March 22, 2017
CD and Other Review

Review: Bach: Christmas Oratorio (Dunedin Consort/John Butt)

It seems beyond John Butt’s Dunedin Consort to issue a recording that is less than perfect, and this ravishing account of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio is no exception. Not only does the clarity and beauty of the singing and instrumental playing blow anything else out of the water; Butt’s approach to realising Bach’s intentions under very specific performing conditions is committed yet flexible and open-minded.   For example, he uses two SATB choirs comprising just one voice per part – the maximum number Bach may have had at his disposal at any one time. Of the six cantatas comprising the oratorio, I, III and VI are sung by one choir, II, IV and V by the other. For those cantatas with trumpet parts (I, III and VI) he uses the “redundant” choir as “ripienists” to reinforce the part in the choruses and chorales – in reality, Bach would have used “apprentice” singers here. As Butt writes in his excellent booklet note, “The aim then is to try and present the range of choral scoring that Bach seems to have used, from doubled vocal lines through to single lines for parts I, IV and V… This approach is definitely not meant to…

February 23, 2017
CD and Other Review

Review: Pierre de la Rue (The Brabant Ensemble/Rice)

Measuring fame is always a difficult proposition. Pierre de la Rue (c. 1452-1518) died a wealthy man, much of his relatively prolific output has survived and he has earned a place in the history books as the most famous composer of his generation not to have worked in Italy. Yet, for all this, he is largely forgotten today. Thankfully, enthusiasts such as Stephen Rice and his Brabant Ensemble are doing a sterling job in plugging the gaps in his discography. Missa Nuncqua Fue Pena Mayor, the earlier of two Masses on this disc is not the most promising place to start, however. While there are some variations in texture and rhythm, it is a rather plain four-part setting. Despite an empathetic approach to text by the singers, the music itself comes across as rather academic. (Perhaps it would have helped to hear the song on which it is based first.) The later Missa Inviolata is a much more interesting and accomplished affair with flashes of rhythmic brilliance and interesting text setting, still within the confines of four parts. Recalling the style of Josquin, Salve Regina VI effectively varies combinations of voices to make the final four-part section of the motet…

February 23, 2017
CD and Other Review

Review: Dolce Vita (Jonas Kaufmann)

I wish I could offer readers a little more than an echo of other commentators when it comes to this marvellous singer; he is simply remarkable, but in Neapolitan song, I’m not so sure. Having recently reviewed Roberto Alagna dishing out this mildly attractive repertoire in concert, I find I am a little over Neapolitan song, which is a bit unfair on Herr Kaufmann. The selection opens with the operatic Caruso, Lucio Dalla’s tribute to the great tenor. Kaufman sings it with ringing conviction. In fact he sings everything with ringing conviction, which in this repertoire leads to dullness. It was a relief to come to the better songs. Parlami d’Amore Mariù, Torna a Surriento and the famous Volare. He also tosses off the delightful Voglio Vivere Così with aplomb. He’s certainly better in more sensitive items such as Catari and Con Te Partirò. Kaufmann seems more at ease in this part of the repertoire. Even so, he does not sing these songs any better than do Roberto Alagna or Juan Diego Flórez. Frankly, some of the music is thin and pompous – “All hat and no cattle,” as the Americans say – and Un Amore Così Grande by Guido…

January 18, 2017
CD and Other Review

Review: Songs of the Nativity (The Sixteen)

Trust Harry Christophers and The Sixteen to get to the heart of the matter. This selection of 22 carols is an engaging mix of old and new, sung unaccompanied and without the cloying sentimentality that often mars the Christmas season and threatens to make a mockery of a story that could have particular resonance in our own age of mass human displacement. Here we have singing that conveys wonderment and joy, but also empathetically touches on the less glamorous aspects of the human condition. The older carols are not necessarily well known. As Christophers notes, some are out fashion, but none the worse for that. Traditional compositions such as This endris night with its catchy tune together with the Somerset Carol and the Gallery Carol both of which evoke innocent merriment, are all worth reviving, while better known 20th-century favourites such as Peter Warlock’s Bethlehem Down, John Ireland’s The Holy Boy and Henry Walford Davies’ O little town of Bethlehem have an appealing intimacy. A welcome stylistic variety informs the choice of newer carols. Whether it is the close harmony of Morten Lauridsen’s O magnum mysterium, the subtle but effective motoric minimalism of Howard Skempton’s Adam lay ybounden or the…

