July 8, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: The Spy’s Choirboy (Alamire/David Skinner)

★★★★★ When David Skinner founded his crack vocal ensemble in 2005 he named them after Petrus Alamire; one of those extraordinary figures of the 1500s who turned their hand to whatever might keep them afloat on the turbulent seas of political upheaval and courtly intrigue. An illuminator, scribe and composer-musician seeking safe harbour amongst the various northern-European courts he dabbled in a little espionage on behalf of Henry VIII.  After nine critically acclaimed releases, Skinner’s group now pays tribute to their namesake with this complete performance of Alamire’s finest legacy, the exquisite choirbook he once presented to Henry and is now held in the British Library. A collection of 34 motets celebrating the glories of Flemish polyphony with masterworks by Josquin Desprez, Pierre de la Rue, Jean Mouton, Antoine de Févin and a smattering of fine works of unknown provenance, some of which here receive their first recording.  The choir is superb with impeccable intonation and the ideal timbre for this repertoire, finding the right compromise between modern polish and period tang, maintaining clarity of line with just the right bite in the texture and avoiding the bland results of the overly-blended. Some may crave the raw excitement of Graindelavoix’s…

July 8, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: Lux (Voces8)

★★★☆☆ The most recent release from British choral ensemble Voces8 is a catalogue of shimmering music centring on the theme of light. The eight-piece group is flawless, and their radiant timbre doesn’t let the disc’s title down one bit. Their shining tone and technique make for joyful, peaceful listening, and the acoustics – Dore Abbey and St Michael’s, Highgate – help polish the already stunning performance. The 15 tracks traverse centuries of music, from Renaissance masters such as Tallis to contemporary composers like Lauridsen and Ešenvalds. There’s even pop crossover in arrangements of Ben Folds and Massive Attack. It’s an album of unashamedly beautiful music intended for reflection and relaxation and on that level it works. But while thought has clearly gone into the curation, the result has missed the mark. The pop arrangements don’t come off that convincingly, and feel slightly sacrilegious when heard a track or two away from Allegri’s sublime Miserere (which does sound gorgeous). And Thomas Tallis with saxophone and a vocal arrangement of Elgar’s famous Nimrod from his Enigma Variations will probably irk the purists.  Ultimately this disc’s appeal lies in its beauty of sound, and for this reason I’d gladly have it on while…

July 8, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: The Emerald Leopard (Josie and the Emeralds)

★★★★☆ One of classical music’s dilemmas is the relatively small body of high-profile works that get recorded again and again. Thank goodness then for musicians like Josie Ryan and the Emerald City Viols. The repertoire on this CD for soprano and viol consort, is remarkably varied. It begins and ends with compositions by viol player and director Brooke Green, starting with settings of Dorothy Porter’s poetry, and passes through some surprising influences – Nick Cave is not the first name I expected to see referenced in the liner notes! Green utilises modern harmonies and rhythms, but not to the detriment of melody. There’s also a generous helping of more traditional repertoire from Gibbons, Morley, and Dowland, while sprinkled throughout are works by Elena Kats-Chernin and Ross Edwards. The Emerald City Viols give enthusiastic performances, especially excelling in the Renaissance pieces. Gibbons subtly melancholy settings are sung with great aplomb by Josie Ryan. Similarly, three Dowland songs (Flow my tears, In darkness let me dwell, and Can she excuse my wrongs) are performed in a natural and affecting way. Recorded with funding from the online crowdfunding platform Pozible, this is the ancient sound of the viol consort, brought into the 21st century….

July 8, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: Flight of Angels (The Sixteen/Harry Christophers)

★★★★☆ Gold from the new world was not the only glittering commodity of Philip II’s Spain. Now at the height of its colonial power, the country also boasted spectacular music and art. Here Harry Christophers has harvested the choicest fruits of Francisco Guerrero and Alonso Lobo. These composers, master and disciple, were both in turn maestro di capilla of Seville Cathedral, then one of the grandest Christian structures in Europe.  Amongst the highlights is Lobo’s monumental motet Versa est in luctum, written for the funeral rites of King Philip himself. The singers reveal the plangent glories, singing with a wonderful mixture of imposing calm and expertly focused dissonance. Another funeral setting, Libera me, a Kyrie and two Marian motets attest to Lobo’s polyphonic mastery. Guerrero, Lobo’s teacher and himself a student of Cristóbal de Morales, was an intrepid character, having made a Holy Land pilgrimage during which he was twice captured by pirates! He was later briefly in debtors’ prison having spent too much publishing his music and memoirs. A 12-voice Duo seraphim, an eight-voice Laudate Dominum and the Credo from his Missa de la Batalla Escoutez stand out as examples of artistry.  The Sixteen once again demonstrate their profound…

July 8, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: Elgar: King Olaf (Bergen Philharmonic/Davis)

