Music for Saint Katherine of Alexandria

The Binchois Consort, Andrew Kirkman
hyperion CDA68274

This recording consists of music dedicated to St Katherine, of wheel fame. Seemingly she is the only female saint apart from the Virgin Mary to have generated sufficient music in England during the fifteenth century to fill a compact disc. The centrepiece of this record is Walter Frye’s three-part, but euphonious, Missa Nobilis et pulchra, a complete surviving mass cycle. Of the remaining music, it is fair to say that the two impressive isolated mass movements by “Driffelde” – probably the Robert Dryffelde who put in a hefty shift as a vicar-choral at Salisbury 1424-68 (though his surname suggests a provenance in Driffield, in the East Riding of Yorkshire) – are simply for the feast of a virgin, for which Katherine nonetheless qualifies. Particularly striking is an anonymous work, an isolated Gloria “Virgo flagellator” also in three parts. Only the tenor and over half of the contratenor parts survive but it has been reconstructed by the late Philp Weller to provide a satisfying and idiomatic whole, a most worthwhile labour. Anything composed by John Dunstable is likely to make its mark in the company of music of this, or indeed any other, period and it is true to say that his two motets included here – the substantial Salve seema sanctitatis which brings the disc to a sonorous close, and the more serene and modestly proportioned Gaude virgo Katherina – confirm his pre-eminence among mediaeval composers, notwithstanding the suavity of Frye’s mass. Performances are as fine as we have come to expect from the Binchois Consort, not least in Byttering’s energetic En Katherine solennia. In the accompanying booklet, there is the bonus of scholarly and readable notes, illustrated by photographs of relevant works created by the Consort’s sculptor in residence, Sarah Danays.

Richard Turbet

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Si vous vouliez un jour

Airs sérieux et à boire vol. 2
Les arts florissants, William Christie
harmonia mundi HAF8905306

Gosh! Have LAF really been around for 40 years? Well since I first heard them live in the early 1980s they might well have been, and in that time they have immeasurably enriched our knowledge and appreciation of their core repertoire – the music of 17th-century France. A number of their recent releases have featured particularly fine programming and this second volume airs of continues that welcome trend by hanging music by Camus, Lambert and Moulinié on the framework provided by the separated scenes of Charpentier’s Pastoraletta H492. There are some moments in the more animated ensembles where collective intonation is not wholly centred but the solo songs with theorbo and gamba are exquisite in both musical content and sonority. Indeed, it is true throughout the recital that the performances that draw us in rather than project themselves onto us are the more rewarding. Yes, there are a few questionable performance practice decisions involving the continuo team but nothing that spoils the party, even for me.

The booklet (French, English & German) includes a concise though very informative note and full texts and translations, and the recording quality is very good indeed.

I wonder if Lambert’s allusion to Dowland (track 14) was deliberate. In the context of a text reading ‘Let my tears flow’ it’s hard to think otherwise.

David Hansell


A. Scarlatti: Quella pace gradita

Alicia Amo S, Giuseppina Bridelli mS, Filippo Mineccia cT, La Ritirata, Josetxu Obregón
Glossa GCD 923107

As the notes for this CD pertinently remind us, the chamber cantatas of Alessandro Scarlatti represent a quite staggering achievement. It is not only the sheer number – some 800 in all – that overwhelm the imagination, but also, and more importantly, the extraordinarily high musical quality found in such a high proportion of them.

