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Recording

Legros : Haute-contre de Gluck

Reinoud de Mechelen, A Nocte Temporis
72:19
Alpha 992

This CD brings together repertoire by a variety of composers for the uniquely French haute-contre or high tenor voice, personified here by the excellent soloist Reinoud van Mechelen. Also directing the ensemble A Nocte Temporis, van Mechelen presents a selection of haute-contre arias which would have been sung by the operatic tenor Joseph Legros who dominated the Paris Opéra for twenty years from his appointment in 1764. During his tenure, he sang the music of still familiar composers such as Gluck and JC Bach, as well as now less familiar composers such as François-Joseph Gossec, André-Ernest-Modeste Grétry and Niccoló Piccinni and practically forgotten musicians such as Jean-Benjamin de la Borde, Pierre-Montan Berton, Jean-Claude Trial and Joseph Legros himself. Reinoud van Mechelen has a lovely effortless high tenor voice, instantly accounting for the enduring popularity of Legros. Supported by a superb instrumental ensemble, he wisely lets them occasionally play a purely instrumental piece for variety, but the main virtue of this CD is his lovely vocal interpretation of this unfamiliar repertoire. Perhaps inevitably, the musical standards take a marked upturn with the advent of Gluck, just as his arrival at the Paris Opéra in 1774 seems to have well and truly shaken things up. The reported tension between Legros and Gluck may have been largely confected, and certainly the music Gluck wrote for Legros to sing exploited his gifts in a thorough and musically imaginative way. An aria composed by Legros for himself to sing has an insouciant charm, but he was probably right to keep on the day job, singing the music of his compositional betters! This CD, the third in a series exploring music written for haute-contres and preceded by Lully and Rameau’s star tenors, very usefully and stylishly brings together some beautiful music, and I feel a singer who also directs his accompanying ensemble brings a further dimension to this fascinating and enjoyable repertoire.

D. James Ross

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Recording

Hélène de Montgeroult

Portrait d’une compositrice visionnaire
Marcia Hadjimarkos fortepiano, Beth Taylor mS, Nicolas Mazzolini violin
61:51
Seulétoile SE09

The composer and pianist Hélène de Nervo, Marquise de Montgeroult by marriage, 1764-1836) lived through tumultuous times in her native France. With such a colourful career and such characterful music as the performers have found here, it is remarkable that she has passed below the radar for so long. A student of Dussek and Clementi, Montgeroult benefited from the rapid development of the piano-forte during her lifetime, a process she was able to take full advantage of during her years in Paris. Pianist Hadjimarkos also takes full advantage of the developing pianoforte in her choice of some striking stops in her performances of the solo Etudes (1812 and 1816) and accompanying Beth Taylor’s powerful accounts of the Nocturnes (1807). She plays a beautiful 1817 pianoforte by Antoine Neuhaus. The piano works appear as an appendix to a Complete Method for Piano, and while seven of the Etudes recorded here are for both hands, a further three focus more intently on the right hand and yet another on the left – presumably Montgeroult’s intention was to strengthen both hands of the performer independently and to build up their distinctive roles. Given their very practical purpose, these Etudes are remarkably imaginative and effective, and are given superbly expressive performances here. The subtitle of the CD is ‘Portrait d’une compositrice visionnaire’ and this aspect of Montgeroult’s strikingly individual musical style is very much to the fore in the performers’ minds. Mezzosoprano Beth Taylor gives beautifully eloquent accounts of the six short Nocturnes op 6 for solo voice and piano accompaniment. In the style of the time, the opus 2 Sonata no 6 (1800) for piano with accompaniment by the violin is just that, a piece very much led by the piano with fairly restrained commentary from the violin. It too is imaginatively presented by Hadjimarkkos with violinist Nicolas Mazzoleni. Montgeroult’s biographer Jérôme Dorival considers her the missing link between Mozart and Chopin, and while she might not be the only deserving candidate for this title, she is clearly an important composer who thoroughly deserves a place in the history of the early piano and in composition generally. These performers have done us all a great service in shining such a musically convincing spotlight on a composer who clearly merits much more attention.

