Torelli | Perti | Pollarolo | Colonna – Concertos and Cantatas

Nuria Rial soprano, Kammerorchester Basel directed by Julia Schröder violin
DHM 19658813432

‘For the most part, nothing can be heard in their [the Italians’] music apart from a consistently elaborated basso continuo, often consisting of a kind of barrage of chords, with arpeggios added to throw dust in the eyes of those who are no judges of such things’. What was true for the Mercure galant in 1713 is equally as true of the 2020s, with the exception that the contagion is now widely spread throughout early music and not just applicable solely to the Italians. I’ve opened in this rather unusual way to highlight that the present recording provides one of the most severe examples of theorbo-itis I’ve encountered, with inappropriate twanging, passaggi, bangs, and arpeggiated janglings throughout the performances. Especially damaging examples appear in ‘Aurae sacrae amati ardores’, a charming solo motet by Pollarolo (c. 1653-1723). Both its arias (it ends in typical motet-fashion with a virtuosic Alleluia) feature lovely cantabile writing for the soloist, here the lovely warm, but pure voice of the enchanting Spanish soprano, Nuria Rial. Both however are virtually ruined by the distraction of the theorbist, who seems unaware that the arias are intended to evoke tranquility and contemplation by twanging away as if playing a concerto, masking the lyrical line of Rial’s voice. The result sounds ridiculous and is totally unmusical.

The foregoing would alone be enough to stop me wanting to hear the CD again, but given that the orchestral playing is excessively mannered there is little to attract any but the most tolerant of listeners. Allegros are invariably taken too fast, the performances skating over the surface with clipped chords and meaninglessly superficial runs. Slower movements are played in a mannered style in which I suppose some may find elements of sprezzatura and certainly there’s some virtuosic solo violin playing by director, Julia Schröder, though I don’t care much for her rather thin tone.

For those interested, that might be more forgiving than the present writer, a word or two about the programme. The instrumental part is devoted to four of the concertos from Torelli’s Concerti grossi, op 8. Composed in 1709, but only published posthumously, they are, like Corelli’s famous op 6 of five years later, intended to make a grand sonorous effect, with the body of concertante strings creating breadth and depth. That doesn’t happen here because of the clipped phrasing and the solo contribution being dominated by the solo violin. The other vocal solo items sung by Rial are a brief scena comprising a fluid alternation of air and recitar cantando from Giovanni Colonna’s oratorio Salomone amante (Bologna, 1679) and a spirited cantata, ‘San Tomaso d’Aquino’ by Giovanni Perti (1661-1756). In these, there is some enchanting singing. Rial demonstrates not only lovely cantabile lines but impressive agility in passaggi and ornamentation, though regrettably she has no trill and her words might have been projected with greater clarity.

Sadly for all the quality of the singing the disc is a non-starter for the reasons given above. A pity given that the repertoire is unusual and of considerable interest.

Brian Robins


Sturm und Drang 3

The Mozartists, conducted by Ian Page
Signum SIGCD759

This is the eagerly anticipated third volume in what is planned as a seven-disc series of so-called ‘Sturm und Drang’ (storm and stress) works. Applied to music, as previously noted, it’s a slippery concept that takes its origination from the literary genre of that name, a movement typified by Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther (1774) and driven by the expression of fierce, sometimes uncontrollable passions. A forerunner of 19th-century Romanticism, it is applied notably to literary works from the early 1770s until c.1790.

The most common usage of the term in music is to a group of stormy, dramatic symphonies composed by Haydn from the mid-1760s to around a decade later, the present ongoing series having to date featured three of them: No. 39 in G minor (1765) on vol 2; No 49 in F minor ‘La Passione’ (1768) on vol 1, and No 44 in E minor ‘Trauer’ (c.1771), which is included on the present CD. It’s a work Ian Page describes as the greatest of the composer’s ‘Sturm und Drang’ symphonies, while I, throwing caution to the wind, would describe it as one of the greatest of all his symphonies. It will be noted that these works are in a minor key, one of the main characteristics of ‘Sturm und Drang’ compositions, and also that two of them pre-date the literary movement, making it difficult to tie them into any suggestion of a defined ‘Sturm und Drang’ movement. As Ian Page suggests in his general note on the topic included, another and more tenable explanation is that it is a reaction against the Rococo charm of the mid-century.

