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Podcasts from Paris

Fans of the French Baroque are in for a real treat if they visit https://expodcast.cmbv.fr/en – six podcasts have been produced by the Centre de Musique Baroque Versailles. To a rich musical backdrop, all sorts of information is shared (either in English or French) from the golden era of Louis XIV to the dawn of the Revolution. These are highly recommended!

Brian Clark

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Recording

Monteverdi: Concerto. Settimo libro de’ madrigali

Concerto Italiano, Rinaldo Alessandrini
132:39 (2 CDs)
Naïve OP 7365

Concerto Italiano’s extremely steady progress through the Monteverdi madrigals – some of the earlier releases go back to the 1990s! – reaches its penultimate issue with Book 7, first published in Venice in 1619. Dedicated to Caterina de’ Medici, Duchess of Mantua and Montferrat its 29 items represent a complete break with the traditional integrated madrigal book, the composer giving us prior notice to expect something different by heading the collection ‘Concerto’ . Here we find an extraordinary range and variety ranging from long recitative solos in the stile rapresentativo (‘Se i languidi’, the famous love letter, here extremely well communicated by Monica Piccinini, a long-standing Italianist, , and ‘Se pur destina’, the lover’s parting), to madrigals in the old polyphonic style through to extended theatrical works like the ballo ‘Tirsi e Clori’and, perhaps most importantly of all, duets, including the unforgettably toe-tapping ‘Chiome d’oro’, here sung by two sopranos rather than the expected disposition of two tenors.

Anyone familiar with Alessandrini’s progress through the madrigal books will know that despite inevitable changes of personnel over the years, it has remained remarkably consistent both as to ambition and achievement, attaining high levels of performance throughout. This is no different. The bar is immediately set high by tenor Valerio Contaldo, an outstanding Ulisse in the recent ground-breaking Versailles Il ritorno d’Ulisse, with the introductory ‘Tempro la cetra’, an ever-increasingly virtuoso number with ritornelli, the ornamentation superbly articulated by the singer, whose diction is also exemplary. Here, too, though we find one of the few grounds for complaint in these performances. It’s the familiar one of over-elaborate plucked continuo, the constant arpeggiations adding an unwanted gloss. And while in moaning mood, let’s add violin playing in those numbers that call for bowed strings that continues to adhere to an all-purpose Baroque style rather than 17th-century bowing and set up. But in context these are relatively minor points and for the rest it really is nothing but praise. The works for two tenors seem to perhaps dominate the book. Contaldo and his colleague Raffaele Giordani, who is entrusted with the lamentations of the departing lover mentioned above, combine beautifully, especially in duets like ‘Interrotte speranze’ and ‘Ah, che non si conviene’, fascinating for their fundamentally harmonized rather than contrapuntal writing. Among more ostensibly traditional pieces the tortuous rising chromatic figure that dominates the four-part (SATB) ‘Tu dormi, ah crudo core’ brings with it a foretaste of the pleading of Seneca’s followers in L’incoronazione di Poppea.

To detail all the wonders of Book 7 would be too exhaustive and exhausting in a review of this nature. Suffice it to say Monteverdi here carries his revolution, his daring evolution of the madrigal to new levels. The key is the expression of extreme emotions by the employment of expressive mannerism that remarkably manages to remain just about under control. Overall it would be difficult to envisage performances that capture and convey this essence to a more telling, a more convincing level than these of Alessandrini.

