Oh, ma belle brunette

Reinoud van Mechelen, A Nocte Temporis
Alpha Classics Alpha 833

I thoroughly recommend this anthology of gentle gorgeousness from 17th/18th century France. Reinoud van Mechelen is the perfect singer for these lovely songs from the art/folk borderland and he is most beautifully supported by his team of flute, gamba, theorbo and harpsichord, though not all at once.

The overall mood is one of restraint and control with an emphasis on beauty of sound, though there’s no hint of self-indulgence. The instrumental items complement the songs very well, inviting us into their world rather than demanding attention.

The booklet (in French and English) includes the sung texts and translations. This disc will be my late evening companion for some time.

David Hansell



Meisterwerke der französischen Gambenmusik
[Masterpieces of French music for gamba]
Ensemble Art d’Echo, Juliane Laake
Querstand VKJK2110

To variety of presentation of CDs there is no end, it seems. Here the booklet (in German and English) is glued into the cardboard casing and the programme contents appear only on the back of the case. This isn’t a bad idea, actually, once you work out the best way of handling it for your current purpose.

Juliane Laake and her ensemble are skilled interpreters of this wonderful repertoire and the programme is more varied than it may at first sight seem. Some works are for gamba and continuo (the fewer instruments the better, to my ear); there is a luscious concert à deux violes ésgales by Sainte-Colombe; and a suite for treble viol and continuo by Louis Heudelinne, who published the first-ever collection of solos for this instrument. In style, this is perhaps the music Corelli would have written had he been French and played the viol. I found it more than merely interesting historically, though it is certainly that.

The recital ends with the Marais Folies. If you know anyone who wonders what a viol can do, just play them this!

David Hansell


J. S. Bach: Harpsichord Concertos

The Hanover Band, Andrew Arthur director and harpsichord
Signum Classics SIGCD 710

This fine first CD – the second will include the other three harpsichord concertos and Brandenburg V – was recorded in the admirable acoustic of St Nicholas, Arundel and uses a harpsichord by Andrew Garlick, built in 2009 and after Jean-Claude Goujon, 1748 and tuned in a 1/6 comma circulating meantone at A=415.

What is particularly good is the splendid balance between the single strings of the Hanover Band’s A team and the harpsichord – a resonant and singing instrument, well able to hold its own. What is very odd is that the experienced and skilled leader of the Hanover Band, Theresa Caudle, is not mentioned at all in the liner notes, which list the violin II, viola, violoncello, double bass and harpsichord together with details of their instruments. This reflects poorly on Signum’s production team.

It is now largely accepted that using single strings is the best way to balance these exquisite concerti, the majority of which had earlier lives as concerti for violin before being re-scored for a six-instrument ensemble for Bach’s concerts in Zimmermann’s coffee-house. The fascinating detail of their reworking for keyboard can be studied in NBA VII.4, where you can see how the articulation in the cembalo part frequently differs from the identical line in the first violin, as well as seeing how the left hand of the keyboard part often varies from the basso continuo part, with its suggestive flourishes frequently hinting at the polyphonic overtones of Bach’s writing. Sometimes, the articulation of the sections is enhanced by suppressing the 16’ in some parts, as in the Adagio of BWV 1054 where only a violoncello plays the continuo line.

But these subtleties aside, what is so beguiling about these performances is the absolute integration of the players with one another. Not one player fails to contribute and the way the first violin and the right hand of the harpsichord play in complete sync – even when negotiating slight inégales in the rhythms – is so elegant and makes for that fluidity which only one-to-a-part can give.

Although the excellent performance by Francesco Corti and Shunsuke Sato uses a second harpsichord to play the continuo of BWV 1055 for All-of-Bach, this marvellous performance beats it for natural clarity and for the way all the players – even when they appear to be just filling in the realisation of the continuo – shape their lines to make them sing in response to one other and to the free but perfectly rhythmic playing of Andrew Arthur.

