Wednesday, July 16, 2014

L'Oiseau-Lyre's Baroque-Era Box

Decca 478 6753 (50-disc box set) (2014)
The Baroque Era
Various artists
Issued to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the L’Oiseau-Lyre label’s affiliation with Decca in 1964, this lavish 50-disc box set virtually overflows with early-music treasures to delight both neophyte and seasoned collector alike. As is practically de regueur nowadays for a retrospective collection of this scope, discs are individually packaged in miniature reproductions of the original album jackets. The beautifully lithographed, top-opening “cube” houses all the CDs with, perhaps, more “wiggle room” than one would like, notwithstanding the heavy, 200-page booklet accompanying the set.

Discs in the double and triple-album “wallets” fit too tightly (typical of this sort of packaging) and are difficult to remove and replace without scratching, fingerprinting or smudging. Overall, the packaging feels a tad flimsy, the discs themselves somewhat thin and vulnerable to wear, and while this in no way detracts from the high quality of the performances and recordings, potential buyers should probably be aware that the set needs to be handled with a certain degree of care and reverence to maintain its attractive outward appearance. 
The collection is arranged by country and composer, thus CDs 1 through 18 represent England with works by Arne, Boyce, Blow, Purcell, and Handel. 19 through 28 represent Germany, works of J.S. Bach and his eldest sons, Telemann double concertos and Biber’s f minor Requiem. CDs 29 through 34 feature the work of French composers, Francois Couperin, Rameau, Rebel and Royer among others. Discs 35 through 47 represent Italy; Albinoni, Carissimi, Pergolesi, father and son Alessandro and Domenico Scarlati, Gemeniani and a more-than-generous sampling of Vivaldi concertos and sacred vocal works. The last three discs offer somewhat more geographically diverse fare; a collection of Christmas-themed concertos and movements by Italian, German and Czech composers, a delightful album of concertos for 2, 3, and 4 recorders performed by the fabulous Amsterdam Loeki Stardust Quartet, and finally, a disc of cantatas and sacred instrumental music from various Italian composers, centered on themes of sorrow and lamentation.

This is not, in fact, an all-inclusive survey of the Baroque period; it might have been more accurately titled The High Baroque as most of the music included dates from the late Seventeenth to mid-Eighteenth centuries, with next to nothing from the momentous first half-century of the style’s development (roughly 1600-1650). Only one short work of Monteverdi shows up (on Disc #50) along with an album of cantatas by Carissimi (#37) with nothing at all by Peri, Sweelinck, Cavalli, Frescobaldi, Schütz, Schein, Krieger, Buxtehude, Pachelbel, Zelinka, Lully, or Charpentier. The set boasts no more than one concerto by Corelli—arguably the single-most influential composer of the mid-Baroque period—and there is very little in the way of chamber music from any country other than France. In the end, the choice of what to include may have come down to basic commercial considerations, or, just as likely to what was readily accessible in the Decca vaults.

No original liner notes or libretti are included with the documentation, though there is a fairly good general historical overview of the period by Lindsay Kemp, and a fascinating piece on the history of the L’Oiseau-Lyre label by Raymond McGill. There are a few errors in the documentation, and one or two glaring incongruities between what is indicated in the booklet and what is clearly stated on the album jackets.

Recordings date mostly from the late 1970s to mid-90s, coinciding with the period-instruments “boom”. The earliest comes from 1973, the most recent from 2009. While the accompanying documentation makes no mention of re-mastering or transfer dates, sound is consistently excellent throughout the set. Christopher Hogwood’s Academy of Ancient Music (AAM) accounts for roughly ninety per cent of the performances, with brief appearances by notable L’Oiseau-Lyre “regulars”, Phillip Pickett’s New London Consort (NLC) (perhaps better known for their performances of pre-Baroque repertory), Joshua Rifkin and the Bach Ensemble; harpsichordist Christophe Rousset both as soloist and conductor of Les Talens Lyrique, and Il Giardino Armonico under Giovanni Antonini. A virtual who’s-who of great 70s-era soloists and early-music specialists round out the roster, with many memorable turns by (among others) Colin Tilney, Jaap Schröder, Catherine Mackintosh, Monica Huggett, Emma Kirkby, Catherine Bott, Patrizia Kwella, Julianne Baird, Judith Nelson, Carolyn Watkinson, Arlene Auger, James Bowman, Ian Partridge, Paul Elliot, Martyn Hill, Paul Agnew, David Thomas, John Mark Ainsley, Gerald Finley, Rogers Covey-Crump, and Jan Opalach.
Many of the recordings in this present set have been out of the catalog for quite some time, and it is doubtful that even the most dedicated collectors will have all this material. Though the box is certainly pricey, acquiring its contents separately—if even possible—would be cost prohibitive to all but the most well-heeled and doggedly determined of discophiles, who would still have to settle for a bewildering hodgepodge of CDs and pre-owned vinyl. Even at the MSRP of $179.00 USD, this is a bargain-hunter’s dream-come-true, notwithstanding the aforementioned packaging issues.
Stand-out discs for me include #2, Boyce Symphonies; #4, Purcell Theater Music; #11, Handel Italian Cantatas; #s 14-15, Handel’s youthful oratorio La Resurrezion; #19, J.S. Bach Goldberg Variations; #22, J.S. Bach Concertos for 3 and 4 Harpsichords; #24, J.S. Bach “Coffee” and “Peasant” Cantatas; #27, Teleman Double and Triple Concertos; #32, Royer Pieces de clavecin; #33, Rameau Overtures; #37, Carissimi 8 Cantatas; #43, Vivaldi Stabat Mater and Nisi Dominus; #48, Christmas Concertos; and #49, Concerti di flauti (recorder concertos by various composers).

