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Recording

Samâ-ï : Cosmopolitan Aleppo

Canticum Novum, Emmanuel Bardon
73:20
Ambronay AMY060

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This haunting CD of music associated with the diverse cultures of Aleppo is charged with additional melancholy in light of the knowledge that this millennia-old city has in our own times been reduced to rubble. Canticum Novum, a large ensemble incorporating voices and traditional instruments such as the oud, duduk, nyckelharpa, zurna, ney and kaval as well as conventional early instruments such as viol, lute and triple harp, invokes the rich musical cultures of a city which has stood at a cultural crossroads for five millennia. Emmanuel Bardon, who drew the ensemble together in 1996, has consciously mixed world music and early music ethoses in an effort to access this sometimes nebulous and ancient repertoire. If this music and these performances lack the academic credentials we would normally expect of European early music recordings, like Jordi Savall, Christina Pluhar and a growing number of fine musicians searching outside Europe and in more remote centuries, Bardon relies on instinct and musicality to breathe life into this music. The result is a wonderfully atmospheric evocation of an eastern metropolis renowned for its diversity and tolerance, qualities which may recently have been bombed into extinction.

D. James Ross

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Recording

Ockeghem: Masses 2

the sound and the fury
53:19
fra bernardo fb2122007

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The label Fra Bernardo specializes in some wonderful vocal music from the Franco-Flemish school, sung by ensembles with self-consciously eccentric names, on discs that are encased in packaging usually fronted by illustrations of half-naked men and only slightly less naked women, in expressive (contrived, contorted, whimsical, postmodern, amusing, idiotic – according to taste) postures, ostensibly conducting music by the likes of Ockeghem and Gombert.

The Sound and the Fury (TSATF) are four fellows – David Erler, John Potter, Colin Mason and Richard Wistreich, respectively CT T B B – and this recording, released earlier this year, was made in 2010. Their previous recording of masses by Ockeghem was released in 2013. Strangely they are in competition with another of Fra Bernardo’s ensembles with a whacky moniker, Beauty Farm, who have recorded their own selection of Ockeghem’s masses over three discs, including the two under review here (Fra Bernardo FB1909373, surprisingly the only other currently listed version of the striking Missa Ecce ancilla Domini though a fine version two to a part by The Clerks’ Group on Proudsound PROU CD 133 has been deleted). Given the unarguably stratospheric quality of Ockeghem’s masses, the question of recommending the current disc comes down to the quality of the performance and of the recording. TSATF have a warmer vocal sound than Beauty Farm in their recordings of these two masses, less strident and more considered in their interpretations. The recording venue, Mauerbach Charterhouse Church, in Austria, has a noticeable but not distracting resonance, and TSATF adopt tempi that renders every note clearly audible. This pays off in, for instance, the Credo of Missa My my where the steady tempo is able comfortably to accommodate the syncopations that occur in the latter half of the movement, without any sense of haste and also without any detriment to the clarity of the notes.

The quality of the music in both masses is of the highest order, as one would expect of Ockeghem. Missa My my is based on Ockeghem’s own chanson Presque transi. This can be heard on Cut Circle’s double album of Ockeghem’s complete songs (Musique en Wallonie MEW1995) which I reviewed favourably for Early Music Review on 15 October 2020, referring to this song expressing “downright depression” – a compliment in the context! Missa Ecce ancilla Domini is based on a segment of the antiphon Missus est angelus Gabriel. Sung as well as this, these masses can of course be listened to as superior background music, but it is also most rewarding to engage closely with the music: it is not essential to have profound musicological or mathematical knowledge to appreciate that it has been created by a remarkable intelligence, an experience which is in itself rewarding, but by an intelligence that is capable of creating beauty as well as satisfying musical structures. The subtle change of harmonic gear in the Agnus of Missa My my from the final “peccata mundi” to “Dona nobis pacem” illustrates this beauty perfectly, while the striking phrase used to open the movements lacking an intonation illustrates both beauty and structural eloquence. There can of course be more than one ideal interpretation of music as fine as this. TSATF provides one such interpretation, a superb performance to complement superb music.

