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Recording

Les maîtres du motet: Brossard & Bouteiller

Les Arts Florissants, directed by Paul Agnew
67:05
harmonia mundi HAF 8905300

[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he concentration on Paris as the hub of musical life has tended to obscure the work of French 17th- and 18th-century composers active in the provinces. The disc to hand includes music by two such composers, who if not totally neglected – both major works on the CD have received previous recordings – are not exactly household names. The better known is Sébastian de Brossard, but even he is today probably more famous as an indefatigable collector and historian who published the first French dictionary of music than as a composer. An aristocratic cleric, Brossard spent most of his life at the cathedral at Strasbourg, to where in 1687 he was one of those sent by Louis XIV to restore Catholicism after the re-capture of Alsace. In 1698 he went to Paris, hoping to be appointed maître de musique at Sainte Chapelle, but the post went to Charpentier. Brossard’s final post was at the cathedral in Meaux, where he died in 1730.

It is to Brossard that we owe the survival of the known sacred music of Pierre Bouteiller, who was born around 1655. A shadowy figure, he is first heard of as director of music at Troyes Cathedral in 1687. Following a period in the equivalent post at Châlons-en-Champagne, Bouteiller returned to Troyes, remaining there until 1698, when he moved to Paris. There he established himself as a performer on the viola da gamba ‘and other instruments’. Other than a commissioned Te Deum no record of Bouteiller’s being active as a composer in Paris exists, although he apparently remained in the city until his death, which occurred around 1717.

Brossard recounts a meeting with Bouteiller in Châlons, at which time the latter gave the collector manuscripts of 13 ‘excellent’ petits motets, and a ‘very good Mass for the Dead’ in exchange for Brossard’s recently published first book of motets. Brossard took great care of the manuscript, which he considered to be ‘one of the best I have’, the works included in it remaining all that is extant of Bouteiller’s output of sacred music. The present disc includes the Missa pro defunctis (Requiem), which is scored in five parts with continuo accompaniment. Many hearing it in this wonderful performance will likely consider Brossard’s description to be an exceptional example of masterly understatement. Anyone who regularly reads my reviews will know I’m not prone to hyperbole, but my verdict be that the work is a sublime masterpiece, a largely polyphonic setting in stile antico that throughout demonstrates Bouteiller’s mastery of contrapuntal technique and manipulation of varied textures, including telling touches of affective chromaticism. Especially lovely is the in alternatim setting of the Kyrie, the plainchant set off to great effect by the polyphony. Equally as impressive is Bouteiller’s response to his text, which concentrates on the consolatory and even uplifting, the latter exemplified by the buoyant, confident setting of a verse from Psalm 23 in the Graduel (‘Though I walk’ etc). Yet the overall impression left by this exquisitely lovely work is of heart-easing transcendence.

The major work of Brossard’s here is his Stabat Mater, a large-scale 8-part setting. Divided into 17 sections, it is richly diverse, ranging from grand motet passages like the opening to the chamber-like ‘O quam tristis’ a grief-filled setting of the utmost beauty for solo quartet. The final sections, at first deeply penitential then increasingly ecstatic, culminate in an animated radiance that brings this splendid work to a deeply satisfying peroration. In addition there are two further works by Brossard, a Miserere mei Deus in which two soprano soloists alternate verses with the choir, made especially effective by the recessed placing of the latter, and a 5-part a capella setting of Ave verum corpus, a tiny gem that the brings the disc to an ineffably satisfying close.

As already suggested the performances are outstanding, with beautifully balanced choral singing in the more fully-scored passages and unfailingly sensitive solo work from the seven soloists selected by Paul Agnew from within Les Arts Florissants. This is not only the most deeply affecting CD I’ve heard in some time but also unquestionably one of my records of the year.