On balance this is an excellent and truly desirable set, a fittingly eloquent document of one of the most interesting record labels of the Twentieth century. One can only hope that Decca will see fit to issue a companion set featuring some of L’Oiseau-Lyre’s quasi-legendary recordings of pre-Baroque music, as well as some of its very fine chamber music performances. Enthusiastically recommended.

Following is a breakdown of the set contents with brief commentary on each disc. Decca has helpfully included generous discographical information with its documentation; recording and release dates and original LP or CD catalog numbers. Where known, I’ve included additional information on subsequent re-issues and compilations.


Arne: Eight Overtures
(L’Oiseau-Lyre (LP) DSLO 503 (1973)) 

The first release in L’Oiseau-Lyre’s Florelegium series, and the debut recording by the Academy of Ancient Music under Christopher Hogwood, but probably not the best choice to lead off this set; these performances don’t make the best case for original instruments, with some awfully sour-sounding horn playing in spots and intonation that isn’t always quite up to snuff. Of course, these were common “teething problems” in the early days of the period-instruments movement, and this recording still stands head and shoulders above many of its contemporaries, most notably, Harnoncourt’s misbegotten early attempts at Bach and Handel with the Concentus Musicus of Vienna for Telefunken. 

Boyce: Eight Symphonies Op. 2
(L-Oiseau-Lyre 436-7612 (1993)) 

Where Hogwood’s early Arne is “iffy”, this later recording shows the conductor and his ensemble in full mastery and ebullient confidence. Absolutely superb, sparkling performances of the Boyce Symphonies, beautifully recorded. 

Blow: Venus and Adonis
(L’Oiseau-Lyre 440-2202 (1994))

Pickett makes a compelling case for Blow’s odd little “not-quite-an-opera”. Catherine Bott makes a most seductive Venus, and the choruses—so reminiscent of Blow’s contemporary Purcell—are especially effective. 


Purcell: Theater Music
(L-Oiseau-Lyre (LP) DSLO 504 (1976)) 

A long-time favorite of mine since I first owned it on LP, these wonderfully sumptuous performances are not to be missed. This recording was the one that truly made the case for the virtues of original instruments. Hogwood’s readings are eminently musical, and never weighed down by overly pedantic technical considerations or the vagaries of “musicological correctness”. They are unpretentiously marvelous, and—dare I say it?—fun! 


Purcell: The Indian Queen
(L-Oiseau-Lyre 444-3392 (1995)) 

Dryden and Howard’s doggerel text notwithstanding, Purcell’s music is, as always completely captivating. A joyously buoyant performance, well recorded.  (An Additional Act of this semi-opera was completed by Henry Purcell’s brother, Daniel, and that music is included here.) 


Songs from the Restoration Theater
(songs by Purcell, Blow, Locke etc.)
Catherine Bott et al.
(L’Oiseau-Lyre 443-6992 (1993)) 

A well-chosen program with meltingly beautiful performances by the sublime Catherine Bott, this album admirably compliments Hogwood’s readings of the famous Purcell incidental suites (Disc #4) with some less-well-known—if surprisingly superb—theater music. Songs here run a pleasing gamut from Matthew Locke’s unconvolutedly lyrical, folk-inflected My Lodging is on the Cold Ground to the more emotionally involved and sophisticated aria-like Where art thou, God of Dreams? by Giovanni Draghi, Purcell’s Pursuing Beauty and O Let Me Weep (composed on a ground bass), and Courteville’s meltingly poignant Creep, creep, softly creep. Especially interesting are songs from The Tempest; Purcell’s Dear Pretty Youth and John Weldon’s wonderful Dry Those Eyes and Halcyon Days.  


Handel: Water Music; Fireworks Music
(L’Oiseau-Lyre (LP) DSLO 543 (1978)) 

Stiffest competition for this very-familiar repertory is probably Trevor Pinnock’s 1983 readings with the English Concert for DG Archive. In fact, there isn’t a great deal of distance between the two interpretations. Both are well-paced, elegantly phrased, energetic, and, each in its own not-especially unique way, sufficiently pleasing. Hogwood’s performances were re-issued on a two-disc mid-price set along with the Concerti a dui chori (L’Oiseau-Lyre 455-709-2 (1997)).  

