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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

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Recording

Monteverdi: tutti i madrigali

Concerto Italiano directed by Rinaldo Alessandrini
707:62 (11 CDs)
Naïve OP7547

There are many cases where it is possible to chart the development of a composer through a specific genre, Haydn’s symphonies being a good case in point. But I know of no comparable example when it comes to plotting the development of musical history to the madrigals of Monteverdi, which starting with Renaissance polyphony transitions unfalteringly through eight published books into the new world of the Baroque. To explore the intégrale within a brief period is to feel a sense of privilege, to wonder afresh at the genius of their creator.

The present opportunity comes via the set recorded by Concerto Italiano under their founder and director Rinaldo Alessandrini over a period of nearly thirty years. The final instalment, featuring Book 1 and the posthumously published Book 9, has unlike the other books not been previously issued. Needless to say, the vocal ensemble utilised over the years has involved many different singers, the prize for the greatest number of appearances being soprano Monica Piccinini, who participates in no fewer than seven of the books. In the succeeding review it is not my intention to comment to any extent on individual performances, except in the case of solos. In general terms, I find the ensemble singing in the earlier contrapuntal madrigals to be extremely satisfying to a degree that perhaps is not quite so rewarding in the later books, where solo work is liable to reveal more flaws. This applies particularly to the important contribution of the two tenors in the later works. But in general terms the overall level of performance is not only very high but admirably consistent given the period over which the recordings were made. Given the bargain price – you should expect to pay around £45 – there are unsurprisingly no texts or translations, though there is a 96-page booklet that includes helpful notes by Alessandrini. It is also possible to download the texts and English translations provided with the complete Naxos set,  one of two currently available rivals, the other being the excellent La Venexiana recording (Glossa).

Like all great works of art, the magnificent madrigal legacy Monteverdi left us with did arise from a void. The first three books, published respectively in 1587, 1590 and 1592, all of which exploit the ‘pure’ unaccompanied one-voice-per-part polyphonic madrigal stem from Monteverdi’s studies with Marc’Antonio Ingegneri (1535-1592), the composer of eight books of madrigals and himself the pupil of one of the most distinguished of madrigal composers, Cipriani de Rore (1515/6-1565). The most famous of the madrigals included in Book 1 is ‘Baci soave e cari’, a sensually lovely work to a text by Battista Guarini, the writer of Il pastor fido and a poet Monteverdi would turn to frequently. Like all the madrigals of the first three books, it is in five parts and like many combines contrapuntal writing with simpler homophonic passages, a favourite device of Ingegneri in his sacred works.

Book 2, published at much the time Monteverdi moved from his home city of Cremona to the court at Mantua, is particularly notable for the domination of texts by Torquato Tasso (1544-1595). Nearly half the contents are settings of Tasso and commentators have noted that his poems seemed to have particularly inspired Monteverdi. In keeping with the time-honoured tradition of putting something especially striking at the head of a publication, Monteverdi opens the book with the two-part ‘Non si levava’ancor l’alba novella’, a Tasso narrative in which two lovers that have a spent a blissful night without sleep greet the dawn with reluctance, knowing parting is close. This is one of several magical evocations of dawn in Monteverdi’s madrigals, while the sweetness and passion of the night are drawn with unerring tenderness. The preoccupation with Tasso continues into Book 3, which also features poems by Guarini, the lighter pastoral moods of the latter contrasting with the deeper expressions of emotions found in Tasso, two of the madrigals extracts from his great epic poem Gerusalemme liberata. Also apparent is the greater level of virtuosity making its way into the madrigals, possibly as a result of Monteverdi having become familiar with the music associated with Ferrara and its famous ‘concerto delle donne’, an ensemble of virtuoso women singers employed by the court and renowned for its virtuosity. This kind of ensemble would be emulated at the Mantuan court, spurring Monteverdi  to introduce more bravura solo work in madrigals of the most up-to-date type.

The greater emphasis on virtuosity, solo episodes and fragmentation undermining the contrapuntal texture becomes more emphatic in Book 4, published in 1603, a long gap during which Monteverdi became a fully- mature composer who had been appointed director of music in Mantua. It is likely the contents were assembled from works composed over a period of time. Here the texts are concentrated on Guarini, although it is worth noting that ‘Sfogava con le stelle’ one of the most radical settings has a text by Ottavio Rinuccini (1562-1621), the librettist of the earliest operas and Monteverdi’s lost opera L’Arianna (1608). It opens with an appropriately thoughtful narrative employing the title words – ‘Communing with the stars’ before suddenly exploding like a star burst as the lover takes up his anguish; ‘O sweet images of the one I adore’. Gone completely is the balance of contrapuntal writing, replaced by mannerist solo writing that pushed the virtuosity of the singer ever further. It’s an astonishing example of the way in which Monteverdi is pushing the limits of the classical madrigal ever closer to breaking point.

