Charpentier: Te Deum

La Chapelle Harmonique, conducted by Valentin Tournet
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


John Sheppard: Missa Cantate

+ Laudem dicite; Jesu salvator saeculi, redemptis; Martyr Dei qui unicum; Gaude, gaude, gaude Maria; Beata nobis gaudia; Gaude virgo Christiphera

The Tallis Scholars conducted by Peter Phillips
Gimell CDGIM 053

Peter Phillips has done remarkable work with The Tallis Scholars (TTS), the choir he founded in 1973, recording, performing, broadcasting, editing, writing about and generally evangelizing for British (sic – Tomkins, though no Carver) and European music of the Renaissance. The standard of performance has always been high, sometimes transcendent – Josquin’s Missa Pange lingua, Sheppard’s Media vita and from left field the Agnus of Missa Da pacem by Bauldeweyn misattributed to Josquin, to name only a few at random. The choir’s personnel never stagnate, and nor therefore do their performances. This is illustrated by a concert which I recall attending in December 2014 at St John’s Smith Square, during which TTS sang the exhilarating but unfamiliar Magnificat by Edmund Turges, and the familiar Lullaby by Byrd which nonetheless received a revelatory rendition.

With their pinpoint tuning and use of high pitch, TTS have an ideal composer in Sheppard, with his thrilling melodies, enthralling counterpoint, spicy harmonies and startling dissonances. The works selected for this recording each contain all of the above. Every piece was intended for the Roman Catholic liturgy that passed into obsolescence in England almost simultaneously with the death of Sheppard himself. The mass, which is for six voices, runs for nearly half an hour on this recording, and two of the motets, Gaude, gaude, gaude Maria and Gaude virgo Christiphera, take over ten minutes, while all the others except Martyr Dei qui unicum take over five, all giving Sheppard ample scope for exhibiting his unique and remarkable style.

There are five other current recordings of this Mass, and while two of these are by other adult chamber choirs, the other three are by cathedral or collegiate choirs of men plus boys (and, in one case, boys and girls): The Choir of Westminster Cathedral; St Mary’s Scottish Episcopal Cathedral, Edinburgh; and the trebles of Salisbury Cathedral joined by the lower voices of the Gabrieli Consort, most of whom will have had ecclesiastical backgrounds. This version by The Tallis Scholars (many of whom also have ecclesiastical backgrounds) sounds the most secular of all these. It seems in places to come over as quite assertively accented, either on the beat in the Mass, or corresponding with changes of notes in the plainsong in works which are built around the chant in one of the voices. The versions sung by the ecclesiastical choirs seem to have more of an ethereal flow, appropriate to the acoustics of the buildings in which Sheppard’s works would be sung liturgically, while The Tallis Scholars’ interpretation is ideal for the sort of drier acoustic usually encountered in secular concert halls. This is the reality of the modern world: fabulous early liturgical music being rediscovered, cherished, and performed democratically, for mental and spiritual refreshment and delectation, as well as for sheer listening pleasure, outwith the sacred environment for which it was originally intended. Ironically in view of what I have just written, The Tallis Scholars made this recording in Brinkburn Priory, but it still comes across to this listener as an interpretation suited for the likes of Cadogan Hall. This in no way is any sort of denigration of a fine recording, expertly sung, which contains consistently wonderful music, sometimes achieving sublimity as in the case of the increasingly famous Amen to Jesu salvator saeculi, redemptis.

Three of Sheppard’s other four surviving masses (all a4) – Plainsong Mass for a Mean, Western Wind and Be not afraid – are available on commercial recordings, so it would be good to have the French Mass on CD etc. to complete the set, and to enable the listening public to hear more of this great composer’s music.

Richard Turbet


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


Jheronimus Vinders: Choral Works

Missa Myns liefkens bruyn ooghen; Missa Fors seulement; Salve regina; secular songs
Choir of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, conducted by David Skinner; Andrew Lawrence-King, psaltery and harp
101:17 (2 CDs in a single jewel case)
Inventa INV1012

Jheronimus Vinders: another fine Franco-Flemish composer who has been waiting in the wings for discovery, and now, thanks to Eric Jas who has edited his complete surviving works, and David Skinner and the Choir of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, who have recorded these three wonderful works, Vinders can begin to receive the recognition that is his due. All that is known about him biographically is that he was in Ghent during 1525-26. Stylistically his music sits between Josquin, for whom he composed the lament O more inevitabilis which is the only work by which he is currently known, and Jacob Clement. Qualitatively it is on a par with the best composers of that era.

