Thursday, November 2, 2017

Early Music Surveys and Summations; 4 Recent Box Sets

Decca 478 8104 (50-disc box set) (2016 compilation)
L'Oiseau-Lyre: The Medieval and Renaissance Era
(various artists)

The third of three fifty-disc box sets released to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the L'Oiseau-Lyre label's affiliation with the Decca Group, The Medieval and Renaissance Era comprises recordings made between 1975 and 1996. Those years marked a veritable Renaissance of early music scholarship and performance, and L'Oiseau-Lyre's ubiquitous and aptly-named Floregium series brought the wonders of this "great flowering" to eager audiences around the world. Where before so many performances of early music had been dry, stodgy, overly-cautious when not bizarrely speculative or downright stuffy scholastic undertakings--groups like The Studio for Early Music far more concerned with study than musicality--now a new generation of artists endeavored to make this once-sleepy corner of the repertory come alive in interesting, accessible, exciting, and marvelously musical ways heretofore unheard, constantly breaking new ground such that passionate record collectors could hardly keep up with the surge of fascinating new releases. Most of the performances in this set come from a small but extremely-familiar cadre of artists, regarded now in retrospect as legends in their field: Anthony Rooley and his Consort of Musicke, Philip Pickett and The New London Consort, Emma Kirkby, Martyn Hill, Catherine Bott, David Thomas, Christopher Hogwood, and The Medieval Ensemble of London under co-directors Peter Davies and Timothy Davies. 

Like its companion sets, The Medieval and Renaissance Era comes in an elegantly lithographed flip-topped "cube", Each disc comes in its own light-weight cardboard sleeve designed to look like a miniature version of the original album jacket: these sleeves are delicate and rather flimsy (a weight- or cost-saving measure on Decca's part?) Packing of the two- and three-disc wallets is marginally more user-friendly than the far-too-tight multi-disc sleeves found in The Baroque Era, and it is generally easier to remove and replace the discs without fear of damage or fingerprinting that can impede optimal play. The set comes with a hefty 200-page booklet printed on fine glossy stock, which includes album contents and cue points, personnel rundowns, and some fairly useful discographical information, along with essays (in English, French, and German) on the repertory by Clifford Bartlett, and the history of the L'Oiseau-Lyre label by Raymond McGill. 

Highlights of the set are many, but to pick out a few favorites: Pickett and the New London consort's delightful The Feast of Fools (disc 5); polyphonic lais by Guillaume de Machaut (disc 8); selections of secular works by Dufay (disc 14) Josquin (16) and Isaac (17) all performed by The Medieval Ensemble of London; the exquisitely lyrical music of Le Chansonier Cordiforme  (The Heart-Shaped Songbook) with Rooley's Consort of Musicke (discs 19-21); music of Anthony Holborne performed by the Guildhall Waits (disc 24); and Pickett's wonderfully ebullient program of dances and marches by Tielman Susato (disc 25). Don Carlo Gesualdo's fifth book of madrigals gets a searing, probingly intimate reading from Rooley (disc 27), along with sacred and secular songs, consort and keyboard works of William Byrd (discs 34, 35, 36, 38-39). Not to be overlooked is Christopher Hogwood's enlightening survey of keyboard music by Frescobaldi, generally regarded as more properly a figure of the early Baroque, but perfectly at home in this company (discs 40-41). Rooley and the Consort of Musicke's legendary survey of the complete songs of Dowland are represented here by the 1976 reading of The First Booke (1600) (disc 46). (Alas, by contrast, the album of Dowland consort music may well be one of the most boring records ever made--one gets the impression that Rooley was afraid to actually have an opinion about the music!)

A few clinkers aside, this is, overall, a magnificent collection, and not to be missed!

