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Recording

A painted tale

Nicholas Phan tenor, Michael Leopold lute, Ann Marie Morgan viola da gamba
69:39
Avie Records AV 2325
Music by Blow, Dowland, Alfonso Ferrabosco, Lanier & Henry Purcell

[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he young American tenor Nicholas Phan has rightly attracted praise for his performances of Britten, with whose music he identifies. It is very noticeable that he has welcomed on board many elements of Pears’ style, notably the latter’s use (particularly in his later years) of acciaccatura – launching up to a higher note from the lower one, like a mini trampoline in front of a vaulting horse. This is a technique which most singers approaching Early Music rejected outright way back in the 1980s, mercifully. This might serve Britten well, and one could even describe it as ‘authentic’, since it is based upon a reliable source or two (Pears, and later Robert Tear – likewise no stranger to the trampoline), but when performing music of the 17th century, we have definitely moved on nowadays. This is a great shame – Phan is clearly a singer to watch, but not in this repertoire, sadly. Inspired by Pears’ love of English lute song, as performed with Julian Bream, Phan tackles many of ‘the usual suspects’, arranging them into a faux-cycle to create a narrative of love and rejection inviting comparison with ‘Die Schöne Müllerin’ (he suggests), which is as good a way to present a programme as anything, but his style of singing scuppers enjoyment. Unfortunately, Phan has failed to learn from Pears’ subtle ‘less is more’ adjustment of his unique voice to form a close balance with the lute, and some tender songs here seem over-projected, Britten-esque style, as if he is imagining he is on the beach at Aldeburgh, with a gale blowing behind. Some songs (such as Purcell’s ‘Evening Hymn’) with its long phrases feature some very dubious choices of where to take breaths – indeed, in that song, he appears so out of breath at the end of the final Hallelujah, he almost beats the lute and viol to arrival at the last note! Sometimes he will remember he should be emphasising words, in best Bostridge fashion, so the occasional one is promoted over its companions, but not always the best one in the sentence ‘And he whose words his passions Rr-right can tell’, with the ‘R’ on ‘right’ rolled like a sudden drum roll, making that one (not particularly important) word made to protrude from the phrase like a sore thumb. He does something similar in Purcell’s ‘O Solitude’, at ‘when their Harr-rd, their hard fate’, a phrase that he feels needs to stand out, for some reason, so although he precedes it with softer, gentle singing, he then belts that particular phrase, forte, like Grimes railing against Fate.

Throughout the disc he cannot seem to reconcile both ideas – emphatic and gentler singing. Like Bob Tear of blessed memory, Phan also strains and projects higher phrases by the trusty expedient of singing louder as the music ranges higher – often with a similarly slightly strangled tone! Purcell’s ‘Sweeter than roses’ taxes him, and his breathing to breaking point. Call me old-fashioned, but if you can’t sing the whole of Purcell’s phrase setting the word ‘victorious’ in one breath, you really should be re-thinking how to perform these songs. Then, at other times, he contradicts my moans by turning in a near perfect performance of, for example, Dowland’s ‘My thoughts are winged with hopes’. I said ‘near – he still belts the highest phrases! But Blow’s ‘Of all the torments’ is all over the place – he seems to think he is Loge in Rheingold. The editions he is using have some oddities, unfortunately. In ‘O Solitude’ the word is ‘Apollo’s lore’, for example, not Apollo’s love. Likewise, Dowland wrote ‘Better a thousand times to die, than for to live thus…, not ‘then for to live’, which makes no sense. I don’t enjoy writing so many negative remarks about such a promising young singer who is clearly trying so hard to create something really beautiful and special, but he really needs to acquire some Early Music Technique like the rest of us had to – you really can’t just ‘wing it’ in everything from Monteverdi to Wagner today, like Bob Tear got away with, no matter how suitable your voice may be for other material. I hope he re-thinks how to approach this earlier repertoire, and seeks proper advice, because I want to hear him do better.

David Hill

Since we only received a preview copy of the disc, David felt unable to comment on the booklet note or the packaging.