This recording consists of two masses based on folksongs, plus illustrative settings of those songs, performed vocally and instrumentally, including the versions on which Vinders based his masses. These musical strands are all unpicked fascinatingly and lucidly by Eric Jas in the accompanying booklet. In particular, he explains the process by which it has been possible to affirm the attribution to Vinders of the Missa Myns liefkens bruyn ooghen despite its being anonymous in its source. The other mass is also attributed to Gombert but, despite some echoes of that master in its music – such as the almost obsessively thrummed repetitions – it is also most likely that a chronologically earlier ascription to Vinders is correct.

The music of both masses is intense, in minor mode, and tightly rather than thickly scored. Vinders sustains interest throughout all the movements with varied textures, striking melodies and vivid harmonies. Particularly notable are the beautiful sonority at “Tu solus Dominus” in the Gloria of Missa Myns liefkens and a breathtaking cadence on “Sabaoth” in the Sanctus, which is beautifully executed by the singers. In the Missa Fors seulement there is a sweeping opening to the Kyrie, the music of which is taken over wholesale for the Agnus. The album also contains an absolute peach of a Salve regina a5, one of three surviving settings by Vinders.

The singing by the Sidney Sussex choir in a reverberant acoustic is excellent, with attention to detail and clarity of individual parts. David Skinner’s tempi are judicious, and of considerable interest is his decision to take the Gloria slowly from “Qui tollis” almost right to the end of the movement. The instrumental pieces are played by Andrew Lawrence-King on the harp and the psaltery, an inspired choice for music of this period which suits the relevant pieces admirably. Vinders’ music is a wonderful discovery, and the greatest compliment one can pay this recording is to express a wish to hear much more of it.

Richard Turbet


Byrd 1589: Songs of sundrie natures

Alamire, Fretwork, David Skinner
122:37 (2 CDs in a single case)
Inventa INV1011

Alamire and Fretwork continue their great work on behalf of Byrd, under the direction of David Skinner, by following up their complete recording of his Psalmes, sonets and songs of 1588 with this double album consisting of the Songs of sundrie natures 1589. In an important respect this new release is even more significant because it includes so many premiere recordings from this more neglected collection. For instance, of the Seven Penitential Psalms that begin the disc, only three have ever received commercial recordings. Just a few of the pieces have received repeated attention – such as the majestic consort anthem Christ rising again and the bucolic duet Who made thee Hob forsake the plough – but now we can revel in the likes of the first complete recording of the exquisite Wounded I am, the first commercial recording of what David in his note calls “this epic tale” From Citheron the warlike boy is fled and only the second recording of the sublime sacred song O Lord my God. The two carols for Christmas Day – From virgin’s womb and An earthly tree – have of late begun at last to receive appropriate attention on disc, performed with both their two sections intact and accompanied by viols. This is definitively the case here, and they also demonstrate the high quality of Alamire’s soloist Martha McLorinan; she is joined by the equally admirable Clare Wilkinson in Christ rising and Who made thee Hob mentioned above, and both mezzos also sing separate solo songs; Unlike the 1588 songs, many of which survive in pre-publication sources as consort songs which Byrd subsequently adapted as partsongs for publication, those in 1589 are almost all original partsongs; just three survive as consort songs in sources predating the print. Of these, I thought that love and When first by force are performed as in the print, but See those sweet eyes is sung enchantingly by Clare Wilkinson in its original solo format. The violists of Fretwork provide excellent accompaniments whenever required, as do star lutenists, Jacob Heringman and Lynda Sayce, for the five stunning secular songs that are in three parts.

As in 1588, there is a wide variety of mood, illustrated well by the almost curt and flirtatious I thought that love had been a boy sitting next to the impassioned and emotional O dear life to words by Sir Philip Sidney; indeed, the teeming creativity that gushes from the ten works in the section of songs in five parts could stand as an epitome of the entire collection. Alamire and David respond sensitively to all of Byrd’s different musical perspectives. Indeed, this is a collection simply crammed full of delights, both spiritual and emotional, all the better for the listener with such a high proportion of the songs being in the main unfamiliar. The initial sequence of seven psalms in three parts might seem forbidding, but do as Byrd himself suggests, listen a few times, and even here in these ostensibly austere works many beauties emerge; earlier this Byrd Quatercentenary year I had the pleasure of attending a concert in Norwich given by the outstanding Marian Consort, during which they sang the dourly-texted Lord in thy wrath correct me not and its concluding bars radiated beauty, which beauty is conveyed equally well on this recording. The more luxuriant Unto the hills mine eyes I lift in six parts, with its own plodding text, possesses a Flemish quality reminding us of Byrd’s familiarity with the glorious works of Jacob Clement, “Clemens non Papa”. One could go on throughout the entire set – there is not a work among them all which is less than excellent, and which does not repay repeated listening.