This is not only a very ‘correct’ textbook version that I shall enjoy returning to for a long time, but it is fluid, inventive and utterly musical. You should get it, even if you have Conti’s performances with Il Pomo d’Oro. Andrew Arthur is not a soloist in the modern sense of the word – out to stamp his personality on this music: he is content to help the ensemble to listen to each other and above all, to listen to Bach. There are no grand gestures or extremes of tempi. This is the best we are likely to get and I look forward to the second CD immensely.

David Stancliffe


Piani: 12 Sonate a Violino solo

Pierluigi Mencattini, Labirinto Armonico
133:38 (2 CDs in a single jewel case)
Tactus TC 671690

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These two CDs present Giovanni Antonio Piani’s opus 1 set of 12 sonatas for solo violin and continuo printed in Paris in 1712. Piani moved from Italy to Paris in 1704 as part of the interest there in the Italian style and moves to integrate it with the native French taste. This set is the only surviving music by Piani, who went on to have a glittering career as a violin virtuoso, moving in 1721 to Vienna where he enjoyed considerable celebrity until at least 1757. Perhaps the main interest in these sonatas is the degree to which the composer manages to meld the Italian and French styles, a near obsession at the time. There are certainly elements of both flavours in Piani’s music. I have a couple of reservations about these recordings – where Piani states very clearly his very simple vision of their performance by a solo violin with cello and harpsichord continuo, the present performance draws in a whole menagerie of other instruments including double bass, archlute, organ and even a tambourine! A complete recording of twelve sonatas may suggest some liberty be taken with instrumentation in the interests of variety, but adding percussion may represent a red line. I also found the sonatas, whether due to the rather workaday playing of soloist Pierluigi Mencattini or Piani’s limited compositional skills, frankly a little predictable and dull.

D. James Ross


Cello Concertos from Northern Germany

Gulrim Choï, Ensemble Diderot
Audax Records ADX11200

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Ensemble Diderot’s exploration of pre-classical German music has recently focussed on the culturally dynamic city of Berlin, and these four attractive cello concertos, two of which are receiving world premiere recordings, certainly deserve a place in our understanding of it. The most famous composer represented here, probably due to his later move to London, is gamba virtuoso, composer and Bach pupil, Carl Friedrich Abel, indeed the only one of the four composers here that I have previously come across. By contrast, Ignác Frantisek Mara, Markus Heinrich Grauel and Johann Wilhelm Hertel have been treated less kindly by posterity, sinking into relative neglect. In these characterful performances by cellist Gulrim Choï, the quirky originality of all four composers becomes evident. It is interestingly in the slow movements of their cello concertos that their individuality becomes most apparent, but these are remarkably accomplished works full of musical inspiration. I often feel that the music from the melting pot of the pre-classical period, with its heady ethos of exploration and experimentation, is more interesting and exciting than that of the more settled classical period itself, and this is very much the case here. Combining technical assurance and an engaging sense of adventure, all four composers represented have something valuable to say, and Choï and the Diderot Ensemble give them vivid and eloquent expression here.

D. James Ross


Schütz: Dafne

La Capella Ducale, Musica Fiata, Roland Wilson
cpo 555 494-2

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Readers of reviews on a site devoted to early music are likely to know something of the history of Schütz’s Dafne, an “opera” performed for the wedding festivities of the daughter of his employer the Elector of Saxony in 1627. Given at the castle theatre in Torgau it then disappeared and remains lost. Given Schütz’s place as the greatest of German 17th-century composers, the notion of a lost  Schütz opera has of course long intrigued music historians, but so far as I’m aware this is the first time anyone has attempted to reconstruct Dafne.