★★★★☆ Editor’s Choice: Vocal & Chroal, June 2015 So obsessed were the white anglo-saxon protestant citizens of late Victorian England with the “punishment of wickedness and vice, and the maintenance of true religion and virtue” (to use Thomas Cranmer’s phrase) that they were content even for a talented Roman Catholic like Edward Elgar to feed them stories that reinforced the prevailing ‘muscular Christianity’. St George and the dragon was an obvious subject, not least when Queen Victoria celebrated her diamond jubilee in 1897. For The Banner of Saint George Elgar was provided with poetry that was far from accomplished, but he used his considerable skill in orchestration to create evocative soundscapes, especially as he depicts the slaying of the dragon. On the other hand, there are times (as in the epilogue) when I can’t help wondering whether Elgar has his tongue firmly planted in his cheek. In any event, Sir Andrew Davis and his forces give a rousing and fully committed account of a work that was to become immensely popular in the composer’s lifetime. Clearly rescuing damsels in distress appealed to the choral societies of the time. Of far greater interest is a work published the year before: Scenes…

May 14, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: Donizetti: Lucia di Lammermoor (Damrau)

When Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor was premiered in Naples in 1835 there was as much drama off stage as on. The San Carlo opera house was on the verge of bankruptcy and the musicians hadn’t been paid. His diva, Fanny Tacchinardi Persiani, was miffed that the tenor Edgardo’s death scene comes after hers – this in spite of the fact that he stabs himself when he hears her death knell! To make things even worse the glass harmonica player, so vital for the mad scene, quit and the composer had to rescore it with a second flute. Fortunately conductor Jesús López-Cobos seems to have had a much easier time with this fine new release starring German soprano Diana Damrau and the popular Maltese tenor Joseph Calleja. Recorded from live concert performances in Munich over four nights, this is a good if not exceptional production. The two leads make a handsome vocal couple but there are occasional ragged edges that would have been airbrushed out in a studio recording. In the big duet Verranno a te sull’aure, for example, Calleja finishes well before Damrau.  However, these are minor flaws. The ensemble singing in the sextet is a standout and Damrau shines…

April 28, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: Rachmaninoff: Songs (Iain Burnside)

Rachmaninov devotees have long treasured the masterly survey of songs by the late Elisabeth Söderström, accompanied by Vladimir Askenazy, and the Chandos set from the early ‘90s that gave us the correct voice types. Some 20 years later this current set is a welcome release and a strong rival.  Seven youngish Russian singers are heard here and all are fine artists and bring a great deal of Slavic intensity. Andrei Bondarenko’s rich baritone timbre caresses the ear and is superbly focused while Ekaterina Siurina’s bright forward tone is a delight and suits the lighter fare to a tee. Alexander Vinogradov, recently heard in a superb Shostakovich Babi Yar under Petrenko, has a sonorous instrument in the Russian bass tradition and does a fine job of vividly characterising those songs inspired by Rachmaninov’s friendship with Chaliapin.   Daniil Shtoda who sung a fine Fenton on Abbado’s 2001 Falstaff sounds splendid if occasionally betraying a little wear and tear on the top of the voice. Justina Gringyte has a formidable dark mezzo sound that can tingle the spine. Rodion Pogossov and Evelina Dobraceva are both noticeably of the old school with occluded tone and some good old-fashioned Slavic wobble, however Dobraceva’s dramatic…

April 27, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: Brahms: Choral Works (Cappella Amsterdam/Reuss)

Daniel Reuss has led Cappella Amsterdam for over half its 44 years, during which the troupe has released several dozen recordings of old and new music, mostly European. This catalogue of well-known secular Brahms choral works is bookended by two cycles of sacred motets. Brahms was himself the conductor of several middle-class choirs, and choral composition runs practically throughout his entire creative life. As in the grand polyphonic tradition of Palestrina and Bach, the harmony does the talking. Entire musicology lectures could be spun about any single phrase – so completely thought-through they are. Listening while following the text reveals how closely aligned are the harmony and the poetry. Reuss takes the unusual step of including a work for piano alone. But through the first ten minutes I had forgotten its existence, so alien is the world of liturgical choral music to that of the piano. Intermezzo is a welcome surprise, despite unadventurous playing. Though not always piercing in their intonation, the choir is persuasive, achieving in Schicksalslied a venomous timbre on the text “water hurled, from crag to crag” In the chorale of the title work, the phrase “Sanft und stille” (gentle and silent) was simple and breathtaking, just as…

April 26, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: Music for Remembrance (Westminster Abbey Choir/O’Donnell)

While commemorations of the Word War I centenary continue, James O’Donnell and his Westminster Abbey forces perform music associated mainly with other conflicts to remind us of the horror and folly of war.  Taking up the lion’s share of this disc is Maurice Duruflé’s Requiem in its medium-sized incarnation for choir, orchestra, organ and soloists. Hyperion’s engineers have done a splendid job in balancing the relatively small choir against the orchestra in the abbey’s cavernous acoustics. Duruflé’s sincerity shines through his heartfelt score and O’Donnell elicits a very moving performance from all concerned, including soloists Christine Rice and Roderick Williams. English composers feature in the rest of the program. Vaughan Williams’s Lord, thou hast been our refuge is a poignant reaction to his first-hand experience of the so-called Great War, while Howells’s Take him, earth, for cherishing evokes the tragedy of President Kennedy’s assassination. Philip Moore’s Three Prayers of Dietrich Bonhoeffer are thoughtful and effective settings of the German pacifist pastor who was executed by the Nazis. John Tavener’s The peace that surpasseth all understanding forms the powerful conclusion to the program. Commissioned by the Abbey to commemorate the fallen of both world wars, its final “Om” reminds us of…