All four movements of the ‘Trauer’ symphony are outstanding, but it is arguably on the magnificent Adagio, placed as the third rather than second movement, that the symphony’s particular claim to exceptional quality lies. Employing muted strings throughout, it threads a path of utmost tranquillity disturbed only by momentary restlessness in the second half. It is supremely well played here with a sense of rapt beauty that further enhances it, as does the contrast with the fiercely uncompromising outer movements. By coincidence, the other symphony here also includes a remarkable slow movement with muted strings. This is the three-movement Symphony in G minor by the Bohemian composer Leopold Kozeluch (1747-1818), the last of a group of three published in 1787. Kozeluch was well-established in Vienna by the time Mozart arrived there in 1781 and in 1785 founded his own publishing house in the city. The outer movements of the G minor Symphony are splendid examples of ‘Sturm und Drang’, typical of the angst, tension, buzzing tremolandi and angularity familiar from the symphonies of Haydn and Mozart (and J C Bach in vol 2) in that key. The central Adagio, however, is a sublime movement, with some particularly felicitous writing; the whole movement sounds as if it is an anticipation of Così fan tutte. The final orchestral work on the disc is Mozart’s Adagio and Fugue for strings, K 546, two movements composed some while apart, with the new, deeply, almost spiritual Adagio composed in 1788 prefacing a fiercely inexorable fugue orchestrated from an earlier fugue for two pianos. The work as a whole is a Janus-like composition with the Adagio anticipating Romantic expressivity, the Fugue looking firmly back over its shoulder to the Baroque. It is projected with great depth and body by the strings of The Mozartists.

Another special feature of the series is the inclusion of vocal, mainly operatic, extracts. Vol 1 is especially valuable in this respect, including first recordings of arias by badly neglected composers such as Jommelli and Traetta, in addition to Gluck, all splendidly sung by Chiara Skerath.

I don’t feel the vocal contribution here to be as strong, either as to content or performance. The US soprano Emily Pogorelc is typical of the current vogue for singers that essay a wide range of repertoire rather than specialise in earlier music. She has a significant continuous vibrato – listen for example to the lovely cavatina that bridges the two stretches of accompanied recitative in Paisiello’s scena for Adrane from Annibale in Torino (Turin, 1771) – and there is a distinct lack of control in the upper range, especially in coloratura. The voice itself has a lustrous quality that brings its rewards, but I feel these are more likely to be appreciated in a later repertoire. The other, and to my mind, superior, vocal excerpt comes from Anton Schweitzer’s Alceste (Weimar, 1773). The opera is notable for having a German libretto by no less celebrated a writer than Wieland, though the music is thoroughly Italianate. Alceste’s  ‘Er ist gekommen … Zwischen Angst’ opens the opera in full dramatic flood, as the queen awaits news of her husband Admetus’s impending death. Pogorelc captures the drama well, but again too much of her singing is blustery and lacking control.

Overall, however, this makes for another exceptionally satisfying addition to a series that is special not just for the thought and scholarship that goes into it, but Page’s direction of his fine players. It is throughout beautifully balanced and paced, while at the same time musically highly insightful.

Brian Robins


John Sheppard: Missa Cantate

+ Laudem dicite; Jesu salvator saeculi, redemptis; Martyr Dei qui unicum; Gaude, gaude, gaude Maria; Beata nobis gaudia; Gaude virgo Christiphera

The Tallis Scholars conducted by Peter Phillips
Gimell CDGIM 053

Peter Phillips has done remarkable work with The Tallis Scholars (TTS), the choir he founded in 1973, recording, performing, broadcasting, editing, writing about and generally evangelizing for British (sic – Tomkins, though no Carver) and European music of the Renaissance. The standard of performance has always been high, sometimes transcendent – Josquin’s Missa Pange lingua, Sheppard’s Media vita and from left field the Agnus of Missa Da pacem by Bauldeweyn misattributed to Josquin, to name only a few at random. The choir’s personnel never stagnate, and nor therefore do their performances. This is illustrated by a concert which I recall attending in December 2014 at St John’s Smith Square, during which TTS sang the exhilarating but unfamiliar Magnificat by Edmund Turges, and the familiar Lullaby by Byrd which nonetheless received a revelatory rendition.