Richard Turbet

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Recording

Battle Cry: She speaks

Helen Charlston mezzo-soprano, Toby Carr theorbo
57:20
Delphian DCD34283

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Since she won the London Handel singing competition in 2018, mezzo Helen Charlston has increasingly shown herself to be on the verge of stardom that seems likely to extend far beyond these shores. This solo CD, her second, provides ample reasons why. She starts with the advantage of a voice that not only owns to rich tonal warmth at times reminiscent of the outstanding French mezzo Lucille Richardot, but one at all times beautifully produced across its range. Cantabile lines are drawn with unfailing security, while attention to text – one of Charlston’s great not to say rare strengths among today’s singers – allows her to colour and weight her voice highly effectively and with real musical insight.

Such qualities are of course much needed attributes in a recital that concentrates on 17th-century repertoire in general and includes seconda prattica works (two Barbara Strozzi songs and Monteverdi’s ‘Lamento d’Arianna’). In addition, Charlston performs Battle Cry, a short song cycle commissioned for her from the composer Owain Park and the poet Georgia Way. The programme is intelligently planned largely symmetrically, beginning and ending with Purcell, incorporating theorbo solos and placing the Park cycle at its heart. As the mention of the Monteverdi and Strozzi may suggest, its underlying theme is the suffering of women, a topic carried through into the new work and finally alleviated only marginally by Purcell’s ‘An Evening Hymn’. Mercifully no agenda is suggested, though it may be felt that just a little light relief might have been welcome, especially as the CD’s playing time is short by contemporary standards.   

In his notes Jeremy Summerly makes the astonishing assertion that ‘The Baroque Era in music made a virtue of pigeon-holing styles and approaches to musical composition and performance’, citing rationalised national styles. Even leaving to one side the fact that pigeon-holing is a near entirely 20th/21st-century phenomenon, the exact opposite is true. Here, for example, does ‘Dido’s Lament’ – an infinitely touching, simply expressed performance with the subtlest of ornamentation – belong to a part of an English tradition? No, of course it doesn’t. It wouldn’t exist without Monteverdi’s ‘Lamento della ninfa’ and neither would many other 17th-century works by Italian, French, German and English composers. The ‘Lamento’ is in Charlston’s repertoire so it’s perhaps somewhat surprising that it’s not included. But, as noted above, we do get the rather meatier ‘Lamento d’Arianna’ in a performance that is beautifully judged, excellently articulated in a way that captures the emotional ebb and flow of the music, its building and release of tension to near perfection. All this is underpinned by the key reiteration of the words, ‘Teseo, o Teseo mio’, heartbreakingly delivered by Charlston.  Strozzi’s ‘La travagliata’ builds to a sensuous final verse in which the last line here turns from pleading to a hint of anger, an interesting and unexpected interpretive twist.

I’m afraid I don’t listen to enough contemporary music to provide expert comment on Battle Cry, which includes four songs. However, it seems to have been written to Charlton’s strengths, displaying them effectively. Much the longest of the songs is the last, ‘Marietta’, which is not only to my mind the best of them as to both music and the somewhat enigmatic text, but interestingly was written some time before its companions. Here the use of portamento among other facets makes reminders of Britten seem unavoidable. The third song, ‘A singer’s ode to Sappho’ is unaccompanied.

And turning to accompaniments, it would be wrong not to acknowledge fully the part played in the success of the recital by theorbist Toby Carr, whose playing not only admirable supports the singer throughout but whose technique and admirable warmth of tone provide a timely reminder that the theorbo is not the percussion instrument we today hear far too frequently, but a deeply expressive melodic instrument. On his own account, he plays two brief pieces by Robert de Visée.

An outstanding achievement and a richly rewarding experience for the listener.

Brian Robins

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Uncategorized

Mondonville: Grands Motets

Choeur & Orchestre Marguerite Louise, directed by Gaétan Jarry
67:39
Versailles  Spectacles CVS 063

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This continues the invaluable Versailles Spectacles series devoted to the grand motet, large-scale psalm settings for soloists, chorus and orchestra that were the principal form of sacred music in the France of Louis XIV and Louis XV. Those of Mondonville belong among later examples, succeeding and indeed vying in popularity with those of Rameau, whose small output was the subject of the previous release in the series, performances given by the same ensemble. My review of that outstanding CD can be found on this site.

Jean-Joseph Cassanéa de Mondonville was born in 1711, a member of a poor but aristocratic Languedoc family. At the age of about twenty, he went to Paris, quickly establishing himself as a composer of instrumental music and a violinist. The cover portrait of him by Quentin de la Tour depicts an agreeable and handsome man in his late 30s whose social skills won him favour at court from the likes of Mme de Pompadour. Mondonville gained a number of posts in the Chapelle Royale, including in 1739 that of master (Intendant) and his music was so successful at the famous Concert Spirituel in Paris that he became its most frequently performed composer of all time. A number of his motets were first performed there. Although Isbé (1742), his first work for the Paris Opéra, was a failure, Mondonville’s later operas achieved considerable success, the ballet-héroique Le carnaval du Parnasse (1749) in particular opening with a run of no fewer than 27 consecutive performances.