The Sixteen have beaten Alamire to recording Byrd’s third and final collection of songs, the Psalmes, songs, and sonnets of 1611, but Alamire have provisional plans for a possible celebration of another Byrd anniversary in 2024 which, if it comes to fruition, would be just as exciting as all the foregoing. Meanwhile, it remains yet again to recommend without reservation the album under review, to compliment Alamire on making some hitherto hidden masterpieces by Byrd accessible to the worldwide public, and to congratulate Alamire, Fretwork, David and the soloists on a job superbly done. And let’s have a minute’s applause for William, who made it all possible.

Richard Turbet


The Crown: Coronation anthems by Handel & Purcell

Choeur & Orchestre de l’Opéra Royal, conducted by Gaétan Jarry
Versailles Spectacles CVS110

For anyone wanting a souvenir of the Coronation, here is the perfect answer, at least so far as the musical part is concerned. And it comes from an unexpected source. For this sumptuously produced CD – entirely performed by French forces (nearly 100 musicians) – was recorded in the Chapelle Royale in the palace of Versailles, taking full advantage of its resplendent acoustic. Not only does it include the anthems Purcell composed for the coronation of James II in 1685 and Handel wrote for that of George II (1727), but we also have the introductory procession and recession along with fanfares interposed between the anthems and gleamingly enhanced by the resonance of the chapel. There are even the ‘Vivats’ and perhaps most touchingly of all the final shouts of ‘God save King Charles’. One can almost sense the French, albeit probably temporarily, regretting republicanism!

It would have been relatively straightforward for a project of this kind to have been achieved simply by making the right sort of noise – of which there is of course plenty – but there was no likelihood of that with Gaétan Jarry at the helm. One of the most outstanding of France’s present golden generation of early music musicians, Jarry here leads performances not only of magnificence in the celebratory, fully scored anthems, but which show every sign of care in more reflective music. It is evident that much attention has been paid not just only to the choir’s diction and articulation of English, but nuances of expressive word painting. I love, for example, the little nudge on the word ‘strong’ in the chorus ‘Praise the Lord’ for the oratorio Solomon, a worthy and fitting encore to the anthems at the end of the programme. Admirable too is the obvious care taken over the contrapuntal verses of the Purcell ‘My heart is inditing’, which are not only beautifully interwoven by the soloists but also sung with a true sense of understanding of the text. The final ‘Allelujah’ of the same anthem brings one of the rare moments of choral untidiness, the ensemble and precision being for the most part admirable.

The more extrovert anthems need little detailed comment. All make their due effect, with ‘Zadok the Priest’ producing the ‘hairs-on-the-back-of the-neck’ effect it should. Another memorable moment comes with the verse ‘Exceeding Glad Shall He Be’ from Handel’s ‘The King Shall Rejoice’, where the dancing melody is treated to joyous imitative expression between parts, while the entries at the opening of his setting of ‘My Heart is inditing’ are superbly judged.

In keeping with Versailles Spectacles’ high standards, the presentation is outstanding, with a 127pp booklet with articles and illustrations, a number of them in colour. With the credits on the last page comes the legend ‘In honour of his Majesty King Charles III’. Given that the CD is a more than worthy tribute to the King, it is greatly to be hoped it will be brought to his attention.

Brian Robins


Die Befreiung Israels

Telemann: Das befreite Israel (1759)
Rolle: Die Befreiung Israels (1774)

Miriam Feuersinger, Elvira Bill, Daniel Johannsen, André Morsch, Sebastian Myrus SmSTBB, Il Gardellino Baroque Orchestra, directed by Peter van Heygen
Passacaille 1132

This is an excellent and fascinating placement of two settings around the same subject on this CD, offering two very distinctive stylistic approaches presented by these composers side by side, and yet set some 15 years apart! There are some bold strokes of musical pictorialism, drama, and délicatesse on display from both. One should not underestimate Telemann’s ability to find a compact and cogent form here, we are in very similar compositional territory to the fervour and flexibility found in his remarkable “Donner-Ode” (TVWV6:3a/b). Interestingly, the two librettos do also partially overlap, J .F. W. Zachariae’s original poetry was expanded by the second preacher at Telemann’s baptismal Church, Heilig-Geist-Kirche in Magdeburg, one Christoph Christian Sturm, a prominent member of the Magdeburg Scholar’s club, who went on to write for C. P. E. Bach, Telemann’s godson.