Contents (with original L'Oiseau-Lyre album numbers):
(1) Music for Holy Week (Schola Antiqua, Jones and Blackley) (417 342-2 (1987))
(2) Ce Diabolic Chant: Ballades, Rondeaus, and Virelais of the late fourteenth century 
(The Medieval Ensemble of London (TMEoL) Davies) (DSLO 704 (LP) (1982))
(3) Carmina Burana (New London Consort (NLC) Pickett) (417 373-2) (1987))
(4) Libre Vermell (Pilgrim Songs) (NLC, Pickett) (433 186-2) (1992))
(5) The Feast of Fools (NLC, Pickett) (433 194-2 (1992))
(6-7) The Pilgrimage to Santiago (NLC, Pickett) (433 148-2 (1992))
(8) Machaut: 2 Polyphonic Lais (TMEoL, Davies) (DSDL 705 (digital LP) (1983))
(9) Oswold von Wolkenstein: Knightly Passions (NLC, Pickett) (444 173-2) (1996))
(10-11) Ockeghem: Complete Secular Works (TMEoL, Davies) (D254D3 (3-LP set) (1992))
(12) Matteo da Perugia: Secular Works (TMEoL, Davies) (DSLO 577 (1980))
(13) Sweet is the Song: Music of the Troubadours and Trouvères (Catherine Bott)
(448 992-2 (1997))
(14) Dufay: Secular Works (TMEoL, Davies) (D237D2 (2-LP set) (1980))
(15) Josquin de Prez: Missa di dadi; Missa 'Faisant regretz' (TMEoL, Davies) (411 937 (1984))
(16) Josquin: Secular Music (TMEoL, Davies) (411 938-1 (LP) (1985)
(17) Isaac: Chansons, Frottole & Lieder (TMEoL, Davies) (410 107-1 (LP) (1983))
(18) Bartolomeo Tromboncino: Frottole (The Consort of Musicke (TCoM), Rooley) (DSLO 593 (LP) (1981))
(19-21) Le Chansonier Cordiforme (TCoM, Rooley) (D186D4 (4-LP set) (1980))
(22) Mi Verry Joy: Songs of Fifteenth-century Englishmen (TMEoL, Davies) 
(DSDL 714 (digital LP) (1983))
(23) Lassus: Le Lagrime di San Pietro a 7 (TCoM, Rooley) (DSDL 706 (digital LP) (1982))
(24) Holborne: Pavans and Galliards (1599) (The Guildhall Waits) (DSLO 569 (LP) (1980))
(25) Susato: Dansereye (1551) (NLC, Pickett) (436 131-2 (1993))
(26) A Musical Banquet (1610) (TCoM, Rooley) (DSLO 555 (LP) (1979))
(27) Gesualdo: Quinto Libro dei Madrigali (TCoM, Rooley) (410 128-1 (LP) (1983))
(28) Morley: Ayres and Madrigals (TCoM, Rooley) (DSDL 708 (digital LP) (1983))
(29) Wilbye: First and Second Sets of Madrigals (TCoM, Rooley) (DSLO 597 (LP) (1982))
(30) Gabrieli: Symphoniae Sacrae II (1615) (Taverner Choir et al., Parrott) 
(DSLO 537 (LP) (1978))
(31) Coprario: Funeral Teares; Consort Music (TCoM, Rooley) (DSLO 576 (LP) (1979))
(32) Gibbons: Madrigals and Motets (TCoM, Rooley) (DSLO 512 (LP) (1975))
(33) Music from the Time of Elizabeth (various artists) (DSLO 606 (LP) (1983))
(34) Byrd: Palms, Sonnets & Songs (1588) (TCoM, Rooley) (DSLO 596 (LP) (1981))
(35) Byrd: Consort Music (1588) (TCoM, Trevor Jones) (DSLO 599 (LP) (1983))
(36) Byrd: My Ladye Nevells Booke (1591) (Hogwood) (DSLO 566 (LP) (1976))
(37) The Cozens Lute Book (c. 1600) (Rooley) (DSLO 510 (LP) (1977))
(38-39) The Fitzwilliam Virginal Book (Hogwood) (D261D2 (2-LP set) (1981))
(40-41) Frescobaldi: Keyboard Music (Hogwood) (D260D1/2 (2-LP set) (1982))
(42) Monteverdi: Quatro Libro dei Madrigali (1603) (TCoM, Rooley) (414 148-2 (1986))
(43) Amorous Dialogues (Emma Kirkby, Martyn Hill) (DSLO 587 (LP) (1980))
(44) Lawes: Sets for Violins & Division Viols (TCoM) (DSLO 564 (LP) (1979))
(45) Maynard: The VII Wonders of the World (1611) (TCoM, Rooley) (DSLO 545 (LP) (1980))
(46) Dowland: First Booke of Songes (1600) (TCoM, Rooley) (DSLO 508 (2-LP set) (1976))
(47) Dowland: Consort Music (TCoM, Rooley) (DSLO 517 (LP) (1976))
(48) Praetorius: Dances from 'Terpsichore' (1612) (NLC, Pickett) (414 633-2 (1986))
(49) The Sylvan and Oceanic Delights of Posilipo (NLC, Pickett) (425 610-2 (1990))
(50) John Jenkins: Consort Music (TCoM, Trevor Jones) (DSLO 600 (LP) (1982))

Erato 190295825972 (7-disc box set) (2017 compilation)
Hilliard Ensemble: Renaissance and Baroque Music

Erato 190295974916 (6-disc box set) (2017 compilation)
Hilliard Ensemble: Renaissance Music

Over the forty years of its richly prolific run, The Hilliard Ensemble recorded for numerous labels most notably including ECM, with occasional appearances on Coro, Harmonia-Mundi, and BIS. The group also made original recordings for EMI and Parlophone, many of which were also re-issued on affiliate labels such as Virgin and Erato. Released in 2017, this pair of attractive box sets brings together records made between 1983 and 1991 for EMI and Parlophone, both labels which would eventually be gathered under the aegis of Warner/Erato. Set contents with dates of original release are as follows:

Renaissance and Baroque Music:
(1) The Old Hall Manuscript (1991)
(2) Leonel Power: Masses and Motets (1989)
(3) Dufay: Missa L'homme armé; motets (1987)
(4) Art of the Netherlands (I) Heinrich Isaac (1989)
(5) Art of the Netherlands (II) Philippe de Monte (1983)
(6) Schütz: St. Matthew Passion (1984)
(7) J.S. Bach: Motets (1985)

Renaissance Music
(1) Italian Renaissance Madrigals (1992)
(2) English Renaissance Madrigals (1988)
(3) The Courts of Ferdinand and Isabella (1991)
(4) Music in the New World (1991)
(5) Byrd: Masses for three and four voices (1984)
(6) Byrd: Mass for five voices; Lamentations; Motets (1984)

Both sets feature handsome, sturdy packaging, with each disc housed in its own discrete cardboard sleeve cleverly reproducing the original album jacket. Documentation and contents are provided in tastefully semi-gloss booklets. Recorded sound is, overall, quite nice, though a tad "boxy" in spots (the Bach motets, the Philippe de Monte program). The performances themselves are, with a few minor exceptions, consistently fine. Highlights of the Renaissance and Baroque set must include a ravishing rendition of Dufay's Missa L'homme armé, and a gorgeously musical, deeply introspective reading of the Schütz Matthäus-Passion--far better than Hillier's later reading with the Ars Nova Copenhagen for Da Cappo--along with a fascinating selection of rarely-heard music by the early fifteenth-century English master Leonel Power. Perhaps the greatest disappointment of either set, the Bach motets seem turgid and rather dull, at least to my ears--but then, John Eliot Gardiner's electrifying performances on the Soli Deo Gloria label are a tough, if not impossible act to follow--I own about eight different versions of this repertory. 

