Spectacles CVS101

Following its completion in 1770 the magnificent Opéra Royal in the palace of Versailles played host not only to opera but also to large-scale court events such as weddings, banquets and balls. In fact, the day of its inauguration witnessed such an event in the form of the marriage of the Dauphin, the future Louis XVI, to Marie Antoinette, the youngest daughter of the Hapsburg Empress Maria Theresa. This was followed by a performance of Lully’s Persée. Three years later, having hosted the wedding celebrations of Louis XV’s next-in-line successor, the Count of Provence in 1771, came the marriage of the Count of Artois. As with all these sumptuous proceedings, music played an important role in the banqueting, in 1773 under the auspices of the current Surintendant de la Musique de la Chambre du roi, François Francoeur.

In contrast to previous incumbents, Francoeur did not write special music himself. Rather in conjunction with his close collaborator François Rebel he produced four suites for the occasion, utilising music taken not only from his works, understandably the lion’s share, but also successful operas by such as Rameau, Royer, Dauvergne, Mondonville and composers whose names are today less familiar: Pierre-Montan Berton (1727-1780), René de Galard de Béarn, marquis de Brassac (1698-1771) and Bernard de Bury (1720-1785). One of the fascinating aspects of the music included is not only how much of it is not recent, but also the number of works added to existing classics by the likes of Lully and Campra. Thus we have additions by Francoeur and de Bury for productions in 1761 and 1770 respectively of Lully’s Armide, providing a rare example at this time of a secular canon of works having become established as repertoire.

There are two particularly striking aspects of this recording produced at Versailles. The first is that the four suites are a rare example of music being performed in the exact location in which they were originally given. More fascinating still is that the performing forces were determined from a contemporary document that lists the number of instrumentalists that took part. From that, we learn that the orchestra consisted of 70 players, including 26 violins, six violas, no fewer than 14 cellos, four oboes, six bassoons, four horns and, interestingly, a pair of historic clarinets made in France. The results of putting together this large band are stunning, every bit as exciting as hearing Handel’s big occasional pieces played by the forces originally intended. As conductor Alexis Kossenko eloquently puts it: ‘This indulgence turned into exhilaration when we played the first notes of Francoeur’s overture [an addition to that from Lully’s Armide for a 1745 or 1761 production] … The density, the richness of the sound, the robustness of the attacks, but also the mellowness afforded by the 50 or so strings … All of this suddenly made sense, revealing the grandeur of this repertoire, royalty that asserts itself as much in magnificence as in grace …’ Both magnificence and grace are abundant in these splendidly played performances (well, I suppose the horns have their moments, but that’s all part of the fun) which far from being routine or dutiful exude an irresistible verve and character.

It would be pointless to spend much time discussing individual tracks. It’s not that kind of issue and in any event there are too many items, over 40. But a few observations. To get a taster of the visceral excitement that frequently leaps from these CDs try Royer’s Chaconne from his Pyrrhus of 1730, relishing especially the episode with the cellos and basses chugging energetically away. That’s just one of four chaconnes, a magnificent form that I have to confess having a particular weakness for. The one by Berton, an addition to Iphigénie en Tauride, Desmarest’s 1761 production of Campra’s 1704 opera, is a noble, stirring structure running to some nine minutes. Although almost forgotten today, Berton enjoyed a high profile in French musical life, being joint director (with Jean-Claude Trial (1732-1771), also represented here) and then general administrator of the Opéra, in addition to taking on the directorship of the Concert Sprituel, the famous concert-giving organisation. One final thought. As is proved by this hugely enjoyable issue, 18th-century France was not short of fine composers, but one name obstinately stands out as a great one. That name? Jean-Philippe Rameau, of course!

Brian Robins

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Recording

Gottfried Heinrich Stölzel: Ein Lämmlein geht und trägt die Schuld

Veronika Winter, Franz Vitzhum, Markus Brutscher, Martin Schicketanz, Rheinische Kantorei, Das kleine Konzert, Hermann Max
cpo 555 311-2
110:28 (2 CDs)

It is hard to underestimate the widespread influence of the powerfully evocative and image-laden libretto known as The Brockes-Passion!