The word opera appeared in the opening sentence in inverted commas advisedly, since there is some debate as to whether or not Dafne can be termed an opera. New Grove Opera thinks not: ‘Dafne, Zwo Comoedian and Orpheo und Euridice (two other lost dramas of Schütz) are spoken plays with vocal inserts, usually in the form of strophic lieder’. Roland Wilson disagrees, making the apparently reasonable point that if Schütz was not writing an opera why would he turn to an adaptation (made by Martin Opitz) of an Italian libretto by Rinuccini that had already been set as operas by Peri (in 1597) and Marco da Gagliano (1607). Wilson points out that Opitz’s rather dismissive comments about the piece stemmed from the fact that he did not understand recitative, himself missing the point that no German drama of this period employed anything other than spoken dialogue. I strongly suspect that what Wilson has set as recitar cantando would have remained spoken dialogue

Wilson’s methodology fundamentally involves setting the libretto to other works of Schütz he believes to have some relevance, though his working methods are not clearly set out. It goes without saying that any assessment of Wilson’s reconstruction is going to involve subjective views, hopefully informed by such points as that made in the previous paragraph. I have immediately to say that I remain unconvinced both by his arguments and the aural results. Opitz’s libretto casts the work as a prologue (declaimed in recitative by Ovid, from whose Metamorphosis the story of Dafne and Apollo is taken) and five brief acts, thus suggesting Monteverdi’s Orfeo, on which Wilson leans heavily in various ways, often wrongly in my opinion, especially as to instrumentation. There is a strong sense of symmetry, each act ending with a madrigalian chorus for the three shepherds, in one case augmented by a soprano. All these choruses –and many of the solo lieder – are cast in extended strophic form and it is a fatal flaw of the performance that there is little or no convincing attempt to vary the verses, as would certainly have been the case with 17th-century performers. Many of Wilson’s choices as to instrumentation and its deployment also strike me as highly questionable. His use of wind and brass is surely far too extensive for a work of this kind, the solemnly lugubrious trombone chords that open act 1, for example, more suggestive of a scene in Hades than an introduction by the shepherds to Apollo’s slaying of the Python. More importantly, and a-historically, instruments not infrequently mask voices, either as continuo that frequently reminds the listener of a ‘flock of noisy sparrows’, to borrow the composer and theorist Agostino Agazzari’s delightful phrase, or, worse, melodically, as in act 2 where Cupid is at one point drowned out by cornetti.

The singers are competent enough, but none show much awareness of the principles of ‘prima le parole poi la musica’ that form the basis of the seconda prattica, leaving some of the extensive passages of recitative lacking any sense of dramatic articulation and, frankly, often being tedious. I’m sorry to sound so negative about a brave project to which Wilson has obviously devoted much time and energy. Others may well be less concerned about some of the historical points raised and should perhaps investigate the disc for themselves.

Brian Robins


“A Cembalo certato e Violino solo”

Bach, Scheibe, Graun, Schaffrath, Telemann
Philippe Grisvard, Johannes Pramsohler
208:45 (3 CDs in a card box)
Audax Records ADX13783

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The standard description of this genre, for obbligato harpsichord with solo violin, underlines the true democracy at work in the earliest compositions for solo violin and keyboard. While Bach only wrote one set of six such sonatas (BWV114-9), recorded here in its entirety, his complete mastery of the form is striking – as so often in the master’s life his concentration on specific genres reflects demand rather than the composer’s ability or interest. Two further such works BWV 120 and 122 are attributed to Bach, and being of equally fine quality are probably his. In recording all of these pieces, harpsichordist Philippe Grisvard and violinist Johannes Pramsohler would easily have overrun a standard CD, but they go the extra mile here by recording 3 full CDs including a selection of such sonatas by Bach’s contemporaries. Notwithstanding the rather intense gaze of the two performers from the front of the booklet, these are performances packed with wit, ingenuity and imagination, technically stunning and wonderfully engaging. This is reflected in the more informal photos throughout the booklet! Grisvard plays a 2020 copy by Matthias Griewisch of an original harpsichord by Michael Mierke of Berlin of around 1710, while Prahmsohler plays a Rogeri vilolin of 1713. Both instruments sound to me just about perfect for this repertoire, and are played with enormous authority here. The works by Telemann and CPE Bach are predictably very fine, but perhaps the big surprise are the premiere recordings of sonatas by Bach pupils and admirers Scheibe and Schaffrath, two composers unknown to me, whose pieces are of a very high quality indeed. Whereas from the point of view of originality the hands-down star of the whole boxed set is surprisingly the sonata by JG Graun WV Av.XV:46, also receiving its premiere recording here. Context is all, and the prime virtue of this set is the rich context into which the performers place the Bach sonatas, although the uniformly fine playing and musical imagination is a further factor in its success.