D. James Ross

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Recording

Marc’Antonio Ziani: La Morte vinta sul Calvario

Les Traversées Baroques, directed by Etienne Meyer & Judith Pacquier
73:18
Accent ACC 24402

Often confused with oratorios, the sepolcro is a peculiarly Viennese form best thought of as a cross between opera and oratorio. The genre flourished at the Hapsburg court during the reign of the highly musical and deeply religious Holy Roman Emperor Leopold I (1658-1705), its best-known practitioners being Antonio Draghi (1634-1700) and Marc’Antonio Ziani (1658-1715). Sepolcri can be defined as semi-staged dramatic works performed on Good Friday in either spectacular fashion in the Hofkapelle or more intimately in the private chapel of one of the senior members of the Imperial family. The characters depicted were nearly exclusively allegorical, thus similar to the type of libretto familiar today from Handel’s early Roman oratorio La resurrezione (1708).

The Venetian opera composer Ziani arrived in Vienna in the wake of Draghi’s death, appointed vice-Kapellmeister in 1700. For the Viennese court he composed operas, oratorios and eight sepolcri. His La Morte vinta sul Calvario dates from 1706, when it was given in the Hofkapelle on the evening of Good Friday and has for its subject matter Christ’s triumph over death as a result of his dying on the Cross at Calvary. The topic is explored in P A Bernardoni’s libretto by five allegorical characters: Il Demonio (Satan), La Morte (Death), La Natura Umana (Human Nature), La Fede (Faith) and L’Anima d’Adamo (the Soul of Adam). The ‘action’ is carried on through alternating brief da capo arias and recitative, a typical sequence being aria-recitative-aria for the same character. There is also a duet (for Il Demonio and La Morte) and a final madrigalian chorus. A number of the arias are fairly florid, Il Demonio opening the work with a particularly bravura piece in a role sung at the first performance by the bass Rainaldo Borrini, one of the most highly paid singers at the Viennese court. The taste for contrapuntal writing at the court is much in evidence, with chromatic seasoning also strongly featured in Ziani’s score. Some of the cantabile arias have considerable beauty, La Natura Umana’s ‘Io languia’ (no. 30) being a particularly winning example. Accompaniments feature a rich assortment of brass and wind – pairs of cornetti, recorders, sackbuts and bassoons in addition to the strings, which include violas da gamba. It is a weakness of the present recording that only single strings to a part are employed, since we know sepolcri employed the substantial forces available at the Viennese court, which just a few years later is recorded as employing over 30 string players.

The demands made on the singers are in the main too great for the present performers, though the performance is obviously one of great integrity. Yannis François’s is a lightish bass-baritone whose voice carries neither sufficient authority nor personality for Il Demonio. La Natura Umana is sung by Vincent Bouchot, listed as a tenor but who, particularly in his first aria, sounds more like an haute-contre. La Morte, a countertenor part, is sung by Maximiliano Baños pleasingly enough but without making any significant impression. Much the most satisfying performances come from the two sopranos, Dagmar Šašková’s in particular bringing to the role of La Fede a sense of real commitment lacking elsewhere, along with some highly impressive chest notes in her angry recitative exchange with Il Demonio (no. 25). However, both she and the charmingly fresh-sounding L’Anima d’Adamo of Capucine Keller had difficulty controlling a few notes above the stave. The instrumental playing is good.

Although the performance is not ideal it is praiseworthy for its honesty and intentions. Les traversées Baroques deserve praise for reviving a splendid example of a repertoire little known today.

Brian Robins

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Recording

Ockeghem: Complete Songs volume 2

Blue Heron, director Scott Metcalfe; Dark Horse Consort
Blue Heron BHCD 1013
70:27

To say that Blue Heron’s second and final disc of Ockeghem’s songs has been awaited eagerly is an understatement. My review of the first volume (BHCD 1010) is dated 21 February 2020, and shortly afterwards (15 October 2020) I reviewed a double album of all Les Chansons released by another American ensemble Cut Circle (Musique en Wallonie MEW 1995). Both of these releases are superb and in their different ways whetted the appetite for Blue Heron’s second excursion into this repertory. Has the wait – four years – been worthwhile?