That point arrives in Book 5, which quickly followed in 1605. Again the lion’s-share of texts are by Guarini, while the increasing part played by solos and homophonic writing at the expense of polyphony is again apparent. At times that affects the present performances negatively, the greater demands for the communication of text not always met by singing that perhaps concentrates too much on beauty. The moment where Monteverdi takes the madrigal firmly into the 17th century arrives some two-thirds of the way through the book. In ‘Ahi, com’a un vago sol cortese giro’ we hear a lute accompanying the singers, a capella works henceforth absent. The span of the madrigal is greater, the texture now freed to allow for more concentration on solos and a greater degree of melismatic writing and its attendant bravura. The book concludes with ‘Questi vaghi concenti’, a virtuoso madrigal about music itself, complete with instrumental introduction (string ensemble) and accompaniment.

The subsequent close relationship of the madrigal with opera is apparent from the outset of Book 6, published in 1614, the year after Monteverdi arrived in Venice to take up the post of choirmaster of St Mark’s. Monteverdi’s own first experience with opera had come with Orfeo in 1607, succeeded the following year by the lost L’Arianna. All that remains of it is the ‘Lamento d’Arianna’ that the composer put at the head of Book 6. In the course of its four parts, the tortured Ariadne pours out her feelings after being abandoned by Theseus, her emotions veering wildly from distress to vengeful anger. The madrigal became a seminal work in 17th-century music, imitated in a thousand laments. On the present set, it is powerfully sung by Anna Simboli. It is followed by one of Monteverdi’s most enchanting works, ‘Zefiro torno’, its scherzo-like lightness (but for the devastating final line) providing an effective contrast between serious and light, a hallmark of Book 6.

The two final books published in Monteverdi’s lifetime take us into realms undreamt of by earlier composers of the classic a capella madrigal. Book 7, published in Venice in 1619, includes madrigals for 1,2,3,4 and 6 voices, in other words anything but the disposition of the earlier standard 5-part madrigal. The texts are by a variety of composers, not excluding the composer’s favourites, Guarini and Tasso. Among a dazzling variety of forms are two pieces employing the new recitative or rappresentativo style, both solo monologues for lovers, the one in the form of a letter written to the beloved, the ‘lettera amorosa’, the other the parting words of a lover, ‘partenze amorosa’. Book 7 closes with what is in effect a miniature opera, the pastoral love of Thysis and Chloris in dialogue leading into a choral dance of the kind familiar from Act 1 of Orfeo.

If Book 7 is wonderfully variegated, Book 8 ends Monteverdi’s career as the man that split the madrigal asunder with a set for which the term tour de force hardly suffices. Published in Venice in 1638, Monteverdi divided the contents into two, the ‘madrigali guerrieri’and ‘madrigali amorosi’, madrigals of war and love, though the topics are more frequently concerned with wars of love than being literally concerned with military war. It should be noted that while the two groups were published with their contents grouped together Alessandrini does not perform them in this order, preferring his own juxtapositions and contrasts. Given no one would perform the whole book in sequence there can be no objection, though it does make following the text and translation rather more challenging. To do justice to this magnificent collection in a line or two is impossible, but it is interesting to note that Alessandrini opens with another quasi-opera that is one of its greatest glories, the Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda. The text, taken from Tasso’s Gerusalemme liberata, tells the story of the tragedy of Tancredi, who in battle unknowingly kills Clorinda, the woman he loves. It thus fulfils a story that is both one of literal war and its metaphor of love. It is also significant for introducing a new musical device, the stile concitato – the rapid reiteration of notes – used here for the battle sequences and frequently thereafter by composers to signify great agitation. The other major extended work is very different and involves song and dance. Il ballo delle ingrate relates the story of the fate awaiting proud women that scorn love. The Book also includes what is perhaps the greatest of all madrigals, ‘Hor che ’l  ciel’, a wonderful poem of Petrarch’s that is a corollary of ‘Sfogava con le stelle’. Here there is no joyous dawn awakening but the lover that has passed a tormented night alone, text and music a vivid description of his intense suffering.

Finally Book 9, published in Venice in 1651, nearly a decade after the composer’s death, consists mainly of lighter canzonette for three voices, a relatively insignificant supplement to one of the great glories of musical literature, here given performances that match its stature.    