The 6-disc Renaissance Music set comprises consistently superb performances of interesting, if mostly not-too-terribly-far off-the-beaten-track repertory. Lovely, intimately-scaled performances of familiar English madrigals make for interesting comparative listening: I like Hillier's interpretations as much or more than John Rutter's classic outings with the Cambridge Singers on Collegium and american Gramaphone. The disc of Italian madrigals is equally fine, exploring somewhat less-familiar territory, with an endearingly understated sound ideal that invites repeat listening. Two albums of Spanish music are particularly engaging: Hillier's singers adopt a slightly broader, more nasal sound quality, which works very well indeed. Last, and perhaps best of all, two lovely albums of music by William Byrd featuring his three known settings of the Mass (in three, four, and five parts, the last a fairly simple Missa Brevis setting) along with a gorgeous rendition of The Lamentations of Jeremiah, and a small handful of motets. If I have any complaint, it is that no additional material has been used to fill out the time on each disc, which sometimes run scarcely longer than forty minutes. Still, what's here is certainly delightful, and, more often than not, enlightening. Highly recommended!

Sony 88725431682 (9-disc box set) (2017 compilation)
Hildegard of Bingen: Complete Edition

Sequentia's groundbreaking recordings of the music of Abbess Hildegard of Bingen  (1098-1179) were revelatory in the early 1980s. Featuring first-rate music-making backed by the highest level of contemporary scholarship, these albums offered a rich view into the music, thought, and culture of the Middle Ages heretofore unimagined. At the time of the initial release, Ordo Virtutum (The Play of the Virtues) in 1983, Hildegard was the earliest composer whose name had come down to modern times--the earliest 'non-anonymous' composer in the West. But not just any composer; a truly great
composer, poet and thinker, and a female composer at that--talk about challenging busting stereotypes! These recordings also became part of the soundtrack of the New Age movement in the 1980s and 1990s; regarded by many less-serious listeners as background music for "relaxation" ignoring its very serious ecclesiastical origins. This is an observation rather than a complaint in retrospect; it's pointless to whine about the record-buying public "latching onto the right music for the wrong reason" when, ultimately, great music is finding its way, by whatever means, to the widest possible audience. This can only be to the good.

Eight of the nine discs in this present collection were previously compiled in a Sony Master's Series box set (886979 02482 3) (2011). This new set also includes Celestial Hierarchy from 2013. The seven albums comprising the new 2017 set, with their original release dates are: 

Ordo Virtutum (The Play of the Virtues) (DHM  77051-2) (2-disc set) (1994 re-issue from 1983)
Symphoniae  (DHM 77020-2)  (1993 re-issue from 1985)
Canticles of Ecstasy (DHM 77320-2) (1994)
Voice of the Blood (DHM 77346-2) (1995)
O Jerusalem (DHM 277353-2) (1997)
Saints (DHM 05472 77378-2) (2-disc set) (1998)
Celestial Hierarchy (DHM 87654 68642 8) (2013)

Deutsche Harmonia Mundi's original digital recordings were nothing short of breathtaking in the early 1980s, and here sound just as good, if not better than ever, This new set comes lavishly packaged in a faux-leather "book," cleverly designed to look like an ancient missal--unfortunately, its dimensions are incompatible with standard CD shelving. Within, the book folds out into a series of six outer "wings" featuring tasteful artwork, reproductions of details from illuminated manuscripts, along with summaries of disc contents. A hefty, separate paperback booklet resides in the center "spine", containing documentation in three languages; original liner notes from all seven albums as well as biographical information about the composer  and her times. The discs themselves are nested in groups of two, staggered one on top of the other without center mounting spindles. Several of the discs were rattling around loose inside the box when my copy arrived--unacceptable! Reluctantly, I transferred all the discs into conventional jewel cases in order to avoid damage, thus forgoing the enchantment of all that pretty packaging. This will be of interest to collectors who do not already have the 2011 box, or would like more than the bare-boned minimum documentation provided in that set.  


Thursday, March 23, 2017

The Brockes-Passion: Comparing Five Composers

Barthold Heinrich Brockes' 1712 devotional "re-imagining" of the passion story was set by many composers during the High-Baroque period including Handel, Telemann, and Keiser. Several of those settings are decided masterpieces: listening to a handful of them in fairly recent recordings, one is struck by the broad diversity of style, scale and mood inspired by the text. Comparison raises questions, too, about the way some of these composers felt free to rearrange the order or eschew whole sections of text altogether.  

Here is a brief overview of five different settings, all recorded since 1998.