Back in 1993 I attended the 21st Annual Conference on Medieval and Renaissance Music at Bangor University. I was giving a paper on Byrd – who in those days we still thought had been born in 1543 – and he shared much of the programme with papers about Ockeghem, the quincentenary of whose death was imminent (1997) and the subject of eager preparations. Knowing nothing of the composer except by reputation, I attended these sessions, some of which were illustrated by excerpts from those commercial recordings of his music – on this occasion his masses – then available. To me, compared with how well Byrd was beginning to be performed on disc, these recordings were atrocious (think postwar close harmony groups with crewcuts, clicking fingers and chortling “shoobie-doobie-doobie-doo-WAAAHHH”), and in one lecture I started to guffaw, stifling my contempt when I realised that my fellow attendees were listening without adverse reaction. Before long I was in the bookshop at Lincoln Cathedral, still pursuing Byrd. In lieu of simply making a donation, I impulsively bought a disc of The Clerks’ Group version of his Missa Ecce ancilla Domini, partly by way of contributing to the Cathedral’s funds, and partly remembering Bangor and thinking that there must be more to Ockeghem than the racket that I had heard there.

And so there is. More wonderful recordings of Ockeghem’s masses by Edward Wickham’s excellent ensemble have been followed by, amongst others, two recordings of his complete secular songs which I mentioned above, made by a couple of outstanding American vocal groups with not a crewcut in sight and no clicking of fingers. Suffice to say this second disc by Blue Heron continues the good work of the first. The quality of Ockeghem’s songs is such that they deserve to be performed and recorded by the best ensembles after the indignities his masses suffered on disc during the latter decades of the previous century.

Unlike Cut Circle, Blue Heron employ instruments on some tracks, more so on this second disc than on their first. This is always done sensitively, and the reasons for doing so are given clearly in the accompanying booklet. For instance, Cut Circle perform La despourveue as a vocal trio whereas Blue Heron give it as a solo song accompanied by two stringed instruments, a fourth higher, so that the soprano Sophie Michaux (where do these amazing singers keep coming from?) does not have to descend so far into her mezzo range as did the differently impressive Sonja DuToit Tengblad. And on Ung aultre l’a the “intriguing downward octave scale in the [sung] bass part”, to which I referred in my review of Cut Circle, is played sweepingly on the harp. Throughout this recording, Blue Heron sing with the ideal balance of intensity and engagement – an engagement with the songs themselves and also an engagement with the listener: in other words, this engagement not only extends from the musicians to the music, but also reaches out and embraces the listener – they penetrate the meanings of the songs but also project these meanings outward to their audience. This is expressed as well as anywhere in Baisies moi in which the three singers achieve an ideal balance of intimacy and animation.

Three of the works on this disc are not by Ockeghem himself. The Dark Horse Consort, a quartet of brass instruments, plays an anonymous arrangement of the almost heartbreaking Je n’ay deuil of which the singers perform the four-part version on the preceding track. Of the other two songs, one is by Binchois and the other is by the Spaniard Juan Cornago, but their links to Ockeghem and his music are explained in the booklet, a most helpful and illuminating document written by director Scott Metcalfe and musicologist Sean Gallagher.  Scott himself participates on the harp and fiddle and, as on the first disc, is joined by Laura Jeppesen also playing the fiddle. Cornago’s lovely song for three voices Qu’es mi vida is the penultimate track, and the disc, indeed the project, is brought to a close by Ockeghem’s four-part transformation, given here by Sophie Michaux and three instruments: the fiddle played by Scott plus a doucaine and – as a nod to the song’s Spanish provenance – a vihuela de arco. It is difficult to imagine anything more beautiful.