Brian Robins

Categories
Recording

Mayr: Psalms from Sacri Concentus 1681

Ars Antiqua Austria, Gunar Letzbor
59:13
Challenge Classics CC72759

OFTEN THESE DAYS groups attempt some sort of liturgical reconstruction when they perform and record selections of Vespers music. Not so here. Even though there is plenty of room for another psalm and a Magnificat, Letzbor (whose booklet note spend six pages talking about the training of choir boys before devoting two to the little that is known with much certainty about Rupert Ignaz Mayr) is forced by restricting himself to a single publication to give us four psalms performed by four different singers with four-part string accompaniment and a similarly scored hymn setting. Boy treble Fabian Winkelmaier sings Laudate pueri, tenor Markus Miesenberger Confitebor tibi Domine, alto Markus Foster Beati omnes, bass Gerd Kenda Nisi Dominus and male soprano Alois Mühlbacher Venite gentes. These are what Letzbor calls “honest” recordings with no extra engineering to “nicefy” the sound, so the sound is quite dry which pays dividends at the ends of phrases where the decay is fairly rapid. I am disappointed that at least one more piece from the 1681 publication was not included – there are some really nice moments on this recording!
Brian Clark

Categories
Recording

Jacques Arcadelt: Motetti, Madrigali, Chansons

Choeur de Chambre de Namur, Cappella Mediterranea, Doulce Mémoire
185:12 (3 CDs in a box)
Ricercar RIC 392

[dropcap]T[/dropcap]his is a collection in three parts, with the motets sung by the Chamber Choir, the madrigals sung and played by the Cappella and the chansons by Doulce Mémoire. While I was aware of and have directed several of Arcadelt’s madrigals and chansons, I don’t think I have come across any of his motets, so it was with particular interest that I listened to them. Very smoothly crafted and with elegant part movement, they are very much the sort of sacred music one would expect from the composer of his secular music. Arcadelt was a Namur man, and the Chamber Choir de Namur appear to be at the root of this project, but it has to be said they struggle a little with the more complex passages in Arcadelt’s polyphony, particularly as they have recorded them in a rather resonant acoustic and use an organ accompaniment throughout. The music is nonetheless interesting, and the motets CD ends intriguingly with a couple of homages from Pierre-Louis Dietsch and Franz Liszt whose versions of Ave Maria based on Arcadelt’s music started the revival of interest in the composer’s own music. The Cappella Mediterranea’s beautiful account of the madrigals opens with Arcadelt’s lovely setting of Il bianco e dolce Cigno and they proceed to give us lovely accounts of a cross-section of his madrigals from several of his collections. The voices are supported severally by lute, guitar, harpsichord and organ. With the chansons CD, we come to the wonderfully professional Doulce Mémoire, whose energetic and characterful accounts of the chansons on a mixture of voices and instruments are perhaps the most successful part of this comprehensive collection. This three-CD collection performs a valuable service in drawing attention to the versatility of Jacques Arcadelt, and it was only when I came to listen to the chansons after the motets that I realised that the distinctive combination of highly animated lines combined with more sustained textures also occurs in his motets.

D. James Ross

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Gloriosus Franciscus

La music per San Francesco dal XIII al XVI secolo
Anonima Frottolisti
73:48
Tactus TC 250001

[dropcap]T[/dropcap]his selection of sacred music devoted to St Francis includes some real musical gems, perhaps most strikingly the items from the 13th-century Reims Psalter which include a dramatic Kyrie and other liturgical items. The later material from the 15th and 16th centuries receives varied performances on a galaxy of instruments and voices. By doubling lots of different instruments, the ensemble of just 13 players and singers manages a dazzling variety of timbres and textures, including the unexpected sounds of for example the Renaissance psaltery. Meanwhile, the voices are cappella chanters, solo singers and narrators. This versatility adds enormous variety to a programme already diverse in its sources and material. I have just one small gripe – inexplicably and as happens so often the spoken voice inhabits its own boomy world of artificial acoustic. Why not just record it in the same natural acoustic as the singing voices? Anyway, this CD provides a varied and consistently interesting cross-section of Franciscan music from three centuries in performances which are arresting and impressive.

D. James Ross

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Recording

Marenzio: L’amoroso & Crudo stile

Rossoporpora, Walter Testolin dir
79:30
Arcana A 449

[dropcap]O[/dropcap]nce in a while – rather more rarely than some would have us believe – a truly exceptional recording comes along, a recording of such musical merit and artistic quality that it stops us in our tracks. This is such a CD. It represents a debut for the Italian vocal ensemble Rossoporpora, which has perhaps unwisely chosen to call itself by the same name as an Italian underwear firm (if you want to see what I mean, google it). For their programme they have turned to Luca Marenzio, arguably the greatest of all ‘pure’ madrigal composers.