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Recording

Flow my tears: Songs for lute, viol and voice

Iestyn Davies cT, Thomas Dunford lute, Jonathan Manson viol
76:38
Wigmore Hall Live WHLive0074
Music by Campion, Danyel, Dowland, Hume, Johnson & Muhly

[dropcap]T[/dropcap]his is a recording of a concert from July 2013; this time it’s lute songs, which Davies sings beautifully and intelligently, as ever. I’m not going to bang on about countertenors and downward- transposed lute songs, and whether or not this a historical practice, yet again. Just enjoy this for what it is. Very fine singing and playing, all the more amazing for having been recorded live. Davies’ intonation and word colouring is exemplary in this context, and there are few countertenors who would be brave, or good enough, let’s be frank, to contemplate issuing live recordings. Singing in projected falsetto is very exposing of the slightest flaw – yet Davies does not seem to have any! There is one substantial modern piece, Mulhy’s cantata ‘Old Bones’, a setting of texts from the media relating to the discovery of the remains of Richard III in 2012. This is an excellent addition to the repertoire, taking it’s place besides Fricker’s ‘Tomb of St. Eulalia’ written for Deller in the 1950s.

Quibble: The sleeve notes attempt to comment on the beginning of the poem attributed to the Earl of Essex: ‘Can she excuse my wrongs’, adding that ‘…she (Elizabeth 1) could not, and beheaded him’. The author (understandably) does not realise that Dowland’s/Essex’s line actually means: ‘the wrongs that she has done to me’, and not what he did or said about her. Although, staging a rebellion to depose her was what did for him in the end, as we all know.

Davies is the best (and busiest) British countertenor around, and we should celebrate that, because good un’s don’t come around that often!

David Hill

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Recording

Cavalieri: Rappresentatione di Anima & di Corpo

Marie-Claude Chappuis Anima, Johannes Weisser Corpo, Gyula Orendt Tempo/Consiglio, Mark Milhofer Intelleto/ Piacere, Marcos Fink Mondo/Secondo Compagno di Piacere/Anima dannata, Staatsopernchor Berlin, Concerto Vocale, Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin, René Jacobs
82:52
Harmonia Mundi HMC 902200.01 (2 CDs)

[dropcap]W[/dropcap]hat price progress in the early music world? This new version of Emilio de Cavalieri’s seminal sacred opera falls both as to concept and performance a million miles short of Andrew Parrott’s 1988 recording of the 1589 Florentine intermedi. That famous entertainment was, of course, organised by Cavalieri, who also contributed music to it. His opera (we’ll leave debates about whether it is or is not an opera to others; it’s accepted as such by New Grove Opera) followed eleven years later, beating Peri and Caccini by a matter of months to go down in history as the first opera. Although musically ground-breaking, dramatically Rappresentatione belongs to the age-old tradition of the morality play that engages dialogue between opposing viewpoints, in this case the thorny question of the conflict between earthly pleasure and spiritual elevation. By definition, the subject offers contrast that was richly exploited by Cavalieri.
     But not, I think, as richly as René Jacobs would have us believe. His recording stems from a Berlin Staatsoper production given in 2012. The realization is unashamedly pitched to the requirements of a modern opera house, with a rich tapestry of colourful instrumental sound, including bowed string instruments accompanying the singers, who largely appear to be all-purpose opera singers with wide vibratos; that goes for the chorus, too. Harmonies are at times wildly anachronistic, reminding me of Raymond Leppard’s Monteverdi and Cavalli arrangements for Glyndebourne in the 60s. If you want an example listen to the Damned Souls chorus in act 3, thrice repeated and given a realization by Jacobs that Berlioz would have been happy to own to. Additionally, much of the singing is far too lyrical, arioso rather than the new recitativo style, and none of the singers seem to understand the function of gorgie. Now, there is no intrinsic problem with all of this but for the fact that, not for the first time with Jacobs, it is presented under a veneer of HIP, his notes at least implying a scholarly approach. I’m afraid I find that duplicitous and suggest that readers of EMR leave well alone.