With their pinpoint tuning and use of high pitch, TTS have an ideal composer in Sheppard, with his thrilling melodies, enthralling counterpoint, spicy harmonies and startling dissonances. The works selected for this recording each contain all of the above. Every piece was intended for the Roman Catholic liturgy that passed into obsolescence in England almost simultaneously with the death of Sheppard himself. The mass, which is for six voices, runs for nearly half an hour on this recording, and two of the motets, Gaude, gaude, gaude Maria and Gaude virgo Christiphera, take over ten minutes, while all the others except Martyr Dei qui unicum take over five, all giving Sheppard ample scope for exhibiting his unique and remarkable style.

There are five other current recordings of this Mass, and while two of these are by other adult chamber choirs, the other three are by cathedral or collegiate choirs of men plus boys (and, in one case, boys and girls): The Choir of Westminster Cathedral; St Mary’s Scottish Episcopal Cathedral, Edinburgh; and the trebles of Salisbury Cathedral joined by the lower voices of the Gabrieli Consort, most of whom will have had ecclesiastical backgrounds. This version by The Tallis Scholars (many of whom also have ecclesiastical backgrounds) sounds the most secular of all these. It seems in places to come over as quite assertively accented, either on the beat in the Mass, or corresponding with changes of notes in the plainsong in works which are built around the chant in one of the voices. The versions sung by the ecclesiastical choirs seem to have more of an ethereal flow, appropriate to the acoustics of the buildings in which Sheppard’s works would be sung liturgically, while The Tallis Scholars’ interpretation is ideal for the sort of drier acoustic usually encountered in secular concert halls. This is the reality of the modern world: fabulous early liturgical music being rediscovered, cherished, and performed democratically, for mental and spiritual refreshment and delectation, as well as for sheer listening pleasure, outwith the sacred environment for which it was originally intended. Ironically in view of what I have just written, The Tallis Scholars made this recording in Brinkburn Priory, but it still comes across to this listener as an interpretation suited for the likes of Cadogan Hall. This in no way is any sort of denigration of a fine recording, expertly sung, which contains consistently wonderful music, sometimes achieving sublimity as in the case of the increasingly famous Amen to Jesu salvator saeculi, redemptis.

Three of Sheppard’s other four surviving masses (all a4) – Plainsong Mass for a Mean, Western Wind and Be not afraid – are available on commercial recordings, so it would be good to have the French Mass on CD etc. to complete the set, and to enable the listening public to hear more of this great composer’s music.

Richard Turbet


Gottfried Heinrich Stölzel: Ein Lämmlein geht und trägt die Schuld

Veronika Winter, Franz Vitzhum, Markus Brutscher, Martin Schicketanz, Rheinische Kantorei, Das kleine Konzert, Hermann Max
cpo 555 311-2
110:28 (2 CDs)

It is hard to underestimate the widespread influence of the powerfully evocative and image-laden libretto known as The Brockes-Passion!

Conceived by B. H. Brockes (1680-1747), the Hamburg statesman and poet, andpublished c. 1712, with various settings by several noteworthy composers of the day, Keiser, Mattheson, Telemann, Handel, Fasch and Stölzel; even Bach’s St John Passion contains several elements, as did Telemann’s early Hamburg Passions of the 1720s, sadly lost.

In 1992, great efforts were made to reconstruct Bach’s musical library, and the music of G. H. Stölzel appeared terribly under-represented, save the famous aria “Bist Du bei mir” from the Notenbüchlein for Anna Magdalena Bach. Gifted musically from a tender age, Stölzel was a Leipzig student in 1707, active in the Collegio Musico. After some private tuition, he made an Italian tour, meeting famous masters. After working in Gera and Bayreuth, (the latter a centre for early opera), then from 1719 was court kapellmeister in Gotha, gradually turning his hand from operas to sacred music. And so we find the setting of a passion-oratorio circa 1720, not long before he set the Brockes Passion in 1725. It has also been discovered that a cantata cycle (on texts by Benjamin Schmolck) was performed by Bach in Leipzig 1735-6, and Stölzel’s earlier 1720 Passion-oratorio on Good Friday 1734.

Much of Stölzel’s musical legacy was neglected and destroyed, in part due to Georg Benda’s careless disregard for it. Hermann Max is to be most heartily congratulated for diligently compiling the score from parts found in the Schloßmuseum SonderhausenBach obviously admired the music, since he re-worked the aria from the 13th Betrachtung: “Dein Kreuz, o Bräutigam meiner Seele” into “Bekennen will ich seinen Namen” from BWV200.