Ramée RAM 1303 (2-disc set) (2014)
Reinhard Keiser: Brockes Passion
Vox Luminis
Les Muffatti
Peter Van Heyghen

Reinhard Keiser (1674-1739) was a major figure in the innovation and development of German opera during the Baroque period. His hauntingly beautiful setting of the Brockes Passion is a true hidden gem of the period, earning the admiration of no less than J.S. Bach, who performed the work at Leipzig shortly after his appointment there. This treasureable recording from 2014 captures the exquisite lyricism and heart-melting pathos of Keiser's setting with world-class singing and beautiful sound. Wholeheartedly recommended!

Carus 83.428 (2-disc set) (2010)
George Frederick Handel: Brockes Passion
Cologne Chamber Choir
Collegium Cartusianum
Peter Neumann

Handel's setting of the Brockes Passion is very fine indeed, with moments of true beauty. The very-Lutheran text is set in a grandly Italian style. This is probably the closest Handel ever came to Bach in terms of structure, tone, and temperament--one may, at times, recognize a similar approach to the use of dramatic music in the service of liturgy. Another lovely recording from the German Carus label. Highly recommended.

Harmonia-Mundi HMC 902013.14 (2-disc set) (2009)
Georg Philipp Telemann: Brockes Passion
RIAS Chamber Choir
Academie für Alte Musik, Berlin
René Jacobs

Jacobs makes the best possible case for Telemann's setting, which strikes one as rather short on imagination and thematic allure. The drama is not very subtle here, though the music is pretty enough. Fine performances by a dedicated group of soloists with the always-superb RIAS Choir and Berlin Academy for Early Music. Recommended.

Naxos 8.570326 (2008)
Johann Friederich Fasch: Passio Jesu Christi (Brockes Passion)
Overture (Suite) in d minor
Schola Cantorum Budapestiensis
Capella Savaria Baroque Orchestra
Mary Térey-Smith

J.S. Bach's immediate predecessor at Leipzig, Johann Friederich Fasch is best known today for his numerous instrumental works including concerti and suites--one of which (the famous Overture in d minor) takes up nearly a quarter of this disc. As for his abbreviated setting of the Brockes Passion, Fasch was decidedly out of his depth. Though the performing ensemble and soloists are adequate, the music itself lacks conviction or serious dramatic impact. Telling, especially, are the chorale settings, harmonizations about as bare-boned and uninventive as its possible to imagine, especially after a lifetime of exposure to the settings of Bach. Of interest to complete-ists and the insatiably curious; one can find decent recordings of the Overture elsewhere.

CPO 999 560-2 (2-disc set) (1998)
Gottfried Heinrich Stölzel: Brockes Passion
Michaelstein Chamber Choir
Telemann Chamber Orchestra
Ludger Rémy

Stölzel's marvelously subtle 1725 setting is an intimately-scaled masterpiece, worthy to stand alongside Keiser and Handel. To be sure, this isn't Bach, nor should one expect the same vast expressive pallet or plangent profundity. Stölzel's music is simpler, more overtly workmanlike, and down to earth, set on a much narrower, more intimate stage. Yet, taken for what it is, this Brockes Passion works very well indeed, both on a devotional and purely musical level. Ludger Rémy's immediately-lovable reading is convincing in every way, gorgeously sung and played, impeccably paced, bewitchingly lyrical, and unfailingly expressive. The German CPO label here offers its typically first-rate recorded sound. Highly recommended!

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Sir Malcolm Arnold: Two Recent Box Sets

Chandos CHAN 10853(4) X (4-CD box set) (2015 compilation)
Sir Malcolm Arnold: Complete Symphonies (1-9)
Richard Hickox/London SO (1-6)
Rulan Gamba/BBC PO (7, 8, 9)

Sony 8875181702 (11-CD box set) (2016 compilation)
Sir Malcolm Arnold: The Complete Conifer Recordings
Vernon Handley/Royal PO (Symphonies #s 1, 2, 5, 6, 7, 8)
Royal Liverpool PO (Symphonies #s 3-4)/ Bournemoth SO (Symphony #9)
Mark Stephenson/London Musici (concertos)
Elgar Howarth/Sir Malcolm Arnold/Grimthorpe Colliery (Brass) Band

Sony's 2016 compilation of music by Sir Malcolm Arnold features consistently fine interpretations in excellent sound at an irresistible bargain price, Part of Sony's Masters series, this no-frills 11-disc box comprises recordings made for the Conifer label between 1989 and 1997. As with all other entries in the series, each disc is discretely packaged in its own heavy cardboard sleeve with relevant performance information and recording dates printed on the back.


Symphonies #s 1 & 5

A Grand, Grand Overture; Concerto for 2 Pianos (3 Hands)
Carnival of Animals; Symphony #2

Symphonies #s 3 & 4

Symphony #6
Fantasy on a Theme of John Field
Sweeney Todd; Tam O'Shanter Overture

Symphonies #s 7 & 8

Concertino for Oboe & Strings; Fantasy for Oboe;
Symphony #9

Beckus the Dandipratt; Water Music;
Anniversary Overture; Philharmonic Concerto;
Peterloo Overture; A Flourish for Orchestra;
Symphony for Strings

Serenade for Small Orchestra; Larch Trees;
Concerto for Viola & Chamber Orchestra;
Concerto for 28 Players

Concerto for 2 Violins & String Orchestra
Concerto for Clarinet & Strings #1
Concerto for Flute & Strings #1
Concerto for Horn & Strings #2

Concerto for Clarinet & Orchestra #2
Concerto for Horn & Orchestra #1
Concerto for Flute & Orchestra #2
Concerto for Piano Duet & Strings