The rich instrumentation is equally telling, Telemann in that vintage late-Baroque mould, Johann Heinrich Rolle of course in more Empfindsamer mode, as espoused by C. H. Graun. Telemann’s setting is concise and compact, dispensing with recitatives, which keeps the dramatic narrative flowing. The Rolle, having extra characters, including Moses, has eight recitatives, to as it were “tee-up” the following movement! Telemann’s highly imaginative orchestral movement (Track 9) is an unbounded flood of surging tones with trumpets and horns depicting the great swell of the waves, engulfing the Pharoh’s chasing army, here played with tremendous gusto! Turning to the singers now, there are some very solid performances all around. Miriam Feuersinger is sublime in the aria Pflanze sie, Herr auf den Huegeln (Track 12). Oddly, the inclusion of recitatives in the Rolle setting seemed to take it back to the Baroque, but the opening bars strike out, and the beautifully constructed arias, and arias with chorus move us to the expressive musical language of C. H. Graun, perhaps even beyond to C. P. E. Bach himself? Track 20 takes us through the stormy torrents at some pace, showing that Rolle also knew a thing or two about musical pictorialism.

It is towards the end of the Rolle work that the J. F. W. Zachariae poetry appears, and completes this juxtaposition of stylistic approaches making them truly salient in their differences! The soloists give expressive and cogent performances, which neither founder in excesses nor under-powering wilt. Il Gardellino lend an ever-bright and impressive sheen to these two fine works, especially the brass section of horns and trumpets (drums adding extra impact).

The final chorus gives the means and measure of both composers in a potent nutshell; do I detect a slightly veiled emulation by Rolle?

The recorded sound is amazing (Bruges 16-19th August 2022) and adds to the vibrancy of this warmly recommended recording moving past the more familiar Handelian work. The CD notes are most informative on the backgrounds to these two fine settings.

David Bellinger


Handel: Solomon

Choeur de Chambre de Namur, Millenium Orchestra, directed by Leonardo García Alarcón
152:08 (2 CDs)
Ricercar RIC 449

By 1748 Handel was becoming increasingly affected by age, yet for one last time he managed to complete two oratorios for the forthcoming season, Solomon, first given at Covent Garden in March 1749 and the contrasting Susanna, premiered the previous month. If Handel was feeling the effects of old age by the time he came to compose Solomon, the oratorio shows no sign of it, being one of the most infectiously exuberant works he had composed since his early Italian sojourn.

Solomon is unusual in several respects. Although it ostensibly has a biblical setting, writers have not been slow to find metaphor in its anonymous libretto. Not the least of them is that for Solomon we might read George II, a view advanced by the writer of the notes for the present set and one not so far removed from Christopher Hogwood’s suggestion that the work is a pageant, a celebration of Georgian England. That was an idea modified and expanded to include political discourse in the scholarly essay by Ruth Smith that accompanies Paul McCreesh’s outstanding Archive recording (1998).

Whatever the intentions of the work or otherwise, it was not especially successful for reasons that do not include the quality of the music, much of which can be accounted as being some of the greatest Handel wrote. One conceivable explanation is that the work is less religious in tenor than some of the other oratorios. While the opening numbers praise God on the occasion of the completion of the Temple, the second scene is a glorification of human love between Solomon and his Queen (or just one of them; he is said to have had 700 wives, not to mention 300 concubines!), a celebration expressed in ecstatic terms not least by the Queen (‘On my bosom as he lay, when he call’d my charms divine’) and here given added sensual allure by the quasi-coquettish performance of soprano Gwendoline Blondeel. This was not the kind of thing to which Handel’s oratorio audiences were accustomed and it is perhaps unsurprising that Solomon not only was dropped quickly from the London repertoire, but never made it to the provincial festivals that voraciously lapped up Handel oratorios. Act 2 is largely given over to further eulogies to Solomon, this time within the context of praising his wisdom, illustrated by the story of the two harlots seeking his judgment. This episode is the dramatic core of the work and Handel drew on his long operatic experience to create splendidly differentiated portrayals of the women, the mother in deeply touching terms, the pretender in brittle, shallow utterances. It is perhaps regrettable that the present recording uses the same sopranos as for Solomon’s queen and the Queen of Sheba, though since both are outstanding it does ensure this pivotal episode is heard to the best advantage. Indeed the wonderful pastoral simplicity of the mother’s siciliano enchantingly sung by Ana Marie Labin is one of the set’s highlights. Labin is also a radiant Queen of Sheba in act 3, also largely devoted to praise of Solomon, this time as a mentor of the queen. Not until the overwhelming double chorus ‘Praise the Lord’, one of Handel’s very grandest does God get much of a look in during this act. Incidentally, like McCreesh but not Eliot Gardiner, who moves ‘Praise the Lord’ to the final number, Alarcón correctly keeps it in the published order, where it makes more sense following Zadok’s preceding aria.