Conceived by B. H. Brockes (1680-1747), the Hamburg statesman and poet, andpublished c. 1712, with various settings by several noteworthy composers of the day, Keiser, Mattheson, Telemann, Handel, Fasch and Stölzel; even Bach’s St John Passion contains several elements, as did Telemann’s early Hamburg Passions of the 1720s, sadly lost.

In 1992, great efforts were made to reconstruct Bach’s musical library, and the music of G. H. Stölzel appeared terribly under-represented, save the famous aria “Bist Du bei mir” from the Notenbüchlein for Anna Magdalena Bach. Gifted musically from a tender age, Stölzel was a Leipzig student in 1707, active in the Collegio Musico. After some private tuition, he made an Italian tour, meeting famous masters. After working in Gera and Bayreuth, (the latter a centre for early opera), then from 1719 was court kapellmeister in Gotha, gradually turning his hand from operas to sacred music. And so we find the setting of a passion-oratorio circa 1720, not long before he set the Brockes Passion in 1725. It has also been discovered that a cantata cycle (on texts by Benjamin Schmolck) was performed by Bach in Leipzig 1735-6, and Stölzel’s earlier 1720 Passion-oratorio on Good Friday 1734.

Much of Stölzel’s musical legacy was neglected and destroyed, in part due to Georg Benda’s careless disregard for it. Hermann Max is to be most heartily congratulated for diligently compiling the score from parts found in the Schloßmuseum SonderhausenBach obviously admired the music, since he re-worked the aria from the 13th Betrachtung: “Dein Kreuz, o Bräutigam meiner Seele” into “Bekennen will ich seinen Namen” from BWV200.

As per usual Hermann Max has drawn a fine team of performers around him, and the main soloists give a good account of themselves. For an early example of a Passion-oratorio, with 22 Betrachtungen (Contemplations) and 20 Chorales (all with clearly defined sources), it lacks the dramaturgic fluency of the Brockes Passions and others I can think of, yet does include passages for “Christliche Kirche” and “Gläubige Seele”, the latter acting like a kind of accompagnato leading into the reflective arias. Some of these arias (for example, tracks 6 and 12) exude a style close to that found in Graun and Telemann’s Der Tod Jesu (1755), yet others feel lacking in their overall effect and intensity, somewhat “underpowered”, given the vivid and descriptive wording. One senses an active, refined musical (operatic) mind at work, however, the musico-poetic grasp isn’t always alert or activated; nor is the broader instrumental palette. The Evangelist here gives a very good narrative link, using a device termed: Historic Present. The Duet of Gläubige Seelen (21) is rather fine, yet short-lived. The narration up to the lovely Aria “Allerhoechster Gottessohn” (27) seems a fairly weak response to the drama; so too the Aria (30) “Cease, ye murderous claws”! Finally, in the aria (33) we have some sensitive and emotive instrumentation, as the composer deploys a flute, yet it is again all too short-lived!

CD2 opens with the tenor aria that Bach used, yet in my very honest opinion, the following numbers for alto and soprano are musically far superior; indeed, Veronika Winters contributions here are truly noteworthy and soar aloft! So too the chorus before the final section stands out. The closing sections are most effective, being woven around the famous chorale, O Traurigkeit, O Herzeleid. This actually feels more like a liturgical Passion with a few extra twists, than a Passion-oratorio. Every new Passiontide work should be judged on its own merits; alas, due to the sheer dominance of just a handful of works at Easter, many will fall foul of deep-rooted routines and certain perceived expectations, which is disappointing, as so many works will not even get to see the light of day, being held at bay until some fortunate discovery allows the spirit of these pieces to be heard alongside the more familiar. Hermann Max has once again presented on CPO another noteworthy Eastertide Passion, which is an historic document of finest musicology in action.

David Bellinger

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Recording

J. S. Bach: Harpsichord concertos

Steven Devine, Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment
63:30
resonus RES10318

This collection of Bach’s harpsichord concertos is notable for including Steven Devine’s reconstruction of BWV 1059, of which the first eight bars alone survive in Bach’s hand indicating that the opening Sinfonia of Cantata 35, Geist und Seele wird verwirret, forms the earliest version of this cantata. What Steven Devine has done is to take other movements from BWV 35 to complete the concerto, using material from the first aria and the sinfonia that opens part ii. This parallels other harpsichord concertos like BWV 1053 which draws material from cantata movements in BWV 169 & 49. He also notes the intriguing autograph instruction written over the top line ‘Haut e Viol.1’, indicating a part for a single oboe – not the three-part oboe band as in the Cantata 35 original.