Notwithstanding the success of the modern early music revival in unearthing so much forgotten treasure, only a relatively small number of Scarlatti’s cantatas have so far been recorded. Of the five on the present disc, only one, Quella pace gradita, has been previously recorded (by Nancy Argenta). The works have in common their instrumentation, a rare combination of violins and recorders in addition to the usual continuo. All conform to the subject matter of the overwhelming majority of chamber cantatas, that of the lives and loves of the shepherds and shepherdesses that inhabit an idealised Arcadian world. Thus the first on the CD, E perché non seguite, o pastorelle, for mezzo, two violins, two recorders and continuo, speaks in the course of its three brief da capo arias and alternating recitative of woodland streams and flowery banks unable to provide solace to the absent Chloris. Not surprisingly the presence of recorders is employed to evoke mimetic images of birdsong, in the case of the enchanting single-movement Sconsolato rusignolo for soprano and strings the ‘disconsolate nightingale’, whose role is played by a flautino, while in the final aria of Quella pace gradita a turtledove provides consolation ‘where the forest is most beautiful’. The imagery of the wildness of nature is perhaps most potently evoked in the wonderful Filen, mio caro for alto, recorder, two violins and continuo, where the shepherdess Phyllis reassures her lover that mountains, rocks, streams and trees will all echo the sound of her love. Perhaps only in Tu sei quella, che al nome, a lover’s complaint (for alto) does the text concerning the cruelty of the loved one depart from the pastoral, at times being more than a little reminiscent of the poetry of medieval courtly love.

The recitative in all these cantatas testifies to the high regard in which Scarlatti was held in this aspect of composition, while arias invariably achieve that juxtaposition of the learned and the appealing for which the composer was equally renowned. Inevitably some stand out, none more so than the exquisitely lovely ‘Chiedi pur ai monti’ (from Filen), sung with a real command of line and sustained shaping by countertenor Filippo Mineccia, though his vibrato can be a little obtrusive at times. But the overall standard of singing is very high indeed. Particularly praiseworthy is the recognition by all three singers (or perhaps credit should go to the director?) that these are chamber works, not miniature operas that need projecting into a theatre. So we hear pleasingly nuanced singing that maintains intimacy and in which there is no forcing of tone. Ornamentation might have been articulated more precisely at times and, as usual, we hear little in the way of the trill at cadences or the employment of messa di voce, though several obvious invitations are passed up. While both mezzo Giuseppina Bridelli, whose mezzo moves with admirable ease between head and chest notes, and Mineccia are a known quantity, soprano Alicia Amo was not, at least to me. I count her as a real find, the voice being one of pure vernal freshness, but of a sweet quality that is not at all ‘white’ and does not neglect nuance and colour. Throughout her attention to text and the shaping of line is exemplary, while the beautifully executed repeated note ornament at the end of the final recitative of Quella pace leaves one regretful that it was a decoration that had been virtually abandoned by the time of Scarlatti.

Given the rare moments of insecure intonation in the violins, the instrumental support is excellent. The whole production is indeed a near-exemplary demonstration of how chamber cantatas should be performed.

Brian Robins

Sheet music

Giovanni Battista da Gagliano: Varie Musiche, Libro Primo

ed. Maddalena Bonechi.
Biblioteca Musicale no. 33
Lucca, 2018: Libreria Musicale Italiana
xi + 143pp, €25.
ISBN: 9788870969542

Younger than his brother, Marco da Gagliano (1582-1643), under whom he began to study music,  Giovanni Battista da Gagliano (1594-1651) was trained in Florence from the age of 5, at the school of the Compagnia dell’Arcangelo Raffaele, as a singer, theorbist, music teacher and composer. The Compagnia, in which both brothers were active, included Cosimo de’ Medici, Ottavio Rinuccini, Giovanni Bardi and Jacopo Peri, connections that assured their careers. Giovanni became maestro di cappella of the Compagnia itself, and later obtained similar posts in the most important churches of Florence and the Medici court. He composed opera as well, and in collaboration with Francesca Caccini. Most of his published output, mainly sacred, is lost.

He had close contact with secular vocal music from madrigals to monody accompanied by continuo, and to opera, and was active himself as a singer and theorbo player. He also knew poets of these forms personally. But demands to produce sacred music left him little time to devote to other books following his first and only book of Varie musiche. The collective titleof Various Songs’ has a modest ring, even if the small print on the frontispiece adds Nuovamente composto & dato in luce, compared to the reiterated ‘New’  used by Caccini for Le Nuove musiche of 1602 and Nuove musiche e nuova maniera di scriverle of 1614. The table of contents, however, reveals that Gagliano’s  intention was the variety of his Libro primo, and a closer look reveals the exceptional quality of these small forms.