Arnold on Brass
4 Scottish Dances; Little Suites for Brass Bands #s 1 & 2
English Dances Sets 1 & 2; Fantasy for Brass Band;
4 Cornish Dances; The Padstow Lifeboat

It would be hard to imagine anything better than Vernon Handley's sparkling readings of the symphonies--nice as the Hickox performances for Chandos are. Handley gets to the lyric heart of the music, bringing drive and drama to the scores, beside which the competition seems to be standing still. This is especially evident in the earlier symphonies, but even in the later works, where, occasionally, the composer seemed to emphasize gesture over theme, Handley's unfailing musicality shines through. The Chandos album, while featuring the label's characteristically good sound throughout, lacks the consistent warmth or "presence" of the Conifer recordings. Details, so subtly underscored in Handleys readings, seem lost, especially in Gamba's performances of the final three works.

The symphonies alone would be enough to recommend the Sony box, but the inclusion of numerous concertos, overtures and various concert works (often featuring the composer's wry sense of musical humor) makes this set nothing short of indispensable. Particularly impressive are the three discs of concertos engagingly performed by soloists with the London Musici under Mark Stephenson. Arnold comes off here as a kind of modern-day Vivaldi, hyper-prolific, diversely imaginative, and always entertaining. The final disc in the set features music for brass, including arrangements of the composer's popular sets of folk dances.

The Chandos compilation of the nine symphonies will be of interest to die-hard Arnold fans and those (like myself) interested in comparative listening. Hickox' recordings  of the first six works, made with the LSO were originally released in 1994 and 1995, while Gamba's readings of Symphonies 7, 8, and 9 with the BBC PO date from 2001. The set features reproductions of the original album covers on each sleeve, bur does not, in fact, include the Oboe Concerto on disc 4. Again, there's nothing "wrong" with any of the performances per se, and, as noted above, the sound is above average. If cost is one's sole consideration, the Sony set remains the better choice.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

A Few More Great Christmas Records

The search for fresh, new, and exciting seasonal repertory often seems like a fool's errand, what with the steady stream of major-label releases designed, it seems, more to make money than music. Do we really need another album of popular carols in embarrassingly unimaginative arrangements to clutter up our shelves and gather dust eleven months out of the year? (Naxos' The Wonder of Christmas by the almost-always magnificent Elora Festival Singers was among the biggest and dullest disappointments of 2014 (Naxos 8.573421) while John Rutter's A Christmas Festival (Collegium COLCD 133 (2008)) does less to conjure visions of sugar plums than saccharine nightmares of dorsal fins on the chilly horizon.) Is there nothing new (or, at least, fresh and exciting) under the mid-winter sun? 

By way of answer, here's a list (with random annotations) of several fairly-recent records (new to me in any case); things I've enjoyed enough to recommend. 

Carus 83.392 (2015)
O Heilige Nacht: Romantic Choral Music for Christmas
Works by Brahms, Bruch, Reger, Loewe, Gustav Schrek et al.
Dresden Chamber Choir
Hans-Christoph Rademann

Beautifully sung, this program offers repertory that will be less familiar to many listeners.
These quiet choral reveries--many of them based on traditional carols and chorales--will be a soothing anodyne to the noisier intrusions of the season.

ECM (New Series 2408) B0021555-02 (2014)
Transeamus (English Carols and Motets)
The Hilliard Ensemble

For their final album, Paul Hillier and the ensemble he made famous over a forty-year career return, appropriately enough, to their Medieval English roots for a program of mostly off-the-beaten-track material, including works by William Cornysh, John Plummer, and Walter Lambe.

Harmonia-Mundi HMU 807575 (2015)
A Wondrous Mystery (Renaissance Choral Music for Christmas)
Works by H. and M. Praetorius, Clemens non Papa, Handl, Hassler, Eccard and Vulpius
Stile Antico

Christmas music of the late German Renaissance, especially the work of Michael Praetorius, has been so often indifferently done, that I was at first hesitant about this album. But Stile Antico has never let me down, and the ensemble's reputation was inducement enough. The group brings its impeccable musicianship, with freshness (and apparent gusto!) to this music--not all of it overly familiar--with ravishing choral sound, captured marvelously by Harmonia-Mundi's engineers.

Harmonia-Mundi HMU 807517 (2010)
Puer natus est (Tudor Music for Advent and Christmas)
Works by Tallis, Byrd, Taverner, Robert White, John Sheppard et al.
Stile Antico

Stile Antico's first album is still a delight, featuring their characteristic mastery of English Renaissance treasures. There is nothing uniquely seasonal about the style of this music--listeners  not following the English translations of the Latin texts might have no idea that these works relate to Advent and Christmas at all. Yet, the music is truly wonderful, particularly John Sheppard's glorious, soaring Verbum caro, which ends the program, and is, itself, well worth the price of the album.

Alla Vox AV 9634 (2003)
Villancicos y Danzas Criollas
(Works from Spain and the New World (1550-1750)
La Cappella Reial de Catalunya
Hesperion XXI
Jordi Savall

Not strictly speaking a Christmas record, Savall's lively renditions of traditional Spanish villancicos are, nonetheless, appropriately festive and delectably engaging.

Deutsche Harmonia-Mundi 88883761582 (2012)
On a Cold Winter's Day (traditional and folk music)
Elisabeth Kaplan (voice)
Quadriga Consort (early instruments)

In the tradition of Maddy Pryor and the Carnival Band's lively, often-rustic reinterpretations of traditional carols (A Tapestry of Carols (Saydisc CD-SDL 366 (1987)) the Quadriga Consort with vocalist Elisabeth Kaplan gives listeners a program of rhythmically vibrant music, seemingly for the sheer pleasure of it!