The present recording includes three of Mondonville’s nine grands motets. Of these Dominus regnavit (a setting of Psalm 93), composed in 1734, is the earliest and indeed the first of the motets, while Coeli enarrant gloriam Dei (Psalm 19) and In exitu Israel (Psalm 115), dating from 1749 and 1753 respectively are late works that represent his final examples of the genre. Of these, In exitu is an outright masterpiece, a superbly dramatic work that fully captures the grand sweep, colourful diversity and rich harmonic texture of a text that tells of the flight from Egypt. The passages narrating the miraculous crossing of the Jordan are vividly depicted, the seething swirling river parted to the stuttering wonderment of the chorus alternating between declamatory homophony and contrapuntal writing. Perhaps even more remarkable is the succeeding haute-contre solo, later with chorus, coloured by dark bassoon sonority, ‘Montes exultaverunt’ (The mountains skipped like rams’) and following rhetorical bass solo, ‘Quid est tibi, mare …? (What aileth thee, O thou sea). Also noteworthy is the Italian influence of a passage such as the soprano ariette ‘Qui timent’ (Ye that fear the Lord). The entire work bears more than eloquent testimony to Mondonville’s mature style.

Unsurprisingly neither of the other motets quite matches this quality, though the colourful text of Psalm 93, which also speaks of floods, evokes a powerful pictorial response to ‘the surges of the sea’ and praise of the ‘voices of many waters’. Coeli enarrant, planned on a less ambitious scale, opens more conventionally, but is elevated to near transcendence in a wonderful passage that speaks of God’s creative handiwork, the setting of a ‘tabernacle for the sun, which is as a bridegroom coming out of his chamber’. There is a marvellous sense of mystery in Mondonville’s setting, a bass solo, rising from the darkest pianissimo to full glory and the restrained entry of the chorus.    

I gave the highest praise to the performances of the Rameau motets by Gaétan Jarry and his supremely talented forces, praise that can be fully reiterated in the present case. On every level, this is another issue that demands to be heard by anyone remotely drawn to the music of the French Baroque.

Brian Robins

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Recording

Enigma Fortuna

Zacara da Teramo : Complete Works
La Fonte Musica, Michele Pasotti
237:00 (4 CDs in a card box)
Alpha Classics Alpha 640

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Zacara of Teramo, AKA Antonio di Berardo di Andrea, is a kenspeckle figure who has only recently coalesced out of a number of shadowy figures of the period as a result of scholarly research into the early Italian Renaissance. (The ‘new’ Zacara now incorporates all of the first three entries under Z in J and E Roche’s excellent 1981 ‘Dictionary of Early Music’!) Active in the Brescia region, Zacara (‘Tiny’) probably acquired his nickname due to his restricted growth, while further deformities meant he had only ten digits altogether on his hands and feet, a fact unshrinkingly demonstrated in a surviving portrait. Now that a larger body of music by this one composer has been identified, he has emerged as an extremely important link between the ars subtilior of the 13th century and the music of the early Renaissance. This comprehensive 4-CD account of his complete sacred and secular oeuvre, including many premiere recordings, is a revelation, both sacred and secular works receiving very fine performances indeed on convincing blends of voices and instruments. It is perhaps easier to identify a specific individual style once a body of work has been confidently ascribed to one composer, but it is hard to see why it wasn’t clear all along that this was the work of a single distinctive and highly talented musical mind. There is also satisfaction for us nowadays in the discovery that a man coping with considerable physical challenges could be so successful in his chosen career and lead such a long and fruitful life in the 14th and 15th centuries. The sacred music (recorded on the first two CDs) in particular is among the finest I know from the period, and these superb idiomatic accounts by La Fonte Musica go a long way to re-establishing Zacara’s seminal role in the development of sacred Italian music. This is not to diminish the attractiveness of the two CDs of Zacara’s secular music, which open with his splendid Cacciando per gustar with its vivid evocation of a busy marketplace.