DISC 8-9

Handel: Twelve Concerti Grossi Op. 6
Hogwood/Handel and Haydn Society
(L’Oiseau-Lyre 436 8452 (1993) 

Hogwood also had a longstanding working relationship with the Boston Handel and Haydn Society, becoming music director of that period-instruments ensemble in 1986. These are fine performances and well recorded, though one might ask for a bit more coloristic contrast and zest. (I frankly prefer the AAM’s 1997 recording with Andrew Manze for Harmonia Mundi (907228)). One cannot truly distinguish the sound of the Boston players from the AAM under Hogwood. (The H&H Society L’Oiseau-Lyre recordings of both Handel’s Op. 3 and Op. 6 Concerti Grossi (from 1988 and 1991 respectively ) are also available on Avie 2065 (2006))


Handel, Arne: Arias
(L’Oiseau-Lyre 436-1322 (1993))  

This delightful collection of odds and ends not only includes arias in English and Italian by Handel, Arne and John Frederik Lampe, but a few Handel instrumental rarities as well. The real finds here are the works by Thomas Augustine Arne (1710-1778), the composer perhaps best known for Rule Britania. Highlights of this program must surely include Arne’s rousing Rise, Glory, Rise and the delicately lovely Where the Bee Sucks, There Suck I.  Kirkby proves a near-ideal interpreter of this repertory, her intonation and diction perfect, her tone pure and clear as a pristine mountain spring, though not always as movingly expressive as some of her less-famous contemporaries, Catherine Bott or Patrizia Kwella. (The arias were re-issued in a 2-disc set along with arias by Haydn and Mozart in Decca’s mid-price Double-Decca series (Decca 458-084 (1998)). The instrumental movements by Handel were included with the Water Music, Fireworks Music, and Concerti a dui chori on L’Oiseau-Lyre 455-709-2 (1997)). 


Handel: Italian Cantatas; The Alchemist (incidental music); English Songs
(L’Oiseau-Lyre (LP) DSLO 580 “Italian Cantatas” (1981))
(L’Oiseau-Lyre (LP) DSLO 598 “The Alchemist: English Songs” (1982)) 

Handel was, if anything, a highly pragmatic artist who never let a catchy melody go to waste. A number of these tunes eventually found their way into Messiah, and it is interesting to hear them in their original context in some of the relatively early Italian cantatas. Kirkby and Nelson create lovely vocal synergies in their duets, David Thomas displays unmatched dramatic prowess and pathos with the occasional—welcome—flash of sly humor, and the accompanying musicians are subtly self-effacing. Incidental music from “The Alchemist” is an intriguing rarity. One of my favorite sopranos and a skilled interpreter of early music, the far-too-often overlooked Patrizia Kwella provides an enchanting encore of some of Handel’s English songs. These recordings were all coupled on CD for the first time in a 1991 re-issue (L’Oiseau-Lyre 430-282-2). 

DISC 12-13

Handel: The Messiah
Nelson/Kirkby/Watkinson/Elliott/Thomas/Choir of Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford/Hogwood/AAM
(L’Oiseau-Lyre (LP) D189D1-3 (1980))  

In spite of the controversies attendant upon its initial release in 1980, this is actually a pretty good recording of Handel’s best-beloved oratorio. Touted as the first all-digital period-instruments Messiah, part of its problem may have been the engineers’ relative unfamiliarity with the nascent digital technology, so that the first transfers had the then-typical cold, harsh sound in the treble, with a raucous, unrefined quality in the bass. This only exacerbated some of the more glaring interpretive eccentricities.  Much was made at the time of the singers’ “ghostly” lack of vibrato, though, with the exception of Emma Kirkby’s strange, almost-creepy boy-soprano-like tone, re-mastering reveals singing that sounds quite natural for the most part—at least to my ears. Vocal ornamentation is a little overdone, but no more so than in many contemporaneous performances (notably, Neville Marriner’s 1976 recording for Argo, in which the soloists seem rather self-conscious and unsure about the practice). The choruses are magnificent, and nothing short of revelatory. The AAM’s accompaniment is impeccable, and the re-mastered sound is actually quite warm and natural. 
DISC 14-15

Handel: La Resurrezione
(L’Oiseau-Lyre (LP) D256D1-3 (1982)) 

Composed in 1708 during Handel’s Italian sojourn, the youthful exuberance of La Resurrezione is positively infectious, and this marvelous performance, exquisitely sung and played, and expertly recorded, perfectly conveys that irrepressibly songful spirit. Standouts in the cast must certainly include bass David Thomas as a blustering Lucifero, tenor Ian Partridge as San Giovanni, and Patrizia Kwella as Maddelena, at once poignant, vulnerable and transcendently radiant. 

