Let me tell you about this superb music.
On a somewhat cool Sunday morning this past summer, I heard a piece from this recording on the radio. I don't even remember which track it was anymore, it doesn't matter. I had borrowed a friend's crappy old van to run an errand. It had the cheap original factory sound system in it, which kinda gave you a headache after an hour of listening, the so called listening fatigue. Even though I had been listening to it all morning, and was already feeling a bit "fatigued" when I switched the station to see if there is something interesting before I turn it off, I was suddenly engrossed in beautiful music, enthralled by luscious, three-dimensional sounds licking at my ears. It was fate. I maniacally scrambled to jot down the name of the piece and the musicians when the DJ announced it. I managed to jot "Andrew parrot (?)", "Monteverdi's L'Orpheo" and "99.5 fm, NYC, around 10:30am, 8/4/13". That was enough...I had what I needed to track this guy down.
I can't talk about music the way some others can, people who are very knowledgeable about classical music, who are musicians themselves probably, but I am particular about what I listen to and am somewhat of an amateur musician myself (very, very amateur). I know a bit about music and I believe I know true beauty when I stumble upon it. And this is why I am writing this, my very first ever Amazon review. I've felt for a time that I need to contribute back to the community, but I wanted to wait for the right moment, the right thing to review, I wanted it to be great, five stars, something special. And this is it.
I've been vaguely aware of the "period" movement in performing classical music (the overall genre, not the subset known as the classical era). Once I ordered this CD set I read a little bit about Andrew Parrott and his meticulous approach to making music. Being a bit of a purist at heart, I was naturally drawn to this concept. It was a fascinating read, I got so excited and inspired and depressed at the same time. Here are these exemplary musicians who are so talented and dedicated, expending so much effort and love toward creating beautifully crafted music and I am just [insert appropriate Spiderman meme]. But the fact that this is a period performance, with period instruments, by period performers, conducted by a period scholar and conductor, recorded (I believe) in the space where it was originally intended to performed...all this is almost secondary in why this is a special recording. What makes it special is the fact that these people poured the purity of their beautiful spirits, and that of Monteverdi, through their voices and their fingers and their minds onto a disc.
The singers and players of the Taverner Consort and Players are, to my relatively young and inexperienced ears, of the highest caliber, as is Parrott himself, who, based on what I've read, holds himself and his musicians to the highest of standards. The performances are very strong and quite captivating, ethereal at times, grand and regal at others, sometimes both (like the opening Toccata), sometimes other crazy adjectives I can't make my non-writer brain come up with. And all throughout, it's just pure beauty oozing through your speakers.
A note on the recording quality itself. As a disclaimer, I mostly listened to this from Amazon's cloud player through my crappy work computer and a pair of cheap $15 Audio Technica headphones (that are meant for girls but which I think are quite good considering the price, but that's a different topic). I have a pretty good system at home, which, for reasons I will not go into here, I was not able to employ (yet) in the enjoyment of these discs. Nevertheless, even through the little earphones (and even the first time I heard it through the crappy van stereo), you could tell that this is a simple, masterful recording. I can't tell you which mic'ing method the engineers used, but it doesn't matter...they used the right one. There is a deep sense of space, though there is not too much of the reverberations, just right. The singers appear to have a strong central presence, whereas the instruments sound as if they are further toward the back. Again, I did not listen through my main system, but I could pretty much tell that the soundstage and imaging are there and very well done...all the things that audiophiles look for, which only augments the value of this work.
I don't really know what else to say or how else to say it. I really wanted you, the reader, to know how much I enjoy and love this music and this interpretation and recording of it. Even if you ignore the story of Orpheus and just listen to the sounds as absolute music, you can hear that magic happened on that day and two microphones picked it up to deliver it to your ears.
So...I am out of superlatives. I wholeheartedly hope that more people hear this music and get to enjoy it. If anyone is curious, you can read more about it here, a fascinating interview that delves into the process of how they made the recording: http://www.gramophone dot co.uk/features/focus/andrew-parrott-interview
UPDATE: I forgot to mention that as I was reading about Parrott, invariably, John Eliot Gardiner's name came up. The two are often compared as they tend to do a lot of the same works (looks like they're rivals of sorts). In any case, I ordered both the Parrott and the Gardiner version at the same time. I had only listened to the Parrott version, until the night I posted my original review, when my girlfriend and I decided to check out the Gardiner version as well. We did a sampling here and there of each recording, listening to the same pieces from each (A-B-A style). I did not listen to the whole of Gardiner's, and she only heard what we sampled from each. She pointed something out that I had not really paid attention to at first: the singers from Parrott's version did not seem to articulate Italian words very well, though Gardiner's singers were perhaps only slightly better in this regard. She liked the singing in Gardiner's version better, thinking it was more nuanced and expressive, finding Parrott's singers too restrained. I found Parrott's singers, despite their at times "mishandled" R's, to be much more intriguing and subtle, because of what sounded to me a more purposefully restrained approach, which I like. We both agreed that the instrumentation in Parrott's version was superior and much more interesting. That same restraint that the singers had adopted, was also being utilized by the players. Clearly that whole restrained approach was Parrott's hand...to me so much prettier, sadder, sweeter. My girlfriend did concede that overall, based on the few samples we heard, she liked Parrott's approach more, despite liking Gardiner's singers more.
From what I've read about their difference in approach for other works, our little comparison seems to fit right in. Gardiner's approach is louder, faster, more bombastic even, a little in-your-face, if baroque opera can be in-your-face. Parrott is, again, more restrained, more subtle, more fastidious, though hardly less exciting. To my ears, much more pleasant and enjoyable. Had I heard Gardiner's version first, I might have gotten bored at some point and left off listening (my girlfriend will probably disagree with me here). But having heard Parrott's first, I was spellbound, and to me this is how Monteverdi should sound like. This is the standard I will hold all other Baroque and Renaissance work (that and Pinnock's Brandenberg Concertos..that dude rocks too!).
I do not regret getting Gardiner's version...I was glad to compare and see how both fared. I'm also curious to hear the much praised Pilgrimage series of Gardiner's Bach Cantatas (though I'm more curious to hear Suzuki's). Back to L'Orfeo though...I will listen to both renditions in the future, to be sure, but if I had to pick only one for the rest of my life, I would without hesitation pick Parrott.