May 12, 2017
CD and Other Review

Review: Poulenc: Sacred choral works (The Sixteen/Harry Christophers)

How do you take your Poulenc? I only ask because, conveniently, The Sixteen have recorded a lot of the repertoire on their latest disc before, and their thinking has changed dramatically in the 30-year gap. The contrast between the 1990 Figure Humaine (Virgin Classics, now Erato 5624312) and the newly released Francis Poulenc: Choral Music (CORO) is striking – neither an improvement nor the reverse, simply two very different approaches to the composer’s sacred music. Poulenc’s journey to faith was a swift and dramatic one. The turning point is usually placed in 1936, when two separate events together propelled the composer into a new state of mind. The sudden and violent death of his friend, composer Pierre-Octave Ferroud, in a car accident prompted a visit to the small chapel at Rocamadour, where a mystical experience restored the Catholicism of his childhood. He immediately began work on a sacred piece – the Litanies à la Vierge Noir – taking his first steps in a genre that would become a constant throughout his life. The sound-world of Figure Humaine is one of gauzy, glossy beauty – a Mannerist vision of a heaven that’s all soft-focus loveliness and elegance. These are performances that…

May 5, 2017
CD and Other Review

Review: A Voice From Heaven (Choir of The King’s Consort/Robert King)

Here is a disc with the air of luxury about it. To start, what a luxury to hear the voices of Robert King’s Consort by themselves. As part of a vocal and instrumental mix, they are never less than alluring, but there is something particularly luxurious about hearing them a cappella for an entire disc. The choice of programme is also generous and first-rate: we are presented with British works from this century and last, chosen around a broad theme of remembrance, and for the most part in pairs, sharing the same or similar texts. This allows listeners to enjoy familiar favourites as well as ‘classics in waiting’. Amongst the well-known are William Harris’s setting of Bring us, O Lord God and Herbert Howells’ Take Him, Earth for Cherishing. Apart from their crystalline clarity and their impeccable ensemble, the singers deliver superbly expressive singing that takes these already famous pieces to a new level. The same artistry is also at the service of accomplished, more recent settings of these same texts. James MacMillan’s Bring Us, O Lord God brings an edgier but no less ecstatic feel to the text, while John Tavener’s Take Him, Earth for Cherishing uses only the…

May 5, 2017
CD and Other Review

Review: Mozart: Mass in C Minor, K427 (Bach Collegium Japan/Suzuki)

Masaaki Suzuki has done a great deal for the cause of Bach over many years, but his way with Mozart is no less persuasive. Not only does he imbue the “great” but unfinished C Minor Mass with equal measures of grandeur, exuberance and other-worldliness, but he is one of those rare conductors (Boulez was another) who can impart to the listener great textural clarity plus an unclouded sense of the musical architecture. From the opening, rather old-fashioned Kyrie, Suzuki carefully paces the unfolding drama, allowing each part to play its role. The opening chorus of the Gloria (with its none-too-subtle references to Handel’s greatest hit) is joyfully dispatched, as are the succeeding solo opportunities. Sopranos Carolyn Sampson and Olivia Vermuelen are well matched in the Domine Deus; both having an excellent sense of phrasing. Sampson negotiates the justly famous Et Incarantus Est of the Credo with grace and ease. Suzuki’s careful attention to detail ensures beautifully shaped singing and playing throughout and a clear sense of how each part contributes to the whole. This is particularly true of the majestic brass in the Sanctus and the vocal intricacies at the end of the Gloria. To finish on a lighter note,…

April 26, 2017
CD and Other Review

Review: Distant Light (Renée Fleming, Royal Stockholm Philharmonic/Oramo)

Renée Fleming is no stranger to crossover. America’s favourite soprano has dabbled in rock music (2010’s Dark Hope), jazz (2005’s Haunted Heart), even duetted with Michael Bolton. But, until now, these have remained off-duty projects, separate from her official operatic identity. But in Distant Light she brings two worlds together, combining covers of Björk songs with music by Barber and Anders Hillborg in a recording that might just offer a vision of things to come in the classical music business. This feels like a coherent and convincing recital programme, tipping naturally from Barber’s hazy vision of pre-lapsarian America into Hillborg’s luminous sonic landscapes before casting off the classical anchor and drifting out into Björk’s broad lakes of sound and texture, beautifully reimagined in Hans Ek’s arrangements. Fleming still has one of the loveliest voices in the business, and that blooming tone is celebrated not only in the Barber but in Hillborg’s settings of poems by Mark Strand, former US Poet Laureate, which eschew the composer’s signature massive soundscapes for gentler, more intricate textures (lovingly performed here by Oramo and the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic). If the tone feels more manufactured in the three Björk tracks, it’s not unpleasantly so. Together they…

