Haydn – String Quartets op 33 / 1 – 3

Chiaroscuro Quartet
BIS 2588

Almost certainly the most quoted words on the six string quartets Haydn published in 1781 as opus 33 are those of the composer himself. Addressed to potential subscribers, he informed them that the quartets were written in ‘a new and special way, for I have not published any for ten years’, a reference to the set published as opus 20 (and incidentally recorded by the Chiaroscuro Quartet – see HERE for a review of the first three). Although there are indeed many things about op 33 that are innovative and special, Haydn’s publishing blurb should not, as it has often been, be taken too seriously since it was a standard advertising ploy by composers and publishers to attract attention to their latest offering.

For me, I think the most striking thing about opus 33 is the sense of quest and adventure, of a mature composer who has mastered a new and difficult medium and is prepared not only to exploit that mastery but have a bit of fun along the way. Take the order of movements, for example. In op 20 Haydn’s ‘slow’ movement is placed second  – its ‘proper’ place in established practice – in three of the quartets, while in op 33, it comes second in just two quartets. So Haydn is still experimenting, just as is also the case with deciding on either minuet or the rather faster scherzo. Then there is the humour, which with Haydn is never far away. The E-flat Quartet (No 2) was actually given the nickname ‘The Joke’ to mark the breath-taking piece of truly inspired wit that comes at the end of the work, when Haydn suddenly brings the hurtling thrust of the Presto finale to a halt to introduce four bars marked adagio. Pause. What will happen now? Well, a resumption of the Presto but now with pauses of a rest interpolated every few bars. Until the best part of the joke that is, the final six bars of the work, where the silence becomes a whole three bars long. Whether or not the oft-repeated quote attributed to Haydn is true – that he ended the work this way to catch out the ladies who always started talking before the end of a piece – is neither here nor there. It might perhaps be better to hope it isn’t true; in today’s humourless world, it would probably be enough to get Haydn cancelled. This final passage, which is in fact of course technically a coda, is incidentally beautifully handled by the Chiaroscuros.

Another moment to savour in these performances comes the third of the set, the C-major, which also carries a nickname, ‘The Bird’, for reasons that are obvious from the outset, where the frequent acciaccaturas or grace notes convey obvious suggestions of bird calls, as do other ornamental figures. In the development section of the opening Allegro moderato there is a marvellous passage in which Haydn introduces a crescendo with a clear bird call (that of a large bird?) followed by a decrescendo that leads to a few bars marked pp but without the suggestion of slowing the tempo. But here the Chiaroscuros do just that, creating for just a few bars an air of avian mystery and Hitchcockian menace. It’s a supremely effective moment and typical of the imaginative approach of the quartet, who are never afraid to apply judicious rubato or touches of portamento. This appropriate playfulness is one of the distinctive features of performances that constantly delight and impress by dint of superb playing that also shows off Haydn’s wonderful command of counterpoint.  This applies especially in the B-minor quartet (No 1), the most ‘learned’ of this group. Here one fully grasps the inspiration that op 33 gave to Mozart to put his own contrapuntal mastery to the test in the six quartets he dedicated to his friend. It’s worth noting that all essential repeats are taken by the Chiaroscuro, that’s to say all but those of the scherzo or minuet da capos.

I concluded my review of the Chiaroscuro Quartet’s opus 20 by expressing the hope they would record opus 33. It’s taken a while but here at least is the first instalment and well worth the wait it is.