Richard Turbet

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Recording

Popora: Music for the Venetian Ospedaletto

Josè Maria Lo Monaco contralto, stile galante, Stefano Aresi
67:36
Glossa GCD 923537

On the inside cover of the booklet, along with the other credits, we read: “This recording is an outgrowth of musicological research seeking new insights on historically informed performance practices based upon the acoustics of the Ospedaletto in Venice”. That all sounds great, but there is no further explanation or, indeed, any other comment on the actual performance apart from a half-hearted explanation of the presence of a cello concerto on an otherwise vocal programme because there it is known that one of the women in the orchestra there was a known virtuoso on the instrument…

While the disc is promoted as an exploration of music at the Ospedaletto, in fact it focuses very much on the activities of a single singer for whom Porpora conceived a valuable body of work during his several years there (having also worked at the three other similar institutions in Venice), the alto Angiola Moro. With a range from the A below middle C to the E flat at the top of the treble clef, she apparently had no problem with chromatic scales, wide arpeggios and leaps, or rapid scales. As the “early music voice” seems to get bigger and bigger, it is no surprise to find a singer of the calibre of Josè Maria Lo Monaco tackling this repertoire, and she does it very well.

Whether or not it was played by Niccolosa Fanello, Porpora’s G major cello concerto is beautiful; its opening movement was very reminiscent of some of the slushier passages from the concertos attributed to Wassenaer. The booklet notes tell us that Porpora’s official appointment (after two years of working for free – musicians, it was EVER thus!) the violin teacher asked for extra resources to support him in getting his musicians up to the standards of the “new music”, and – if they were up to playing this piece – he clearly succeeded.

Brian Clark

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Recording

Monteverdi: Vespro della Beata Vergine

Pygmalion, Raphaël Pichon
102:00 (2 CDs in a cardboard box)
harmonia mundi HMM 902710.11

Raphael Pichon’s account of Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610 has been through a process of metamorphosis since a rather unsatisfactory Proms performance in 2017 followed by a much more convincing account, filmed live in the Versailles chapel which I reviewed enthusiastically in 2019. This version still attempted to set Monteverdi’s music in something of a liturgical context, while unfortunately the DVD subtitles and support materials did a poor job in identifying the interleaved plainchant. This latest CD version for harmonia mundi accepts the current thinking that, far from being a discrete ‘piece’, the publication is a collection of Monteverdi’s best service music written for lavish celebrations of St Barbara at the Gonzaga court of Mantua and gathered together in a portfolio dedicated to the Pope in the hope of employment in one of the important papal institutions in Rome. The failure of this enterprise and Monteverdi’s subsequent career in Venice has frequently influenced performances of this extraordinary music, but actually the important point of reference ought to be the musically flamboyant court of Mantua. The practice of combining the sacred and secular musical resources for the most magnificent Mantuan services for St Barbara justifies the truly epic scale of Pichon’s presentation. It also obviates the need for a liturgical context, and even allows for the aesthetically satisfactory return to the opening fanfare set to relevant text to bookend the whole performance. Epic is the word that keeps coming to mind in describing this latest version of the Vespers, with over seventy musicians performing in the resonant acoustic of the Temple du Saint-Esprit in Paris. Pichon’s control over these large forces is breath-taking, and as previously his line-up of superlative soloists provides us with exquisitely decorated accounts of the solo and small ensemble material. Also prominent in these more intimate moments, although also adding magically to the tutti textures, is a superb team of continuo players, including two harpists, three theorbists, and three harpsichordists, one doubling organ. Their contribution is wonderfully imaginative and perfectly responsive to the voices. The brass and string sections, particularly the two double basses, provide an impressively rich texture to the tutti passages, while the four cornettists contribute virtuosic cadential embellishments which are simply stunning – just listen to them in the concluding doxology of Laetatus sum! Singing at ‘high’ pitch, Pygmalion’s chorus exudes energy and musical purpose and is a model of perfect phrasing and unanimity, while the harmonia mundi engineers have captured this whole remarkable sound in all its vividness. You can tell that this is a performance of a now familiar work which I found thrilling and engaging – it caused me to look back at my favourite accounts by Suzuki, Christophers, and Gardiner’s three versions, and further back to pioneering accounts in the early 1950s by Eugen Jochum and even Leopold Stokowski. What struck me is that for all their scholarly and stylistic shortcomings, the earliest versions had an epic sweep, which has sometimes been missing in later versions. It strikes me that Pichon has managed to embrace the scholarly and the epic dimensions of this music, while modern standards of recorded sound capture this in all its richness and subtlety. This version is not without its quirks – not everybody will like the rather ‘romantic’ dynamic variations (including the curiously ‘cowed’ opening of Dixit Dominus), while the decision to perform the opening and concluding verses of Ave maris stella a capella, when previous conductors’ instincts have been to combine the vocal and instrumental forces accrued in all the other verses, is a curious one. The fact is we have very little idea of the details of performance styles at the time, but knowing that opera singers joined forces with sacred musical forces for the larger-scale religious celebrations suggests that the inherent drama of the music might have been further enhanced for these courtly spectacles.