Brian Robins

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Recording

Hildegard portraits

Voice (Victoria Couper, Clemmie Franks, Emily Burn)
67:33
SOMM recordings SOMMCD 0652

At the heart of this recording by the vocal trio Voice is a seven-movement work “Hildegard Portraits” by contemporary composer Laura Moody with works by Ivan Moody, Marcus Davidson, Tim Lea Young, Stevie Wishart and, of course, Hildegard herself. For Hildegard’s music, Voice produce a beautifully focussed pure sound and in their unison singing move with absolute unanimity. Occasionally, a sympathetic drone emphasises a particular section of music, and the whole proceeds with what I can only describe as an attractive swing. The vocal quality is ‘whiter’ than other comparable groups with a pleasing naïve quality. In the contemporary music, the voices split more consistently into three-part harmony, and this too seemed to me beautifully balanced and perfectly tuned. Interestingly, Laura Moody selects her texts for her “Hildegard Portraits” from the abbess’s letters, thereby revealing a more worldly and human side of this remarkable woman than we are usually privy to. Interweaving adventurous polyphony with episodes of pseudo-speech, these pieces – receiving their first recording here – are constantly engaging and intriguing in these virtuosic performances by Voice. The other contemporary works, some written specifically for the ensemble, exploit other aspects of the singers’ talents. The programme note emphasises the group’s customary creative use of space in live performance and there is some attempt to replicate this in the recording, with the singers moving through the church in one of the Hildegard tracks. While this is quite effective, I found the default acoustic a little immediate and wanted a little more space to allow the voices to bloom. On balance though, these are lovely performances, and a valuable opportunity to hear Hildegard’s music sung to a very high standard, and presented in an unusual context of music that comments on her everyday life and her music.

D. James Ross

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Recording

Carlo Filago: Sacri concerti a voce solo

Ariana Lanci, Ensemble Les Nations
74:06
Tactus TC 580610

Born in Rovigo, Carlo Filago came to prominence in the early 17th century, primarily as an organ virtuoso in Treviso and later in Venice, where he was appointed first organist at San Marco in preference to Claudio Monteverdi. As one might expect from an organ player admired for his florid style, Filago’s sacred concerti for solo voices are ornate to a degree more normally associated with the secular music of this period. In this recording of 14 of the 16 concerti – including one of two such pieces for contralto and the only one for tenor with the rest for soprano – we are very much in the hands of the vocalists. Ariana Lanci, who sings all but two of the concerti, has a full operatic voice, and the deft ornamentation of Filago’s vocal writing sounds heavily laboured, while she is also inclined to swoop and undercut. The alto Marcella Ventura shares many of these characteristics, while the tenor Giovanni Cantorini also struggles with intonation in his upper range. A capable accompanying selection of instruments tended to fade into the background, and really none of the music here sounds comfortable. This is a pity, as I found myself largely unable to judge the quality of Filago’s writing, which I suspect is much better than this recording suggests. Nowadays it is surprising to hear a recording with these shortcomings, coming from the context of an Italian early music scene which is generally producing performers of a very high calibre. I think Filago probably deserves better.

D. James Ross

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Gratia plena: Hans Memling

Psallentes, The Royal Wind Music, Hendrik Vanden Abeele
71:04
Le Bricoleur LBCD 14

Unusual to have one CD based on a famous old master painting, but along with The Sword and the Lilly, a meditation on van der Weyden’s ‘The Last Judgement’ (Inventa INV 1008), we have another musing, this time on ‘The Annunciation’ by Hans Memling. His exquisitely detailed rendition of angelic musicians has allowed instrument builders to reconstruct instruments which have not survived in any other form, so he is an obvious inspiration for a CD programme. Like the Inventa CD, this CD programmes music relevant to the subject and details of the painting, assembling polyphony by de Ghizeghem, Agricola, Obrecht, Dufay, Compère, Mouton and Josquin played on recorders by The Royal Wind Band and sung by Psallentes, who also provide plainchant. The performances from these splendid Flemish ensembles are, like Memling’s painting, exquisitely detailed and wonderfully evocative. The sounds conjured up by consorts of beautifully tuned and blended Renaissance recorders are a delight, as are the female voices of Psallentes, also beautifully pure and focussed. My favourite tracks are where the voices and recorders combine in the larger-scale polyphony and culminating in a stunning account of the Gloria from the famously demanding Missa Maria zart by Obrecht, given a delightfully transparent performance here. With the imaginative blending of voices and recorders and the sheer musicality of these accounts, I was more persuaded by this painting-based musing, although the rather shallow supporting booklet in which Vanden Abeele writes a ‘Dear Hans’ letter to Memling and offers Gratias agimus tibi to him for the CD’s artwork rather trivialises this excellent project. I am on record elsewhere opining that a serious scholarship-based musical programme, such as this most definitely is, deserves a seriously scholarly programme note rather than some self-indulgent performer’s flight of fancy.