Marenzio’s extensive output is dominated by his secular works, in particular no fewer than 18 books of madrigals for five or six voices, published in Venice between 1580 and 1599, the year of his death. A single book of four-part madrigals appeared in Rome in 1585. A dozen of these books are represented on the present CD, performed in roughly chronological order, excellent planning that allows us to follow Marenzio’s development as a composer. Such evolution is concerned more with emotional weight and substance than with significant stylistic change, for Marenzio showed little inclination to break the mould of the unaccompanied polyphonic madrigal in the manner Monteverdi would do so dramatically just a few years later. Neither, despite his contribution to the famous 1589 Florentine wedding intermedio, did Marenzio show any interest in the emergence of the revolutionary stile recitativo.

It is customary to divide Marenzio’s madrigal output into two distinctive phases. The first, characterised by an easy grace, mellifluous elegance and ‘sweetness’ was widely praised by his contemporaries both in Italy and further afield. It was what won him his reputation throughout Europe. The second, heralded by the composer himself as being composed ‘in a quite different manner from the past, tending […] towards – I shall say – a sorrowful gravity’, is the ‘crudo (cruel) stile’ of the present disc’s title. This was marked, starting with the seminal Madrigali a 4, 5 et 6 voci of 1588, by a new concentration on serious texts by the great Italian poets of the past, above all the peerless sonnets of Petrarch. This division serves as a handy reference, but is also simplistic, as the CD shows, for as well as beguiling examples of Marenzio’s earlier style such as ‘Come inanti de l’alba’, with its ravishing ethereal opening, the dissonant pain of pieces such as ‘Dolorosi martir’ (from the 5-part Madrigals, Book 1 of 1580) plumb depths of emotion as searing as do such great Petrarchan madrigals as ‘Solo e pensoso’ or ‘Crudele, acerba’.

As suggested at the outset the performances are outstanding, indeed they are near-exemplary on both technical and interpretative grounds. The seven voices of Rossoporpora, all excellent in their own right, blend beautifully in whatever combination they are employed, being superbly balanced in contrapuntal writing, while perfectly chorded in the homophonic passages with which the composer so skilfully employs contrast. The realisation of the texts, so acutely understood and set by Marenzio, is achieved with a complete understanding of both musical and literary syntax perhaps only achievable fully in this repertoire by singing in one’s native language. Neither are the performances frightened of employing tempo fluctuations to expressive means, which to my mind pays big dividends in a long text like ‘Cruda Amarilli’ (from Guarini’s Il pastor fido). But these are performances not to analyse, but rather to admire, to savour, to delight in, to share exquisite suffering in.

A couple of practical points. Two of the madrigals are performed in intabulations for two lutes, common practice at the time with popular pieces, while two others are given by solo voices and two lutes. Less successful is the addition of the two lutes to ‘Non vidi’, one of the 4vv madrigals, since they distract attention from the vocal polyphony. The loss of a star from ‘overall presentation’ is accounted for by booklet text of a size that would severely test the eyes of even an owl. But there can be no doubting that this is now unquestionably the finest available recording of a selection of Marenzio madrigals. It is, in a single word, magnificent.

Brian Robins

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Steffani: O barbaro Amore

Duetti da camera
66:07
Musica Omnia mo0711
(Booklet notes by Colin Timms)

[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he duets of Agostino Steffani play an important role in the development of vocal chamber music, reflected both in their own intrinsic merit and the influence they had on succeeding composers, not least Handel. Justly, their importance has started to be reflected on CD, the most recent issue emanating from the Boston Early Music Festival reviewed by David Hansell on EMR earlier in the month (August 2018), while my review of a disc by the Spanish Forma Antiqua ensemble can be found in the listings for July 2016. Since it included a fairly comprehensive introduction to Steffani’s chamber duets interested readers are referred to that review. Now those recordings are joined by this newcomer, which also emanates from the USA.

It is probably a measure of the challenges these duets present to their performers when I conclude that none of these recordings is truly satisfactory. A major difficulty is the communication of texts that deal with many aspects of love, not infrequently in ironic terms. As Steffani scholar Colin Timms perceptively writes in his valuable notes for the new issue (he also wrote the essay for the Boston issue), the ‘vocal writing […] reflects the rhythm, sound and meaning of the words, arousing a variety of affective responses…’ The problem is nowhere on these performances does it do so beyond generalised emotional gestures; it is surely not without significance that not one of the eleven singers featured across the three CDs has Italian as their native language. It shows.

