Handel at Vauxhall: Vol 2

Handel at Vauxhall: Vol 2
London Early Opera, Bridget Cunningham
Signum SIGCD479. 59’44

This recording is the second part London Early Opera’s exploration of the music of Handel as it might have been performed at the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens in the 1740s. Their 2017 recording, Handel at Vauxhall: Vol 1 (reviewed here) presented the first half of a conjectural reconstruction of typical evening’s entertainment, and we now have the second half, continuing the fascinating mix of orchestral, organ and vocal music. Each half of these concerts usually had around eight pieces, usually including an organ concerto, other instrumental pieces, songs and dances, performed from the central bandstand. The opening song of the second half, Spring Gardens: Flora, goddess sweetly blooming sets the scene, noting that “Belles and beaux are all invited / To partake of varied sweets . . . as breaking notes descending / Break upon the list’ning ear”. In complete contrast, it is followed by the Concerto Grosso (Op 6/4), one of a set of twelve published in 1739/40 in homage to Corelli.  Continue reading

Concerto

Concerto
Works for one & two harpsichords
Guillermo Brachetta, Menno van Delft
Resonus RES10189. 56’24

I have reviewed harpsichordist Guillermo Brachetta recordings on Resonus favourably several times before (here) but was almost immediately put off this CD by the overly mannered playing of Bach’s opening Italian Concerto (BWV 971), particularly the first two movements. Lingering on notes to this extent not only disrupts the flow of the music and the underlying pulse but, in my view, is alien to the Baroque concept of performance style as I understand it. That said, I am glad that I continued listening to the CD as this aspect of performance is not as apparent in the later pieces, even in the pieces by WF Bach and Graun where, arguably, such flexibility of rhythm and articulation might be considered rather more appropriate. Interestingly there is also no recurrence in the other JS Bach piece, the Concerto a due Cembali in C major (BWV 1061a) performed with Menno van Delft. This is the assumed original version, from around the same time as the Italian Concerto, which was later turned into a concerto with added string accompaniment. For me, this performance is the highlight of the CD,  Continue reading

César Franck: Trois Chorals

César Franck: Trois Chorals
Tournemire: transcriptions from Franck’s operas Hulda and Ghiselle
Yoann Tardivel, organ
HORTUS 147. 57:56

The Trois Chorals of César Franck rank amongst the highlights of both the French organ repertoire and the related instrument, the French 19th-century French symphonic organ, typified by the famed organ builder Cavaillé-Coll. They were one of the last works written just two months before he died, in 1890. Yoann Tardivel has won some impressive organ prizes. He takes an attractively reflected approach to his performance of the Three Chorales, avoided the look-at-me approach of some organists who see pieces like these as vehicles to demonstrate their own prowess, rather than demonstrating the music. Some of his speeds are a little slow by present-day standards, but this seems to add gravitas to his playing and is fine by me. He choice of registrations is excellent, and the recording is particularly well engineered with a solid bass.  Continue reading

Splendour

Splendour
Golden Age of North German Organ Music
Organ Music & Vocal Works by Buxtehude, Hassler, Praetorius & Scheidemann
Kei Koito, Il Canto di Orfeo
Deutsche Harmonia Mundi, 88985437672. 73’15

This CD features a comprehensive survey of the important 17th -century North German School of organist composers, broadly covering the generations of composers between the Hamburg Sweelinck pupils and Buxtehude. The latter’s predecessor in Lübeck, Franz Tunder, opens the programme with his ebulient Praeludium in g. The programme then broadly follows the format of a organ chorale prelude followed by the relevent chorale, sung by the Italian choir Il Canto di Orfeo, directed by Gianluca Capuano. The organ used is the well-known 1624 Hans Scherer instrument in the Stephanskirche, Tangermünde, Germany, a splendid example of the early 17th-century North German organ building tradition. It’s impressive range of colours and textures are explored to the full in Kei Koito’s choice of registrations. 
Continue reading

French Sonatas for Harpsichord and Violin

French Sonatas for Harpsichord and Violin
Philippe Grisvard & Johannes Pramsohler
Audax ADX13710. 2CDs. 64’20+51’45

Balbastre: Sonata I in G major
Clément: Sonata No. 1 in C minor
Corrette: Sonata Op. 25, No. 4 in E minor
Duphly: Suite in F major; Suite in G major; Troisième livre de pièces de clavecin
Guillemain: Violin Sonatas, Op 8/4, 5 & 6
Luc Marchand: Suite, Op 1/1
Mondonville: Sonate en symphonie, Op. 3 No. 6; Violin Sonata in G minor, Op 3/1