DISC 16-17-18

Handel: Orlando
(L’Oiseau-Lyre 430-8452 (1991)) 

Composed in 1733 for the London stage to an oft “re-cycled” Italian libretto, Handel’s tunefully diverting Orlando is more lyrical than dramatic. It gets the royal treatment here with legendary counter-tenor James Bowman in the title role. All the principals are outstanding, with bass David Thomas as Zoroastro a noble first among equals. The AAM’s accompaniment is spot on, and the recording is excellent. (NOTE: I wasn’t happy about the way this album was packaged; trying to remove the middle disc from the central wallet compartment is nigh on to impossible without some risk of damage.) 


J.S. Bach: “Goldberg” Variations BWV 988
Christophe Rousset
(L’Oiseau-Lyre 444-8662 (1995))

This thoroughly engrossing performance impeccably balances introspection and lyric buoyancy; a “Goldberg” Variations stripped down to its pure musical essence. The original 1751 Henri Hemsch instrument is recorded in a pleasingly naturalistic acoustic, the sound rich and full but never cloying or tinny. This is what a great period-instruments recording is supposed to sound like! 

DISC 20-21 

J.S. Bach: Six Brandenburg Concerti BWV 1046-1051
(L’Oiseau-Lyre 440-6752 (1994)) 

Good, serviceable performances, but what, honestly, is there to set these apart from the dozens of other good, serviceable performances in the catalog? The First suffers from poor intonation in the horns and problems with dynamic balance in ensemble interplay. Some sections seem rather ponderous, as if the musicians are merely marking time until something more interesting comes along. The Second is uninspired (my period-instruments benchmark for the Brandenburgs is Pinnock with the English Concert on DG Archive, performances with some genuine fire and athleticism.). Pickett’s Third and Fourth are magnificent to match the best in the catalog, and the Fifth is quite fine, especially in the spritely finale. The Sixth is almost always the hardest nut to crack with period instruments; the problem is that there is so little contrast in timbre or color in the lower strings. One can, as Pickett attempts, try to create contrast with sharp, exaggerated articulations, but the resultant sound is still overly muddy and ill-defined.  In the end, Pinnock still takes the laurel. 


J.S. Bach: Concertos for 3 and 4 Harpsichords
(L’Oiseau-Lyre 433-0532 (1992)) 

What a thoroughly enjoyable album. The repertory may be familiar in the extreme, but the playing is committed, and there seems to be a joyfulness in the music-making (synergy born of like-minded enthusiasm?) that surely places these performances near the top. Pinnock on DG Archive has a richer, fuller sound, and the Leonhardt Consort on Telefunken (re-issued on TelDec) possibly has more energy and drive, but in the end there’s very little to complain about here. I even like Hogwood’s reworking of BWV 1064—perhaps my favorite of all Bach’s multiple-harpsichord concerti—for 3 violins, here transposed from C Major to D. 


J.S. Bach: Sacred Cantatas BWV 8, 78, 99
Baird/Fast/Kelley/Opalach/Rifkin/The Bach Ensemble
(L’Oiseau-Lyre 421-7282 (1989)) 

Of Rifkin’s Bach cantata recordings for L’Oiseau-Lyre, this probably makes the best case for what was (and to some extent remains) a controversial interpretive approach. The musicologist-conductor’s dogmatic insistence that these works were all originally performed with one solo singer on each part does not invariably make for the best of all possible Bach. The approach does work well on some of the more intimate, smaller-scale works where greater transparency of line and contrapuntal interplay can be quite striking. But it can also seem rather misguided in the larger festive works, where balances are skewed, the solo singers drowned out by the ensemble that has not been commensurately stripped down, thus glossing over details in the vocal parts, and actually blurring contrapuntal lines. Subsequently, other ensembles have employed Rifkin’s approach to better effect; notably in the 3-volume series of early-cantata recordings by Emma Kirkby, Michael Chance and the Purcell Quartet for Chandos. This is not to denigrate what is, quite objectively, some very fine singing and playing. But perhaps the compilers of this set might have opted to also include Julianne Baird’s lovely interpretations of the solo cantatas BWV 202 and 209 (L’Oiseau-Lyre 421-424 (1989))  or Jan Opalach’s deeply affecting readings of BWV 56, 82 and 158 (L’Oiseau-Lyre 425-822 (1991)), recordings which admirably highlight the superb quality both of singing and instrumental playing in this series. (NOTE: these recordings were subsequently made available on several 2-disc re-issues (L’Oiseau-Lyre 455-796 (1997) and Double Decca 458-087-2 (1998)) 


J.S. Bach: Cantatas BWV 211 “Coffee” and 212 “Peasant”
(L’Oiseau-Lyre 417-6212 (1987))

Soprano Emma Kirkby and bass David Thomas work so wonderfully well together in these thoroughly delicious performances that in the end we’re left, like Schlendrien’s charmingly impossible daughter ever jonesing for coffee, wanting still more. Both singers reveal unexpectedly great comic chops in the “Coffee” cantata.  It has been among my favorite recordings of Bach cantatas for many years, and is a brilliant choice for inclusion in this set. One only wishes Hogwood and the AAM had delved more deeply into this repertory.