In the first 66 pages of this first modern edition Maddalena Bonechi presents, in Italian only, the composer, the source, the poetry, her editorial criteria and a critical apparatus. She discusses the rhyme schemes and typologies of the 26 poetic texts set by Giovanni, in relation to his settings, 15 of which are strophic. The through-composed ones are remarkable for their internal variety. The sonnet Ninfe, donne e regine, for two sopranos, for example, is through-composed. The poem gives coherence to the piece, while the music, always contrasting longer and shorter notes, upward and downward motifs, and differently shaped melismas, gives each of the 14 lines of poetry a distinct interpretation, employing typical madrigalisms with success. Even in the short solo strophic songs (some only half a page long) the continuo lines are impressively well-written. Giovanni was, above all, a consummate master of polyphony. The complete texts are given with a few footnotes in one of the introductory sections, but since over half of them are strophic, those texts (without the first stanza) reappear following the music. This duplication could really have been avoided by printing the complete text for each piece, along with its sparse annotations, immediately after each musical setting, and nowhere else.

The music starts on page 69, finishing on 143. The small format (24 x 17cm) makes it hard to keep such a fairly thick book open on a music stand. Even though justified by the shortness of many pieces, a normal format for music would have allowed many of the 26 pieces to fit on a single page instead of two, and with fewer pages the edition would be more practical. All but one are with basso continuo, and players need their hands free.

Of those for solo voice, 11 are for tenor, seven for soprano, and one for contralto; two duets are for sopranos and two are for tenors; number 19, Ecco ch’io verso il sangue, on a text probably by Michelangelo Buonarroti il Giovane, is for SSTTB and continuo; number 25, O notte amata, on a canzonetta by Jacopo Cicognini, is for contralto and tenor with two alternating instrumental ritornellos, each heard twice. Number 26, Gioite, o selve, o colli is a canzone in one stanza.

Pieces 19-25 are sacred: the madrigals È morto  il tuo Signore (Petracci) and Care amorose piaghe (Policreti)  are on texts from a publication of spiritual texts from 1608. Together with Tu languisci e tu mori, o Giesù mio these express pain with chromatic effects largely absent from the previous pieces. O notte amata was from Cicognini’s Il Gran Natale di Christo Salvator Nostro.

I have some minor complaints or criticisms which should, however, not deter anyone from gaining access to this music. To better understand the editorial criteria (and problems) of the transcription, at least one page of the music in facsimile should have been included. The expression tratti d’unione  is used here for beams, instead of the more common travatura for beaming. Of course in 1623 the Venetian Vincentis (in this case Alessandro Vincenti, son of Giacomo) type set with movable characters, assembling every letter and note, each block including a piece of staff, making beaming impossible. (It was used in manuscripts, woodcuts and engravings, and is implicit in the conception of figured counterpoint). So Bonechi was certainly right to separate notes syllabically and beam them in melismas. She does not, however, do this consistently. Also, her reference to expressing the note values of  ‘white mensural notation’ in modern figures is completely unclear, whereas later she is clear that black notation is rendered in modern notation and indicated by brackets. In the first case I would like to know whether some sections appearing to be in modern 3/2 were written as three semibreves, the difference, whether intended as proportions or by 1623 simply as ‘appropriate’ values, being substantial.