Jean-Joseph Cassanéa de Mondonville was the subject of two earlier Audax CDs, reviewed here and here. He is generally credited with moving the French harpsichord from a mere continuo supporting instrument to a role that became equal, or even supplanted, that of the violin with his 1740 publication: Pièces de clavecin en sonates avec accompagnement de violon. This started a plethora of similar pieces over the next 20 years from many different composers. It is a repertoire well worth hearing, and this recording is an important contribution to musical understanding of this middle period in French musical history, half way between the musical heights of the High Baroque in the years around 1700, to the more populist style of the latter part of the decade. Continue reading

JS Bach/JC Bach/CEP Bach: Magnificats

JS Bach, JC Bach & CPE Bach: Magnificats
Arcangelo, Jonathan Cohen
Hyperion CDA68157. 76’48

This recording has the same programme as the concert in St John’s, Smith Square in October 2015. The CD was recorded a few days after the concert, in the church of St Mary the Virgin and St Mary Magdalen in Tetbury, Gloucestershire, but has only recently been released. The acoustics of this large Gothic church (with its wide nave and tiny side aisles) are more generous than St John’s, Smith Square, giving an added bloom to the sound, although the spacing of the musical forces sometimes gives more of a sense of distance that the more compact London stage avoided. Unlike the concert performance, the CD opens with JS Bach’s 1733 reworking of his earlier E flat version, written for his first Christmas in Lübeck in 1723. It is given a forthright performance without the irritating gaps between movements that I mentioned in the concert review.  Continue reading

Bach & Weiss

Bach & Weiss
Music For Baroque Violin & Lute
Johannes Pramsohler & Jadran Duncumb
Audax Records ADX13706. 77’32
 


JS Bach/Weiss: Suite in A Major (BWV 1025) arr. for violin and obligato lute
Weiss: Suite in A Minor for baroque lute
JS Bach: Partita in D Minor for solo violin (BWV 1004)

The inspiration for this CD is the opening work, an arrangement for violin and obligato lute of the Bach/Weiss A Major Suite (BWV 1025). The whole of the programme note is given over to explaining the complicated background and source history of this piece, leaving the other two works in the programme to “speak for themselves”. The distinguished lutenist Silvius Leopold Weiss knew the Bach family well. He was a friend of WF Bach in Dresden and sponsor of CPE Bach’s application for a post in the Prussian court. In 1739 Weiss visited JS Bach in Leipzig, together with WF Bach, staying for around four weeks. During that time they indulged in friendly improvisation contests, including playing fantasias and fugues, Bach on harpsichord, Weiss on lute. Bach’s private secretary wrote: “Something extra special is happening here.”

For this recording, Johannes Pramsohler and Jadran Duncumb have reconstructed one possible outcome of the visit, the Suite in A Major, BWV 1025, seemingly an arrangement by JS Bach for harpsichord and violin of an original lute piece by Weiss. It is not entirely clear from the sources how Bach made his arrangement, but it seems likely that he added a violin part to a keyboard transcription of Weiss’s lute piece, presumably with some help from Weiss because, as far as we know, JS Bach was not proficient at reading lute tablature.  Continue reading

Duo Enßle-Lamprecht: Tesserae

Tesserae
Duo Enßle-Lamprecht
Anne-Suse Enßle, Philipp Lamprecht
Audax Records ADX 13712. 52’54

The rather severe-looking Duo Enßle-Lamprecht concentrates on newly commissioned music and the very early repertoire. For this recording, they explore pieces drawn from a number of medieval manuscripts, including Can vei la lauzeta mover by the 12th-century Bernart de Ventadorn (the only vocal piece on the recording), La Quinte Estampie Real from the 13th-century Manuscript du Roi, Eya herre got was mag das gesein and Stabat mater from the 13th-century Castilian Las Huelgas Codex, an Alleluja from the Swiss Codex Engelberg (c1375), three pieces by the enigmatic 14th-century ‘Monk of Salzburg’, the early 15th-century Codex Faenza, and the famous British Library MS.Add.29987 with its enormous collection of 14th-century Italian music. Performing medieval music is always a bit of a minefield. There isn’t much of it, and what there is leaves very little indication of how it should be played. Evidence for instrumentation tends to come from the occasional literary reference, or from artworks of the time.  Continue reading