Brian Robins

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Recording

Pavans and Fantasies from the Age of Dowland

John Holloway, Monika Baer violin & viola, Renate Steinmann, Susanna Hefti viola, Martin Zelle bass violin
49:28
ECM New Series 481 0430
Dowland Lachrimae Pavans Jenkins Fantasy No. 12
W. Lawes 2 Airs for 4, Fantasy in C for 5 Locke Fantasy for 2
Morley Lamento for 2 Purcell Fantasy upon one note

[dropcap]P[/dropcap]rogramming John Dowland’s seven ‘Lachrimae’ pavans in concert or on CD is always a problem. Should they be played as a single sequence or be interspersed with contrasted pieces? They are often grouped in suites with other pieces from the 1604 Lachrimae collection, despite Dowland apparently wanting to avoid conventional pavan-galliard pairs. John Holloway, leading a group of (to judge from the photo in the booklet) rather younger string players in a recording made in Zurich, opts to intersperse pieces by other composers, ranging from Thomas Morley (the Lamento from Canzonets for Two Voyces, 1595) to Henry Purcell (Fantasia upon One Note) – mostly not ‘from the age of Dowland’ but fine music all the same. On balance, I prefer the cumulative impact of the pavans played in a sequence to the varied programme offered here, but (as Holloway points out in the booklet) you can always change the order by programming your CD player.

Holloway and his group also had to decide how to score the ‘Lachrimae’ pavans and which key and pitch to choose when using a violin consort rather than viols – Dowland allowed for that option by describing the contents of Lachrimae on the title-page as ‘set forth for the Lute, Viols or Violons’. In 1992, when The Parley of Instruments recorded the whole collection using a Renaissance violin consort, we opted to transpose the seven pavans and the other low-tessitura pieces up a fourth, following the evidence in consort music for a process analogous to vocal chiavette. Also, with the gut strings then available we found it difficult to make the ‘Lachrimae’ pavans work at written pitch even at a’=440, particularly because the violas playing the tenor and quintus parts spend most of the time playing on the bottom strings. Holloway opts to play the pavans in the original key at a’=415 using four violas and bass violin, which makes them sound very dark indeed, though the third and fourth violas seem to have no problems with the low tessitura.

Holloway’s solution works well in practice, though it is unlikely to be historically correct. A basic principle of Renaissance instrumentation (as shown by the treatises of the period) is that full-voiced instrumental consorts should consist of three sizes of instrument, not two (or four, for that matter), and that pieces should be scored according to function: a soprano part should be played by a soprano instrument, inner parts by alto/tenor instruments and bass parts by bass instruments. Thus Dowland’s pavans should be played by a violin, three violas and bass; so far as I know the earliest piece for four violas and bass is the sinfonia to J. S. Bach’s Cantata no. 18. Also, Holloway opts to omit Dowland’s lute part, arguing that the music is complete in the five string parts, though that is not quite true, since the lute adds decorative flourishes at the end of sections that keep the rhythm going when the other instruments hold long notes. Dowland’s phrase ‘set forth for the Lute, Viols or Violins’ rather implies that he considered the bowed strings more dispensable than his own instrument. An alternative, which has not been explored to my knowledge, would be to perform Lachrimae with just lute, violin or treble viol and bass, a scoring used for dances published by Emanuel Adriaenssen and Louis de Moy.

Having got these musicological matters out of the way, I should say that the playing on this CD is very fine. The consort makes a wonderful sound (though sounding as if the instruments are set up in a rather later fashion than Dowland would have known), the tuning is excellent, and there is a real feeling that the players think through the music together in an intelligent and eloquent way. Also, I like the way in which they strike a balance between consistency and variety in Dowland’s pavans, playing them at roughly the same speed and in a similar style but finding their subtly different characters. The interspersed pieces make a good contrast. They are all fantasias or (in the case of two of William Lawes’s four-part airs) lively dances, and are all much brighter in sound, using two violins, though the two pieces for two trebles and bass (Jenkins’s Fantasia no. 12 in three parts and the fantasia from Set no. 3 of Locke’s Broken Consort) sound rather bare without accompaniment. Locke wrote out theorbo parts for these pieces and probably played the organ from his autograph score in performances, and it is likely that Jenkins’s three-part fantasias also had organ accompaniment, though no part survives for them. The five-part fantasias by Lawes (from the Set in C major) and Purcell receive dashing performances, though occasionally I was brought up short by a style of bowing that struck me as belonging to a later period. But all in all this is a fine recital of some wonderful music. It makes a good case for using violins in pieces normally thought to be part of the core viol consort repertory.