January 18, 2017
CD and Other Review

Review: Shakespeare Songs (Ian Bostridge)

Renowned conductor Antonio Pappano is best known as music director of the Royal Opera House, but he is also a very fine pianist. Songs on texts by William Shakespeare finds Pappano accompanying the equally renowned English historian and tenor Ian Bostridge on an expansive collection featuring composers across five centuries who have set Shakespeare’s texts and musical dramatic devices, very few of which are stand-alone songs, to music. Not surprisingly, English composers are a strong presence: these include Morley, Byrd and their contemporary John Wilson, whose Take, o take those lips away is a highlight. Quilter’s Come away, death is mysterious and affecting, greatly impressing and influencing  Warlock, who is also featured here, along with Britten and Tippett.  Bostridge is commanding throughout, and justly famous for his attention to detail and extraordinarily nuanced delivery. The recording is glorious: rich, spacious and resonant. The final track on this collection, When that I was and a little tiny boy (Anon.), sung a cappella by Bostridge, is nothing short of extraordinary, from both performance and recording perspectives.  The sumptuous packaging contains meticulously researched and detailed liner notes by Christopher Wilson, and includes all song texts. This is an excellent and beautifully presented collection…

January 18, 2017
CD and Other Review

Review: Rubbra: Choral Works (The Sixteen)

Edmund Rubbra is a composer who has faded from English musical history, written out of a narrative that jumps straight from Vaughan Williams and Holst to Britten and Walton. But this release from The Sixteen is a defiant and overdue attempt to rewrite that history, to establish Rubbra where he belongs, as one of the most distinctive harmonic voices of his generation – not the conservative throwback he has been painted, but a composer for whom the possibilities of tonality were far from exhausted. That voice might emerge most emphatically in Rubbra’s 11 symphonies, but his choral works distil their harmonic language into something cleaner, more concise. The sonic imagination here roams widely, from the craggy, sharp-edged beauty of the Tenebrae Motets to the gauzy clouds of modal richness established by the two choirs of the Missa Cantuariensis and the lightly-worn contrapuntal skill of Vain Wits and Except the Lord. This music gives little away on the page – its impact is all in the pacing and careful textural balance of performance. Harry Christophers deploys his singers with care, ensuring absolute vertical clarity and balance, but also a horizontal flow that propels music whose organic, evolving structures can easily become…

January 18, 2017
CD and Other Review

Review: Krenek: Reisebuch aus den österreichischen Alpen (Florian Boesch)

Ernst Krenek’s resumé reads like a pro forma template of Austro-Germany’s forgotten composers sent into exile by the political climate of the 1930s. Studying with Franz Schreker and a short-lived marriage to Mahler’s daughter Anna ensured a thorough grounding in heady Late Romantic expressionism, dabbling with atonality before embracing Hindemithian democratic craft and making a big splash in 1927 with Jonny Spielt Auf; a key example of Zeitoper. Staged in over 100 European theatres, the pseudo-jazz inflected score and Jonny’s ethnicity would bring fame and notoriety but aroused the ire of the racial purifiers waiting to seize power. Krenek’s adoption of Schoenberg’s serial technique in the 1930s would seal his fate; his opera Karl V would be banned by the Nazis and he would be denounced as a “degenerate” so he decamped to Palm Springs, sheltering in academia for the rest of his life where he produced a steady stream of fine compositions that, apart from occasional performances in rebuilt Germany, were ignored.  His Reisebuch aus den Österreichischen Alpen song cycle of 1929 was a response to the previous year’s 100th anniversary of the death of Schubert. Spurred by a visit to the Alps, it is a revisionist take on…

