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.