Brian Robins

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Recording

Echoes of an Old Hall

Music from the Old Hall Manuscript
Gothic Voices
76:03
Linn CKD 644

There is always room on my shelves for a new selection of music from the Old Hall Manuscript, particularly when the music is as well sung as it is here. Gothic Voices, always leaders in the field of mediaeval and early Renaissance polyphony, bring a wealth of joint experience to this CD, and relatively obscure names such as Cooke, Mayshuet, Damett, Forest and Lymburgia are once again allowed to rub shoulders with their more celebrated contemporaries, Power, Byttering, Dunstaple, Pycard, and even the ubiquitous Binchois and Dufay. How exciting to find a five-part Gloria by John Cooke which is similar in style to and the qualitative equal of the remarkable and more familiar five-part Gloria by Power, which concludes the first part of the programme. The true masterpiece of the programme must be another five-part Gloria by Pycard which concludes the programme, and which is extremely impressive in its ruggedly conservative style. This is not just a random and generous selection of music from Old Hall though – it is extremely carefully structured, using the extraordinary ‘singers’ manifesto’ represented by the opening piece, Arae post libamini by Mayshuet de Joan, as a template. The second half of the programme, headed ‘reverberances’ is recorded partly at a distance, a radical departure for a group that in earlier times usually insisted on a very close recording ambience. This is an enthralling CD, imaginatively programmed with an excellent note by Julian Podger and compellingly performed. It will undoubtedly win many new admirers to the remarkable Old Hall Manuscript and its hugely important contents.

D. James Ross

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Recording

The Galant David Rizzio

Makaris
73:55
Old Focus Recordings FCR921

The subtitle of this CD (“eighteenth-century arrangements of traditional Scottish songs”) is more helpful than the main title, as the back of the CD readily admits that any attribution of the contents to Mary, Queen of Scots’ ill-fated secretary David Rizzio is entirely bogus. Rizzio was a musician, a singer and a fiddler, but none of the music which survives from Mary’s reign can be associated with him, while later attempts to invoke his musical ghost are clearly spurious. So what we have here is a programme of 18th-century traditional Scottish tunes, attractively and idiomatically sung and played by Makaris, a period instrument ensemble based in and around New York. They take the same free approach to their sources as the Baltimore Consort, and like them, occasionally the results sound a bit overdone to me. However, like the BC there is a beguiling energy and integrity to the playing and singing which is very attractive, while Fiona Gillespie’s vocals have a particular charm and authenticity. For some of the vocal duets, she is joined by the equally persuasive Corey Shotwell. Mischievously, the inside of the CD wallet sports ‘press cuttings’ from the 18th century, making and undermining the case for Rizzio’s authorship of the wealth of traditional repertoire which found its way into print at this time. The self-evident attractiveness and inventiveness of this music, so idiomatically presented here, makes the desire to provide it with a Renaissance courtly pedigree puzzling to us. Though perhaps for all we know ‘Davy the Fiddler’ may indeed have passed some of his time at court playing the forerunners of some of these tunes!

D. James Ross

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Recording

Pierre Colin: Trésor oublié de la Renaissance

Messes & Motets
La Note Brève
57:37
Paraty 7221120

Simon Gallot and his ensemble have done us a favour in introducing the neglected work of this mid-16th-century Burgundian composer. Although he seems to have spent his life in the relative musical backwater of Autun, Colin was scrupulous in seeing that much of his music made it to print. Still, while copies found their way into many of the great establishments of Europe, the music was often anonymous, and despite his best efforts Colin’s name lapsed into obscurity. His settings of the Mass and his motets, as well as his chansons, represented here by a performance on organ of L’oeil dict assez, are firmly in the mid-century style of the likes of Claudin. In tutti sections, the voices are accompanied by organ, an approach which suits the generally simple counterpoint rather well – the programme note suggests that Colin’s style is slightly more adventurous than the standard Parisian style of the period, with a greater tolerance of dissonance, but I can’t say that I was aware of this. However, Colin has a distinctive idiom and a thorough grasp of harmonic progressions and imitation, which means that this music is rarely dull. La Note Brève is a happy blend of male and female voices, producing a mellow sound and singing expressively. In their pursuit of authenticity, including convincing period pronunciation, this group belongs in the worthy tradition of French exploration of early choral music.

D. James Ross

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Recording

Kuhnau: Complete Sacred Works VIII

Opella Musica, camerata lipsiensis, Gregor Meyer
71:20
cpo 555 460-2

Although the title announces that this is Vol VIII of the Complete Sacred works, this final volume in the eight-CD set of all Kuhnau’s surviving vocal music is entitled ‘Complete Vocal Works Vol. 8’. The last volume I saw was 5, which I reviewed in Feb of 2020, since then Vol. 6 appeared in 2021 and Vol. 7 must have come in since. By contrast with all the earlier CDs, the contents of this final one are largely secular.