CPE Bach: Clavierstucke Tangere

CPE Bach: Clavierstucke
Tangere
Alexei Lubimov

ECM New Series 2112. 67’30

Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach: Fantasien, Sonaten, Rondi und SolfeggiRussian pianist Alexei Lubimov concentres his performances and recordings on new music and music from the Baroque era performed on period instruments. This CD presents CPE Bach’s fantasies, sonatas and rondos played on the little-known tangent piano, usually referred to in German-speaking countries as the Pantaleon, Spattisches Klavier or Tangentenflügel. It enjoyed a brief moment of glory in the 18th century as a gap between the harpsichord and clavichord and the forthcoming fortepiano. Rather like the clavichord, its strings are struck from underneath by wood or metal tangents. Unlike the clavichord, where the note continues to sound while the tangent is in contact with the string, the tangent piano has an escarpment action similar to that of a fortepiano which allows the string to freely vibrate. It has a similar extent and control of expressiveness to the clavichord but is capable of much greater volume and intensity. It makes a gloriously twangy sound. There are a few original instruments still in existence, but this recording uses a modern replica, by Chris Maene of Belgium, of a 1794 Späth and Schmahl tangent piano from Regensburg.  Continue reading

Bach Inspiration

Bach Inspiration
Juliette Hurel, flute,
Maïlys de Villoutreys, soprano, Alice Julien-Laderriere, violin
Ensemble Les Surprises, Louis-Noël Bestion de Camboulas
Alpha Classics/Outhere, ALPHA 358. 67’31

Although usually outnumbered by the violin and oboe as a solo instrument, JS Bach made use of the solo flute and recorder in many of his pieces, using the recorder more often in cantatas, and the flute in chamber music. In an eclectic programme, this recording, clearly intended as a showpiece for flautist Juliette Hurel, explores some of Bach’s writing for flute. It includes four arias for soprano, sung effectively by Maïlys de Villoutreys. The opening B Minor Orchestral Suite (BWV 1067) is the key orchestral work including flute, although the 5th Brandenburg concerto (not included) comes a close second. The Trio Sonata in G (BWV 1038) reveals the flute in chamber mode (played with violinist Alice Julien-Laderriere) while the Partita in A minor (BWV 1013) reveals the flute in solo mode. Continue reading

CPE Bach: Complete works for keyboard & violin

CPE Bach: Complete works for keyboard & violin
Duo Belder Kimura
Resonus RES10192. 2CDs 69’32+62.51

This CD includes all of CPE Bach’s pieces for violin and keyboard, with seven Sonatas, a Fantasia, Sinfonia and Ariosa with variations (Wq. 71-80). For the first few seconds of listening to this recording, I wondered if it was playing at the correct speed, so sparkily light and delicate was the brisk opening with its precisely articulated rapid-fire trills from both violin and harpsichord. But this was the musical language of the young CPE Bach heard in the opening of his Sonata in C Wq.73, one of a group of three Sonatas composed in 1731 when Bach was just 17 and a student at the Leipzig Thomasschule. He later revised them 15 years later in Berlin, and it is not clear to what extent we are hearing the young or more mature Bach. But the combination of his father’s influence and the move away from the style of ‘Old Bach’ that was to dominate CPE Bach’s compositional style is clear. The second group of Sonatas date from 1763 (Wq. 75-78), with the harpsichord taking on a stronger role. The final two pieces (the Arioso and Fantasia) date from the 1780s, and the keyboard (a fortepiano after Walter, 1795) dominates the texture. The other pieces use a harpsichord after Blanchet (1730); the violin an original from the Gagliano school (c1730).  Continue reading

Telemann: Complete Trio Sonatas with Recorder and Viol

Telemann: Complete Trio Sonatas with Recorder and Viol
Da Camera
Chandos/Chaconne CHAN0817. 67’00

This excellent recording explores the compositions that Telemann considered to be his best – his Trio Sonatas. Da Camera (Emma Murphy, recorders, Susanna Pell, treble and bass viols, Steven Devine, harpsichord) performs eight such Sonatas, four from the 1739 Essercizii musici and four from the collection of Telemann manuscripts surviving in Darmstadt, mostly dating from the 1720s. The Darmstadt pieces are particularly interesting in that Da Camera use the combination of instruments specified by Telemann, with recorder and dessus de viole (treble viol), rather than the more usually heard combination of recorder and violin. Telemann’s indication makes perfect sense, the delicately expressive and sensitive sound of the treble viol both blending and contrasting perfectly with the recorder. Continue reading

