Tony Way


September 22, 2017
CD and Other Review

Review: Dvořák: Stabat Mater (Czech Philharmonic/Bělohlávek)

Like encountering some extraordinary Pietà, listening to Dvořák’s grandiose evocation of Mary at the foot of the Cross leaves a lasting impression on the imagination. Written at a time when the composer was finally gaining recognition, it was to be the best and the worst of times. To have lost one child (as Dvořák did in 1875) was tragedy enough, but to lose his remaining two children the following year would have been more than most parents could bear. The surging opening of the Stabat Mater in particular witnesses to this deep grief. Bělohlávek and his forces harness all of this turbulent emotion, creating towering climaxes that immerse the listener in the crucifixion drama. Lasting nearly 20 minutes, the sonata-form first movement signals Dvořák’s intent to create a work in which his skills as symphonist, melodist, nationalist and believer are all given potent expression. To a large extent Dvořák succeeds in this artistic quest. The nine shorter, succeeding movements are creatively varied. After the Quis est homo in which we hear the well balanced solo quartet at close quarters, the pulsing, choral Eja Mater, fons amoris ushers one of the most striking movements of the work, Fac, ut ardeat. Here South Korean bass…

August 4, 2017
CD and Other Review

Review: Bach: St John Passion (Les Musiciens du Louvre/Marc Minkowski)

Great respect has characterised Marc Minkowski’s decision to allow some 30 years of his career to pass before recording the St John. In choosing to use only eight singers he is at pains to create an intimate but intense reading of this most powerful work. This performance is based on the original 1724 version, but appends two arias from the revisions Bach made a year later, as well as employing later additions to the original orchestration (contrabassoon and theorbo) and a harpsichord in the continuo. Minkowski is intent on bringing out the radical musical drama that must have shocked, or at least perplexed, the good burghers of Leipzig that Good Friday afternoon in 1724. Eschewing the textural contrast between soloists and chorus, Minkowski differentiates between the various musical elements by adopting brisk tempos for choruses and deftly connecting them to recitatives, creating an almost frenetic telling of the story, in which Evangelist Lothar  Odinius plays an impressive role. The arias offer varied meditations on the action. Australian countertenor David Hansen delivers an impassioned account of the aria Von der Stricken. Fellow alto, Delphine Galou, sings the more famous Es ist vollbracht with great empathy. No one performance will ever have…

August 4, 2017
CD and Other Review

Review: Josquin: Missi Di Dadi, Missa Une Mousse de Biscaye (The Tallis Scholars/Peter Phillips)

Move over John Cage and Henry Cowell. Chance music, it seems, existed long before last century. How surprising and intriguing to discover that the roll of the dice may well have determined the compositional method of a Mass that could have been written by the great polyphonist, Josquin des Prés. (Josquin was employed by the Sforza family, some of the biggest gamblers in 15th-century Milan.) Movements of the Missa Di Dadi (Dice Mass) are preceded by images of dice showing different numbers. These indicated to the tenors the proportional length of the base melody (a chanson by Robert Morton) to the other parts. As Peter Phillips points out in his engaging notes, these indications are a bit haphazard and fortunately the publisher (presumably not a gambler) wrote out the actual tenor part to avoid confusion. While all of this is quite amusing – and despite not knowing for certain the Mass is by Josquin – the music is certainly worthy of attention. The customary precision and blend of The Tallis Scholars is in evidence throughout, but the final Agnus Dei is particularly moving. Missa Une mousse de Biscaye also lacks firm evidence of authorship by Josquin. Based on a secular…

August 4, 2017
CD and Other Review

Review: Giaches de Wert: Sacred Motets (Stile Antico)

In his day, Giaches de Wert (1535-96) was the foremost composer of madrigals, most notably serving in the musically progressive Gonzaga court at Mantua and influencing the young Monteverdi. He had a considerable 12 books of madrigals to his name. What is less well known is that he also produced three books of motets which also display his madrigalian prowess. Many of the texts he set were not standard liturgical texts, but rather biblical stories that lent themselves to more programmatic treatment. Wert’s music was not the only colourful aspect of his life. Early on he married Lucrezia Gonzaga and produced at least six children. His appointment to Mantua was full of intrigue: several moves were made to discredit him, but he stuck to his work, despite being labelled a cuckold. (His wife had been having an affair with the composer who was passed over for Wert’s job.) Lucrezia came to a sticky end some years later when she was involved in a murderous plot to seize a noble title. Wert eventually had an affair of his own, with the widowed noblewoman and poet, Tarquinia Molza. Such was Wert’s musical worth that when this scandal was discovered, Tarquinia was banished…