C.P.E. Bach: Six String Symphonies
(L’Oiseau-Lyre (LP) DSLO 557-8 (1979))

What was the point of including this in a collection of Baroque music other than to advertise the fact that Hogwood did, in fact, record a good deal of music from the Classical period as well? C.P.E. Bach’s Six String Symphonies (WQ 182) are decidedly products of the later stylistic movement, and about as philosophically remote from the Baroque as one might possibly imagine. These interpretations seem rather humorless, lacking subtlety and lightness. I greatly prefer Trevor Pinnock’s readings with The English Concert (currently available as part of the C.P.E. Bach Collector’s Edition (DG Archive 479 2499 (2014)). 


J.C. Bach: Popular Overtures
(L’Oiseau-Lyre (LP) DSLO 525 (1977))

Johann Christian Bach was no more a Baroque composer than his older brother Carl Philip Emmanuel, the vaunted Father of the Classical style. Hogwood’s performance of J.C.’s six overtures seems uncharacteristically lackluster, cooly detached at best, and, for the most part, vaguely disinterested. While the recorded sound is fine, it’s wasted on this mostly second-rate repertory. 


Telemann: Double and Triple Concertos
(L’Oiseau-Lyre DSDL 701 (1983)

Marvelous performances of this ever-cheerful music. One could hardly ask for finer, more blithe, interpretations or a better recording. The charming Concerto in E for recorder and flute is particularly pleasing with its assured exploitation of subtle sonorities, and its folk-influenced finale.  


Biber: Requiem; String Sonatas
(L’Oiseau-Lyre 436-4602 (1994))

Biber’s tunefully somber f minor Requeim gets an appropriately reverent performance with a roster of first-rate soloists. The diverting string sonatas including the ubiquitous Batallia a 10 with its intentionally cacophonous poly-melodic Charles Ives-anticipating second movement, are played with great polish and verve. It is interesting to compare this f-minor setting of the “Requiem” to Biber’s sunny Requiem a 15 in concerto, recorded with Batallia by Jordi Savale and Les Concert des Nations (Alia Vox AV 9825 (2002))

DISC 29-30

Musique pour la Chambre du Roy
(Music at Versailles, 1697-1747)
(works by Couperin, Leclair, Marais, Monteclair, Forqueray)
(L’Oiseau-Lyre D282D1/2 (1983))

I particularly like the rarely-heard vocal pieces included in this program, all performed by the splendid Judith Nelson; Couperin’s Airs sérieux (Serious Songs), and the two cantatas by Michel Pignolet de Monteclair, Les triomfe de la Constance and Pan et Syrinx, along with Marin Marais’ Le Tableau de l’Operation de la Taille with its droll spoken-word narration. Nicely performed as they are, I’m not quite as taken by the instrumental selections, which tend, all-too-inevitably towards the soporific—though one may suppose that this was the original intent and function of such music. Jean-Baptiste Forquery’s Suite No. 1 is quite catchy in its own intimately virtuosic way; the always-reliable Jean-Marie Leclair’s  Sonata Op. 9 no. 6 is pleasing enough, the excerpts from Couperin’s Les Nations sufficiently serviceable, but, for the most part, this music does not—cannot—transcend its practical origins; it does not reach out and grab us, and for serious listeners that will be perfectly fine. Personally, this is not an album that I would choose to take to that proverbial desert island. Not that it’s a bad record; only that there are decidedly better ones. I would recommend the Purcell Quartets excellent recordings of Couperin’s Les Nations suites (Chandos CHAN 0684 (2002) and  CHAN 0729 (2006)) and the scintillatingly sensuous performances of Rebel’s Le Tombeau de Lully and Couperin’s two most-famous Apotheoses (of Corelli and Lully) by the Ricercar Consort (Mirare MIR 150 (2011))


Rebel: Les élements; Destouches: Les élements
(L’Oiseau-Lyre (LP) DSLO 562 (1980))

These fascinating ballet scores from a pair of less-well-known French composers (Jean Fery Rebel (c. 1666-1747) and Andre Cardinal Destouches (1672-1749)) provide an hour of welcome musical revelation and pleasure. Rebel’s evocation of chaos at the beginning of his Les elements is surprisingly “modern-sounding”, a French-Baroque foreshadowing of Schoenberg in The Genesis Suite, though what follows is pure Eighteenth-century and considerably more conventional. Hogwood and the AAM have an authoritative grasp of the distinctively French style, so admired by the likes of J.S. Bach (the four Overtures (orchestral suites)) and Handel (notably Music for the Royal Fireworks). The playing is straightforward and energetic with sumptuous recorded sound to match. 


Royer: Pieces de clavecin
Rousset (1751 Henri Hemsch)
(L’Oiseau-Lyre 436 1272 (1991))

(NOTE: the documentation booklet incorrectly identifies the harpsichordist as Christopher Hogwood, but the album jacket clearly indicates Christophe Rousset.)