As per usual Hermann Max has drawn a fine team of performers around him, and the main soloists give a good account of themselves. For an early example of a Passion-oratorio, with 22 Betrachtungen (Contemplations) and 20 Chorales (all with clearly defined sources), it lacks the dramaturgic fluency of the Brockes Passions and others I can think of, yet does include passages for “Christliche Kirche” and “Gläubige Seele”, the latter acting like a kind of accompagnato leading into the reflective arias. Some of these arias (for example, tracks 6 and 12) exude a style close to that found in Graun and Telemann’s Der Tod Jesu (1755), yet others feel lacking in their overall effect and intensity, somewhat “underpowered”, given the vivid and descriptive wording. One senses an active, refined musical (operatic) mind at work, however, the musico-poetic grasp isn’t always alert or activated; nor is the broader instrumental palette. The Evangelist here gives a very good narrative link, using a device termed: Historic Present. The Duet of Gläubige Seelen (21) is rather fine, yet short-lived. The narration up to the lovely Aria “Allerhoechster Gottessohn” (27) seems a fairly weak response to the drama; so too the Aria (30) “Cease, ye murderous claws”! Finally, in the aria (33) we have some sensitive and emotive instrumentation, as the composer deploys a flute, yet it is again all too short-lived!

CD2 opens with the tenor aria that Bach used, yet in my very honest opinion, the following numbers for alto and soprano are musically far superior; indeed, Veronika Winters contributions here are truly noteworthy and soar aloft! So too the chorus before the final section stands out. The closing sections are most effective, being woven around the famous chorale, O Traurigkeit, O Herzeleid. This actually feels more like a liturgical Passion with a few extra twists, than a Passion-oratorio. Every new Passiontide work should be judged on its own merits; alas, due to the sheer dominance of just a handful of works at Easter, many will fall foul of deep-rooted routines and certain perceived expectations, which is disappointing, as so many works will not even get to see the light of day, being held at bay until some fortunate discovery allows the spirit of these pieces to be heard alongside the more familiar. Hermann Max has once again presented on CPO another noteworthy Eastertide Passion, which is an historic document of finest musicology in action.

David Bellinger


Giovanni Bononcini: Cantate e Sonate

Aurata Fonte (Miho Kamiya soprano, Perikli Pite cello, Valeria Montanari harpsichord)
Tactus TC 670202

This CD presents six cantatas for soprano and basso continuo which have survived in manuscript in Modena, the city of birth of the composer Giovanni Bononcini. Bononcini’s accomplishments as a composer, particularly of operas, took him to Vienna and then London before returning to Vienna to retire on a pension. The sense of drama, which made his operatic efforts so widely appreciated, is also in evidence in his cantatas, and in these world premiere recordings soprano Miho Kamiya invests Bononcini’s cantatas with an engaging level of animation. Striking is Bononcini’s sense of melodic direction, a dynamic feature shared with the instrumental music which Aurata Fonte contribute to the programme – two harpsichord Divertimenti and a cello Sonata persuasively played by harpsichordist Valeria Montanari and cellist Perikli Pite. Both also make a sympathetically responsive contribution to the cantatas. Bononcini is a composer whose influence on the musical scenes in London and Vienna is probably underestimated, and the admiration of his contemporaries in Italy, as well as England and Austria, probably suggests that the bulk of his music which remains neglected, particularly perhaps the operas, deserves performance and reassessment. At any rate, these accomplished premiere recordings suggest that much fine Bononcini still awaits rediscovery.  

D. James Ross


Caccini: Amarilli

Le Nuove Musiche 1601
fantazyas (Roberto Balconi tenor, Giangiacomo Pinardi theorbo, Marco Montanelli harpsichord)
Brilliant Classics 96254

When it appeared in 1602 in Florence, the Nuove Musiche di Giulio Caccini detto Romano must indeed have sounded absolutely revolutionary. The rule book was well and truly thrown out the window in this wonderful new world of monody, in which the melodic lines mirrored speech rhythms, reflected feelings and were animated by wonderful decorative affetti, seemingly spontaneous passaggi either devised by the composer or added, by analogy, by the performer. In a lengthy introduction, Caccini emphasises that these ornaments must express the emotions evoked by the text rather than offering an opportunity for empty virtuosity, and it is very much in this spirit that tenor Roberto Balconi sings this programme. The vocal ornaments always sound perfectly natural and never intrude upon the flow of the melody, and in this wonderful service to the music and the composer’s intentions, he is very ably supported by the instruments of Fantazyas. In the programme note, Balconi drops the bombshell that he is more customarily a falsettist – to be able to demonstrate such consummate mastery of a subsidiary vocal range is simply breathtaking! Recorded in June in Sondrio in Lombardy, these recordings capture the languid essence of the Italian summer, even down to the constant though almost imperceptible song of a blackbird in the background. These are lovely apparently effortless performances of stunningly beautiful music – the ‘new music’ as its composer would have wanted it to be heard.