D. James Ross

Categories
Recording

A 14th-century Salmagundi

Blue Heron
40:04
BHCD 1011

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How lovely to see the enterprising Bostonian vocal ensemble Blue Heron back in the recording studio, albeit for this rather brief CD of music earlier in period than their previous impressive discography – particularly memorable was a ground-breaking series of CDs of music from the Peterhouse Partbooks. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Blue Heron prove superbly in tune with this 14th-century music, which I notice they have approached through recordings of the secular music of Johannes Ockeghem. The voices are occasionally joined by instruments for music by Machaut, Cruce, Vitry, Landini, Jacob Senleches and Jacopo da Bologna. Incidentally, this CD has nothing to do with psalms, the title coming from Rabelais’s Pantagruel and denoting a hodgepodge, and its contents consisting of secular songs! The performances are as I have suggested entirely enjoyable, although I noticed some unfortunate mic popping on a couple of tracks. It is interesting to hear the voices of Blue Heron sounding so natural one-to-a-part and with instruments, including a fine idiomatic contribution on bray harp by the group’s director, Scott Metcalfe. 

D. James Ross

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Recording

Banchieri | Giulio Cesare Croce: Festino del Giovedi Grasso (1608)

Dramatodía, Alberto Allegrezza
78:36
Tactus TC 550008

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This performance of extracts from sequences of music and texts for Carnival time by Banchieri and Croce is presented with the irony and humour essential for this celebration of the reversal of the normal order of things. Like the comedic tightrope walker whose technique must be flawless, the singers of Dramatodía adapt their singing style to a range of parody productions, but at the same time demonstrate that they can sing beautifully too. If I found this element of the CD slightly outweighed by caricature and narration, and felt occasionally that we needed a visual element to bring the programme fully to life, the more seemly performances were entertaining and enjoyable. This is one of the many musical elements in early Baroque Italy, which eventually aggregated into the first operas, and it is intriguing to hear this fine music put into something of a dramatic context. The highlight is undoubtedly Banchieri’s Contrapunto bestiale alla mente!

D. James Ross

Categories
Recording

Rainaldi: Cantate e Duetti vol. III

Arianna Miceli soprano, Marika Spadafino soprano, Antonio Orsini tenor, RomaBarocca Ensemble, Lorenzi Tozzi
51:21
Tactus TC 611803

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Carlo Rainaldi, an established and admired architect in the Italian Baroque period, underlines the underappreciated links between architecture and music – the precepts of Vetruvius link the two closely. While Rainaldi’s role in the architecture of 17th-century Rome has long been understood, his influence on the Roman Cantata of the same period has only recently been understood. The present series of recordings – this is the third volume – explores his music for solo and duet voices with basso continuo, and reveals a composer of considerable technical skill and imagination. He is the master of the unexpected, with startling changes in harmony and texture, while always maintaining a pleasing level of musicality. The performances here alternate two soprano voices, with the introduction of a tenor for one duet and two duets for both sopranos, with sympathetic instrumental accompaniment from theorbo, gamba/bass and harpsichord. I have occasional reservations about the intonation of both sopranos, although they sing expressively enough and both have a sweet tone. The duets for two sopranos seem to inspire the best music from Rainaldi, although the intonation issues persist. Notwithstanding the superabundance of such repertoire, Rainaldi’s contribution seems well worth exploring, and the present performers are to be applauded for bringing his music to a wider audience.

D. James Ross

Categories
Concert-Live performance

A Bach Family Concert at the Thomaskirche, Leipzig

It was only a fleeting visit. But even a fleeting visit to the Bach Festival in Leipzig is not to be spurned if you’ve not previously visited the city in which the majority of Bach’s greatest sacred works were composed. Their composition of course formed part of his duties as Kantor of the Thomaschule, the choir school that served to provide choristers for Leipzig’s churches, most importantly the Nicolaikirche, at that time the principal town church, and the Thomaskirche.

First impressions of  21st-century Leipzig to a new visitor are likely to be of a city positively seething with life and energy, not so surprising when one learns it is home to one of the largest student populations in Germany. This bustle and vitality spills over into the annual Bachfest, which far from being restricted to the hallowed ground of the churches in which Bach worked or concert halls includes among nearly 150 events popular concerts that take over the central market square.