The sound of this 1751 Henri Hemsch harpsichord is so pleasing and subtle, the ambiance of the room so nearly ideal, the recorded sound so natural and unobtrusive, that I found myself blissfully transported in spite of my usual lukewarm enthusiasm for most French Baroque keyboard music. These are works of a decidedly popular nature, less formally convoluted or cerebral than much of Couperin—or perhaps Rousset’s approach to the music is simply more accessible? Royer’s music is invariably melodious, rhythmically engaging, and a great deal of fun to hear.


Rameau: Ouvertures
Rousset/Les Talens Lyrique
(L’Oiseau-Lyre 455 2932 (1997))

Jean-Phillippe Rameau (1683-1764) is perhaps most famous for having codified the principals of harmonic analysis still used in music schools and conservatories throughout the world today. His music is a good deal more exciting and varied than one might expect from so influential a theorist, and during his long life he composed in a number of different popular modes and styles, from what might be considered the quintessentially French High Baroque, such as the overtures to Les Indes galantes, Pygmalion, and Les Fetes des Polymnie with their soaring, regal, contrapuntal elegance, to the more homophonic textures of the Gallant and emerging Classical styles, the later works closer to C.P.E. Bach and Haydn than Lully or Charpentier (Zais, Les Talens Lyrique, Nais). This exciting collection of seventeen short overtures for various theater productions, presents a portrait of Rameau in all his glorious, unapologetically eclectic hyper-imaginative abundance. The playing is world-class and the recorded sound is outstanding. 


Couperin: Trois lecons de ténèbre
(L’Oiseau-Lyre (LP) DSLO 536 (1977))

These gorgeous, jewel-like chamber motets are a sheer delight—a fact belying their original function as works of solemn devotion for the Lenten season. Nelson and Kirkby eschew all that is unessential here, ornament, singerly pretentiousness, and ego itself, their voices pure, seraphic; accompanied with unobtrusive elegance by Hogwood on chamber organ and Jane Ryan on gamba. This is a great album. 

DISC 35-36

Albinoni: Twelve Concertos Op. 9
Manze/de Bruine/Hogwood/AAM
(L’Oiseau-Lyre 458 1292 (1999))

Eminently musical performances. This recording reveals the original-instruments movement in full maturity, and casual listeners may be hard pressed to determine at first whether they are hearing a period or modern ensemble. Hear, for instance, oboist Frank de Bruine’s flowing, ecstatically inspired phrasing in the Adagio movement from Concerto in d minor (Op. 9, No. 2). The string ensemble is technically unimpeachable throughout, especially pleasing in the blithe, mercurial outer movements. At first hearing the acoustic seems a bit dry, though eventually one will discern a clarity, particularly in the tutti passages, often lacking in more conventionally resonant spaces. The solo oboe is miced too closely, causing the string ensemble to shrink into the background and sound a trifle detached. The concerti for two oboes do sound more natural. Violinist Andrew Manze, who became associate director of the AAM in 1996 and would go on to record with the group for Harmonia Mundi, appears as soloist in four of the twelve concerti.


Carissimi: 8 Cantatas
Martyn Hill/Hogwood
(L’Oiseau-Lyre (LP) DSLO 547 (1979))

This is, purely and simply, a beautiful record. Martyn Hill’s lyric, long-breathed phrasing is unfailingly exquisite, calculated to achieve the greatest possible expressive impact. These performances belie the notion that early Italian-Baroque vocal composition was always overly rhapsodic, a mere vehicle for shallow virtuosity. Hill certainly displays a great deal of technical brilliance, but always in the service of melody and expression. Listen, for example, to the spritely Bel tempo per me se n’ando or the searing and somber Apritevi, inferni. The accompaniments, including various combinations of lute, gamba and harpsichord or chamber organ, are unfailingly apropos to the texts, and executed with self-effacing brilliance.


Geminiani: Concerti Grossi Op. 3
Jaap Schröder/Hogwood/AAM
(L’Oiseau-Lyre (LP) DSLO 526 (1977))

Performances conveying the elegance and grandeur of these richly contrapuntal works, which took London audiences by storm in 1733; one could hardly ask for a better soloist than Jaap Schröder, who admirably balances the demands of scholarship and musicality. Delightful!


Pergolesi: Stabat Mater; Salve Regina
(L’Oiseau-Lyre 425 692-2 (1989))

A refreshingly scaled-down, unsentimental, “de-romanticized” interpretation of Pergolesi’s most oft-ridden warhorse. Hogwood and his soloists focus on the expressive qualities inherent in the score, rather than trying to milk it for its melodramatic opera-seria potential. Absolutely gorgeous singing by Kirkby and Bowman. (This album was re-issued as part of the Double-Decca series (#?) in 1997)


Alessandro Scarlatti: Sinfonie and Harpsichord Concertos
Ottavio Dantone/Academia Bizantina
(L’Oiseau-Lyre 470 6502 (2004))

A fine one-disc introduction to less-well-known music of Alessandro Scarlatti, a composer mostly remembered today as the father of Domenico Scarlatti, if not for the handful of splendid sacred vocal works that have found their way on to record over the decades. These fine performances reveal a consistently workmanlike competence, an imaginative command of counterpoint, and a gift for memorable melodies. The recording is dynamically wide-open and occasionally less than subtle. The strings are miced a bit too closely and can be quite overpowering in the tutti passages.