July 7, 2017
CD and Other Review

Review: Pergolesi & Bach: Stabat Mater, Cantatas (Lucy Crowe, Tim Mead, La Nuova Musica/David Bates)

Hot on the heels of Iestyn Davies’ distinguished recording of Bach alto cantatas comes another disc containing two of the same from another British countertenor. Tim Mead, a former choral scholar of King’s College, Cambridge has forged a busy and successful career on the operatic and concert stage. He displays admirable agility in the final aria of Widerstehe doch der Sünde (BWV54). While Davies may have the edge in bringing the words to life, there is certainly much to enjoy in Mead’s account; not only his mellifluous tone but the fine playing of La Nuova Musica, which this year celebrates the tenth anniversary of its founding by artistic director, David Bates. Vergnügte Ruh! Beliebte Seelenlust! (BWV170) also demonstrates Mead’s affinity with Bach’s musical idiom through his unforced vocal technique. His more outwardly expressive approach provides a thoughtful and nuanced contrast to Davies. By way of contrast the Bach cantatas are paired with Pergolesi’s ever-popular Stabat Mater. Mead is joined by soprano, Lucy Crowe who visited Australia in 2012 to be soprano soloist in the ACO’s performances of Beethoven’s Ninth. Although the voices are in the main well matched, there are occasions in this performance where I feel the performers are…

June 30, 2017
CD and Other Review

Review: Bach: Cantatas 170, 54 & 82 (Iestyn Davies, Arcengelo/Johnathan Cohen)

There seems to be no end to the talents of Iestyn Davies. A thoroughly modern countertenor, Davies is at home in all sorts of venues, whether they be churches, concert halls, opera houses, recording studios or theatres, and wherever he goes he impresses audiences with both the breadth and the quality of his performances. So it is only natural that such a talented performer should want to turn his hand to that greatest of composers, JS Bach. The only problem is, as Richard Wigmore points out in his illuminating notes, “with countertenors confined to English cathedral choirs and castrati to the opera house, ‘alto’ for Bach meant a teenaged boy on the cusp of adolescence.” While from the dual standpoints of vocal technique and timbre, this prospect might have dampened the composer’s enthusiasm for alto solos, particularly in the cantatas, we are fortunate to have Cantata 54 from the Weimar period, Widerstehe doch der Sünde, which Wigmore believes would have been written for a particularly gifted boy alto. Cast in three movements, this musical admonition against sin and Satan is a colourful and expressive work, but Davies and Arcangelo take an intimate and controlled approach, despite all the talk of…

June 2, 2017
CD and Other Review

Review: Finzi & Bax & Ireland: Choral music (The Choir of Westminster Abbey/James O’Donnell)

Way back last century (in 1986 to be precise) the choir of King’s College, Cambridge under Stephen Cleobury produced a recording of choral pieces by Bax and Finzi. At a time when fascination with ‘early music’ was at its height, this rather unfashionable choice of repertory was a revelation; its expansive text-setting and lush harmonies were a reminder of a then rather neglected corner of choral music, full of guilty but well-wrought pleasures. Some 30 years on, choirs are thankfully less narrow in their choices. James O’Donnell and his Westminster Abbey forces have delivered a more than worthy successor to that disc. O’Donnell lavishes much care on Finzi’s masterly anthem, Lo the Full, Final Sacrifice; its long, contrasting paragraphs full of beautiful singing, whether the exultant “Lo, the bread of life” or the meditative “soft, self-wounding Pelican” or the beguiling Amen. Careful attention to text mirrors Finzi’s own care in this regard. God is Gone Up is dispatched with appropriate élan and the Magnificat radiates unalloyed joy. Three smaller Finzi anthems confirm his appeal. Bax is represented by contrasting carols, I Sing of a Maiden and This Worldes Joie – the first carefree and the second careworn. Given the considerable…

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