Following on from his superb Semele, Alarcón’s Solomon is magnificent. A live performance given in Namur in July 2022, it is from the outset characterised by an irresistible joie de vivre in which contemplation and sensitivity are also given due recognition. Not the least of reasons for its success are the excellent orchestral playing (the legato playing of the strings is ravishing) and the quite magnificent choral singing of the Namur Chamber Choir, now surely the finest of its kind anywhere. The big choruses with brass and timpani are overwhelming in their impact, particularly given some truly thunderous, yet precise timpani playing. There is no weak link among the soloists. Countertenor Christopher Lowrey is an outstanding Solomon (a role Handel wrote for a female alto), encompassing the many aspects of the role in a commanding performance. Andreas Wolf brings unusual precision and a magnificently black bass to the role of the Levite, while American-born tenor Matthew Newlin copes well if not flawlessly with the demanding writing Handel gave to Zadok the High Priest. Mention has already been made of the two outstanding sopranos, but I must return to Labin to praise her outstanding technique and in particular her impressive chest notes and trill, extended, deep and beautifully articulated. Suffice it to say that is not emulated by the other singers, but ornamentation is generally stylishly applied, if conservative in conception. The superfluous addition of an archlute to the continuo is here not too damaging, it being kept more under control than is often the case.

While not displacing the McCreesh recording, which features an outstanding Solomon in Andreas Scholl, there is a special life-enhancing quality about Alarcón’s Solomon that makes it irresistible, essential listening for anyone that loves this music and a must-hear for those yet to fall under its spell.

Brian Robins


Ein Deutsches Barockrequiem

Vox Luminis, Lionel Meunier
Ricercar RIC445

This characteristic CD from Vox Luminis is the result of a reflection on the tradition of providing a set of scriptural settings of passages that might be suitable to provide music for a funeral, as was the case in Johannes Brahms’ Ein Deutsches Requiem.

Lionel Meunier and Vox Luminis had recorded Schütz’s Musicalische Exequiem in 2010 – and it was one of the recordings which helped make their name. Here they have done something different. They have searched out texts that are either similar to or the same as those used by Brahms around two hundred years later, and the result is a well-constructed series of motets and Psalm settings from 17th-century German composers, some of which I knew, but many of whom I had never heard before. While some of them are for voices and continuo, in combinations for two equal cori, others are coloured by a five-part string ensemble with continuo, and one – by Christian Geist – voices with two tenor and one bass viol with continuo.

As might be expected, this scoring provides a sombre overall feel to the disc, which is the perfect vehicle for the clear sonorities of Vox Luminis. The attention to each other’s vocal lines, and their expert tuning in the clean temperament provided by the fine organ by Dominique Thomas in the north transept of the Église Notre-Dame de la Nativité at Gedinne in Belgium make it difficult to imagine a better performance. Singers and organ, with instrumental colouring at times, is the foundational sound with which Bach and his musical forebears grew up. And this CD is important in locking this sound into our minds as we get used to hearing just the same kind of sounds in J. S. Bach’s pre-Leipzig cantatas.

Many people record their favourite Bach, but in spite of using period instruments, not many use the right kind of organ with a substantial sound in the hands of an expert like Bart Jacobs. And few have adult singers that can set aside their modern vocal techniques and sing together like the boys from the German Lutheran boys’ choirs still do.

So this is another CD to savour, and to marvel at the similarities and the differences in the choice of texts and the manner of setting them that this admirable recording does in these works by Scharmann, Selle, Schein, Geist, Tobias Michael, Briegel, Hammerschmidt, Schwemmer and Förtsch. A CD to treasure for many reasons, but especially for the outstanding sense of group ownership.