Gagliano uses a generous number of continuo figures, which, to the credit of Bonechi, seem well placed here. I did find some wrong notes, which may have come from the original print, and should have been spotted and editorially corrected. Much more serious and problematic are the editorial suggestions for alterations. As long as every user is cautiously suspicious about adopting editorial alterations, and reasons long and hard about every one, and other possible ones, then an editor has the right to serve the composer in this way. But inevitably one jumps to conclusions, or sees analogous passages which are not so, or anticipates the anticipations (perhaps forgetting an imitation), and so on. Every such suggestion should trigger pondered evaluation. We are still dealing with modal theory; Diruta, we now know, was still alive and frequenting the Vincentis; and even if one takes the concept of musica ficta as an alibi for modernizing the harmony, it isn’t applicable to every note in diminutions or free counterpoint.

The underlay is mostly correct, but sometimes not – which is odd for an Italian transcriber-editor. English editions regularly make such mistakes as sos-pi-ri instead of so-spi-ri (which occurs once right and four times wrong on pages 78-79, along with d’as-pri instead of d’a-spri). The fault may lie in computer setting, or a lack of proof-reading. The more we see accidentally (or deliberately) wrong syllabification in an otherwise excellent edition, the more confused we get about what is correct!

None of these small criticisms spoils my enthusiasm and gratitude to Bonechi and the LIM for this addition to the Biblioteca musicale series. I hope that English readers won’t be put off by not being able to read the text. Actually, before I read it I started to play the first number, Luci, stelle d’amor chiare e ardenti, after which I couldn’t stop until I had played through the entire volume.

Barbara Sachs


Schmelzer: Le memorie dolorose

Tenet Vocal Soloists, Acronym
Olde Focus Recordings FCR914

Following relatively hot on the heels of a fabulous recording of settings of the Jubilus Bernardi by Capricornus, this stunning performance of a little-known Passiontide oratorio by Schmelzer (perhaps the first of a major piece of vocal music?) can only enhance the reputation of the ensemble Acronym, and also those of the Tenet Vocal Soloists (in this case 11 first-class singers).

Viennese tradition saw musical settings of reflections on Christ’s passion by the leading poets and composers of the day performed in elaborate theatre-like sets for the private devotion of the emperor and his inner circle. Here Nicolò Minato contrasts happy memories from Christ’s life with the events from the story of his crucifixion. The musical style is very much of the age – the narrative is declaimed in tuneful recitative and each section is followed by arias whose melodies are simple but memorable. There are also a duet, three trios, a quartet and two choruses. As tradition also seemed to demand, various passages were set by the emperor himself, here Leopold I, one of which is the longest track on the CD (perhaps Schmelzer was obliged to ensure that this was the case?). Acronym interpolate two sonatas for strings.

The singing is glorious and the instrumental playing (including violini piccoli and lirone!) outstanding. The whole has a very relaxed sense of pace – nothing seems rushed or over-dramatised. If anything, in fact, at points I wanted a little more anguish and pain in the voices; but I stick by my overall impression of the performance – the fact that I listened to it back-to-back three times should give an idea.

I’m afraid I didn’t react in the same way to the booklet note. Firstly – and this is probably just me, so perhaps it’s not even a point worth making – I found the references to “our oratorio” and “our sepolcro” and the conclusion that the work “well deserves its first recording” a little twee. More importantly, I found a paragraph about alterations of the libretto very difficult to read. I understand the reasoning behind the change (even though ultimately I think it is a suprious argument), but I wonder why a quarter of a page of the notes had to be devoted to taking “a clear stand”; given that the piece is as obscure as it is, why not just make the changes tacitly? No-one need be any the wiser. It is the banner-waving I find difficult, not the objectionable passages in the original. Ultimately, though, where does such modern-day censorhip stop?

Brian Clark


Bach: Cantatas BWV 169 & 2

Le Banquet Céleste, [Céline Scheen,] Damien Guillon, [Nicholas Scott, Benoît Arnould] ScTTB, Maude Gratton organ
Alpha Classics Alpha 448
+BWV 543, 662-664

Alpha have produced a number of fine recordings over the years, and this CD from Damien Guillon, the countertenor, collaborating again with Maude Gratton playing the 2007 Thomas organ in the Église Réformée du Bouclier in Strasbourg is full of wonderful sonorities. It gives us a truer picture of what Bach Cantatas can sound like when the accompaniment based on a substantial organ, and the organ in this church is in the west of a gallery that runs round three sides of the church. Plenty of room has been created for singers and instruments – including a mellow-toned harpsichord – and the effect of cello and contrabass, organ and harpsichord in recitatives is breathtaking.