This year’s festival was held under the theme ‘Bach – We Are Family’, a motto certainly appropriate for the concert I attended in the Thomaskirche on 11 June. It was given by Les Talens Lyriques under their director Christophe Rousset, with the Vocalconsort Berlin and soloists Rachel Redmond (s), Hagar Sharvit (a), William Knight (t), and Krešimir Stražanac (b-bar).  As in Bach’s day, the performers were situated in the unusually spacious organ gallery, doubtless the reason we know Bach favoured the Thomaskirche for larger-scale choral works. The programme was an intriguing one, if curious by modern-day tastes. It took the form of a concert given in Hamburg by C. P. E. Bach in 1786, a concert that would be the last given by Bach’s now 72-year-old son. It appears to have served two purposes, one practical, since it was a charity concert, the other Bach’s desire at the end of his life to promote his own legacy and, unusually for the time, include historical works that served to preserve the heritage of his father and Handel, his father’s great contemporary.

Rousset’s reconstruction made little attempt at pure historical accuracy, not least because he used only the smallish choir possible in the Thomaskirche gallery (three voices per part), when accounts of the Hamburg concert tell us C. P. E employed a large choir that included amateur women singers with Bach’s professional males. Notwithstanding the use of small numbers made the performance of Credo from the B-minor Mass especially interesting to one long ago convinced by the Joshua Rifkin/Andrew Parrott argument in favour of Bach’s use of one-voice-per-part in his choral works. From where I sat in the pews facing the nave near the front of the church contrapuntal sound tended to become confused in quicker music, but sounded much better in slower music and, significantly, at its best with solo passages such as the duet ‘Et in unum’, where the sweetness of the strings was also noteworthy. It would of course be idle to try to draw too many conclusions from such a brief encounter in one place in the Thomaskirche, especially as I’m told there was more wood in the church in Bach’s day; that may well have soaked up more of the resonance. Notwithstanding it made for a fascinating, thought-provoking experience.

Credo, which having been written as part of a work designed for the Catholic court in Dresden could never have been performed in the Thomaskirche in Bach’s day, was in fact the only work of J. S’s to be included, the remainder being devoted to two excerpts from Messiah, ‘I know that my redeemer liveth’ and ‘Hallelujah’, given the context incongruously if very well sung in English. The remainder of the concert featured music by C. P. E himself, most notably in his Magnificat in D, originally composed in 1749 as an informal application to succeed his father as Thomaskantor, but here given in the version adapted for Hamburg that added three trumpets. As my illustration shows,Rousset used players employing ‘holeless’ trumpets and to exciting effect (they can be seen to the far right of the orchestra). The performances by choir and orchestra throughout were excellent, though the solo singing was more variable, the best of it coming from the outstanding young Croatian bass Krešimir Stražanac. But this was not really an occasion for detailed critical analysis, rather for this listener at least an intensely moving opportunity to hear the music of Bach and his most talented son just a few metres from where the remains of the great Kantor now lie at rest after their reburial in the chancel after the Johanniskirche was bombed in World War II.

Brian Robins

PHOTO CREDIT: Christophe Rousset directs Vocalconcert Berlin and Les Talens Lyriques in the Thomaskirche, Leipzig © Bachfest 2022

Categories
Sheet music

Nathaniel Giles: English Sacred Music

Early English Church Music [volume] 63
ISBN 978 0 85249 965 8 | ISMN 979 0 2202 2643 4 (Hardback)
xxx, 130pp. £70
Stainer & Bell

This second volume dedicated to the few surviving works of Nathaniel Giles (1558?–1634) contains service music. While presenting an edition of the First Service is straightforward, the Second Service can only be reconstructed from the surviving sources to within a certain degree of completeness and the editor Joseph Sargent has had to put his creative hat on for passages where the solo parts are not available, and the Short Service is very fragmentary indeed but both Sargent and the series editor, David Skinner, recommend their contrapuntal possibilities to would-be reconstructionists. After a detailed biography of the composer, Sargent surveys the sources and lays out his editorial approach. Then come detailed descriptions of the sources and a meticulous editorial commentary on the three services. Then to the music itself, laid out on pages larger than A4 size that can accommodate the up to ten voices (two five-part choirs – cantoris and decani, according to Anglican tradition) and the organ part(s). I had to do some brain juggling when systems were compressed and a voice from the lower group appeared in the middle of the combined groups, but generally the approach works. The added parts are printed in smaller notation. The paper is slightly shiny – I did not find that a problem but I have heard others complain about using such paper for music because it can sometimes catch light awkwardly and become difficult to read. I hope more than anything else that this marvellous tome (at another bargain price of only £70!) will encourage performances of the music – it very much deserves to be heard!

Brian Clark