The new disc features no fewer than five singers, of whom Canadian soprano Andréanne Brisson Paquin and mezzo Céline Ricci, the best-known name, have the lions share. Both they and their male companions, countertenor José Lemos, Steven Soph (tenor) and Mischa Bouvier (baritone) turn in good honest performances that in the final analysis fall some way short of ideal. Italian diction, Ricci excepted, is poor, while Paquin’s bright soprano has considerable character but the voice is too ill-focussed at times for this repertoire, though she and Ricci turn in a satisfyingly affecting performance of the more straightforward and exquisitely wrought ‘Lontananza crudele’. But one needs listen only to the searing chromatic lines of the opening ‘Occhi, perché piangete’ in the rival Spanish version, itself not ideal, to be aware of what is missing here. The continuo support on the new disc is unexceptionable, if at times somewhat stolid. It remains only to add that anyone who wants to investigate Steffani’s chamber duets – and that should include anyone interested in Baroque vocal music – the present recording involves no duplications with the Boston CD. But what we really need are interpretations by some of the fine present crop of Italian early music singers.

Brian Robins

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Come to my Garden, my Sister, my Beloved

Voces Suaves, Jörg-Andreas Bötticher
69:57
deutsche harmonia mundi 1 90758 49752 5
Music by Franck, Haussmann, Palestrina & Schein

[dropcap]M[/dropcap]y first encounter with the Swiss-based vocal ensemble Voces Suaves came when they took part in the valuable eeemerging project. I thought at the time that they appeared more advanced, more mature than some of their competitors, being very impressed with their singing of madrigals by Giaches de Wert and Monteverdi (see the report of the 2014 Ambronay Festival on this site). Here they turn their attention to German repertoire of the time of Monteverdi, with results that are in many ways equally as impressive, if not completely satisfying.

The majority of the CD is devoted to settings from the Song of Songs by Melchior Franck (Geistliche Gesäng…, 1608) and extracts from two of Johann Schein’s publications, Musica boscareccia  of 1621/1628 and Diletti pastorali  (1624). Both the Schein collections are settings of German translations from the two most famous collections of early Baroque pastoral poetry, Tasso’s Aminta  and Guarini’s Il pastor fido. Stylistically the works of the two composers are very different, Franck’s more solid, chordal or largely syllabic settings contrasting markedly with those of Schein, which are 5-part continuo madrigals much along the lines of Monteverdi’s late madrigalian writing. The real gems here to my mind are the three madrigals from the 1624 collection, exquisitely turned works embracing warmly expressive Italianate lyricism. Listen, for example, to the exquisite ‘O Amarilli zart’, a paradigm of intense longing. Anyone seeking a larger collection of these lovely settings might try tracking down a 1989 recording by Cantus Cölln, also on DHM.

But all this music is well worthy of attention. If the ‘Song of Songs’ settings eschew the overt eroticism some find in the poetry in favour of the religious conceit of viewing them in the context of Christ the bridegroom, they work well on their own terms, with a rhetorical power similar to – if not quite the equal of – that we find in the works of Schütz. In addition to the vocal works the CD includes several short instrumental pieces, including, appropriately, transcriptions of two extracts from Palestrina’s ‘Canticum canticorum’.

The performances display many of the qualities I noted back in 2014, the voices well blended, finely tuned and often producing sound of great beauty. What I would have liked here is rather more attention paid to the texts and the interpretation of them, diction not always being as precise as would be desirable. In sum, there is a danger at times of a degree of blandness. But overall the CD is well worth investigating. The note is excellent, but it would have been helpful to have been given details of the performing forces involved on each track.

Brian Robins

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Sheet music

Samuel Michael: Psalmodia Regia (Leipzig, 1632)

Recent Researches in the Music of the Baroque Era, 201
Edited by Derek L. Stauff
xxxii + 209pp (plus a facsimile of the tenor part book)
A-R Editions, Inc.
ISBN 978-0-89579-879-4 $230.00

[dropcap]O[/dropcap]ne of the four earliest Leipzig prints of vocal music involving instruments (the others being by Schütz, Schein and the composer’s brother, Tobias), Samuel Michael’s 25 settings of verses from the first 25 psalms is a most important collection. Printed shortly after the liberation of Leipzig by the combined armies of Sweden and Saxony during the Thirty Years War, it contains music for between two and five parts above the basso continuo. These range from vocal duets, through solos or duets with obbligato instruments, up to five voices. They average around the 90 bars in length. The texts reflect the trials and tribulations of the inhabitants of Leipzig (and the German population in general) during the war, while the musical language reveals the increasing influence of Italian music, though really these interesting and worthwhile pieces would stand comparison with Schütz or Schein in concert (or church).