Devine’s solution to creating an oboe part is to look at those passages where the oboe band and the string band diverge (as in bars 24 ff) and use this to create melodic interplay between the violin and oboe. In the second movement (the Siciliano-like opening of the ABA first aria), he uses the oboe to play much of the low-lying voice part (did Katharina Sprecklesen try it on a d’amore?), though he adds the oboe to the tutti in the opening sinfonia as well, which slightly clouds the distinction he is trying to make between the melodic line of the given voice-part and the filigree diminutions of the harpsichord.

But I like both the feel and the sound of Devine’s versions – all very much in the spirit of Bach’s arrangements of his own pre-loved versions, and hope that this will become an accepted way of re-creating BWV 1059.

And the performance? Devine’s chosen harpsichord for these concertos is a two-manual by Colin Booth (2000) after a single manual by Johann Christof Fleischer (Hamburg, 1710). They recorded in the rather dry acoustic of St John’s, Smith Square and in consequence the sound, though crystal clear, lacks a little bloom. The players are the OAE’s top players, led by Margaret Faultless. Add Devine’s magical fingerwork and you have a recipe for success – except I don’t find it quite as captivating as the recent releases by Andrew Arthur and the Hanover Band.

David Stancliffe

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Recording

Bach: Partitas & Sonatas

Bojan Čičić
146:01 (2 CDs in a jewel case)
Delphian DCD 34300

Bojan Čičić’s credentials are second to none: current leader of the Academy of Ancient Music, co-soloist with Rachel Podger in Brecon Baroque’s recording of the D minor double violin concerto, founder and director of the Illyrian Consort and contributor to the Netherlands All-of-Bach of the sonata in B minor for violin and harpsichord with Steven Devine. His playing has all the brio required for Bach’s dance music, and that combined with marvellous articulation and a sensitivity to different key temperaments make his playing feel poised, elegant and true.

In addition, Čičić is a natural teacher. His Youtube presentation on the evolution of the Baroque violin bow, ‘Bowing with Bojan’ (to be found among the AAM’s videos), is gripping and illuminating, as well as his playing Vivaldi on equally tensioned gut strings with like-minded string players like Kinga Ujszászi.

All this is a promising background to this new release. But what of the CD itself? First, it was recorded in 2021 in Crichton Collegiate Church in Midlothian, within reach of Delphian’s base in Edinburgh, and the acoustics are perfect for this music – Sei solo à violin senza basso accompagnato, as Bach called them to show that that they were not so much ‘unaccompanied’ as containing the bass line within the violin part itself, as Mahan Esfahani points out in his liner notes. Too resonant an acoustic and we lose the detail of the divisions; too dry and the ear does not readily catch the harmonic substructure.

Second, this player in this acoustic with this instrument (a violin by G. Tononi, Bologna 1701) and the right bow presents this music to perfection. It is clean and clear, but never arid or detached; it is detailed, but the detail never detracts from the structure; and, as Bach surely intended, the whole polyphonic structure of these sequences of dance movements is laid open. We lack nothing to absorb it fully.

The Partitas are on the first CD and the Sonatas on the second. Within these suites of dances, reviewers will make for the most testing movements, the Ciaccona in BWV 1004 and the fugues in 1001, 1003 and 1005 to assess whether as well as making the music dance and sing, the player can also deliver Bach’s great polyphonic structures, for which the player needs not just a superlative technique but also a secure grasp of Bach’s architecture and how it is structured.

Čičić is equal to all these nuances and presents the Sei solo with conviction and elegance. Listen to CD 1.7 & 8, Tempo di Borea & Double IV, or CD 2.12, Allegro assai to hear how he uses the acoustic to give the full harmonic substructure its real acoustic presence. In the Ciaccona (CD 1.13), he treats us to his clear differentiation between the fugal structure and the throwaway diminutions and this prepares us well for the hushed moment when we embark on the more lyrical section in the major.

As I listened to this coherent account, I wondered whether Čičić has got to grips with the implicit theology as expounded by Benjamin Shute in Sei Solo, his study of the theology of Bach’s solo violin works. He may not have: it’s heavy going; but the way he treats the relationship between the movements in terms of tempo and Affekt suggests that he is well aware of the depth and complexity of these works.