April 26, 2017
CD and Other Review

Review: Mendelssohn: Elias (Balthasar-Neumann-Ensemble/Hengelbrock)

The Old Testament’s “ripping yarn” about the prophet, Elijah was perfectly suited to the oratorio form in more ways than one. Apart from teeming with dramatic situations that begged for large and colourful musical treatment, the prophet’s vanquishing of the forces of evil and his subsequent glorification (being taken up into heaven in a whirlwind, no less) were perfectly attuned to prevailing Protestant sensibilities of the Victorian middle classes who enthusiastically hailed Mendelssohn’s work a masterpiece. While Thomas Hengelbrock’s version is not on the same scale as Paul McCreesh’s monumental 2012 account, it does benefit from the excellent singing and playing of the Balthasar-Neumann Ensemble. In particular, the choir sings with unfailingly incisive rhythm and excellent German diction. Amongst the soloists the undoubted star is the young Hungarian bass, Michael Nagy, whose accomplished portrayal of Elijah balances the requisite qualities of patriarchal strength and human vulnerability. Some may find Hengelbrock’s tempos a touch fast and a little unyielding at cadences and other points of harmonic interest. Both the heroic story and its musical realisation suggest the need for some flexibility. There is a sense that this version has sacrificed a little of the work’s grandeur and pathos on the altar…

April 26, 2017
CD and Other Review

Review: Bach & Telemann: Sacred Cantatas (Philippe Jaroussky, Freiburger Barockorchester/Petra Müllejans)

For his first album devoted entirely to works sung in German, French star countertenor Philippe Jaroussky has chosen four religious cantatas by two old friends in JS Bach and Georg Philipp Telemann. For many listeners, the revelation of this disc will be the two Telemann works, but in fact he wrote more than 30 sacred cantatas, as well as a St John Passion, oratorios, psalms and motets. Although they have been recorded they have necessarily been overshadowed by the Bach cantatas. Jaroussky adopts a jaunty air for the charming Kommet her, ihr Menschenkinder from the otherwise dramatic Mount of Olives cantata Der am Ölberg Zagende Jesus, while the beautiful opening movement of Jesus Liegt in Letzten Zügen is in every way a worthy companion to Bach’s Vergnügte Ruh, Beliebte Seelenlust and Ich Habe Genug. The Freiburger Barockorchester under their excellent violinist-director Petra Müllejans are clearly from the top shelf. Listen out for the nuanced weaving lines of oboist Ann-Kathrin Brüggemann in the much-loved Ich Habe Genug, for example. Interestingly Jaroussky was initially reluctant to record it as it has been done so many times by so many bass baritones, but fortunately for us he changed his mind. He brings to…

April 7, 2017
CD and Other Review

Review: Mahler: Das Lied von der Erde (Jonas Kaufmann, Vienna PO)

When Gustav Mahler composed his great orchestral song cycle Das Lied von der Erde in 1909, he almost certainly knew he hadn’t long to live. Avoiding the dreaded ‘curse of the ninth’, he labelled it “Eine Symphonie für eine Tenor und eine Alt (oder Bariton) Stimme und Orchester”, thus sanctioning the use of two male voices, rather than the traditional male female coupling most commonly deployed. Rejected by the authoritative Bruno Walther as an inadequate solution, it was Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau who began to popularise casting a baritone in the work, but until now no one singer has attempted the full six songs. Jonas Kaufmann Jonas Kaufmann has had some pretty scathing reviews for his Herculean attempt, most of them smacking of closed-minded, pre-determined opposition to the concept by self-styled Mahler ‘experts’. That’s a pity, as his beautifully recorded version taken from live performances at Vienna’s Musikverein has a great deal to offer, not least of which are Kaufmann’s textual insights, and the revelatory qualities of Jonathan Nott’s interrogation of Mahler’s orchestrations. Jonas Kaufmann’s Das Lied von der Erde “Of course, there are powerful contrasts between the songs and also clear differences in terms of their vocal tessitura,” says Kaufmann. “In spite of this,…

March 22, 2017
CD and Other Review

Review: A Verlaine Songbook (Carolyn Sampson, Joseph Middleton)