April 25, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: Handel: Heroes from the Shadows (Stutzmann)

Nathalie Stutzmann’s new disc Heroes in the Shadows is an impressive demonstration of this artist’s multitude of musical talents, as she takes centre stage both as conductor and contralto soloist. The singer possesses a handsome contralto voice and demonstrates superb control over her instrument. Her fantastic coloratura technique is shown in the faster, flamboyant arias, most notably on the opening Dover giustizia, amor from Ariodante. Her musicality is laid bare during Non so se sia la speme from Serse, where she demonstrates instinctive understanding for colour and phrasing. She often reduces her vibrato during points of harmonic tension, which serves to highlight the drama in the ensuing resolutions. Despite her virtuosity, Stutzmann never overdoes vocal pyrotechnics during da capo sections, preferring to subtly augment the vocal line with occasional passing tones and trills. Philippe Jaroussky was a delightful choice for guest artist, and sings the duet Son nata a lagrimar from Giulio Cesare. His light, clean countertenor provides a balance for Stutzmann’s meatier tone. The orchestra, Orfeo 55, play with a bristling energy throughout. Cello soloist Patrick Langot, is to be commended for his delicate solo during Son qual stanco Pellegrino.  Heroes from the Shadows shows why Stutzmann has succeeded…

April 19, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: Decca Most Wanted Recitals (Various)

Decca’s Most Wanted Recitals series continues. As before, the discs are digitally remastered but contain no biographical or musical notes. Most of this material has not been reissued since its first appearance decades ago. Some should have been left undisturbed, but these six releases contain much of interest. Baritone Hermann Prey (1929-1998) was overshadowed during his lifetime by Fischer-Dieskau, yet Prey has a lovely voice and a distinctive approach to Schubert’s Schwanengesang. Listen to his passionate, committed rendition of In der Ferne: not as detailed (some would say mannered) as Fischer-Dieskau but by no means bland. Walter Klein’s accompaniments support him all the way. Renato Bruson’s honeyed operatic baritone is revisited in a recital of Donizetti arias, recorded in 1979, including a duet from Donizetti’s Requiem where he is joined by Pavarotti. Bruson’s soft singing is exceptional. French baritone Gerard Souzay gives us two discs of Schumann, both containing the Dichterliebe. The earlier one, with pianist Jacqueline Bonneau, finds him in fresher voice in 1953 but the mono recording is rough. His 1960s Philips records with Dalton Baldwin are preferable; his voice is less stable at forte but his artistry remains supreme. He sings the Liederkreis Op. 24 and Op….

April 16, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: Amorosi Pensieri (Cinquecento Renaissance Vokal)

For the past ten years Cinquecento have been carving themselves a niche in the specialised field of pre-Baroque sacred works, and madrigals by composers whom most of us have never encountered. Formed in Vienna and based in Germany, the group comprises six singers from five countries. For their eighth release on the British Hyperion label Cinquecento revisits three 16th-century Flemish singer-composers, Philippe del Monte, Jacobus Vaet and Jacob Regnart, this time performing their secular songs, and introduce us to a previously unknown composer. Not much is chronicled about Jean Guyot de Chatelet (Joannes Castileti), other than that he served briefly as Kapellmeister to Emperor Ferdinand I before returning to his home in Liege. However Guyot is not afraid to express his feelings, hence: “Instead of happy distractions, melancholy attacks me/I am bound by the ties of love/discipline holds me harshly prisoner”. Or his song about Susanne who has to fend off two dirty old men to preserve her innocence. These songs have all the colour and earthy life of the contemporaneous paintings of Pieter Brueghel and his sons and they sit well with the sextet’s pleasing vocal blend. Recorded at the Deutschlandfunk’s chamber music studio in Cologne, the program mixes…

April 11, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: Pärt: Vocal Works (Layton)

This wide-ranging survey of Pärt’s choral music is the third disc of his music performed by Stephen Layton’s Polyphony. As with the other two recordings, the singers’ clarity and unanimity of tone confirm them as ideal interpreters of this music. An added attraction is that this program takes us to back to some of Pärt’s earliest choral writing: the austere Solfeggio of 1963. The haunting musical stasis of this piece belies its unswerving adherence to the rules of serialism. Seven years later Pärt’s setting of the Nicean Creed, Summa shows the composer emerging into his “tintinnabulist” period and embracing the so-called “holy minimalism” that has become a hallmark of his music.  Another movement charted by this disc is Pärt’s journey from the confines of Soviet-era Estonia into the freedom of the wider, multicultural world of the last quarter-century. The works recorded here demonstrate that Pärt’s style both transcends time and place, but is also influenced by people and history. Virgencita, a 2012 work receiving its first recording, celebrates the story of the apparition of the Virgin Mary at Guadalupe, Mexico and reflects both the tenderness and passion of its subject. The other first recording here is of Alleluia-Tropus (2008) which…

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