Christian Weise, the head of the Gymnasium at Zittau, was Kuhnau’s teacher and mentor, and Weise elaborated the potentially dramatic stories of the entwined relationships between the patriarchal families in the chapters of Genesis as school plays, providing a part for every student. As a 22-year old, Kuhnau was holding the musical fort in Zittau, and his music for this play Von Jacobs doppelter Heyrath (Zittau, 1682) survives in Weise’s collected works.

They are insertions not unlike Purcell’s The Fairy Queen and King Arthur. As well as these dramatic settings, there is a setting of Psalm 3 (which Purcell set likewise as Jehova, quam multi sunt hostes), Ende gut und alles gut – an extended setting of a Neumeister text for soprano, bass, violin and continuo, a group of three arias, perhaps for an outside celebration, and a Latin chamber cantata for two sopranos and bass with two violins and continuo in a rather Italianate style. These forays into a consciously more secular style are less interesting to me than the cantatas, whose influence on the style and performance of Bach’s cantatas is significant. But it is good that they are included in the project.

The performances remain immaculate both in conception and execution. Meyer has worked with essentially the same musicians over this past eight years, and David Erler, the group’s alto, is indeed preparing the material for publication by Breitkopf. In an interview in the liner notes, he comments on the richness and diversity of the instrumental accompaniments, noting horns, oboes and a transverse flute, virtuoso writing for trombone, and a surprise scoring including schalmei, trombone, a harp and an echo chorus.

The net result is a homogenous blend, where single strings and single voices with a rich variety of wind are backed by the splendid Silbermann organ in Rötha, together with harp and lute in the continuo group. The clarity of the sound is wonderful: every word is clearly projected. In the secular pieces, the style is perhaps more ‘theatrical’ than in the cantatas, but that is hardly surprising and the rather lightweight text does need some boost.

This great undertaking will, I hope, remain the benchmark for all performances of Kuhnau in the future. The complementary style of singing and playing is a model, and anyone interested in learning about the background to performing Bach cantatas needs to listen carefully to both Kuhnau’s compositional techniques as well as the performance style of this excellent project, led by Gregor Meyer.

David Stancliffe

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Recording

Grandi: Lætatus sum – Vesper Psalms

Accademia d’Arcadia, UtFaSol Ensemble, Alessandra Rossi Lürig
73:26
Arcana A525

If you have heard any music by Alessandro Grandi at all, it was most likely a motet for one or two voices, maybe even with a pair of violins playing ritornelli between the vocal sections, with everyone coming together only for the last few bars. This recording will come as something of a shock – although he was very much the master of the musical miniature, Grandi (who had sung as a teenager in Gabrieli’s choir at St Mark’s in Venice) was perfectly capable of deploying larger forces to splendid effect. The present recording, which benefits from full-blooded singing (with the dexterity to handle the sometimes intricate ornamentation), fabulously articulated playing, and a not-too-rich-but-ample acoustic, takes music from three publications of 1629 and 1630 that reveal just what a loss to posterity the composer’s death from plague in that latter year was. Printed in Venice, the music was almost certainly conceived for his own ensemble at Bergamo’s Santa Maria Maggiore which he had built up since his arrival there in 1627. Rodolfo Boroncini’s excellent booklet essay puts it all into its historical context. Years after we have had multiple recordings of Monteverdi’s large-scale church music – as well as Rovetta’s and Rigatti’s – finally, Grandi’s time has come and I doubt he could have found more passionate advocates than the present performers. What a beautiful CD – one I shall treasure for a long time!

Brian Clark

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Recording

Oh, ma belle brunette

Reinoud van Mechelen, A Nocte Temporis
71:09
Alpha Classics Alpha 833

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

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

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

David Hansell

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Recording

Rameau: Nouvelle Symphonie

Florian Sempey baritone, Les musiciens du Louvre, Marc Minkowski
64:58
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

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Recording

J. S. Bach Die Passionen

Johannes-Passion BWV 245, Fassung 1749 Gaechinger Cantorey, directed by Hans-Christoph Rademann, August 2019 (CD 1 & 2)
Matthäus-Passion BWV 244 Kammerchor & Barockorchester Stuttgart, directed by Frieder Bernius, March 2015 (CD 3, 4 & 5)
Markus-Passion BWV 247 amarcord, Kölner Akademie, directed by Michael Alexander Willens, March 2009 (CD 6)
Carus CV 83.046

This boxed set from Carus of all three surviving Bach Passions offers a chance not only to hear three very different styles of performance as they were recorded by different groups in 2009, 2015 and 2019 but allows us to sample the work of the scholarly Diethard Hellmann and Andreas Glöckner in the reconstruction of the Markus-Passion, which is presented with the actor Dominique Horowitz speaking the text of Mark’s gospel for Bach’s evangelista and turba parts that are lost.