Brian Robins


J. S. Bach: Harpsichord concertos

Steven Devine, Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment
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


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


Bach: Harpsichord Concertos

The Hanover Band, Andrew Arthur
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


Giovanni Bononcini: Cantate e Sonate

Aurata Fonte (Miho Kamiya soprano, Perikli Pite cello, Valeria Montanari harpsichord)
Tactus TC 670202

This CD presents six cantatas for soprano and basso continuo which have survived in manuscript in Modena, the city of birth of the composer Giovanni Bononcini. Bononcini’s accomplishments as a composer, particularly of operas, took him to Vienna and then London before returning to Vienna to retire on a pension. The sense of drama, which made his operatic efforts so widely appreciated, is also in evidence in his cantatas, and in these world premiere recordings soprano Miho Kamiya invests Bononcini’s cantatas with an engaging level of animation. Striking is Bononcini’s sense of melodic direction, a dynamic feature shared with the instrumental music which Aurata Fonte contribute to the programme – two harpsichord Divertimenti and a cello Sonata persuasively played by harpsichordist Valeria Montanari and cellist Perikli Pite. Both also make a sympathetically responsive contribution to the cantatas. Bononcini is a composer whose influence on the musical scenes in London and Vienna is probably underestimated, and the admiration of his contemporaries in Italy, as well as England and Austria, probably suggests that the bulk of his music which remains neglected, particularly perhaps the operas, deserves performance and reassessment. At any rate, these accomplished premiere recordings suggest that much fine Bononcini still awaits rediscovery.  

D. James Ross


Das ist meine Freude

Love Songs & Psalms
Georg Poplutz tenor, Johann Rosenmüller Ensemble, Arno Paduch
cpo 555 362-2

Tenor Georg Poplutz takes us on a highly enjoyable and instructive tour of sacred and secular songs from the 17th century, usefully juxtaposing familiar music by Monteverdi and Grandi with unfamiliar music by Johann Rosenmüller and Christoph Bernhard, and introducing a host of neglected masters including Benedetto Reggio, Nicolò Corradini, Nicholas Strungk and Thomas Selle. All of the German masters travelled to Italy, learning from the Italian models represented here, the exception being Thomas Selle, who as a pupil of Schütz learned the secrets of Italian music at second hand and with a German accent. The key figure on this CD is undoubtedly Rosenmüller, represented by three major works, clearly a focus of the ensemble, and a figure deserving still of much more attention than he gets. I mentioned at the start that we are in the hands of the solo tenor, Georg Poplutz, and fortunately he has a beautifully engaging voice perfect for this repertoire. He sidesteps effortlessly from secular song to psalm, from Rosenmüller to beautifully ornamented Monteverdi, and is the ideal advocate of this attractive repertoire. He is ably and sympathetically supported by a superb consort directed by cornettist Arno Paduch. This CD is a thorough delight and a revelation from its astutely selected repertoire, its thought-provoking juxtapositions, and its wonderfully persuasive performances.

D. James Ross


Early Neapolitan Cello Music: Greco, Francone

Matteo Malagoli cello, Irene De Ruvo harpsichord, Schola Gregoriana Scivias Ensemble, Milli Fullin
Brilliant Classics 96345

It is hard to remember a time, not that long ago, before Naples was recognised as the important focus it is now for Baroque music, and in particular as the cradle of early cello repertoire. Anyway, the stream of neglected Neapolitan composers just keeps coming, and the present disc offers music by two of them, roughly contemporaries, Rocco Greco and Gaetano Francone. The eleven Greco pieces are Diminutions for cello and continuo based on Gregorian chant, usefully reminding us that much of this early music for cello was intended to be played as part of church services, and that the church provided much of the financial support for this musical flowering. In this recording, each of Greco’s pieces is prefaced by the plainchant on which it is based, sung by the ladies voices of the Schola. The ten short passacaglias by Gaetono Francone were probably also intended for church use. I like the idea of the chant prefaces to the Greco Diminutions, although the singing is not always as polished as it might be, and the harmonic relationship between the chant and the instrumental pieces is often unnecessarily indirect – as the chant is not tied to a specific pitch, ought it not perhaps to have reflected more closely the key of the related diminutions? At any rate, the performances of the instrumental music on cello and organ are always convincing as are the Francone passacaglias, on cello and harpsichord – might the delineation of the passacaglia bass line have benefited from a sustaining bass instrument? As this music would almost certainly never have been performed en bloc, might it also perhaps be more evocative of the original performance practice as well as providing a more varied experience for the listener to have alternated the diminutions and the passacaglias in this programme? In any case, this CD provides yet another valuable insight into the rich world of Neapolitan Baroque music.

