Handel: Organ concertos op. 4 & op. 7

Martin Haselböck (op. 4), Jeremy Joseph (op. 7), Orchester Wiener Akademie
Alpha Classics Alpha 742

In 2014 Martin Haselböck and his Orchester Wiener Akademie put themselves on the musical map with their Resound Beethoven project, which involved performing and recording the complete Beethoven symphonies on period instruments in Viennese venues where they had been premiered or performed in the composer’s lifetime. As the programme note to this 2-CD boxed set candidly admits, this project is very different in that the magnificent acoustic of the Goldener Saal of the Musikverein provides these organ concertos by Handel with a very different context from the composer’s own performances. While the Musikverein’s 2011 Rieger organ provides many of the stops available on a Baroque organ, again the context is very different, while the forces fielded by the Akademie are much smaller than those available to Handel for his performances, often in the wider context of an oratorio or an opera. And yet, these are utterly mesmerising performances, musically intelligent, technically superb, and wonderfully effervescent. While the Resound Beethoven project reminded us that the acoustic of the original venues is a factor in any attempt to reconstruct how music originally sounded, it is possible to produce an utterly convincing and engaging performance just by calling upon superlative musicians and placing them one of the finest acoustics in the world. If just occasionally I felt that an organ stop belonged in a later period, these are thoroughly enjoyable accounts with Haselböck himself at the keyboard for the op 4 concerti and Jeremy Joseph taking over for the op 7. For a generally more convincing period sound, the excellent 1996 set by Paul Nicholson on Hyperion with Roy Goodman and the Brandenburg Consort which uses an organ Handel himself is known to have played, and which gives us the op 4 no 6 on harp as originally intended as well as supplying the Alleluia chorus conclusion to op 4 no 4 (mentioned in the booklet notes for present recording but not performed) is probably for you, but I did very much enjoy these Viennese accounts.

D. James Ross


Mozart: Piano Concerto no. 23, Symphony no. 40

Andreas Staier fortepiano, Le Concert de la Loge, Julien Chauvin violin & director
Alpha 875

Named in part – they had to drop ‘Olympique’ after protests from the French Olympic association – after the Parisian concert organisation that commissioned a set of symphonies from Haydn, Le Concert de la Loge was founded by the violinist Julien Chauvin in 2015. Today it is firmly established as one of the many outstanding period instrument orchestras in France, having gained a particular reputation (at least on record) in Classical repertoire.  For the present CD, they have joined forces with the distinguished forte-pianist Andreas Staier, who plays one of Mozart’s best-loved concertos on a very fine copy of a Walter instrument of c.1790 built by Christoph Kern of Staufen. Those coming across the disc may be surprised to find that the G-minor Symphony has acquired an unlikely nickname – ‘Le Dodécaphonique’. Apparently, it was chosen by the musicians of Le Concert following a contest among their concert audience, though not I suspect without the prompting of Chauvin, who in his note draws attention to the start of the development of the opening movement and its use all the notes of the chromatic scale, with the exception of G natural. Perhaps he might with better purpose have noted Mozart’s extraordinary use of chromaticism throughout the symphony; it is responsible for engendering much of the work’s tragic drama and is a prime feature that distinguishes it from many another turbulent G-minor symphony, including Mozart’s own earlier example, K 183.

Leading from the first violin desk, Chauvin’s way with Mozart is quickly established with the Don Giovanni Overture that opens the CD. His tempos tend to be on the brisk side, leading to a danger of brusqueness not always avoided. On the credit side, however, there is an inherent sense of drama, which is aided by splendid balance between strings and the exceptionally accomplished wind, and a keen ear for detail. The strings are not always a match for the wind and there is a trace of sourness in the Overture. One movement where greater forward momentum certainly does pay dividends is in the central Adagio of the A-major Piano Concerto, which without losing the depth of feeling the music conveys – some of the most profound even Mozart ever wrote – better conveys its siciliana rhythm and avoids the trap of sentimentality into which it sometimes falls. For the most part, this movement is also exquisitely decorated, as it must be if it is to be expanded from its skeletal state. It is to Staier’s credit that he mostly avoids the temptation to rewrite rather than ornament the melodic line, and only near the conclusion (from bar 88) do I feel he slightly over-eggs the pudding. Otherwise, Staier’s performance is marked by the nimble and precise finger-work that is a hallmark of his playing, with judicious touches of rubato underlining just how fine a musician he is.

The G-minor Symphony is given in the second version with clarinets, as is usual. Unlike the overture and concerto it was not recorded in the Arsenal de Metz – Cite Musicale but in the Notre-Dame de Liban church in Paris with a warmer, more generous acoustic  (and a substantially differently constituted orchestra). It’s a fine performance – fine enough indeed to have wished that Chauvin had taken the second-half repeat of the finale, again illustrative of Mozart’s astonishing contrapuntal chromatic mastery, though a steadier tempo might have been more effective here. But all-in-all these are challenging and rewarding performances of familiar masterpieces that make the listener prick up his ears anew, not always a foregone conclusion.