Maximum Reger

Maximum Reger – The Last Giant
Fugue State Films. FSFDVD011. 6 DVD. c15h

Maximum Reger

Reger_Back_Cover

Johann Baptist Joseph Maximilian (Max) Reger (1873 -1916) is generally best known, if, perhaps, not always best liked, by organists. He is a bit of a love-or-hate composer, his extended and frequently dense organ pieces can be as hard to play as they, arguably, can be to listen to. As a breed, organists tend to concentrate on a composer’s organ music (with the possible exception of Bach) rather than exploring their music for other forces. Reger is one such, along with, for example, the contemporary, but longer-lived French composer Tournemire. If Reger is known at all to non-organists, it is probably through his chamber music. This extraordinary Fugue State Films box set of 6 DVDs, including a three-part documentary ‘The Last Giant’, aims to redress the balance of bringing Reger’s non-organ music and complex life story to organists, and the music of Reger in toto to non-organists who are not familiar with his music. For filmmaker and organist Will Fraser, of Fugue State Films, it is clearly a labour of love. Continue reading

Olwen Foulkes: Directed by Handel

Directed by Handel
Music from Handel’s London Theatre Orchestra
Olwen Foulkes, recorder
Barn Cottage Recordings, bcr019. 64’04

The decline of the recorder as a serious classical music instrument has long been predicted, for reasons that are quite beyond me. As an example, some years ago I was shocked to hear somebody involved with a well-known young artists competition in the north of the UK comment that a recorder player or consort would never win first prize. But evidence shows that recorder music and players are going from strength to strength, not least with through an impressive cohort of young performers making their way onto the professional circuit. One such is Olwen Foulkes a recent prize-winning graduate of London’s Royal Academy of Music where she obtained a Distinction and DipRAM award for her MMus degree. I first heard and reviewed her at the 2016 Royal Academy of Music’s early music prize competition, where she was part of the prizewinning group, of two recorder players plus cello and harpsichord continuo. This is her debut recording.  Continue reading

Secret Fires of Love

Secret Fires of Love
Studio Rhetorica, Robert Toft
Daniel Thomson, Thomas Leininger & Terry McKenna

Talbot Productions TP1701. 65’11

Studio Rhetorica, Daniel Thomson, Thomas Leininger & Terry McKenna | Secret Fires of Love

This recording is issued under the banner of Studio Rhetorica, a cover for the research work of Robert Toft, Canadian vocal coach and researcher, and this CD’s producer and musical director. The recording was planned to demonstrate examples of his research and approach to musical performance. To explain this, I quote from the extensive programme note on performance. This states that the performers (Australian tenor, Daniel Thomson, Canadian lutenist Terry McKenna, and German harpsichordist Thomas Leininger) “take a fresh approach to Renaissance and Baroque songs by treating the texts freely to transform inexpressive notation into passionate musical declamation. Daniel Thomson adopts the persona of a storyteller, and like singers of the past, he uses techniques of rhetorical delivery to re-create the natural style of performance listeners from the era would have heard (all the principles of performance Daniel employs are documented in period treatises on singing and speaking). This requires him to alter the written scores substantially, and his dramatic singing combines rhetoric and music in ways that have not been heard since the Renaissance and Baroque eras“. I suggest that several people would dispute the latter part of the final sentence.

Continue reading

(Ex)Tradition

(Ex)Tradition
The Curious Bards
Traditional & Popular Music of 18th-Century Ireland & Scotland
Harmonia Mundi (harmonia#nova) HMN916105. 62’47


The Curious Bards was founded in 2013 by musicians from the music conservatories of Lyon, Paris and Basel, sharing an interest both in early music and traditional Irish, Celtic and Gaelic music. They aim to unite these musical worlds through research and historical musical discoveries. For this CD, they use a range of instruments including triple harp, violin, viola da gamba, a transverse flute, a tin whistle, and a cittern specially constructed by William Gibson for this recording, based on a 1778 Irish original in Dublin’s Collins Barracks Museum, part of the National Museum of Ireland. Continue reading

Bach: Organ Chorales

JS Bach
Organ Chorales of the Leipzig manuscript/Schübler Chorales
Vincent van Laar
Aliud ACDBN 103-2. 2CDs 60’32+52’34

