February 27, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: Turina: Canto a Sevilla (BBC Philharmonic)

With this second disc devotedto the music of Joaquín Turina, the BBC Philharmonic and conductor Juanjo Mena present highly idiomatic and colourful evocations of the composer’s native region of Andalusia. Built around the song cycle that gives the disc its name, native soprano Maria Espada gives the most persuasive account of the orchestral song cycle since the old mono recording by Victoria De Los Ángeles (EMI). Not only is she successful at colouring this evocative score, Espada is highly sympathetic to the composer’s desire to bring his beloved home city of Seville so vividly to life with its gypsy rhythms and religious processions. As in the other compositions here, Turina brings an almost technicolor brillliance to these, and it is this quality, aided and abetted by the conductor, which makes this disc such an enjoyable experience. One must also applaud the sheer virtuosity brought to bear by an orchestra of the calibre of the BBC Philharmonic. Elsewhere, these almost electric interpretations bring Turina’s Andalusia to life, be it in La procesión del Rocio, Danzas gitanas or the more intimate sound world of Rapsodia sinfónica for piano and string orchestra wherein Martin Roscoe proves an ideal soloist. Recorded in such vivid, naturalistic…

February 20, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: Bach: Mass in B Minor (Arcangelo)

British conductor Jonathan Cohen has a refreshing lack of concern for apparently ‘sacred’, apparently never to be tampered with, performance traditions that can, and do, leave other performances of the B Minor Mass historically boxed-in. Cohen calmly reconnects us with JS Bach’s actual sacred inner-life. Like John Butt’s 2009 reading with the Dunedin Consort on Linn Records, intuition tells you that Cohen’s new B Minor Mass will be viewed kindly by history, the freshness of this conceptually rigorous and unified recording born of an active engagement with the material, rather than requiring the piece to slot conveniently inside an existing point of view. Not that Cohen has anything much in common with Butt. In Arcangelo, period and modern instruments coexist unapologetically, while the Dunedin Consort is an ideologically hardcore period instrument group. Butt unsurprisingly adheres to one-voice-to-a-part whereas Cohen deploys four voices – except in the Confiteor Unum Baptisma where he too reverts to one voice per part, appropriately framing Bach’s subliminal glance back to an older contrapuntal style. But the nuances of Cohen’s perspective run deeper than mere matters of personnel. Butt – alongside other recent interpreters on record: hello Marc Minkowski and Philippe Herreweghe – need you to…

February 20, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: Vivaldi: Pietà (Philippe Jaroussky)

With this new recording featuring a selection of Vivaldi’s motets for alto voice, stellar French countertenor Philippe Jaroussky comes full circle a decade or so after his previous two recordings devoted to Vivaldi’s most virtuosic music. In doing so, he similarly demonstrates the operatic and concerto-like qualities of these ostensibly devotional works. This is music that delights in virtuosity, both subtle and exultant, as a legitimate form of praise.  If motets such as Clarae stellae, first performed in 1715 at the Ospedale della Pietà whose name is forever linked to that of the Red Priest’s, and Vivaldi’s Stabat Mater of 1712 demonstrate a more demure style with occasional melismatic outbursts, it’s a different story with the later Longe mala, umbrae, terrores. In the first section alone, Jaroussky must negotiate unrelenting roulades, which he does with uncompromising élan; likewise the final Alleluia which most obviously recalls an opera aria or the final movement of some lost violin concerto. But just listen to the honeyed, tender melismas in Descende, o coeli vox and Jaroussky reveals a truer, deeper artistry.  So with these works, which include an exquisite introduction to a lost Miserere, a gently throbbing Salve Regina and the Domine Deus from…

January 12, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: SCHUMANN Dichterliebe, Liederkreis (tenor: Werner Gura, piano: Jan Schultz)

The same is true, in a way, of great paintings, and of most Baroque and classical music. But there is something different about art song: while the works of the old masters now carry a patina of age, the stripped-back nature of the song-cycles means they have defied the years. On this recording, the words of the German poets Joseph von Eichendorff (Liederkreis) and Heinrich Heine (Dichterliebe) are brought to us with their freshness untouched by time. These compositions speak to us as a friend would in the most intimate conversation. Schumann’s songs of the joys of love and the anguish of unrequited yearnings are given a lucid and heartfelt reading by German tenor Werner Gura, who specialises in Lieder and oratorio. Although a tenor, he is reminiscent of the youthful Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau – this is a light voice, never strained, and with a flexible baritonal extension. His accompanist Jan Schultsz (who is also a horn-player and conductor) is supportive at all times, but very much the partner. Everyone has their favourites in this repertoire, but this one is a worthy rival for the most celebrated Lieder recordings. A recital for the ages.