Brian Robins


Rameau: Nouvelle Symphonie

Florian Sempey baritone, Les musiciens du Louvre, Marc Minkowski
Château de Versailles Spectacles CVS062

‘Nouvelle’ in the sense that this is a new compilation (and newly recorded – not extracts from the back catalogue) of extracts from Rameau’s dramatic works. And it has been done in an imaginative way, not simply lumping together all the dances from one opera and calling them a suite. We begin and end in Castor et Pollux, there are five items from Les Indes Galantes and we briefly visit another six works, including the less well-known Acante et Céphise (its firework display – literally – of an overture and two other items). The orchestra is of a generous size (three double basses) and plays with brilliance and enthusiasm, and, rather to this writer’s relief, we are spared speculative percussion contributions.

A striking feature of the programme is the inclusion of a few vocal items sung by baritone Florian Sempey with a blend of sweetness and nobility.

Finally, the booklet (in French, English and German) is informative, though I do prefer it when the essays are grouped by language rather than title.

David Hansell


Leclair Concerti per violino

Leila Schayegh, La Cetra Barockorchester Basel
Glossa GCD 924206

In her elegant essay, the soloist suggests that Leclair’s music has the power ‘to thrill and amaze’.

Well, that is certainly true of this third and final volume in her ensemble’s recordings of his complete violin concertos. The low(ish) pitch of A=408 Hz gives a warmth to the sonority while the ripieno group is large enough to sound like an orchestra but not so large that the soloist has either to force her sound or resort to electronic trickery to be suitably prominent in the overall soundscape.

The music combines demanding virtuosity with an almost detached melodic grace and is often coloured with moments of deft counterpoint and rich harmonies. In short, it’s really classy. If you want to sample before purchase, I’d suggest Op10/4, though none of the 12 tracks will disappoint.

And it’s a pleasure to be able to note a booklet that combines strong content with good design. It had to be possible.

David Hansell


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


Geminiani: La Forêt enchantée

Elisa Baciocchi Ensemble
Tactus TC 680706

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Geminiani’s La Forêt enchantée is a theatrical pantomime inspired by Torquato Tasso’s epic poem Gerusalemme liberata, most famous perhaps as the source of Monteverdi’s Il Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda. It is an entirely instrumental piece designed to accompany dance and mime, but this presentation interpolates extracts from the Tasso to provide context for the music. This and the addition of a flute to the original string texture seem reasonable liberties in the circumstances, particularly as the recording has the feel of a record of a staged performance. My only reservation regarding this interesting and informative project is that a combination of the recording quality and the standard of the playing suggests a good amateur performance rather than a polished professional one. Nevertheless, this CD opens an interesting window on an unfamiliar Baroque genre, and adds another dimension to our understanding of the enigmatic and prolific Geminiani.

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


Mandolin on Stage

The Greatest Mandolin Concertos
Raffaele La Ragione, Il Pomo d’Oro, Francesco Corti
Arcana A524

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This exciting and enjoyable CD of concertos for early mandolins begins with the well-known Concerto in C major (RV 425) by Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741). Raffaele La Ragione plays a copy of a six-course Lombard mandolin built by Tiziano Rizzi after an original by Antonio Monzino (1792). It makes a bright, crisp sound which stands out from the group of accompanying instruments, but I would rather hear Vivaldi not played with a plectrum as La Ragione does, but rather with the right-hand fingers, which produce a sweeter more mellow sound. In his contribution to the book, The Early Mandolin, Early Music Series 9 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989), page 38, James Tyler writes: “From the evidence examined so far, it is clear that finger-style playing was the norm for the mandolino in Italy, and I can find no evidence for plectrum-style playing until the second half of the eighteenth century.” However, La Ragione’s virtuosity and musicality are nevertheless impressive, and he brings life and vigour to his performance.

Il Pomo d’Oro is conducted by the harpsichord player, Francesco Corti, who adds his own embellishments, and keeps the ensemble tightly knit. The accompanying instruments from the group are two violins, viola, cello, double bass, harpsichord and theorbo. The theorbo is a welcome asset. It does much to create a warm, homogeneous sound. In the slow second movement the harpsichord drops out, and Miguel Rincon’s theorbo gently provides harmony, countermelodies, deep bass notes, and tasteful end-of-phrase fill-ins. Vivaldi’s third movement is typical of his style, with a plethora of broken chords, repeated notes, scalic passages, and round-the-clock chord progressions. Enjoy the third movement on YouTube.

There are seven items altogether: four concertos with a mandolin of some sort, interspersed with three items without mandolin. The first of the non-mandolin pieces is a lively Sinfonia in G major by Baldassarre Galuppi (1706-85). There is much repetition of four-bar phrases, and a lack of complex harmony and lyrical melodies. It is a romp designed to invigorate the soul. The other tracks without a mandolin are an Allegro presto from a Sinfonia in B flat major by Giovanni Paisiello (1740-1816), and an Allegro from a Sinfonia in D major by Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809).