D. James Ross


Pegolotti: Trattenimenti Armonici, op. 1, 1698

Opera Qvinta
Tactus TC 661604

Tomaso Domenico Pegolotti was born and spent his life in the small town of Scandiano in Regio Emilia, famous mainly for parmesan cheese but also a notable centre for the arts. The twelve Trattenimenti Armonici printed in 1698 is an eclectic collection in a variety of musical forms and styles and making considerable demands on the solo violin, suggesting that Pegolotti was something of a virtuoso. The present recording presents the pieces in a variety of instrumentations using the group’s cello, theorbo, organ and clavicembalo, although the main focus is necessarily on the solo violin line, played by the group’s musical director Fabrizio Longo. Although the violin sound is occasionally a little pinched, and at the ends of some tracks we are aware of some background hiss, Longo plays with confidence and musicality, ornamenting appropriately and tastefully and finding the essence of these engaging pieces. As a result of his established position in his home town and his contacts with the wealthy local aristocracy, Pegolotti’s Trattenimenti were published as part of what was clearly envisaged as a cumulative body of printed work. Sadly, this project remained unrealised as the composer, who already divided his time between music and law, was increasingly lured by circumstances into the latter sphere. Local politics and the law may have benefited, but music undoubtedly lost a promising musician, who might have gone on to make a distinctive contribution to the melting pot of Italian music at this crucial time.

D. James Ross


Felice Giardini: 6 Sonatas for Flute & Harpsichord

ConSerto Musico
Brilliant Classics 95625

The delightfully named Felice Giardini has filled these sonatas for flute and continuo with the two aspects of his name, joy and gardens! Joyful in mood and making frequent reference to birdsong, these six pieces clearly demonstrate Giardini’s celebrated ability to inhabit the character of the instruments he was composing for. As a virtuoso violinist, Giardini spent much of his life on tour and specifically in the musical honeypot of 18th-century London, where he directed a number of important ensembles, while also finding time to compose and give solo concerts. ConSerto Musico employ both cello and bassoon to vary the texture of the continuo group, and this and a vivacious musicality help to bring this charming music vividly to life. Flautist Mario Foleno plays a copy by Martin Wenner of an original 18th-century flute by Carlo Palanco, which produces a rich and warm tone ideal for this sunlit repertoire. The CD concludes with a Minuet and Variations for keyboard by Giardini which allows harpsichordist Roberto Loreggian to step capably out from his continuo role to take his share of the spotlight.

D. James Ross


G. B. Sammartini: Six Viennese Sonatas

Oinos Baroque Trio
Dynamic CDS7959

These six sonatas, recorded here for the first time, were collected from a variety of sources for use at the Viennese Hofkapelle. Compared to the violin music of his Italian contemporaries, this music by Sammartini is relatively technically undemanding, although it demonstrates a pleasantly lyrical character which makes it constantly engaging. The composer’s long life spans a period of rapid musical development from the Baroque to the Classical period, and his music embodies aspects of both these styles. The Oinos Baroque Trio provide us with persuasive premiere recordings of all six works, although occasionally I feel a little more passion in the playing might have brought the music more convincingly off the page. The fact that these sonatas found their way to Vienna is probably more due to the fact that Sammartini was working in Milan which was at the time under Habsburg rule than to any intention of the composer or any active decision by the musicians of the Viennese Hofkapelle, but that this music subsequently had an influence on the development of Classical music in Vienna is undeniable. This is particularly noticeable in the sonatas in which the Oinos Trio choose a fortepiano as continuo instrument.

D. James Ross