Peter Holman

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Pedro de Escobar: Missa in Granada (c.1520)

Ensemble Cantus Figuratus, Dominque Vellard
55:59
Glossa GCD C80015

[dropcap]T[/dropcap]his fine recording, made in 2000, was first issued on the Christophorus label in 2003. Escobar was originally from Porto; in the early 16th century he was music director and Magister Puerorum at Seville Cathedral, where he may have taught the young Morales. His four-voice mass, recorded here, is preserved in a manuscript from Tarazona Cathedral; the performance sets it in the context of a Marian feast as it may have been celebrated in the Capilla Real of Granada Cathedral in the early 16th century, using appropriate Spanish propers and adding three Peñalosa motets. Much musicological care has clearly gone into the project, though the (continuing) controversy over the use of instruments to accompany or replace the polyphony, and indeed the size of choir used, has to my ears not been satisfactorily settled. A mixed ensemble of some ten voices is used throughout for the Escobar Ordinary, with shawms and sackbuts being added in, e. g., the opening Kyrie and the Sanctus: the instruments actually replace the voices in the first Agnus Dei invocation. Conversely, a goodly proportion of the chant (e. g., much of the Gradual) is sung by one or two soloists. Overall, the effect is to make much of the polyphony sound rather homogenous and slightly lacking in subtlety; the intermittent addition of the ‘loud’ reed instruments only exaggerates this. The chant is beautifully sung, with appropriate rhythmic and cadential melodic embellishment; it would be fascinating to hear the polyphony similarly done by soloists!

Alastair Harper

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The Hunt is Up

Shakespeare’s Songbook: Tunes and Ballads from the Plays of William Shakespeare (1564-1616)
The Playfords
52:05
Raum Klang RK 3404

[dropcap]R[/dropcap]oss Duffin’s Shakespeare’s Songbook is quoted as the main source, though the scorings and adaptations are occasionally a bit odd. The main singer has an English accent that is a bit variable – why sing “Willow, willow, willow, villlow”? The other performers are Annegret Fischer (recorders), Erik Warkenthin (lute & guitar), Benjamin Dressler (viol & violone) & Nora Thiele (percussion & colascione). The ensemble is not, however, strong enough for Elgar! Nor is there any evidence I know of for mixing pieces in short snippets. It is entertaining, but the title “The Playfords” suggests a slightly later style than Shakespeare, whose last works were about 40 years before Playford came on the scene, though there is no particular indication that the ensemble’s scorings and backings match either Shakespeare or Playford consistently. Worth hearing, but don’t imitate!

Clifford Bartlett

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The video belong is mostly in German.

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Flight of Angels: Music from the Golden Age in Spain

The Sixteen, Harry Christophers
63:52
Coro COR16128
Guerrero Agnus Dei I & II (Missa Congratulamini mihi),Credo (Missa de la batalla escoutez) Duo Seraphim, Gloria (Missa Surge propera), Laudate Dominum a8, Maria Magdalene, Vexilla Regis
Alonso Lobo Ave Maria a8, Ave Regina caelorum, Kyrie (Missa Maria Magdalene), Libera me, Versa est in luctum,

[dropcap]T[/dropcap]his is a lovely disc. Guerrero and Lobo were associated with the great cathedral of Seville during its Golden Age in the late 16th and early 17th century, when it was the immensely wealthy mother church of Spain’s South American colonies. Harry Christophers has assembled a delectable feast of motets and mass movements; the disc opens with one of my personal favourites, the glorious Guerrero Duo Seraphim, dripping with Trinitarian symbolism – three choirs (12 voices!), three ‘full’ episodes, two voices for the Duo Seraphim, rising to three for the Tres Sunt and so on. The Sixteen capture Guerrero’s uniquely mellifluous vocal scoring to perfection. The same composer’s Maria Magdalene, describing the events around the Resurrection, is another show-stopping favourite – try the wonderful Secunda Pars and marvel! Guerrero’s pupil and eventual successor, Alonso Lobo, completes the disc; it is fascinating to compare his denser reworking of Maria Magdalene into a mass ordinary with the more limpid original. I particularly enjoyed the tremendous contrapuntal cleverness of his 8-voice Ave Maria, where the second choir’s music is derived canonically from that of the first. The Sixteen perform with their customary poise, precision and passion. The programme neatly reflects their 2015 Choral Pilgrimage concert series, hopefully coming to A Church Near You at some point in the next few months. Go forth, attend and acquire!