December 16, 2016
CD and Other Review

Review: Rautavaara: Vocal Works (Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra)

At the time of writing this review, it has only been little more than a month since we lost this great Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara to the darkness. He was 87. But why talk about death or count the years in relation to a composer of such stylistic breadth and a man who had a seemingly illimitable trust in the unconscious to bring forth ideas?  Take his recent song cycle for baritone and orchestra, Rubáiyát, commissioned in 2014 by the Wigmore Hall for the great Canadian bass-baritone Gerald Finley, who performs it on this recording. Rautavaara was a 20-something music student when he first encountered the poetry of Omar Khayyam and swore that he would one day set it to music. Decades later, here is such a cycle, as warm, romantic, lyrical and mysterious as Khayyam’s words, as rendered by his most famous English translator, Edward FitzGerald. Finley is, as you’d expect, the perfect interpreter, every word as distinct as it is coloured with hues mellow and bright.  Some of the cycle’s glowing sensuousness can also be found in Rautavaara’s 2014 Lorca setting, Balada, for tenor, mixed choir and orchestra. Lorca was another of the composer’s favourite poets. It is…

December 16, 2016
CD and Other Review

Review: Penderecki conducts Penderecki (Warsaw Philharmonic)

If this well produced disc is anything to go by, Krzysztof Penderecki, the grandfather of Polish music, remains a powerful expressive force, both as composer and conductor. Spanning nearly 60 years of compositional endeavour, the works display Penderecki’s prowess in the field of large-scale religious works. His 2014 Dies Illa, written to commemorate the victims of World War I on the centenary of its outbreak, is a vivid soundscape that takes inspiration from Verdi’s Requiem. The Warsaw forces perform expertly and soloists (soprano Johanna Rusanen, mezzo  Agnieszka Rehlis and bass Nikolay Didenko) deliver texts with empathy and commitment. Two 1997 commissions demonstrate Penderecki’s ability to bring his keen appreciation of history to bear on works for grand occasions. Hymn to St. Daniil for the 850th anniversary of the foundation of Moscow, has a strong flavour of Orthodox chant, culminating with brass and bells. Hymn to St Adalbert for the millennium of the city of Gdan´sk grows into a fervent and exultant outpouring of praise. Psalms of David from 1958 won the composer several prizes that helped establish his international reputation. A fascinating blend of avant-garde and traditional, they have a likeable freshness and originality that has not dimmed in the…

December 16, 2016
CD and Other Review

Review: Songs by Max Reger (Sophie Bevan)

In songwriting terms, Reger remains a one-hit wonder: his Mariä Wiegenlied, but heaven help anyone seeking the rest of his vast Lieder output. Now Hyperion has come to the rescue,  but even they supply a mere 33 of the nearly 300 songs which Reger left. Repeatedly discernible in this selection dominated by miniatures is the composer’s tendency to resort to restless chromaticism in songs that begin as folk-like, almost drawing-room productions. No wonder recitalists have shied away. Far easier to master a song that stays in the same mood throughout, rather than switching within seconds from Schubertian quasi-naivety to Hugo-Wolf-style anguish. Significantly, Reger preferred minor poets: no Goethe, Schiller or Heine here. Occasionally Reger uses a verse familiar from Strauss: Mackay’s Morgen!, which Reger makes almost indistinguishable from a Wagnerian dusk. But other Reger settings show him in a much better light and they deserve more frequent airings. This reviewer was particularly taken by the martial Zwischen zwei Nächten, the impressionistic Aeolsharfe (like Debussy to German words), and above all the deliberately antiquarian In einem Rosengärtelein. Sophie Bevan has a big timbre which nevertheless encompasses considerable delicacy when needed. Malcolm Martineau is perfectly attuned to Reger’s unrelenting demands. Engineering and…

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