D. James Ross

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Lovesick

Randall Scotting countertenor, Stephen Stubbs lute
57:29
Signum Classics SIGCD736

The musicians have ranged far and wide for the repertoire for this collection of music on the general subject of lovesickness. There is the anticipated music of Purcell, Lawes, Dowland and Blow, though by no means the most obvious repertoire by these masters, and interleaved with this we have traditional ballads from the Scottish, Irish and English traditions as well as songs by Marc Antonio Cesti, Danielle da Castrovillari and Pierre Guédron. Scotting has a flexible and rich countertenor voice, deft in ornamentation with a not unpleasant regular vibrato, which he applies intelligently and expressively to his chosen repertoire. Stephen Stubbs provides sympathetic accompaniments on lute and Baroque guitar, although his instrumental set from King Arthur as well as his brief account of Packinton’s Pound, both thematically a little at odds with the lovesick contents of the rest of the CD, are slightly puzzling choices. I found the accounts of the ballad material the least satisfying of the repertoire – it really belongs to another world from the earlier material and to my ear didn’t entirely suit Scotting’s refined vocal production. However, this CD is obviously a very personal project, and these two fine musicians’ enthusiasm for this wide-ranging repertoire communicates itself very well.

D. James Ross

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Vivaldi: Serenata a tre (RV 690)

Vivaldi Edition Vol. 70
Marie Lys Eurilla, Sophie Ennert Nice, Anicio Zorzi Giustiniani Acindo, Abchordis Ensemble, Andrea Buccarella
72:03
naïve OP 7257

The Serenata RV690 is a two-part dramatic cantata for three soloists and orchestra set in an arcadian world of shepherds and shepherdesses and revolving around the romantic intrigues of the three central characters. Written as light entertainment for a special occasion, in this case an aristocratic wedding, Serenatas generally entertained through melodic felicity and colourful orchestration rather than intellectual demands, and the present work is particularly engaging in its musical originality. Three excellent and expressive soloists are sympathetically supported by a period string ensemble, enhanced by horns, oboes, and bassoon as required for local colour. There is evidence in the manuscript that Vivaldi originally intended to include recorders too, and it is interesting that he reworked the score several times, suggesting that he valued this composition and took time to perfect its details. This detailed and musically sensitive account is volume 70 in a superb projected complete recording of Vivaldi’s music, which has already unearthed several unsuspected masterpieces, and through the engagement of excellent Italian vocalists brought much overlooked material vividly to life. Thus too this apparently inconsequential occasional piece is revealed as much more important and substantial than it first appears, and a worthy companion piece to Vivaldi’s operatic writing.

D. James Ross

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Recording

Senfl

Singer Pur, Ensemble Leones
66:30
Oehms Classics OC 1726

This collaboration between the vocal group Singer Pur and the instrumental Ensemble Leones presents a programme of motets with a block of Senfl’s secular music in the middle. This latter element consists largely of no fewer than seven settings of the song “Ich stund an einem Morgen” and three of “Was wird es doch” – perhaps as much of both as one could wish for. While, with the exception of the extended consort piece ‘Das lang’, Senfl’s secular idiom is perhaps quite familiar and ultimately pretty conventional, his sacred music is altogether more complex and interesting and generally underperformed and recorded. A student of Heinrich Isaac, Senfl found employment with the Hofkapelle of Emperor Maximilian I in Vienna and Munich, so it is hardly surprising – with considerable musical resources at his disposal – that Senfl wrote such demanding and richly textured sacred music. Singer Pur present most of the sacred music unaccompanied, and produce their usual lovely vocal blend and intelligent readings of the music. The rich combination of voices and stringed instruments in the opening “Sancta Maria virgo”, such as would have been commonplace in the Munich Hofkapelle, home of the Bavarian State Orchestra, made me wish that both groups had combined forces in more of the sacred music on the CD. Be that as it may, this CD makes a strong case for Senfl’s sacred music being afforded more attention and respect than it is currently. His setting of “Media vita in morte sumus” is a masterpiece.

D. James Ross