January 12, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: Lettere Amorose (mezzo: Magdalena Kožená; Private Musicke/Pitzl)

Having already conquered Handel, Vivaldi and Bach on recent discs, Czech mezzo-soprano Magdalena Kožená is back in the Baroque yet again, but this time treading earlier and much less familiar ground. Lettere Amorose, her latest effort, is an esoteric and enchanting selection of vocal music by Monteverdi and his Italian contemporaries. These are songs, rather than arias: intimate and relatively simple in scope, and given luminous voice by Kožená. Rarities abound – nothing here could claim to be over-recorded – and Kožená revels palpably in the possibilities of this colourful and crucial musical era. From the tripping dance rhythms of Kapsberger’s Felici gl’animi, to Vitali’s silvery O bei lumi, to a vividly bereft rendition of Si dolce è il tormento (Monteverdi’s only appearance in the program), she is in superb form, remaining true to both the period and her own distinct, emotionally driven style. Another notable inclusion is Merula’s extraordinary (and extraordinarily long) lullaby Hor ch’é di dormire, in which Mary sings to the infant Jesus of his own crucifixion, accompanied by a ground bass of just two chords – a deceptively simple piece which Kožená sustains with devastating sincerity. Her opalescent timbre is well suited to this music, her…

January 12, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: Officium Novum (sop saxophone: Jan Garbarek; The Hilliard Ensemble)

Sadly I was forever turned off the soprano saxophone by smooth jazz superstar Kenny G. Not by his success – any instrumentalist who sells more than 75 million albums earns my awe, if not respect. No, it was his effortless frippery and shinily sugared tone that soundly nailed the coffin. Which brings me to that other soprano sax superstar, Jan Garbarek, and his latest pairing with The Hilliard Ensemble. On this, the second follow up to the phenomenally successfully 1994 collaboration Officium, they dovetail what they individually do best – liquefied saxophone improvisations and crisply sung early music – to create a gentle atmospheric fusion. The comparison that springs to mind is of a graffiti artist wandering through the Sistine Chapel and tagging at will. Don’t get me wrong – I’m all for breaking down genres. No, it’s the slack aesthetic and overall lack of purpose that I have a problem with. On the plus side, the recording itself is superb. Like the first two CDs, it was recorded in a richly reverberant Benedictine monastery in the Austrian mountains. Likewise, I cannot fault the technique and expressivity – they are, frankly, sublime. It’s just that overall the venture feels inconsequential.

January 11, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: Hear my Words: Choral Classics from St. John’s (Choir of St. John’s College, Cambridge/Nethsingha)

For many, the hot ticket item will be Allegri’s Miserere, which opens the disc. The old Kings College recording set the benchmark with impeccable boy solo work. So it is a pleasure to say that the St John’s boys are in top form. Worth noting is the difference in style between the two famous choirs. St John’s evince a more robust sound. Grieg is represented by Ave, maris stella, which is a bit dull. Pärt’s brisker, O virgin, Mother of God, is welcome, and Rachmaninov gives us an entirely different reading of the same text, steeped in deep-throated Russian orthodoxy. Palestrina, Parsons and Tallis remind us of the austere world of earlier church music. Following the beautiful piety of these early composers, and especially the perfumed sweetness of Franck’s Panis angelicus and Fauré’s exquisite Cantique de Jean Racine, it is a relief to get to the engaging heartiness of Stanford’s Jubilate Deo. Vaughan Williams, John Rutter and James MacMillan are represented by O taste and see, Oh Lord, thou hast searched me out, and A New Song, respectively. Appropriately, Parry’s Hear my words, ye people brings this attractive collection to an end with a vigorous show of Anglican robustness. At…

January 11, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: Brahms: Symphony No 4, Beethoven: Coriolan Overture (Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique; The Monteverdi Choir/Gardiner)

At first glance, Gabrieli and Schütz, glorious as they are, seem to be at odds with the symphony. Gardiner’s notes are the key to this collation. Using original instruments he has juxtaposed the symphony with some of the composer’s neglected choral music. He argues that as these wonderful works came first they are germane to his orchestral writing. The other composers were selected for their influence on his choral style and the Coriolan Overture represents the defining shadow of Beethoven. This is steely, hard-edged tough as nails Brahms. There will be those for whom this is heaven-sent, yet for all Gardiner’s dedication and well-argued rationale, much of this performance is a tiresome dose of musical political correctness. For example, the scrawny violin tone does not sit well with the composer’s grand phrases and rich palette. However, his approach works well in the lively Allegro giocoso, with its sharp rhythms and bright woodwind writing and also serves the edgy restlessness of the last movement. Musical research will continue and performance practice will evolve, as it should. Tastes will change and change again. I recommend the CD for the extensive interview between Gardiner and Hugh Wood. That alone is worth the price…

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