There are many recordings of these pieces, so a new one needs to be judged by what it can offer that others cannot. One question is about the nature of performing in recital and for a recording. It is generally accepted that performers can be much freer in their interpretation when playing live than in recording. An interpretational flourish in a recital is a take-it-or-leave event, which may well not repay repeated listening. So recordings tend to be ‘safer’ interpretations. Some recordings are, in effect, ‘live’, in that they are either taken from a live recital, or are performed as if live, without editing or re-takes. On this recording, Vincent van Laar generally plays in the ‘safe’ zone, but there are a few occasions when he steps into a more personal mode. And it is these moments that make this recording worth considering.  Continue reading

Music in a Cold Climate

Music in a Cold Climate: Sounds of Hansa Europe
In Echo, Gawain Glenton (director)
Delphian DCD34206. 67’32

In Echo is a new period instrument group, directed by the cornettist Gawain Glenton. Their core instrumental line-up of cornetto, violin, sackbut (doubling violin), bass viol and keyboards has been expanded for this their debut recording by an additional violin/viola, bass viol and, in one piece, a violone. Their programme retraces the route of musicians active in the Hanseatic League (Hansa) during its heyday in the 16th and 17th centuries. The league was a trading partnership encompassing several countries, from Tallinn to London via the Germanic free cities of Lübeck, Hamburg, and Bremen and similar ports in Holland, Denmark, Norway, and Sweden. The CD programme notes mention that the represented composers “each looked beyond their own shores and toward a sense of shared European culture and understanding” – a timely reminder today of the importance of freedom of travel for musicians. For this recording, In Echo also commissioned a new composition to complement the early pieces – Andrew Keeling’s Northern Soul. Continue reading

Bach: Du treuer Gott

J S Bach: Du treuer Gott
Leipzig Cantatas BWV 101 – 103 – 115

Collegium Vocale Gent, Philippe Herreweghe
Outhere music LPH027.62’26
Nimm von uns, Herr, du treuer Gott BWV 101
Mache dich, mein Geist, bereit BWV 115
Ihr werdet weinen und heulen BWV 103

Following two earlier CDs (LPH006 and LPH012) that focussed on cantatas written during Bach’s first year in Leipzig, this recording looks at the second cycle of cantatas, composed in 1724/5. Nimm von uns, Herr, du treuer is based on the chorale melody better known as Vater unser im Himmelreich, the Lutheran version of the Lord’s Prayer. Apart from the first aria (with its delightfully jovial flute solo), this well-known melody is heard in all movements. The two recitatives are interesting, with both alternating the chorale melody with recitative passages, the first in a particularly dramatic mood, the second with some evocative harmonic sequences. The central bass aria also switches between chorale and aria. Bach uses a strong orchestration, with three trombones, three oboes, an oboe da caccia, and a cornett – an unusual use of an instrument that would have been seen as distinctly old-fashioned at the time. The final aria, a reflective duet for soprano and alto, combines flute and oboe da caccia.  Continue reading

Telemann: Fantasias for Viola da Gamba

Telemann: Fantasias for Viola da Gamba
Robert Smith
Resonus RES10195. 79’15

Telemann is the gift that keeps on giving. His latest offering was the discovery in 2015 of the previously lost set of Gamba Fantasies. In accordance with his very successful business approach, they were published two at a time over six fortnights in 1735. Aimed at the upper performing end of the amateur market, they also present many challenges for the professional musician. As Robert Smith writes in his own programme notes, a performer can approach these pieces with no preconceived ideas of how they might be performed. Unlike, for example, the Bach Cello Suites with many decades of recording and teaching, these Telemann Fantasias have a clean performing slate. Continue reading

Bach and Friends

Bach and Friends
Louis-Noël Bestion de Camboulas
Ambronay AMY048. 79’54

Music by Böhm, Buxtehude, J. C. F. Fischer, Georg Muffat, Pachelbel, and Scheidemann

Ambronay Editions continue their support for younger musicians with a first recording by the organist, harpsichordist and musical director Louis-Noël Bestion de Camboulas. I have previously reviewed him (here) as the director of the group Ensemble Les Surprises. This programme contrasts music for harpsichord and organ, genres quite often interchangeable in the Renaissance and Baroque periods. Many manuscripts of the period include pieces suitable for one or other instruments, or both. The absence of an independent pedal does not always imply performance on a stringed keyboard instrument. That said, the pieces on this recording are generally well suited to the chosen instrument, although the title of Bach and Friends is a little off-kilter. Few could be seriously considered as personal friends of Bach. But all influenced him in one way or another, even if, like Scheidemann, they died well before Bach was born. Continue reading

Renaissance: Groningen Lutherse Kerk

Renaissance: Groningen Lutherse Kerk
Tymen Jan Bronda, organ
Colophon LBE 2017. 76’59

Music by Frescobaldi, Scheidemann Buxtehude, Bõhm, Weckmann, and Bach.