D. James Ross


Das ist meine Freude

Love Songs & Psalms
Georg Poplutz tenor, Johann Rosenmüller Ensemble, Arno Paduch
cpo 555 362-2

Tenor Georg Poplutz takes us on a highly enjoyable and instructive tour of sacred and secular songs from the 17th century, usefully juxtaposing familiar music by Monteverdi and Grandi with unfamiliar music by Johann Rosenmüller and Christoph Bernhard, and introducing a host of neglected masters including Benedetto Reggio, Nicolò Corradini, Nicholas Strungk and Thomas Selle. All of the German masters travelled to Italy, learning from the Italian models represented here, the exception being Thomas Selle, who as a pupil of Schütz learned the secrets of Italian music at second hand and with a German accent. The key figure on this CD is undoubtedly Rosenmüller, represented by three major works, clearly a focus of the ensemble, and a figure deserving still of much more attention than he gets. I mentioned at the start that we are in the hands of the solo tenor, Georg Poplutz, and fortunately he has a beautifully engaging voice perfect for this repertoire. He sidesteps effortlessly from secular song to psalm, from Rosenmüller to beautifully ornamented Monteverdi, and is the ideal advocate of this attractive repertoire. He is ably and sympathetically supported by a superb consort directed by cornettist Arno Paduch. This CD is a thorough delight and a revelation from its astutely selected repertoire, its thought-provoking juxtapositions, and its wonderfully persuasive performances.

D. James Ross


Byrd 1589: Songs of sundrie natures

Alamire, Fretwork, David Skinner
122:37 (2 CDs in a single case)
Inventa INV1011

Alamire and Fretwork continue their great work on behalf of Byrd, under the direction of David Skinner, by following up their complete recording of his Psalmes, sonets and songs of 1588 with this double album consisting of the Songs of sundrie natures 1589. In an important respect this new release is even more significant because it includes so many premiere recordings from this more neglected collection. For instance, of the Seven Penitential Psalms that begin the disc, only three have ever received commercial recordings. Just a few of the pieces have received repeated attention – such as the majestic consort anthem Christ rising again and the bucolic duet Who made thee Hob forsake the plough – but now we can revel in the likes of the first complete recording of the exquisite Wounded I am, the first commercial recording of what David in his note calls “this epic tale” From Citheron the warlike boy is fled and only the second recording of the sublime sacred song O Lord my God. The two carols for Christmas Day – From virgin’s womb and An earthly tree – have of late begun at last to receive appropriate attention on disc, performed with both their two sections intact and accompanied by viols. This is definitively the case here, and they also demonstrate the high quality of Alamire’s soloist Martha McLorinan; she is joined by the equally admirable Clare Wilkinson in Christ rising and Who made thee Hob mentioned above, and both mezzos also sing separate solo songs; Unlike the 1588 songs, many of which survive in pre-publication sources as consort songs which Byrd subsequently adapted as partsongs for publication, those in 1589 are almost all original partsongs; just three survive as consort songs in sources predating the print. Of these, I thought that love and When first by force are performed as in the print, but See those sweet eyes is sung enchantingly by Clare Wilkinson in its original solo format. The violists of Fretwork provide excellent accompaniments whenever required, as do star lutenists, Jacob Heringman and Lynda Sayce, for the five stunning secular songs that are in three parts.