D. James Ross

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Recording

Ensaladas by Mateo Flecha ‘El viejo’

Cantoría
54:17
Ambronay AMY 315

We have to thank the Eeemerging programme for introducing the vocal quartet Cantoría to a wider audience, and on the basis of this excitingly dynamic selection of ensaladas by the 16th-century Spanish composer Mateo Flecha ‘the elder’ they are a group deserving of exposure. Eleven ensaladas by Flecha survive of which we have seven here. These extended episodic songs in four and five parts, offer graphic depictions of a wide variety of situations and events, and were hugely popular throughout Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries in the hands of the likes of Clément Janequin, Adriano Banchieri and Orlando Gibbons. While Flecha probably also wrote church music, it is his Ensaladas that have survived and which have established his reputation. With its restlessly changing tempi and harmonies, this is demanding music to perform successfully, and Cantoría find the perfect combination of vocal blend and solistic characterisation, while maintaining an engaging impression of spontaneity. Particularly impressive is their account of La Guerra, a hectic sound-picture of a Renaissance battle complete with sound effects, battle cries and shouts of victory. The war movie of its time, the battle chanson was a way for Renaissance aristocrats to relive their battlefield successes and for their courtiers and partners to share in their experiences. The Joust provides another fine opportunity for a vivid sound representation of more organised combat, and again Cantoría rise to the challenge with some wonderfully powerful fanfaring and some entertainingly jazzy galloping.

D. James Ross

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Recording

Il n’y a pas d’amour heureux

La Palatine
59:41
Ambronay AMY316

This young ensemble, brought to us by the excellent Eeemerging programme promoting new early music performers, does exactly what it says on the tin, presenting a lovely selection of works for voice and instruments on the subject of unhappy love from the pens of Monteverdi, Rossi and Merula. These are beautifully sung by the group’s soprano Marie Théolyre, who imparts passion and intelligence in performances that are also wonderfully precise and musical. While they provide lovely responsive accompaniments to the songs and cantatas, the instrumentalists of La Palatine also take their turn in the spotlight with beautifully executed instrumental works by Alessandro Piccini, Giovanni Salvatore, Bellerofonte Castaldi and Angelo Michele Bartolotti and a lovely set of diminutions by Riccardo Rognoni on Amor che col partire by Cipriano de Rore. These instrumental interludes are both an imaginative and inventive device for breaking up a sequence of mainly plangent vocal music, but are so much more than this, showcasing the importance of instrumental composition in early 17th-century Italy while also depth of talent in this young ensemble. They have thrown their net wide when selecting repertoire, and side by side with a powerful rendition of the classic Lamento d’Arianna by Monteverdi, we have the premiere recording of Fermate, occhi, fermate by Mario Savioni, an exciting discovery indeed.

D. James Ross

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Recording

Lully – Te Deum

Les Épopées, Les Pages et les Chantres du Centre de musique baroque de Versailles, directed by Stéphane Fuget
68:24
Versailles Spectacles CVS117

This is the fourth in the indispensable series of Lully’s grands motets being undertaken by Stéphane Fuget and his vocal and orchestral ensemble Les Épopées, recorded in the glorious acoustic of the Chapelle Royale in the Palace of Versailles. Here, tackling the Te Deum of 1677 – perhaps the most brilliant and theatrical of all the motets – they are augmented by the forces of the Centre de musique baroque de Versailles to form an ensemble close to 100 strong.

The Te Deum was first given at Fontainebleau not to celebrate some great military victory, the usual reason for running up a Te Deum, as might be supposed but rather the more intimate occasion of the christening of Louis, the eldest son of Louis XIV (whom he predeceased) and Queen Marie-Thérèse. The king, who one suspects was more the target of its praise than the infant, was so delighted with it that he asked for it to be given again the following day. Thereafter it was repeated on several occasions, the last of which was in January 1687 when it was given to celebrate the king’s recovery following an operation. This was the famous occasion on which Lully injured his foot with the staff with which he beat time, an accident that resulted in his death from gangrene some weeks later.