The 2017 Groningen Schnitger Festival (reviewed here) focussed on the opening of the new organ in the Lutherse Kerk, a reconstruction of the Schnitger organ that was built for the church in 1699, with extensions to Schnitger’s plans in 1717. Schnitger gifted the organ to the Lutheran community in recognition of the time he and his German workforce spent in the church while working in Groningen on the now internationally famous organs in the Martinikerk and Aa-Kerk. Since 2001 the Lutherse Kerk reintroduced the tradition of Bach cantatas into the services, leading to the foundation of the period instrument Luthers Bach Ensemble and plans for an organ suitable for use with Bach cantatas. The Groningen born but Swiss-based organ builder Bernhardt Edskes was commissioned to build the new organ, based on the 1717 incarnation of the original Schnitger organ. This CD by church organist Tymen Jan Bronda is the first to be made of the new Schnitger organ.  Continue reading

Schmelzer: Sonatas

Schmelzer: Sonatas
Le Concert Brisé, William Dongois
Accent ACC24324. 69’21

Johann Heinrich Schmelzer (c1623-1680) was born in central Austria, moving to Vienna sometime in the 1630s where he spent the rest of his life working in the court of the Hapsburg emperors. He lived at a time when the cornett was beginning to lose position to the violin as the principal treble instrument. This is evidenced by Schmelzer’s own career, which started as a cornettist in the Vienna Stephansdom before making his name as a violin virtuoso, becoming court violinist to Ferdinand II/III and Leopold I. This CD redresses the balance towards the earlier instruments a little, by including arrangements for the cornett of pieces intended for the violin or other string instruments ‘played on the shoulder’. It also includes samples of the extraordinarily colourful instrumentations used by Schmelzer (and his Germanic colleagues), for example in the Sonata La carolietta written for violin, cornett, trombone and fagotto, and, in the Sonata à 5 adding a trumpet to that line-up.  Continue reading

Mallorca Edition Historic Organs

Mallorca Edition Historic Organs
Martin Schmeding
CYBELE 6SACD 
001404. 6 SACDs. 7h 39’31
1. Padre Antonio Solèr (1729-1783): Sonatas, Fugues and Fandango
2. Domenico Scarlatti (1685-1757): Sonatas
3. José Lidon (1748-1827): Complete Works for Organ
4. Sebastián Aguilera de Heredia (1561-1627): Organ Works
5. Pablo Bruna (1611-1679): Organ Works

Following his 17-part Max Reger Edition Martin Schmeding turns his hand to music from the Iberian Baroque. In addition to the 5 CDs of music, a 6th CD includes talks (in German) with Martin Schmeding and the organ builder Gerhard Grenzing who restored two of the three organs used. 

The first question when approaching this set of CDs is what is the best order to play the CDs? The published order makes no sense to me. Chronologically the order should be 4, 5, 2, 1, 3 (from the earliest to most recent). I would strongly recommend listening in that order, not least because it will help to give a  sense of the evolution of Iberian keyboard music. But if you want to annoy your neighbours and frighten the cat, start with CD1 and the opening blast of en-chamade trumpets. Spain is rather like France in that the peak period for the organ in construction terms was mid to late eighteenth century, but by then the music composed for the organ was, arguably, in musical decline. Starting with the earliest composers will demonstrate that development, and will also help you to appreciate the earlier repertoire without the blast of the later composers still ringing in your ears. But if you are one of those people who assume all organ music is dull and boring, then start with the later composers, whose music is certainly more fun.  Continue reading

Liszt: Une Divine Tragédie

 Liszt: Une Divine Tragédie
Thomas Ospital, organ
Editions Hortus: 149. 67’16

Orphée (transcription: Louis Robilliard)
Fantaisie et Fugue Ad nos, ad salutarem undam
Funérailles (transcription: Louis Robilliard)
Am Grabe Richard Wagners
Consolation IV