Domenico Scarlatti: Harpsichord Sonatas
Colin Tilney
(L’Oiseau-Lyre (LP) DSLO 567 (1981))

One of the great early-music specialists of the latter Twentieth century, and a performer possessed of impeccable musical instincts, harpsichordist Colin Tilney offers a selection of a dozen Scarlatti sonatas. The recorded sound of the 1782 Vincenzo Sodi harpsichord is, in a word, “big”, occasionally tending towards the overbearing, but the performances themselves are so infectiously energetic, so delectably musical, that turning the volume down a notch or two is hardly a bother.


Vivaldi: The Four Seasons
(L’Oiseau-Lyre 279D1 (1983))

Featuring a different violin soloist in each concerto (Christopher Hirons Spring; John Holloway Summer; Alison Bury Autumn; Catherine Mackintosh Winter) Hogwood’s 1983 Four Seasons is still quite listenable, if ultimately unextraordinary in so crowded a field, though to his credit he does eschew much of the musical gimmickry so rife in period-instruments renditions of this work. The playing is good—as one might expect—though at times, a bit too “laid back” to maintain interest, especially in the Spring and Summer concerti. Alison Bury’s Autumn is surprisingly energetic and engaging, and Catherine Mackintosh’ reading of Winter is aptly melancholy and songful, if, at times, too light to be create a truly memorable impact. Balances are somewhat “off” throughout, with the solo instruments miced too remotely, giving the impression of someone speaking too quietly, intermittently interrupted by a large crowd exhorting him or her to “speak up”.


Vivaldi: Stabat Mater; Nisi Dominus
(L’Oiseau-Lyre (LP) DSLO 506 (1976))

This gem of a recording from the early days of the Florelegium series features counter-tenor James Bowman in beautiful renditions of two solo sacred works by Vivaldi. The Stabat Mater is an especially beautiful composition, richly imagined and here sung with deep sensitivity. Bowman was such a prolific recording artist that it’s sometimes easy to forget what a truly great musician he was, with a marvelous gift for phrasing and an instinctive sense of musical communication, sometimes bringing a quirky touch of humor (where appropriate) to his characterizations. These performances (including the Concerto for strings in g minor R 153) are extraordinary in every aspect. (This album was recently re-issued on its own (Decca 001748202 (2012)).


Vivaldi: Cello Concertos
Christopher Coin/Hogwood/AAM
(L’Oiseau-Lyre 433 0522 (1991))
These 1991 performances have an energy and presence lacking in some of Hogwood’s other Vivaldi recordings, most notably his 1983 Four Seasons. Christopher Coin (identified as “Christophe Coin” in the documentation booklet) produces a lovely singing tone through all registers of his instrument, “digging in” on the fast movements with great gusto and passion without ever becoming raucous, melodramatic, or overbearing. The gorgeous, soulful opening movement of the Sonata R 44 is nothing short of sublime. These performances also feature an interesting, diverse continuo group including organ and guitar. Magnificent!


Vivaldi: Violin Concertos
Andrew Manze/Hogwood/AAM
(L’Oiseau-Lyre 455 6532 (2000))

This recording has a good deal more “presence” and punch than the Four Seasons from nearly twenty years earlier. Manze’ is an understated virtuosity, striking the ideal balance between technique and expression. Though one might complain (and I do, quite often) that this repertory has been “done to death” on record over the last half century, I must admit that this is, in all aspects, a lovely record.


Vivaldi: Oboe Concertos
Frank de Bruine/Stephen Hammer/Hogwood/AAM
(L’Oiseau-Lyre 433 6742 (1993))

Superb double-reed playing, without any hint of the raucously unfocused sound so common on many earlier recordings of period-instruments. These compositions run the expected gamut from Vivaldi as clichéd virtual self-caricature (Concerto in F Major R 457, and the ubiquitous “Quadruple” Concerto for 2 oboes and 2 clarinets R 559—surprisingly well played and fresh sounding here) to works of subtle beauty and genuine emotional depth (the lovely Concerto in a minor R 461, and the R 463 Concerto (also in a minor) with its fugal finale). The C-major R 447 Concerto has always been a particular favorite, and here it gets an unexpectedly understated performance, deemphasizing the bravura elements without sacrificing coherency or substance. Overall, this is a thoroughly enjoyable disc for those in an appropriately receptive frame of mind.