There is a degree of ‘house style’ about the performances, and both the Johannes-Passion and the Matthäus-Passion use conventional German choirs with independent soloists singing the narration and arias rather than following what we know to have been Bach’s practice in basing the singers (however many there were) around the concertisten, adding additional ripienists as available and desirable. Not so with the Markus-Passion, where the singing is performed by the ensemble amarcord – 2 sopranos, 2 altos, 2 tenors a baritone and 2 basses, a group established by former members of Leipzig’s Thomanerchor in 1992, which fulfils the sense of cohesion between the singing style of the arias and ensemble numbers – mostly chorales with just two choruses. The instrumental ensemble of the Kölner Akademie has 2 flauti (although I am sure they are traversi), 2 oboes and one fagotto, 2 gambas and a lute, 3 violins and a single viola, ‘cello and violone with an organ. So this performance, recorded live in the Frauenkirche Dresden in March 2009, sounds in many ways the most up-to-date with a clear bright sound, well-balanced in style and dynamic between the singers and players. I myself am glad to have heard an honest version of this work, so well reconstructed by Glöckner, without the borrowed or newly-composed material that appears in other editions.

For the John recording, though it is more recent (2019), we revert to the old German style of performance, with the (excellent) chamber choir and band of the Gaechinger Cantorey (25 singers with a string band of 5.4.3.2.1 and 6 woodwind, so pretty equally balanced) and five independent soloists. The evangelist is the excellent and mellifluous Patrick Grahl, who also sings the arias; Peter Harvey sings the words of Christ with Matthias Winckler singing the part of Pilate and the bass arias, so we miss hearing the Vox Christi singing Mein teurer Heiland in its sprightly D major just after the death on the cross – a key part of Bach’s understanding of Johannine theology. While Benno Schach is a good alto, I myself would not have considered Elizabeth Watts a good match in either vocal quality or style for this music in this company. Despite splendid singing from Patrick Grahl and the basses, I do not find the overall style sufficiently clear to raise it above other excellent performances.

At the head of Frieder Bernius’ 2015 Matthew Passion, there is an interesting note disclosing that he found the dynamic contrasts available to him when using only single voices in the 1980s too slight. In the mid-1990s he decided to take Bach’s famous 1730 Entwurff (which is arguing for adequate resources to enable music to be performed properly in the Leipzig churches on Sundays, allowing for illness and other hazards) at its face value, claiming it as a blueprint for what Bach thought desirable for any performance. So while aiming for clarity and a good balance between vocal and instrumental sound, this recording has, like Rademann’s John, returned to larger numbers. He uses 5.4.4.3 singers with 4.3.2.1.1 strings in Chorus I, and 4.4.3.4 with similar strings in Chorus II, drawing all the bit parts from the two choruses while leaving the evangelist part and all the arias from whichever chorus they are scored to a fine quartet of Hannah Morrison, Sophie Harmsen, Tilman Lichdi and Peter Harvey. Christian Immler sings just the Vox Christi. There is a fagotto with Chorus II, but not with I. The desire to match the vocal tone to that of the period instrument bands is entirely right, but not always convincing – such large numbers may give Bernius the dynamic range he likes, and it may make an exciting performance, but it does not necessarily make a good recording. Contrast this sound with that of the Matthew Passion by Pygmalion with Raphaël Pichon, reviewed in April.

Would I recommend this Carus boxed set? In many ways, it is a fine example of the current state of the performance tradition in Germany, and it is invaluable for the Markus-Passion in its latest edition. The scholarship behind all the editions is up to date and trustable, and the larger groups in the John and Matthew Passions are excellent of their kind. I am glad to have heard them and there is much to admire, but they do not belong on my must-have list.

David Stancliffe