David Stancliffe


Mozart in Milan

Robin Johannsen soprano, Carlo Vistoli countertenor, Coro e Orchestra Ghislieri, conducted by Giulio Prandi
Arcana A 538

‘Mozart in Milan’ the cover modestly announces. Modestly because it’s not just Mozart. This excellent and well-filled disc also contains works by Johann Christian Bach, who as a young man spent some years in Italy, where he became a Roman Catholic. Of specific interest is the period he spent in Milan (1757-62) under the patronage of Count Agostino Litta and remote tutelage by the famous authority on counterpoint, Padre Martini of Bologna. Then there is the scarcely known Giovanni Andrea Fioroni, a native of Pavia appointed maestro di cappella of Milan Cathedral in 1747, and the even more obscure Melchiorre Chiesa, maestro al cembalo at the Regio Ducale theatre and later La Scala in addition to holding a number of posts as an organist.

We know from an admiring letter of Leopold Mozart that Chiesa took over as second harpsichordist after Mozart ceased to direct his new opera Mitridate (of which in keeping with the custom of the day he directed only the first three performances) at the Reggio Ducale in December 1770. Mitridate was the first product of a commission received by the teenage Mozart from Count Firmian, Governor-General of Lombardy – Milan then being in territory ruled by the Habsburgs – for three operas, the last of which was Lucio Silla, first performed in December 1772. It was for the leading man of Lucio Silla, the famous castrato Venanzio Rauzzini, that a couple of weeks later Mozart wrote the motet Exsultate, jubilate, K165. The motet is here sung by the US soprano, Robin Johannsen. Charles Burney’s description of Rauzzini as having a ‘sweet and extensive voice, a rapid brilliance of execution great expression and an exquisite and judicious taste’ might easily have been tailored to Johannsen’s performance, which is, quite simply, one of the very best of this frequently performed showpiece I have heard. The ability to cope with the bravura writing of the opening aria and concluding ‘Alleluja’ are not so uncommon, but what is rare is the care and insight Johannsen brings to colouring the text. One example must suffice; the final line of the second, lyrical aria concludes with a perfectly executed trill on the final word ‘cor’, which the singer allows to swell slightly, thus bringing added fervour to the final plea – ‘console our feelings from which our hearts sigh’.

It would be interesting to know the date of composition of Chiesa’s solo motet for alto, Caelo tonati, for it follows precisely the same form as Exsultate, jubilate, which is to say a bravura aria followed by a recitative and concluded by a cantabile largo and Alleluja. The text takes the familiar operatic metaphor of stormy seas to express the torments of the sinful soul, the second aria a plea for peace and light. If lacking the musical quality of the Mozart, it makes for a fine virtuoso showpiece, here receiving its first recording. It is sung with great accuracy and intensity by countertenor Carlo Vistoli, whose performance would be a match for Johannsen’s if he had a less approximate, more sustained trill. As it is, there is much left to admire in the astonishing bravura singing, especially the ornamentation and passaggi of the recap of the opening aria.  

The J C Bach works are Vespers pieces, the composition of which was overseen by Padre Martini and first performed in Milan, a Dixit Dominus of 1758, and a Magnificat in C from 1760, one of three settings Bach made of the text during this period. The former is also a first recording. They combine contrapuntal passages with homophony and have a typical layout, being divided into a succession of movements, in the case of Dixit clearly demarcated into choral and solo aria movements, while the Magnificat employs a concertante solo SATB group that emerges from the chorus. Both are highly attractive pieces, displaying Bach’s familiar Rococo melodic elegance grace in abundance.

Finally, we have a pair of brief choral works. Mozart’s Misericordias Domini, KV 222/205a is an Offertory work composed in Munich for the first Sunday of Lent in 1775. Consisting of only two lines of text, it alternates between the strict chromatic counterpoint of the first and the more lyrical homophony of the second. Fioroni’s even briefer O sacrum convivium is a largely homophonic setting of the sacramental antiphon with piquant harmonies, its reverential restraint fully justifying the esteem accorded the composer and suggesting his large sacred output would benefit from further exploration.

All these choral works are given thoroughly accomplished and committed performances by Coro Ghislieri under its experienced founder and director, Giulio Prandi. In the Bach Dixit Dominus, the tenor and bass soloists are respectively Raffaele Giordani and Alessandro Ravasio, the latter particularly impressing in the aria ‘De torrente’, sung with secure tone, excellently articulated fioritura and concluding with an almost unheard of rarity – a finely executed trill by a bass. An exceptionally rewarding CD that will fully engage the attention of anyone interested in mid-18th-century sacred music.

Brian Robins