I know the church, and have played its organ, which is pitched at A=415 Hz (though it has a couple of ranks at 440). The acoustics are not over-resonant, but gave enough give to ensure good blend. The detailed specification is given, but unfortunately no details of the registration for individual movements.

Guillon sings beguilingly, and, save for one awkward change of register in BWV 169.iv on the words sie schließt die Hölle zu, (though perhaps that gritty sound is intended here?) with his habitual elegance and musicianship. The one-to-a-part strings and wind are perfectly tuned, and the organ when playing obligato lines sings out nobly, but never swamps the rest of the band. It is another recording – like that of arias from the cantatas made by A Nocte Temporis with Reinoud van Mechelen with a Traverso and continuo (Alpha 252 – reviewed in the EMR in December 2016) using the 1718 André Silbermann organ in Saint Aurélie, Strasbourg – that gives us a sense of the rich sonorities you can find if you look for an appropriate organ. The other Cantata on this CD is BWV 82, Ich habe genug, in the version Bach made for an alto/mezzo voice in C minor in 1735.

The other works on this CD are played stylishly by Maude Gratton on the organ. There are three Chorale Preludes on Allein Gott in der Höh sei Ehr – BWV 662, 663 and 664, and the Prelude and Fugue in A minor, BWV 534.

Small clips on Youtube allow us to glimpse something of her nimble pedalling as well as her sparkly style and well-chosen registrations.

This is a CD that has given me much pleasure, and from which I have learnt a lot: but I know of no suitable organs in either 415 or 465 in England where we might be able to perform our Bach Cantatas like this, so I hope the builders will listen to this and see what they can do! I recommend this without reservation.

David Stancliffe

Sheet music

Zelenka: Six Settings of “Ave regina coelorum” (ZWV 128)

Edited by Frederic Kiernan
Recent Researches in the Music of the Baroque Era, 204
ISBN 978-1-9872-0053-9
A-R Editions, Inc. $120.00

This small volume is an excellent guide to how differently a single composer can treat exactly the same text; even the two settings with matching scoring are quite different – while one is in common time, the other is in triple time. Zelenka’s church music is becoming better known through editions and recordings and I hope fans of his music with perhaps more modest forces at their disposal than some of the concerted masses require will explore Kiernan’s editions of these Marian antiphon settings.

That said, the book could have been even shorter, had all the written-out colla parte instruments been left out. Kiernan opts to drop the oboes out in solo passages in the second setting, yet has the very short five-bar trio section in the first doubled by strings. We are told that the viola part for no. 2 is extracted from the bass line, and yet the music in the first bar is not the same (the viola actually doubles the violins). The added basso ripieno part in nos. 2 and 5 (essentially so that the cello does not play along with the solo passages, some of which are in treble clef anyway) could surely just have been marked “[senza basso]”, and the quaver in bar 10 of no. 2 is too prescriptive – the voices above hold the same note for a full crotchet. In fact, that is probably my overriding impression of the edition as a whole – it is great to have the music available in modern notation, but it could have been done in a simpler fashion without detriment.

Brian Clark

Sheet music

John Eccles: The Judgment of Paris

Edited by Eric J. Harbeson
Recent Research in the Music of the Baroque Era, 203
ISBN 978-1-9872-0016-4
A-R Editions, Inc. $165.00

This is the fourth volume in A-R Editions’ series devoted to the music of little-known English composer, John Eccles. I say “little-known” because, although his name will be familiar to anyone with an interest in English baroque music, few can have had many opportunities to hear any of it in live performance. Along with the two other surviving settings of Congreve’s masque (Gottfried Finger’s setting – which came fourth in the contest for which they were written – has vanished, leaving others by John Weldon (the winner) and Daniel Purcell), it was heard at the BBC Proms in 1989 and I am unaware of any other performance in the UK since then.