As in 1588, there is a wide variety of mood, illustrated well by the almost curt and flirtatious I thought that love had been a boy sitting next to the impassioned and emotional O dear life to words by Sir Philip Sidney; indeed, the teeming creativity that gushes from the ten works in the section of songs in five parts could stand as an epitome of the entire collection. Alamire and David respond sensitively to all of Byrd’s different musical perspectives. Indeed, this is a collection simply crammed full of delights, both spiritual and emotional, all the better for the listener with such a high proportion of the songs being in the main unfamiliar. The initial sequence of seven psalms in three parts might seem forbidding, but do as Byrd himself suggests, listen a few times, and even here in these ostensibly austere works many beauties emerge; earlier this Byrd Quatercentenary year I had the pleasure of attending a concert in Norwich given by the outstanding Marian Consort, during which they sang the dourly-texted Lord in thy wrath correct me not and its concluding bars radiated beauty, which beauty is conveyed equally well on this recording. The more luxuriant Unto the hills mine eyes I lift in six parts, with its own plodding text, possesses a Flemish quality reminding us of Byrd’s familiarity with the glorious works of Jacob Clement, “Clemens non Papa”. One could go on throughout the entire set – there is not a work among them all which is less than excellent, and which does not repay repeated listening.

The Sixteen have beaten Alamire to recording Byrd’s third and final collection of songs, the Psalmes, songs, and sonnets of 1611, but Alamire have provisional plans for a possible celebration of another Byrd anniversary in 2024 which, if it comes to fruition, would be just as exciting as all the foregoing. Meanwhile, it remains yet again to recommend without reservation the album under review, to compliment Alamire on making some hitherto hidden masterpieces by Byrd accessible to the worldwide public, and to congratulate Alamire, Fretwork, David and the soloists on a job superbly done. And let’s have a minute’s applause for William, who made it all possible.

Richard Turbet



The Gonzaga Band directed by Jamie Savan
Resonus RES 10314

The Gonzaga Band is small group of acclaimed experts who deliver music-making of extraordinary power, where the whole seems miraculously more than the sum of its parts.

Partly this is because their expertise is forged in bringing exactly this music – music written in the years when Renaissance polyphony was just bursting out of its ecclesiastical shell into a more florid, instrumental-driven freedom of divisions or passaggi as these techniques of ornamenting the four-square polyphonic writing were called – to life. It was this development – along with the development of instrument-making – especially in violin making – that would enable Corelli and Vivaldi and their associates to emerge into what we know as the high Baroque, and Milan was particularly important in the development of the violin and its music in this period.

But partly also it is because their leader, Jamie Savan, researches and prepares music for performance that is not only a pleasure to listen to, but which makes the links between Milan’s past and future as a distinctive player in the extraordinary flowering of the Nuova Musica along the Po valley from Lombardy to the Veneto. Savan’s liner notes are always a model of good practice: the sources are listed, along with the performing pitch (A=465Hz) and the temperament (1/4 comma mean tone); so are the instruments they all play, including the Hauptwerk organ sampled from S. Maria d’Alieto, Izola, Slovenia used by Steven Devine. I would love to hear them play with an organ by Walter Chinaglia based on open wooden principal pipes described in his Duoi organi per Monteverdi, for details.

Attention to balance and allowing space for sonorities to bloom is second nature to this group, and we should be grateful for a glimpse into such a wide variety of music. There is a good deal of the best-known Milanese composer of the time, Giovanni Paulo Cima, and his Capriccio 8, 1606 (track 12) will give you a good idea of the instrumental sonorities offered here. Particularly interesting to me as examples of how the earlier polyphonic masterworks were being transformed by passaggi are the tracks 6, 11 and 15 where music by Palestrina, Lassus and de Rore is re-presented with divisions: here Mark Caudle’s violone playing in Rognoni’s version of Lassus’ well known Susanne un jour is a star turn, as are Jamie Savan’s cornetto divisions in track 15. Towards the end, we hear two tracks by Caterina Assandra, a novice nun who was clearly a remarkable composer in her own right at a young age.

Faye Newton has a wonderfully clear yet expressive voice, negotiating the passaggi and trills with ease, she manages to convey the varying moods of the music without the aid of those modern singerly conventions like vibrato or unaccountable swelling on weak notes. This means she matches the instruments splendidly: Cima’s Surge propera (track 16) is a motet with echo effects on the cornetto, and Rognoni’s Ave Virgo Benedicta (track 17) lets us hear her unadorned. You would expect a degree of athleticism from the cornetto, but here you can hear it from the bass sackbut too in the skilled hands of Guy Morely (tracks 5 and 18). Oliver Webber whose relaxed technique is so well-suited to this period’s divisions is heard on his own in Canzon ‘la Porcia’ by Antonio Mortaro with divisions by Francesco Rognoni (track 7), where Steven Devine is playing a harpsichord by Colin Booth (1998) based on one by Domenico da Pesaro (Venice, 1533).