Vivaldi: Gloria R 589; J.S. Bach: Magnificat BWV 243a
Kirkby/Nelson/Watkinson/Elliott/Thomas/Choir of Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford/Hogwood/AAM
(L’Oiseau-Lyre (LP) DSLO 554 (Vivaldi) (1978))
(L’Oiseau-Lyre (LP) DSLO 572 (Bach) (1978))

Compelling in every way with beautifully expansive sound, soloists, chorus, and orchestra all in top form, this is a treasurable rendition of Vivaldi’s popular Gloria R 589.

The less-familiar E-flat major version of Bach’s Magnificat (BWV 243a) with its charming Christmas interpolations gets a very good performance, though hardly the best in the catalog. (For the E-flat version I would first recommend Philip Hereweghe’s outstanding reading with the Collegium Vocale of Ghent, available in a Harmonia-Mundi re-issue (HML 590 8360.62 (2010)). For the D-major I would wholeheartedly commend John Eliot Gardiner’s iconic 1980 performance (Philips 411-458), also available in the 22-disc set box of “Bach Sacred Masterpieces” (DG Archive 477 8735 (2010)). L’Oiseau-Lyre’s circa-1978 recorded sound is dryer and less lively, the overall aural picture somewhat narrower than in the Vivaldi from the previous year. The chorus seems more remote than usual, relegated too far to the back, and the choral sound is disconcertingly thin. Tempi are a tad more leisurely than one would care for, and deep emotional commitment seems lacking. The Suscipit Israel loses some of its charm and delicacy when assigned to the boy’s chorus as opposed to well-blended adult soli voices. Articulation feels a tad clunky in the Sicut locutus est, and the Goria Patri lacks the final full measure of grandeur, bringing the work to a too-sudden, anticlimactic conclusion. It is certainly interesting to compare David Thomas’ performance of the Quia fecit mihi magna here with his reading of the same movement in Gardiner’s D-major. Overall, a good recording of the E-flat Magnificat but, alas, not a great one. At least we’ll always have the Vivaldi.


Christmas Concertos
(works by Corelli, Torelli, Bach, Handel, Gossec. Werner. Vejvanovski)
(L’Oiseau-Lyre DSDL 709 (1983)) 

This diverting and well-executed program actually includes one or two genuinely pleasant surprises. The stand-alone performance of Corelli’s evergreen “Christmas” Concerto Grosso Op. 6, No. 8 is simply lovely, as are the de regueur renditions of the Sinfonia from Bach’s Christmas Oratorio and the Pifa sinfonia from Handel’s Messiah. A bit more off the beaten track, but no less charming are works by Gregor Joseph Werner (Pastorella for organ and orchestra), Francois-Joseph Gossec (Suite de noels with chorus), and Pavel Josef Vejvanovsky (Sonata Natalis). A treasurable record for any time of the year. 


Concerti di flauti
(Baroque recorder concertos by Telemann, Vivaldi, Marcello, Heinichen, Schickhart)
Amsterdam Loeki Stardust Quartet/Hogwood/AAM
(L’Oiseau-Lyre 436 9052 (1994)) 

A thoroughly delightful disc. The unassumingly virtuosic Loeki Stardust Quartet brings a contagiously upbeat quality to all their music-making, whether it be more familiar fare from Vivaldi and Telemann or the works of lesser-known composers such as Johann David Heinichen (1683-1729) whose wonderful Concerto a 8 in C major opens the program, or Johann Christian Schickhardt (c 1682-1762) whose two enchanting concerti for 4 recorders and continuo fill out the bill. First rate!



Il Pianto di Maria—The Virgin’s Lament
(sacred cantatas and sonatas by Vivaldi, Ferrandini. Conti and Pisendel
Bernarda Fink/Il Giardino Armonico/Giovanni Antonini
(L’Oiseau-Lyre 478 1466 (2009))

This recording—the most recent in the collection—represents something of a departure from the now-“traditional”-seeming approach to period performance practice popularized in the 1970s and 80s by Hogwood, Pickett and their artistic collaborators. Thus, this program of solo cantata sacra and sonati di chiesa is a fitting choice for the last disc in the set, as it also features works by the two oldest composers in the entire 50-disc collection; Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643), the Father of the Baroque, whose Pianto della Madonna (Lament of the Virgin) exemplifies the emotive potency of the new style, and Biagio Marini (1594-1663). One comes away with the impression that Antonini is less rigidly concerned with certain questions of authenticity, as regards, say, vocal vibrato or ornamentation than his older colleagues. There’s an emotionalism in some of the singing and playing that would shock older purists. And yet, it works—often quite well. Listen, for example to Il martirio di San Lorenzo—Sento gia mancar la vita (The Martyrdom of St. Lawrence) by Francesco Bartolomeo Conti (circa 1681-1732), a sublime piece of music by any measure. Soprano Bernarda Fink here sings with almost preternatural beauty and profound sensitivity—though  some of her other performances on this record seem unduly histrionic and “breathless”—this is an amazing example of artistic transcendence. Glorious! 

No comments:

Post a Comment