According to the programme notes, this recording takes the form of a ‘mini-opera’ (or Divine Tragedy), centred around Liszt’s monumental Ad nos, ad salutarem undam. The other four pieces on the CD, two of them modern transcriptions for organ, frame Ad nos, creating a wordless story that may (or may not) be based on the opening transcription (by Louis Robilliard) of Orphée. This arch-form piece introduces us to the concept of performing Liszt on a French, rather than German romantic organ, including an unusual cinema organ effect in the Molti più lento section. The organ is the 1989 van den Heuvel organ in the church of Saint-Eustache, Paris, an enormous instrument built in the grand tradition of the 19th-century French symphonic organ combined with many elements of the 20th-century neo-baroque that so influenced later French music from Messiaen to the then Titular Organist, Jean Guillou. A complex set of electronic wizardry was added in 2010, creating new interpretational and registration possibilities. Unfortunately, the CD includes practically no information about the organ, but it is readily available online. Continue reading

Croce: Motetti & Sacrae Cantiones

Croce: Motetti & Sacrae Cantiones
Voces Suaves, Concerto Scirocco
Arcana A439. 52’19

 

Giovanni Croce (also known as Il Chiozzotto) was a choirboy in St Mark’s Venice under Zarlino, eventually becoming maestro di cappella around six years before his death in 1609, four years before Monteverdi took up the same post. He was also connected to Santa Maria Formosa, possible as a priest as well as a singer. Although renowned in his own day, he has been overshadowed by his most illustrious predecessors and successors. His music is not as grand as the Gabrielli’s, or a refined as Monteverdi, although the influence of the former is clear, notably in his polychoral writing.  Continue reading

Think Subtilior

Think Subtilior
Cercle des fumeux & Songs and Sounds
Ensemble Santenay
Ricercar RIC386. 51’13

Think Subtilior (Cercle des fumeux & Songs and Sounds)

Ensemble Santenay is a group of four musicians who met during their studies of medieval music in Trossingen, Germany. Using the simplest of instrumentation (flute, fiddle, lute, and organetto) and one (soprano) singer, their approach to performance combines innovation with simplicity. Their choice of repertoire for this CD is apt: the so-called Arts Subtilior period from the end of the 14th-century. Stemming from the Parisian confraternity of ‘eccentric young intellectuals’, Cercle des fumeux, the style spread to Avignon, Northern Italy and Cyprus. Arts Subtilior uses simple but expertly crafted musical means and complex rhythms to express emotion. What Ensemble Santenay uniquely bring to the music is their esoteric introductions to several of the pieces: little soundscapes with titles like ‘haze, ephemeral, emanation, exhalation and perfume’. These are based on improvisations on some of the musical themes of the songs and the sounds of the instruments, all subjected to some technical wizardry by their musical produced Thor-Harald Johnsen. The longest, ’emanation’, lasts nearly three minutes and features the organetto phasing in and out of flute sounds within an atmospheric background.  Continue reading

Lully: Alceste

Jean-Baptiste Lully: Alceste
Les Talens Lyriques, Namur Chamber Choir, Christophe Rousset
Launch concert: Opéra Royal, Versailles, 10 December 2017
CD: Aparté AP164, 2CDs. 80’+70.59′

Lully: Alceste

Alceste ou Le Triomphe d’Alcide is an early example of Lully’s tragédie en musique in its fledgeling form of a Prologue followed by five Acts. It uses a libretto by Philippe Quinault, based on Euripides’ Alcestis. The first performance was given in January 1674 by the recently formed Académie Royale de Musique (later known as the Opéra de Paris) at the Théâtre du Palais-Royal, adjoining the then residence of the King, the Louvre Palace. The occasion was the Louis XIV’s victory against the Spanish held Franche-Comté during the complexities of the Franco-Dutch War. Lully had only recently taken control of the opera scene in Paris and Versailles, and this was the second of the many operas created during this monopoly. Even though Versailles was not, at the time, the seat of Louis XIV (and indeed, most of it was not yet built), the sumptuous Opéra Royal (built around 100 years later, in 1770) was an appropriate venue for Les Talens Lyriques to launch this CD, with a concert performance.