The whole CD is a treat, introducing us to a distinctive sound-world which helps us make sense of the rise in instrumental skills which preluded the shift from Canzone to Sonatas and Concerti, marking the distinctive Baroque period both instrumentally and vocally. I commend it wholeheartedly.

David Stancliffe


Héroïnes – Cantates françaises

Ensemble Il Caravaggio directed by Camille Delaforge
Château de Versailles Spectacles CVS090

A clue comes with the name Caravaggio. If it appears odd for a French ensemble to take the name of an Italian painter it can be at least in part explained by the objectives of the Ensemble Il Caravaggio, one of the newer among the plethora of French early music ensembles. Their first CD was devoted to 17th-century Italian music, while ‘Héroïnes’, far from being solely devoted to French cantatas, also incorporates airs de cour, excerpts from an early dramatic work by Lully, brief extracts from Elisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre’s 1694 tragédie lyrique Céphale et Procris (which is due for issue in a complete version on the Versailles Spectacles label) and the finest work on the disc, a cantata entirely in Italian style (and language) by one of the finest French cantata composers, Montéclair.

So we end up with a diverse programme with a foot in both French and Italian camps performed by two mezzos, Victoire Bunel and Anna Reinhold, and the bass Guilhem Worms, accompanied by a small ensemble drawn from Il Caravaggio. The only French cantata in every sense is the opening Le tombeau de Clorinde by the little-known Parisian organist Louis Antoine Dornel (1680-1765). It is a kind of sequel to the familiar story of the battle between the Crusader Tancredi and the Saracen woman warrior Clorinda. Like Monteverdi’s famous account of the battle itself, it is told as a dramatic narrative interspersed with personal reaction from Argantes, the lover of Clorinda. In two highly contrasted arias (more correctly ariettas), Argante expresses first his grief then his rage as he swears to avenge Clorinda’s death by killing Tancredi. Worms, his dark, sepulchral bass well suited to the cantata, impresses dramatically but the voice is not always securely produced, particularly where sustained notes are concerned.

The other larger-scale work is the Montéclair cantata, La morte di Lucretia, the story of the suicide of the wife of the Roman senator Collatinus following her rape by Tarquin. The highly-charged words of the poem are those of Lucretia herself, with the exception of a brief epilogue that comes after her death. Otherwise, it follows the recitative – da capo aria sequence familiar from Italian cantatas. The cantata is superbly sung by Bunel, whose excellent command of Italian brings splendid dramatic weight to the piece, singing with rich, amber tone finely produced across her range. The build-up to the moment of suicide and the final fragmentary words – ‘I die, heavens, I die’ is memorably and movingly managed. Incidentally, it is amusing to find the well-illustrated booklet includes a rare slip by this splendid label, the Lucretia pictured being not the Roman one but a knowing Lucrezia Borgia, one breast exposed to the world. Anything further from the heroic Roman wife would be hard to imagine!

Bunel also sings two airs from the de la Guerre opera, one an expression of Procris’s longing for solitude, which again displays her vocal acting skills – the words ‘Ah! J’aimerais encore les maux’ (Ah, I would delight still in the troubles …’ delivered with inexpressible longing. The other is a light- hearted song sung by Dawn, but we need to wait for the full opera before arriving at a more informed impression of it. The Lully is also taken from an Italian insert, a ‘Plainte d’Armide’ included in the Ballet des amours déguisés of 1664 and thus a work that precedes all his major operas. It follows the familiar lamentations of the sorceress Armida following her abandonment by Rinaldo. It is not especially memorable either as music or in the performance of Anna Reinhold. There is also a trio taken from a 1709 publication of ‘Airs sérieux et à boire’ by Nicolas Racot de Grandval (1676-1753), a new name to me and apparently particularly famed for his satires. The programme concludes with a catchy anonymous dance duet in strophic form winningly sung by Bunel and Worms that harks back to the beginning of the 17th century and ballet de cour.

Overall the CD makes for an attractively varied collection of French Baroque vocal chamber music that strays off the usual paths. It is especially worth sampling for the contribution of Victoire Bunel, who looks to be yet another burgeoning star in the overcrowded firmament of French Baroque music.

Brian Robins