Maggie's Music MMCD108 (1993)
Ancient Noëls (tradition, folk, Medieval and Renaissance music)
Maggie Sansone (hammered dulcimer)
Ensemble Galilei

This independent production offers a pleasurable hour of listening, with fine music-making on traditional instruments. Scintillating and soothing, this is perfect music for achieving a quietly joyful, introspective frame of mind.

Erato 55193 (Virgin Veritas CDC 7243 5 55193 2) (1994)
(re-issued by Arkiv Music)
A Waverly Consort Christmas: Christmas from East Anglia to Appalachia
The Waverly Consort
Michael Jaffee

By now a classic along with the ensemble's famous 1977 album A Renaissance Christmas (CBS MK 34554 (1977)  A Waverly Consort Christmas from 1994 is sheer pleasure from beginning to end. Drawing on traditional sources from Great Britain and early America, there's plenty of variety from solemn hymns to rollicking fiddle tunes and drinking songs.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Early Choral Music at Trinity College, Cambridge

Sony 88985323472 (6-disc box set) (2016 compilation)
Early Choral Music at Trinity College, Cambridge
(Disc 1) Lasso : Regina Coeli and seasonal motets
(Disc 2) Victoria: Tenebrae Responses; Lamentations
(Disc 3) Sweelinck: Psalms of David
(Disc 4) Monteverdi: Dixit Dominus and other motets
(Disc 5) M. Praetorius: In Dulci Jubilo: Chorale Motets for Advent, Christmas etc.
(Disc 6) Schütz: Psalms of David
Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge
His Majestys Sagbuts and Cornetts (Schütz)
Richard Marlow 

Recorded for the Conifer label between 1990 and 1995, these stylish, coolly majestic mixed-choir performances of late-Renaissance and early-Baroque liturgical music are brought together for the first time under a single cover at an irresistibly reasonable price. Yet another entry in Sony's on-going Masters series of dedicated box sets, this six-disc compilation features the imprint's typically sturdy-albeit-bare-boned packaging, though a slim booklet is included with detailed contents and rosters of performers. Each disc comes in its own discrete cardboard sleeve with general contents and recording dates listed on the back. Recorded sound is excellent throughout, capturing the acoustic vibrancy of Cambridge's Trinity Chapel with a full, but limpidly naturalistic resonance. The readings themselves are lively and imaginative, with a rhythmic engagement and coloristic variety all-too often missing in essays of this repertory.

The Victoria Tenebrae Responsories and Lamentations were first issued in 1990 (Conifer 51188) and subsequently re-issued on the ultra-cheap Musical Concepts (Alto) label (ALC 1269 (2014)). Other discs were originally issued as follows: Schütz Psalms of David (Conifer 16072 (1991)); Sweelinck Psalms of David (Conifer 16850 (1992)); Monteverdi Dixit Dominus and other motets (Conifer 18991 (1992)); Lasso Regina Coeli and seasonal motets (Conifer 51230 (1994)); Praetorius In Dulci Jubilo: Chorale Motets for Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany (Conifer 51256 (1995))

Highly recommended!

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Rautavaara: A Basic Discography

Einojuhanni Rautavaara (1928-2016) was not only the most significant Finnish composer after Sibelius, but very probably among the finest of all later-twentieth century masters regardless of nationality. Rautavaara is undoubtedly the greatest composer most people have never heard of, and that's certainly a shame, for his music is fascinating, engagingly multi-faceted, often beautiful, deeply rewarding on many levels, and virtually always entertaining.

Stylistically, through the course of his long career, Rautavaara was all over the map, from the arid, pointillist soundscapes of modish 50s-era serialism, to the highly accessible, lushly consonant tone-paintings of twenty-first-century neo-romanticism, and, seemingly, everywhere in between. Probably his best-known work, the Cantus Arcticus (Concerto for Birds and Orchestra), Op. 61 falls squarely in this latter category. So much more than a mere experimental piece in which tape of diverse bird songs and calls are accompanied by an orchestra, this is a powerful, haunting work of art, in which the composer achieves a kind of mystical polyphonic synergy between the sounds of nature and the instruments of the orchestra, with moments so poignant and achingly beautiful as to bring the listener close to tears.

Like his contemporaries Pärt, Tavener, Penderecki, and--to some extent--Górecki, Rautavaara often explored spiritual and mystical themes, as in the early neo-classical Requiem in Our Time and the avant garde Playgrounds for Angels, both for brass ensemble, the relatively late Symphony #7 'Angel of Light' or his a cappella choral magnum opus Vigilate. He seemed to draw inspiration from everything around him, whether seen or unseen, but his metaphysical musings are neither treacly nor insincere. One never gets the  sense of being manipulated, proselytized or beaten over the head with the flail of absolute certainty, or bored to tears (as so often with Tavener) by an overly opportunistic or downright mercenary mysticism or (as occasionally with Penderecki) stale dogmatic digression.