The second concerto for mandolin is one in E flat major attributed to Paisiello. For this La Ragione plays a four-course Neapolitan mandolin by an anonymous Neapolitan maker c. 1770. Neapolitan mandolins are what most people today think of as mandolins. They have four courses of metal strings and are tuned in fifths. They are played with a plectrum, which gives a strong attack and enables super-fast tremolo notes. La Ragione’s instrument has a clear, full sound, which he uses to good effect, with a pleasing variety of tone and dynamic, particularly noticeable in a long unaccompanied passage towards the end of the second movement. The uplifting third movement is played with enthusiasm by soloist and orchestral members alike.

La Raggione also uses his Neapolitan instrument for a Mandolin Concerto in G major by Francesco Lecce (fl. 1750-1806). The second movement, Largo, is especially gratifying, with La Raggione’s bright, well-shaped phrases enhanced by the gentle notes of Rincon’s theorbo. The third movement, Allegro balletto, requires a fair amount of dexterity from La Ragione, with fast flurries of notes now in threes now in fours.

Another track to be found on YouTube is the Rondo from the Concerto in G major by Johann Nepomuk Hummel (1778-1837). For this Concerto La Ragione plays a four-string Brescian mandolin by Lorenzo Lippi after a late 18th-century original by Carlo Bergonzi II. With its four single courses it has a more delicate sound than the Neapolitan mandolin, which La Ragione turns to his advantage. He is accompanied by a small orchestra, in which flutes, oboes, bassoons and horns are added to the strings and harpsichord. The extra instruments help to create a fuller sound, and provide a welcome contrast of timbres. What cheerful music this is.

Stewart McCoy


Vivaldi: 12 Concerti Di Parigi

Venise – Vivaldi – Versailles No. 3
Orchestre de l’Opéra Royal, Stefan Plewniak
Château de Versailles Spectacles CVS065

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Ten of the twelve concerti in this Paris manuscript are known from other sources, suggesting that the manuscript was drawn up at relatively short notice as a presentation piece for a potential patron. The set is associated with a visit to Trieste by the Austrian Emperor Charles VI, in whose retinue was the keen amateur violinist Franz Stephan, who seems to have acquired the set. This perhaps explains why they are all ‘ripieni’ concerti, spotlighting the whole ensemble rather than a soloist. The subsequent enormous popularity of Vivaldi’s music in France can hardly be put down to these concerti, as they lack the sparkle and originality of several of the master’s other manuscripts and publications. Plewniak and his orchestral forces seem determined to make up for the risk of any musical mundanity with the sheer energy of their performance – however, this seems frequently to err on the side of aggression. Each energetic track is preceded by what sounds like a sharp intake of breath from all concerned, while the percussive attack on the stringed instruments is given further edge by some very choppy guitar playing. It is a pity that this element of aggression is allowed to creep into these performances, as many of the more relaxed movements are lyrically and tastefully presented. I don’t want to sound too unenthusiastic about this latest in a series of thought-provoking recordings to emanate from the Palace of Versailles, but at the same time it seems part of a fashion of ‘overplaying’ Vivaldi, when often his music should be allowed to speak more for itself.

D. James Ross


Schubert: Complete Symphonies & Fragments

L’Orfeo Barockorchester, Michi Gaigg
277:25 (4 CDs in a double jewel box)
cpo 555 228-2

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Any project to record the complete Schubert symphonies is a challenge. He is famously the composer of an ‘unfinished’ symphony, but in fact Schubert was a serial ‘unfinisher’ of symphonic material, and even the total number and indeed the numbering of his complete symphonies are contested. In the early 1980s, the Academy of St Martin in the Fields recorded Schubert’s ‘10 Symphonies’, including impressive reconstructions by Brian Newbold using the surviving fragments. Subsequently, a number of period instrument ensembles have settled for the eight complete symphonies. The present recording takes an alternative approach, presenting the eight complete symphonies – renumbered so that the ‘Unfinished’ is now number 7 and the ‘Great’ is number 8 – as well as all the related surviving fragments and overtures. Some of these, such as D729 are substantial, in essence, a fair proportion of two movements, whereas others D74A are tiny, coming in in the middle of the action and then cut short. There is a definite academic interest in hearing any orchestral sketches Schubert left behind, and once you are prepared for the shock of a section cutting off in mid-flow, they do also make interesting listening. Besides, you can always select only the complete symphonies to listen to if that is what you want. These are live recordings, with some retakes added later, and have all the excitement of the concert performance about them. Just occasionally there are tuning issues, fluffs, and some extraneous noises, but nothing to interfere with the overall enjoyment. Michi Gaigg’s direction finds the magic in even the slightest of fragments, and she and her forces rise well to the challenge and scale of the later symphonies. She also has an unerring instinct for tempo, and has an excellent line-up of woodwind principals to take full advantage of Schubert’s famously rewarding woodwind solos. I am not sure how often I will be listening to the fragments, but these definitely do inform what I think are excellent accounts of the complete symphonies.

D. James Ross