Eric J. Harbeson’s meticulous edition should help remedy that. It seems that all possible sources have been checked against one another, despite which the critical commentary fits a mere four pages. The text is scrutinized against the printed libretto. The already quite full figured bass is augmented by additional symbols to help inexperienced players. With a mere five soloists and (apart from the inclusion of no fewer than four trumpets!) a fairly modest band, Eccle’s Judgment of Paris should appeal to smaller opera companies – the whole aim of the contest was to stimulate increased interest in English language musical theatre, after all!

Brian Clark

Sheet music

The Hymn Cycle of Vienna 16197

Late Sixteenth-Century Polyphonic Vesper Hymn Settings from the Habsburg Homelands
Edited by Lilian P. Pruett
Recent Researches in the Music of the Renaissance, 169
ISBN 978-1-9872-0010-2
A-R Editions, Inc. $260.00

Dating from the second half of the 16th century, Vienna 16197 is a large choir-book format volume containing 27 alternatim hymn settings scored for either four or five voices (mostly adding another voice for the final verse(s)). They are (unusually for such volumes, according to the editor) arranged in the order of the church calendar, with the plainchant required for the odd verses supplied by Pruett from Cantorinus ad eorum instructionem (Venice, 1550). I was puzzled that this was transcribed in bass clef with ledger lines, given that most of the chant is given in tenor clef.

No-one has identified the composer(s) of the music; one of the two non-hymns included (a largely homophonic four-voice setting of the text Fit porta Christi pervia) survives in other sources but its composer has never been established. Pruett presents most of it in four-minim bars. As with other A-R Editions, the music is presented in modern clefs for standard choir, irrespective of the original clef combinations. This approach, together with minimal musica ficta, allows performers access to the music in a non-prescriptive way, allowing them to choose their own pitch and to spice up the harmony, should they so wish.

Anonymous music is too often overlooked by musicians. I hope Pruett’s excellent edition will encourage choirs to explore this interesting repertoire – after all her effort, it deserves to be heard!

Brian Clark

Sheet music

Canzoni francese libro primo

Ottaviano Scotto’s 1535 Collection of Twenty-Three Chansons for Four Voices
Edited by Paul Walker
Recent Researches in the Music of the Renaissance, 170
ISBN 978-1-9872-0018-8
A-R Editions, Inc. $200.00

Paul Walker’s edition of Scotto’s collection of Parisian chansons presents the music at the printed pitch for a regular four-voice choir. Nine of them have a baritone clef for the lowest voice (of which six also have the modern treble clef for the uppermost), while another has tenor on the bottom and treble on the top, and the penultimate piece is for C1, C2, C3 and C4 – there must be some reason for these different combinations, but perhaps Walker is right to present the music thus and leave it to performers to make their own decisions about what pitch they will sing the music at.

Eight of the 23 pages of introduction are devoted to presenting the texts as poetry along with translations, variant textual readings, and notes on the contents of the texts. Walker explains the background to the print (for which there is no surviving soprano part, obliging him to use that from a reprint of 1536), and expresses surprise at Scotto’s seemingly random choices and omissions – not all of the works have been identified, and some of Scotto’s attributions have been shown to be inaccurate.

Walker’s edition is exemplary; prefatory clefs and ranges allow performers to see at a glance whether a particular song will fit their group. Each song begins on a new page and is laid out generously without being overly spacious. There is little in the way of ficta, and none of that is controversial. I did find the use of bold brackets and bars full of triplets a little over-kill to represent coloration, but that is an editorial choice that we all have to make. All in all, this is probably one of the most user-friendly volume I’ve reviewed recently from this publisher – and I hope that will encourage vocal groups to explore the repertoire contained within it.

Brian Clark