The Te Deum is preceded, as it surely would have been on ceremonial occasions, by a pair of marches by the Philidor brothers, the first for timpani including a fascinating piece of syncopation. Perhaps the most striking aspect of the Te Deum is that, unlike so many occasional ceremonial works of its kind, it is far removed from being just a spectacular tub-thumper. Even in the most brilliant sections employing all the performers, the level of musical invention remains on an impressively high level, while many of the more intimate passages for the petit choeur or soloists have a calm, inner radiance. As so often with this genre, just as you think the ear is going to be overwhelmed by sheer splendour and brilliance along comes an ineffable, lyrical passage of heart-stopping beauty, here memorably realised. In common with most works in this genre, the key is thus contrast, contrast that spans the splendour of the opening and closing pages to the supplicatory verses from ‘Dignare, Domine’ (Vouchsafe, O Lord), beautifully sung here by an unidentified  bass, through to the wonderful trio (two haute-contres and bass) into which the petit choeur steals almost imperceptibly.

The other motet included makes for an ideal companion piece given that it was apparently customary for Exaudiat te Dominus, Psalm 19 (20) to be performed after the Te Deum at major ceremonies, as it was indeed after the performance to give thanks for the king’s recovery mentioned above. Interestingly it is markedly different in style, a more succinct setting with more clearly defined sections and more solo passages. Less brilliant than the Te Deum, the trumpets and timpani are silent until the doxology, they are of course required to round off the coupling of the two works with a suitably flamboyant flourish .

The performances are electrifying in the more overtly ceremonial passages, at the same time achieving an interiority and prayerful grace in more intimate music. The involvement of all is underlined by remarkable diction, not easy in this building with its blessedly long reverberation, while the solo singing and that of the petit choeur is of exceptional quality as indeed is that of the full choir and orchestra. This is yet another quite exceptional and uplifting achievement from Stéphane Fuget and his exceptionally gifted forces. 

Brian Robins

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Recording

Musik aus dem alten Stralsund

Musik der Hansestädte Vol. 1
Europäisches Hanse-Ensemble, Manfred Cordes
73:54
cpo 555 578-2

Like most of the cities that formed the Hanseatic League, Stralsund grew rich on the back of its trading activities. Much of the music on this disc (and the others that will join it in the series) will be at best little known; I had only heard of one of the three composers on the programme, Johann Vierdanck. Hitherto I had only known his instrumental music, though – through my studies of the musical life of the court of Anhalt-Zerbst – I was aware of his many publications of vocal music. Typical of Manfred Cordes, he has selected some truly wonderful music by him and by the even-less-well-known Caspar Movius (born five years after Vierdanck, he outlived him by 25!) and Eucharius Hoffmann, who was cantor at the city’s Latin School in the second half of the 16th century.

The disc is well balanced: four pieces by Vierdanck surround two by Movius, then four by Hoffmann (in a different style, as one would expect) then four more Vierdanck pieces frame another two by Movius. There are four instrumental pieces, all by Vierdanck; two sonatas a4 (one for pairs of violins and cornetti, one for cornetto and three trombones), a capriccio (two violins and gamba), and an extraordinary sonata a6 in D minor – I literally sat up straight when he had the instruments suddenly play in octaves! It was quite the unexpected effect. All of the vocal music is delightful, and beautifully sung. I am not surprised that the princes of Anhalt-Zerbst bought Vierdanck’s music for the local schoolboys to sing at weekly services. The first two Movius works are for double choir (sung one to a part here), while the second pair are for two sopranos and bass. Cordes deploys some instruments in three of the Hoffmann pieces, but the fourth is sung a cappella.

For anyone looking for an unexpected treat and a clear demonstration – if it were needed – that the 17th century in German music history does not just mean Schütz, Schein and Scheidt, this disc (and, indeed, many others curated by this innovative conductor), look no further! Buy this now.

Brian Clark