I enjoyed them greatly. I cannot imagine the Andante from the Sonata in A minor (CD 2.7) being presented more lovingly or the echo effects in the following Allegro being given a better light and shade. This is music-making to treasure.

David Stancliffe

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Recording

Bach: Harpsichord Concertos

The Hanover Band, Andrew Arthur
68:34
Signum Records SIGCD764

When the first volume of Andrew Arthur’s harpsichord concertos with The Hanover Band (which I reviewed for the EMR in July 2022) was recorded, they also recorded the concertos that make up volume II. So the admirable acoustic of St Nicholas, Arundel and Trinity Hall’s excellent harpsichord by Andrew Garlick, built in 2009 (after a Jean-Claude Goujon of 1748), are common to both. A major key to the success of these recordings is the singing quality of this harpsichord in this acoustic under the fluid coaxing of Andrew Arthur’s touch.

This second volume begins with BWV 1050, which we know as the fifth Brandenburg Concerto, with its ground-breaking harpsichord ‘cadenza’, and brings the wonderful Rachel Brown into the ensemble to join Andrew Arthur and the string players of the Hanover Band, led by the spirited, agile and mellifluous playing of Theresa Caudle – this time properly acknowledged in her crucial role as the first violin. What makes these recordings so special is the natural balance between the instruments – harpsichord, woodwind and strings alike. This is particularly evident in the final concerto on the disc – BWV 1057, the version in F of the fourth Brandenburg, with two recorders (Rachel Brown and Rachel Becket) – where in this 1738 version the florid violin part of Brandenburg 4 is recast for the harpsichord and the amazing final fugal movement offers us every conceivable instrumental combination. There is so much to be learned, as always, by comparing closely Bach’s later versions with his earlier ones.

That kind of comparison is also offered by the other concertos. The Concerto in E (BWV 1053) draws each of its movements from one of Bach’s cantatas. The opening allegro is a version of the Sinfonia from Cantata 169 (1726) Gott soll allein, while 169.v, the aria Stirb in mir, Welt for alto, strings and obbligato organ is the model for the middle movement, a lyrical Siciliano. The last movement is adapted from the opening Sinfonia of BWV 49, another cantata from 1726. Were these instrumental sinfonias that Bach used instead of an opening chorus in a number of cantatas in the autumn of 1726 already in existence as concerto movements for a solo violin, like others that became harpsichord concertos in due course?

The intimate Concerto in F sharp minor is perhaps the biggest treat of all. The tempo in the first movement is moderate, and the alternation of pizzicato and arco in the string parts underlines the quest to discover where we are headed with the angular opening theme. The answer is to the second movement, where the magical Sinfonia for oboe and strings that opens Cantata 156, Ich steh mit einem Fuß im Grabe appears in the unlikely key of A flat. Here again, the acoustics give the pizzicato accompaniment a surprisingly resonant bloom, capped by their final arco bar. Like the first movement, there are repeated echo effects within which the dialogue between the first violin and the harpsichord establishes their natural duetting relationship.

In this second volume, I have become more aware of the crucial part that the acoustics of St Nicholas, Arundel play in shaping the sound in these recordings. This is perhaps most evident in the slow movement of BWV 1050, where as well as the perfectly articulated overlapping threads of all three players, the expressive lift after the first quaver beats in bars 27 and 37 in the harpsichord gives this movement such finesse; and having a two-manual instrument that can revert to basso continuo mode helps articulate the structure as well. The acoustics help establish the tonality so splendidly in the opening of the last movement too. It begins with the violin playing a clear, rounded rhythmic entry that is mirrored by the bloom of the traverso, so that when the harpsichord (in two parts) joins them we are well prepared for the tutti, and ready to appreciate the subtlety of the bass line in those sections where the violone is silenced and the cello plays alone.

Enchanting too is the way every player contributes. Listen to the wonderful viola at bar 147 in this last movement – and in bars 181 ff, and the cello in 192 ff: this is real playing with each other. How lucky Andrew Arthur is to have such fine companions in making these wonderful recordings, where the harpsichord is never stridently soloistic but always the first among equals.

I shall enjoy returning to this recording for a long time. It is such responsive, unshowy but fluid, utterly musical playing. This is how to hear Bach, and you should get it at once.

David Stancliffe