To those seeking a relatively painless way into the world of Rautavaara, I highly recommend the 1999 Naxos release from Hanu Lintu and the Scottish National Orchestra, which includes Cantus Arcticus in a lovely reading with just the right balance of understated power, awe and exultation, as well as the Symphony #3 and the Piano Concerto #1. Well-played and superbly recorded, this album makes a near-perfect introduction to the composer's oeuvre. Those who find their appetites sufficiently whetted may next want to explore the series of 4-disc boxed sets compiled by the Finnish Ondine label in 2009: 'The 8 Symphonies' (Ondine ODE 1145-2Q), and the twelve (of the composer's fourteen) Concertos, including 'Cantus Arcticus' (Ondine ODE 1156-2Q), as well as a generous sampling of choral works (Ondine ODE 1186-2Q (2012)). Ondine has done yeoman service in recording so much of the composer's work over the years, and readers will note that all but one of the items in the following discography (based on my own collection) originate from that prestigious label.

Naxos 8.554147 (1999)
Rautavaara: Cantus Arcticus Op. 61 (Concerto for Birds and Orchestra) 
Piano Concerto #1 Op. 45
Symphony #3 Op. 20
Laura Mikkola (piano)
Hannu Lintu/Royal Scottish National Orchestra

Ondine ODE 1186-2Q (4-disc box set) (2012 compilation)
Rautavaara: Choral Works

Ondine ODE 1156-2Q (4-disc box set) (2009 compilation)
Rautavaara: 12 Concertos

Ondine ODE 1145-2Q (4-disc box set) (2009 compilation)
Rautavaara: The 8 Symphonies

Ondine 1000-2 (2-disc set) (2003)
Rautavaara: Alexis Kivi (opera in three acts)
Jorma Hynenin et al.
Markus Lehtinen/Jyväskylä Sinfonia

Ondine 750-2 (2-disc set) (1995) 
Rautavaara: Vincent (opera in three acts)
Jorma Hynenin et al.
Fuat Manchurov/Finnish National Opera Orchestra and Chorus

Ondine 1125-2D (2008)
Rautavaara: Complete Works for Male Choir
Matti Hyökki/YL Male Voice Choir
Pasi Hyökki/Talla Vocal Ensemble

Ondine 1085-2 (2006)
Rautavaara: Song of My Heart (Orchestral Songs)
Gabriel Suovanen
Lief Segerstam/Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra

Ondine 1149-2 (2010)
Rautavaara: Before the Icons
A Tapestry of Life
Lief Segerstam/Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra

Ondine 957-2 (2000)
Rautavaara: A Requiem in Our Time (Complete Works for Brass)
Hannu Lintu/Finnish Brass Symphony

Ondine 909-2 (1998)
Rautavaara: Quintet for Strings 'Unknown Heavens'
String Quartet #1 
String Quartet #2 Op. 12
Jean Sibelius String Quartet et al.

Monday, October 3, 2016

RIP Sir Neville Marriner (1924-2016): 25 Great Recordings

The world of classical music has lost one of its giants. Sir Neville Marriner, who passed away this month at the age of 92 was certainly one of the most prolific recording artists of all time with more than 600 recordings to his credit. Well over 400 of those were made with the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields (ASMF) the ensemble he founded in 1959, and first recorded with in 1962 for the L’Oiseau-Lyre label. The ASMF (which never recorded in the London church for which it is named) would also subsequently make many notable albums for the Argo label beginning in 1963-64 and into the early 1980s, as well as for Philips from about 1970, with Marriner appearing as conductor, leader, or ensemble member. As the founding music director of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra (LACO) in 1969, Marriner also forged a fruitful association with EMI in the mid to late 1970s.

In my 2014 review of Decca's 38-disc box set, Neville Marriner: The Argo Years, I indulged a bit of musical nostalgia: 

You could hardly get through an hour of FM classical programming in the ‘70s without hearing something from  Neville Marriner and the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields. The opening Sinfonia movement of the ensemble’s ravishingly beautiful 1968 Argo recording of Stravinsky’s Pulcinella Suite was the theme music for the popular Matinée program on public radio, and every classical DJ from New York to San Francisco seemed to be spending an inordinate amount of air time waxing pompously authoritative (mostly quoting liner notes) about the Rossini string sonatas, the Boyce symphonies, the Telemann Don Quichotte Suite, or the Corelli Concerti Grossi Opus 6, or filling up the last five minutes of their shows with Henry Cowell’s lovely Hymn and Fuging Tune Nr. 10 or Paul Creston’s rollickingly sardonic masterpiece, A Rumor, both from the 1976 Argo album of twentieth-century American music.  Indeed, by the latter half of the decade Marriner and the Academy had become such a staple of classical radio that a cartoon appeared in Stereo Review magazine: a man sits in his living room listening to the radio with his pet parrot. The announcer begins “That was the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields . . .” to which the parrot squawks “Neville Marriner conducting!”

I didn't mention in that review that I'd gotten to see and hear Marriner conducting live once back in the early 1980s. It was his first stop on a tour with The Minnesota Orchestra, playing Sibelius and Haydn at the original Hancher Auditorium in Iowa City. Well over six feet tall in tails, Marriner cut an impressive figure on stage, sweeping over to the podium with a kind of brusque grace reminiscent of a cheetah or a tiger. My immediate impression was that of intense focus and precision, a tightly coiled kinetic energy waiting to be released.  Would that the music-making that night had been equal to my anticipation: in truth, all I can recall about Marriner's reading of the Sibelius Fifth (one of my very-favorite works of the standard repertory) is that it was unbelievably dull, offering little sense that the conductor understood or even cared about the spatial aspects of the music. Granted, Hancher was never one of the world's great concert spaces acoustically speaking; but the sort of dry, flat sound that drifted out towards the seats was disillusioning to say the least. On the other hand, Marriner's Haydn (one of the London symphonies) positively sparkled that evening. 