D. James Ross


Arcadia: Paradise in Music

ambitus amb 96 842

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The description on the cover of this CD reads ‘Pastorales inspired by the Christian hope of salvation meet those which take their cue from the dreamlands of antiquity. A musical journey to the myth of Arcadia.’ In fact, the programme is a very effective selection of instrumental pastorals from the Baroque by Schmelzer, Domenico Scarlatti, Tartini and Biber generally attractively and imaginatively performed by the two violins, cello and harpsichord of NeoBarock. I had to focus on the high quality of the music and the excellent and idiomatic performances as I waded through the rather pretentious programme notes – best to sidestep these and just enjoy generally unfamiliar music in this loosely connected but enjoyable programme. The opening extended anonymous chorale fantasia on Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern for violin and continuo is a revelation, while the concluding contribution by Biber, a Pastorella for the same line-up, is predictably flamboyant.

D. James Ross


Rainaldi: Cantate e Duetti vol. III

Arianna Miceli soprano, Marika Spadafino soprano, Antonio Orsini tenor, RomaBarocca Ensemble, Lorenzi Tozzi
Tactus TC 611803

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Carlo Rainaldi, an established and admired architect in the Italian Baroque period, underlines the underappreciated links between architecture and music – the precepts of Vetruvius link the two closely. While Rainaldi’s role in the architecture of 17th-century Rome has long been understood, his influence on the Roman Cantata of the same period has only recently been understood. The present series of recordings – this is the third volume – explores his music for solo and duet voices with basso continuo, and reveals a composer of considerable technical skill and imagination. He is the master of the unexpected, with startling changes in harmony and texture, while always maintaining a pleasing level of musicality. The performances here alternate two soprano voices, with the introduction of a tenor for one duet and two duets for both sopranos, with sympathetic instrumental accompaniment from theorbo, gamba/bass and harpsichord. I have occasional reservations about the intonation of both sopranos, although they sing expressively enough and both have a sweet tone. The duets for two sopranos seem to inspire the best music from Rainaldi, although the intonation issues persist. Notwithstanding the superabundance of such repertoire, Rainaldi’s contribution seems well worth exploring, and the present performers are to be applauded for bringing his music to a wider audience.

D. James Ross


The Baroque Violin and Viola

A fifty-lesson course, volumes I & II
Walter Reiter
Oxford University Press, 2020
ISBN 978-0-19-092270-2 (vol. 1) 978-0-19-752512-8 (vol. 2) £29.99 each (paperback; hardback available)

When Walter Reiter and I discussed his plans to write a book on how to play the baroque violin, I had absolutely no idea of the gargantuan scheme he had hatched! 50 lessons over 600 pages, from making sure that you’re holding the instrument comfortably, and understanding how different bow pressures and speeds impact the sound you make, to a detailed analysis of dozens of pieces and hints on how to play them in a style that the composer would have recognised, from Fontana to Bach with every conceivable bass in between thoroughly dealt with. While the first volume predominantly explores all of the technical sides of the beast, the second gives almost bar-by-bar advice on how to play it, with excellent explanations of why a particular approach should be taken to certain figures. Throughout, there are 118 exercises that force you to think about these things for yourself. As well as the impressive books themselves, there is a dedicated website from which almost all of the music can be downloaded, along with video demonstrations from Walter, all of which enhances an already impressive package.

This project has clearly been a labour of love and I congratulate Walter on a fantastic achievement. If I was starting out again and felt I perhaps should have kept up my violin playing, this would absolutely be my constant companion. I recommend it without the slightest hesitation to anyone embarking on a musical career!

Brian Clark