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Mozart Chamber Music: Vol. 1

Mozart Chamber Music Vol. 1
Ensemble DeNOTE
Devine Music DMCD007. 70’43

Mozart DMCD007

Sonata for Piano and Violin in B flat, K.454
‘Kegelstatt’ Trio for Clarinet, Viola and Piano in E flat, K.498
Piano Quartet in G minor, K.478

There is more to this recording than meets the eye – or, indeed, the ear. At one level it is an excellent recording of some, perhaps lesser-known, music by Mozart, played on period instruments with considerable (and appropriate) style by Ensemble DeNOTE. On that basis alone, it is well worth getting hold of. But what marks this out as being very different from a normal run-of-the-mill Mozart CD is its background. It grew out of 2016 staged performances of Mozart given by DeNOTE as part of their (Arts Council funded) Mozart Project Live!, itself an extension of the earlier Mozart Project, an award-winning interactive digital book with contributions from DeNOTE’s director, fortepianist, John Irving. For their Mozart Project Live! they performed extracts from the three pieces on this recording, along with spoken and acted introductions from two actors, in period dress but clutching 21st-century tablets, and audio and video material from the digital book. But there was not enough time for complete performances of the three pieces demonstrated, hence this recording.  It contrasts three works from the 1780s for two, three and four instruments, all including the fortepiano.

The opening K.454 Sonata for Piano and Violin was written in 1784 for the Viennese debut of the Mantuan violinist Regina Strinasacchi (a former student of the Ospedale della Pietà in Venice), then in her early 20s. It was written in some haste, to the extent that Mozart had no time to write out his piano part. For the public performance, apparently in the company of the Emperor Joseph II, he put a blank sheet of paper on the music desk, but played from memory and, presumably, a great deal of improvisation. It is a piece full of contrast, unusually starting with an expansive Largo before bursting into a lively Allegretto. The compositional blend between the two instruments is notable, each sharing the limelight alongside lengthy passages where the two combine in close consort. The players’ subtle additions to the text are entirely appropriate.

The incorrectly named Kegelstatt Trio (for Clarinet, Viola and Piano) (the name was intended for another piece, not this one) breaks the conventional rules of composition, the three movements (Andante, Menuetto, Rondeaux: Allegretto) bearing little relation to the expected three-movement sequence. Although the instruments (unique at the time) in the final movement, the fortepiano takes centre stage for a while, before the other two instruments have their moments in the foreground. Incidentally, Mozart is said to have played the viola for this, not the piano.

The concluding Piano Quartet in G minor (K.478) also has a back story – or might have. Although commissioned (as a set of three) for Vienna’s amateur performers, the piano part turned out to be far too difficult for them to play. Along with that, the thought of four amateur musicians attempting to play this complex work was deemed, at best, undesirable. Refusing to write something easier, the commission was cancelled, leaving this one Quartet, one of the first of its kind in musical history. That is the story, but recent scholarship, outlined in the CDs liner notes, casts doubt on this story. In the dark key of G minor, it is certainly of an emotional depth and intensity that requires musical and expressive experience possibly beyond many amateurs. Only in the final movement does any semblance of domestic music-making begin to appear. As with the other pieces on this recording, the four instruments are treated as equals and, as with the other pieces, the recording balance is well judged between them, the fortepiano (a copy of a c1795 Walter) being at just the right volume to blend without dominating.

The individual performances, from Marcus Barcham-Stevens, violin, Oliver Wilson, viola, Ruth Alford, cello, Jane Booth, clarinet, and John Irving, fortepiano, are excellent. But, more importantly, the overall result greatly exceeds the sum of the individual parts – as it always should in consort playing.

The Art of Heinrich Scheidemann

The Art of Heinrich Scheidemann
Le Concert Brisé, William Dongois
Accent ACC24302. 68′ 

This is an important recording as it brings the music of Heinrich Scheidemann to a wider audience than just organists. Unfortunately, many organists are not aware enough of the organ compositions of this major North German composer of the early Baroque era. He was one of the most important pupils of Sweelinck in Amsterdam in the early 17th century, moving on (as did several other Sweelinck pupils) to an important organist post in Hamburg; at the enormous organ of Hamburg’s Catharinenkirche, recently restored back to the time of Bach’s famous visit, but still containing many pipes from Scheidemann’s time. He was part of an extraordinary tradition of North German organ playing that led to Buxtehude and, ultimately, the young Bach. It seems that the only surviving Scheidemann pieces are for organ, plus a few for a stringed keyboard. So this instrumental interpretation, although not without a number of issues for the purist, is a very welcome addition to the many CDs of Scheidemann’s organ music.  Continue reading