This got my young self to thinking about what makes the difference between an effective live performance and a successful recorded one. Where we might automatically assume that a live reading is more spontaneous and energetic than something done in the studio, this is not necessarily the case. The demands of the studio impose a set of limitations, within which, a thoughtful artist can thrive. And Marriner understood the recording process like few others before or since:  

(On record) one always got the impression of an unstinting perfectionist with acute attention to detail and unfailing musical instincts. Where the notorious fastidiousness of many of the older generation of “tyrant” conductors manifested itself all-too-often in heavy, stiff or stultified playing, Marriner’s interpretations are invariably vibrant, animated with a lyrical buoyancy and lightness of texture, transparent ensemble revealing rich inner detail, agility of articulation, subtlety of ornamentation, shimmering strings, colorful, beautifully blended winds, and overall, an infectious, dazzling sense of élan. These qualities are equally evident in Marriner’s performances of twentieth-century masterpieces by Stravinsky, Prokofiev and Bartok as in his readings of Baroque works by Corelli, Vivaldi, Handel, Bach, and Boyce, or Romantic music by Bizet and Wagner.  

Here, by way of tribute, are twenty-five of my favorite recordings by Neville Marriner.

LP: Argo ZRG 845 (1976)
Barber: Adagio for Strings
Ives: Symphony #3
Copland: Quiet City
Cowell: Hymn and Fuguing Tune No. 10
Creston: A Rumor

LP: Argo ZRG 657 (1970)
Bartok: Music for Strings Percussion and Celeste
Divertimento for Strings

LP: Philips 6500 113 (1971)
Beethoven Symphony # 1 in C Major Op. 21
Symphony #2 in D Major Op. 36

LP: Argo ZRG 719 (1973)
Bizet: Symphony in C
Prokofiev: Symphony #1 in D Op. 25 'Classical'

LP: Philips 9500 566 (1979)
Bizet: Carmen Suites
L'Arlésienne Suites
London Symphony

LP: Argo ZRG 573 (1968)
Elgar: Music for Strings 
Serenade Op. 20; Introduction and Allegro etc.

LP: Philips  9500 424 (1987)
Elgar: 'Enigma' Variations Op. 36
Pomp and Circumstance Marches (3)
Concertgebouw Orchestra

Argo ZRDL 1003 (digital LP); 410-552-2 (CD) (1982)
Fauré Pelleas et Melisande Suite Op. 80; 
Pavane Op. 50; 
Masques et Bergamasques Suite Op. 112

LP: Philips 9500 519 (1978)
Haydn: Symphony #82 in C Major 'The Bear'
Symphony #83 in g minor 'The Hen'

LP: Philips 9500 425 (1978)
Holst: The Planets Op. 32
Concertgebouw Orchestra

LP: Argo ZRG 605 (1970)
Mendelssohn: Concerto in E for two pianos and orchestra
Concerto in a minor for piano and strings
Brenda Lucas/John Ogden/ASMF

LP: Philips 6500 325 (1972)
(also Philips 6707 020  (4 LP box set) (1972) Complete Wind Concertos)
Mozart: The Four Horn Concertos
Alan Civil

LP: Philips 6500 380 (1972)
(also Philips 6707 020  (4 LP box set) (1972) Complete Wind Concertos)
Mozart: Concerto for Flute and Harp in C major K 299
Claude Monteux (flute)/Osian Ellis (harp)

CD: Philips 432-087-2 (1991)
Mozart: Requiem K 626
Sylvia McNair/Carolyn Watkinson
Francisco Araiza/Robert Lloyd

LP: EMI (His Master's Voice) ASD 3188 (1976)
Resphigi: Ancient Airs and Dances (Suites 1-3)

LP: EMI (His Master's Voice) ASD 3327 (1978)
Resphigi: The Birds
Three Boticelli Pictures

LP: Philips 9500 563 (1979)
Rodrigo: Concierto de Aranjuez
Concierto Andaluz
Pepe Romero/ASMF

Hänssler Classics CD 983 53 (2000)
Sibelius: The Tempest Incidental Music Op. 109
Violin Concerto in d minor Op. 47
Dmitri Sitkovestsky/ASMF

Argo ZRG 604 (1969)
R. Strauss: Metamorphosen for twenty-three solo strings
Wagner: Siegfried-Idyll
Baermann: Adagio for Clarinet and Strings (formerly attributed to Wagner)

Argo ZRG 575 (1968)
Stravinsky: Pulcinella Suite;
Apollon Musigate ballet

LP: EMI (Angel)
Stravinksy: Danses concertantes
Dumbarton Oaks Concerto; 
Concerto in D for strings

Argo ZRG 680 (1975)
Tippett: Music for String Orchestra

Argo ZRG 696 (1977)
Vaughan Williams: Fantasia on a Theme of Tallis
The Lark Ascending
Fantasia on Greensleeves
Five Variants of Dives and Lazarus

LP: Argo ZRG 654 (1970)
Vivaldi: The Four Seasons Op. 8
Alan Loveday/ASMF

CD: Chandos CHAN 8841 (1991)
Walton: Richard III: Shakespeare Scenario (arr. C. Palmer)
MacBeth (suite from the film)
Major Barbara (suite from the film)
Sir John Gielgud (speaker)