Considering her sizable discography, 2015’s Fleurs was surprisingly Carolyn Sampson’s first song recital. It turned out a corker and set a very high bar for a follow-up. I can happily report that this release comfortably vaults that bar. The clever thematic programming continues, this time in various settings of Symbolist Decadent Paul Verlaine’s moonlit evocations. Debussy’s setting of Fêtes Galantes, Ariettes Oubliées and Fauré’s La Bonne Chanson are old favourites along with Hahn’s lovely L’heure Exquise and Tous Deux, but the five settings by Poldowski, aka Régine Wieniawski (daughter of the violin composer), are an unfamiliar treat; accomplished vocal writing, gorgeous harmonies and imaginative accompaniments – her En Sourdine is delicious. The performances are breathtakingly beautiful. As expected from the impeccable Sampson there is some astonishingly pure and precisely controlled vocalism, but lest she be typecast as an early music specialist there has been a perceptible increase in richness and colour over the last few years. Her delivery is mostly intimate and confessional, the full voice used sparingly so at key moments when it opens out and expands the result is spine-tingling. She has an ideal partner in Joseph Middleton, a superb musician with a keen ear whose hypersensitive touch…

March 22, 2017
CD and Other Review

Review: Pergolesi: Stabat Mater (Sona Yoncheva, Karine Deshayes, Ensemble Amarillis)

Once the remit of boy choristers and early music specialists only, Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater has evolved into a star vehicle – a marketable foray into the baroque for major labels. Emma Kirkby and James Bowman led the way (Decca) and more recently Philippe Jaroussky and Julia Lezhneva (Erato). Now it’s the turn of Sony’s new leading lady, Sonya Yoncheva, joined by French mezzo Karine Deshayes and period band Ensemble Amarillis.   Both singers began in this repertoire, but both have moved beyond it on the opera stage; Yoncheva recently debuted as Norma and Deshayes has sung Carmen. It shows. While each phrases sensitively, the idiom is now Pergolesi by way of Verdi, with plenty of colouring outside the vocal lines. The effect is by no means unpleasant – old-fashioned, perhaps, but venison-rich and deliciously fleshy. If these anachronistic performances had been paired with a contemporary orchestra it might have worked. As it is, Yoncheva in particular seems to struggle to sing down to her period accompanists, and occasionally pitch wavers. Ensemble Amarillis takes centre-stage for Mancini’s rather anonymous Sonata in G Minor for recorder (co-director Heloise Gaillard the elegant soloist) and a bittersweet Concerto Grosso by Durante. Neat performances, but…

March 22, 2017
CD and Other Review

Review: Tallis: Spem in alium (The Cardinal’s Musick/Andrew Carwood)

Spem in alium is undoubtedly one of the great masterpieces of English polyphony; in a sense the last great flowering of a magnificent tradition. Like any great masterpiece, Tallis’s astounding 40-part motet can be admired from any number of different vantage points.   In this final volume of their Tallis survey, Carwood and The Cardinall’s Musick give us two versions – the original setting with its Latin text as well its contemporaneous adaptation to an English text. Both cast different lights on the music. Pleading and sorrowful, the Latin words create a sombre mood while the English text has a more jubilant effect. Choosing to record the work in a relatively dry acoustic also emphasises the composer’s extraordinary skill in manipulating such heroic forces and also the singers’ wonderful precision and unanimity of tone. The rest reminds us of Tallis’s uncanny ability to bend to the musical and religious dictates of his age, thus ensuring his head remained attached to his shoulders. Amongst deservedly popular works in Latin and English we have O Sacrum Convivium, Hear the Voice and Prayer and Verily, Verily, I Say Unto You. At the simpler end of the scale some early English liturgical works are…

March 22, 2017
CD and Other Review

Review: Salve Regina (Vocalakademie and Bassano Ensemble Berlin/Markowitsch)

Born in Venice about 1670 and dying in Vienna in 1736, Antonio Caldara not only had the good fortune to span different geographical musical centres, but also changes in musical style and taste. This programme of his music mainly devoted to the Virgin demonstrates some of these changes. The Venetian polychoral school is admirably represented by the double-choir Magnificat which opens (and also receives its first recording). A 16-part setting of the Crucifixus has more of a dramatic, high baroque sensibility akin to that of Caldara’s almost exact contemporary, Antonio Lotti. Making their first appearance in the catalogue, two charming concerted works, Ave Maris Stella and Salve Regina demonstrate Caldara’s skill in handling solo voices and smaller forces. Australian-born tenor Robert Macfarlane sings with admirable grace and clarity in the latter while soprano Nathalie Seelig and alto Franziska Markowitsch make a well matched pair in the former. String and continuo accompaniments are both sympathetic and engaging. The major work is an extended setting of the Stabat Mater. With baroque techniques like descending chromatic bass lines and stark dissonances, Caldara paints a colourful picture of the sorrowing Mary at the foot of the cross. The music is well served by the…

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…