Alastair Harper

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Gesualdo: Dolcissimo Veleno

La Dolce Maniera, Luigi Gaggero
54:23
Stradivarius STR 37010

[dropcap]L[/dropcap]a dolce maniera have adopted a highly original approach to the love madrigal here by taking at least one madrigal from each of Gesualdo’s published volumes, twenty madrigals in all, and arranging them into a ‘romantic song cycle’ charting the establishment, growth and eventual implosion of a romance. The sequence is indeed cumulatively effective, although perhaps mercifully it doesn’t culminate in the sort of bloodbath which accompanied Gesualdo’s own disappointment in love in real life! The group’s highly ‘affected’ style of singing works very well with this mercurial repertoire. Less convincing is the decision to sing the music untransposed, leaving some of the soprano lines painfully and awkwardly high. I can understand the principle of this, but we now live in world where the prevailing judgement of musicologists seems to be to ‘sing it where it feels comfortable’, and just occasionally here the sopranos sound seriously uncomfortable. The group’s director Luigi Gaggero would argue that this discomfort is just the effect Gesualdo was looking for, but the fact is that nobody wants to listen to distressed singers, and I began to wonder uncharitably whether he had developed this theory before or after listening to the recordings. The fact is these are not impossibly high notes in themselves and perhaps the sopranos just needed to develop a slightly different technical approach. Anyway I don’t want this relatively minor issue to overshadow an otherwise enjoyable and innovative recording.

D. James Ross

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In the midst of life: Music from the Baldwin Partbooks I

Contrapunctus, Owen Rees
68:18
Signum Records SIGCD408
Byrd Audivi vocem, Circumdederunt me dolores mortis Gerarde Sive vigilem Mundy Sive vigilem Parsons Credo quod redemptor, Libera me Domine, Peccantem me quotidie Sheppard Media vita Tallis Nunc dimittis Taverner Quemadmodum

[dropcap]L[/dropcap]ike his counterpart in Scotland Thomas Wode, John Baldwin is among a handful of musicians whom we have to thank for the preservation of the treasury of sixteenth-century choral music. Baldwin was particularly diligent, recording almost 170 works from early in the century right up to his own lifetime in the last quarter of the 1500s, many of which survive as unique copies. Most of the output of John Sheppard survives this way, although the loss of the tenor partbook has necessitated the reconstruction of that voice, leading to Sheppard somewhat ‘missing the bus’ in the revival in the middle of the last century of interest in Tudor church music. Contrapunctus under their enterprising director, Owen Rees, are devoting a series of CDs to these important partbooks, grouping their programmes by theme. It may seem perverse to start with death, but its ubiquity and immediacy for Tudor composers has led to a particularly fine and poignant body of music remaining from the time.

The undeniable jewel in the crown of this selection is Sheppard’s magisterial setting of Media vita which gives the CD its title, but the chief joy for me were the one or two works with which I was hitherto unfamiliar, such as William Byrd’s Circumdederunt me dolores mortis, which opens the programme, and the powerful Sive vigilem by the Flemish émigré Dericke Gerarde. The singing throughout is consistently full-toned and focussed, but essentially for this repertoire constantly ready with expressive crescendos and decrescendos to mark textual changes in mood. With its nine highly experienced singers (boosted to ten for the larger works) Contrapunctus is the ideal group for this superb repertoire, and I look forward with eager anticipation to future CDs in this series.

D. James Ross

[dropcap]A[/dropcap]n absolutely superb disc, both musically and musicologically. John Baldwin was a layclerk at St George’s Chapel, Windsor at the time these five (originally six – the tenor is missing) partbooks were copied, between about 1575 and 1581. They contain a huge range of Latin-texted music, ranging in period from Taverner to Byrd, much of it uniquely preserved. The present recording takes as its theme music “concerned with mortality- the fear of death and eternal torment, anticipation of the Day of Judgement, and the soul’s longing to meet God” and includes settings from the Catholic Office of the Dead, as well as penitential motets, perhaps for private Recusant use after the Reformation. With pieces (and performances) of such uniformly high quality, it is difficult to single out any one especially, though Dericke Gerarde was a new name for me; his wonderfully expansive and expressive setting of Sive Vigilem is one I shall be replaying often! The recital appropriately concludes with John Sheppard’s massive and magnificent Media Vita – listen out for the wonderful final verse, with its typically English gimell in both the treble and mean, supported by the bass, far below. Extraordinary music, gloriously performed!

Alastair Harper

 

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