After Stauff’s informative introduction to the composer and the dedicatee of the original print (not something we hear enough about terribly often!), he discusses the context of its creation and publication, goes into some detail about its reception (which seems to have been far more widespread than you might imagine!) before no fewer than five pages of detailed footnotes and the full texts and translations of Michael’s chosen verses. Stauff reveals that a planned second instalment of 25 settings of extracts from Psalms 26-50 does not seem to have materialised – as if Leipzig had not had enough, the composer (and many of his family) fell victim to an outbreak of plague a year after liberation.

While Stauff’s Table 2 is interesting in showing where some of the texts were used in the liturgy of the Lutheran church in various places, the fact that he found no concordances at all for four of them would have been reason enough for me not to feel that this had been the reasoning behind Michael’s print. I would have thought it far more likely that cantors would have chosen pieces from the volume that matched the forces they had available or whose text resonated with a particular sermon or circumstance. Whatever his intentions, Stauff has done an excellent job of making this fine collection of modest works available in clear, practical editions. I hope A-R Editions will make imprints of the individual pieces available to performers who can undertake the next step of re-introducing this fine music to listeners!

Brian Clark

Categories
Recording

Steffani: Duets of love and passion

Amanda Forsythe, Emőke Baráth, Colin Balzer, Christian Immler SSTBar, Boston Early Music Festival Chamber Ensemble, Paul O’Dette, Stephen Stubbs
71:02
cpo 555 135-2

[dropcap]F[/dropcap]rom the very first notes it is clear that everyone involved in this recital means business and knows exactly what they’re doing. BEMF have previously (2011) brought Steffani’s opera Niobe, Regina di Tebe  to life. Now they complement this with a varied exploration of his chamber duets. As the notes observe, these show the influence of both French and Italian composers as a result of the composer’s studies and travels and in their time influenced Handel, who ‘borrowed’ ideas from them for his own compositions in the same genre.

All four singers are most accomplished as soloists and no less skilful in ensemble, however they are paired. Every time I thought I’d heard what would be my favourite track another came along and trumped it, or so I thought until the cycle began again! Questions have to be asked – and the performers ask them – as to whether or not Steffani would have deployed as rich a continuo palette as is heard here. In particular, I wonder if individual cantatas would have had a ‘you play this and I’ll come in here’ approach, but what is done in these performances is beautifully seamless and tasteful.

The notes (Eng/Ger) are informative and extensive and the Italian texts are translated into the same languages. Don’t write off Steffani as another composer who fell into a ‘black hole’ between Monteverdi and Vivaldi. Get this disc and meet your “Composer of the Month”.

David Hansell

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Categories
Recording

Un jardin à l’italienne

Airs, cantates & madrigaux
Les solistes du jardin des voix 2015, Les Arts Florissants, William Christie
74:41
harmonia mundi HAF 8905283
Music by Banchieri, Cimarosa, Handel, Haydn, Sarro, Stradella, Vecchi, Vivaldi & de Wert

[dropcap]R[/dropcap]ecorded in 2015 and released in 2017, this is the showcase concert from Les Arts Florissants’s 7th ‘Le Jardin des Voix’ project, an intensive period of training/rehearsal for singers on the threshold of their careers. It was a staged ‘divertimento’ and recorded live, which explains a few places where the musical elements are not perfectly balanced within the soundscape. There are also ‘noises off’, some of which are the audience clearly enjoying a great evening’s entertainment. I absolutely take my hat off to the deviser of the programme which moves more or less chronologically from Wert to Haydn (via Stradella, Vivaldi, Handel and others), gives all six singers ‘stand out’ as well as ensemble moments and has a sense of narrative flow. Not all the music from the concert is on the CD (one of the essays – Fr/Ger/Eng – refers to music which we do not hear), but it’s still coherent and action-packed. Get this, complement and compliment it with a glass of your favourite and enjoy! I’d have loved a DVD.

Brian Clark

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