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C. Wake (West Country)

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Js Bach:Mass In B Minor [Maria Keohane; Joanne Lunn; Alex Potter; Jan Kobow; Peter Harvey; Concerto Copenhagen ,Lars Ulrik Mortensen ] [CPO : 777851-2]
Js Bach:Mass In B Minor [Maria Keohane; Joanne Lunn; Alex Potter; Jan Kobow; Peter Harvey; Concerto Copenhagen ,Lars Ulrik Mortensen ] [CPO : 777851-2]
Price: £28.89

13 of 20 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars More than they can chew, 13 Jan. 2016
Bach's great mass is extremely difficult to perform. Its many pages of dense, convoluted, often high-speed counterpoint, pose a serious challenge to a music director; he or she must keep large forces together in hectic circumstances and balance the parts so as to make Bach's argument clear to the listener. I do not feel that Lars Ulrik Mortensen is conductor enough for this task. He sets brisk tempos – sometimes too brisk for the players to manage – but he fails to keep the pulse consistent, he interrupts either too much or not at all when turning corners, and at cadences he imposes limp, conventional rallentandos. Worst of all, during much of this performance he does not make the vital inner parts of the counterpoint audible.

This is the conductor's failing, but listen closely and you hear that the instrumentalists, particularly the strings, are themselves part of the problem. Though they are experienced in conventional baroque music, this extreme piece takes them outside their comfort zone. They are often audibly glad to survive and certainly have no time to balance with their colleagues or to emphasise arguments with phrasing. This is particularly a shame in that Mortensen's singers are very good indeed, well up to the challenge of one-voice-per-part Bach, and much better able to be expressive while under pressure.

To hear what I mean, try the "laudamus", a comparatively simple movement – for the listener. The solo violin only just manages to play his line and fails to give it the degree of expression it clearly needs, while Joanne Lunn, his vocal partner, sings with ease and grace – as indeed she does throughout the rather ungrateful second soprano part. This disparity between the two lines matters, because the "laudamus" is not really a soprano aria with a violin in the background, but rather an elaborate violin concerto movement with a vocalised text alongside it: Mortensen cannot see this, and has not the forces to realise it if he could. Similar failures to lift Bach's design from the page vitiate this entire enterprise.

I am being severe. This is not a bad performance, just a conventional, unthoughtful one. But – the singing aside – it fails to compete with other, far better recordings of the mass. One understands why Mortensen wants to lead his team up this musical Everest, but they have bitten off more than they can chew.

There are at least seven recordings of the B minor of this type, that is, one-voice-per-part (actually here two-per-part, but I'll spare you that discussion) with a minimal instrumental group. The best of them is still the 1984 set by Andrew Parrott – listen to his treatment of "Credo" alongside Mortensen and you will understand what it is to get a grip of this music. If you find Parrott a bit cerebral, then there is the 2008 concert recording by Marc Minkowski (not much known) which certainly provides red-blooded thrills. The best realisation of the idea of Bach's church style as texted concerto is in Sigi Kuijken's version (but I find this too small-scale). Many other unhistorical performances are, of course, around – my favourite is the 1985 Gardiner (not his recent set).
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: May 8, 2016 5:06 PM BST

Mozart: Complete FortePiano Concertos
Mozart: Complete FortePiano Concertos
Price: £34.50

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Relaxed, stylish, refreshingly unsensational, 7 Dec. 2015
This set includes all the keyboard concertos Mozart ever composed or put together, including the multiple-keyboard concerti, the very early works compiled from other composers, and the arrangements of J. C. Bach sonatas. I suppose some people might want it for that reason alone. The infant works are played on a harpsichord, all the rest on a copy of a Walter, probably too "late" an instrument for pre-1785 works, but still a classic Viennese-action sound.

Viviana Sofronitsky is a too-little-known artist (and fascinating character) who I heard for the first time very recently. I say more about her in a review of a Schubert disc – follow my link to find it. She made this set in Warsaw ten years ago, with a local historically-informed band who have a pleasantly rustic twang, rather like that of Manfred Huss's Haydn Sinfonietta Wien.

Technically Sofronitsky is among the best of early-keyboard players, yielding nothing even to Andreas Staier, and certainly not to (say) Brautigam or Bezuidenhout. In all these concertos she sounds relaxed and unhurried, not striving for effect or trying to be "different", but rather giving a strong impression of simply enjoying the music for its own sake. In her tempi and in her use of ornament and improvisation she seems both natural and stylish (perhaps that's much the same thing). I rarely listen to complete sets in their entirety, but in this case I found myself listening to more and more works just for the pleasure of it.

Of previous "period" sets of the Mozart concertos, this one most resembles that by Robert Levin and Hogwood from 1995; but I prefer Sofronitsky's orchestra to Hogwood's rather bland AAM. I put Sofronitsky's set well ahead of Bilson/Gardiner, not caring for Gardiner's driving and remorseless shaping of every phrase, and ahead of the recent Brautigam recording, where speed seems to have become an end in itself.

What may interest some listeners is the issue of balance between piano and band. The acoustic the engineers offer is that of a concert hall, with the piano at the front of an orchestra in the usual way – as do other HIP sets. This would be wrong for most 18th century keyboard concertos, which we know were performed in smallish halls with very small bands, but is less improbable for Mozart, who did give public concerts in large rooms – like the Burgtheatre in Vienna or the Estates Theatre in Prague. Most other recordings cheat at the mixing stage to make the fortepiano audible against a large group – which it usually fails to be in concert – but this recording is au naturel (as far as I can tell). Audibility was achieved here by Paul McNulty, who seems to have voiced up the instrument to make it more penetrating (at least that's what I guess from close listening on good speakers) though I have no idea how he has done this. He anyway prefers the Viennese action, which is dryer and more clangy that English pianos, but here the instrument has a distinct tangent-piano ring to it – not unpleasant, and certainly not unhistorical, but rather different from other fortepiano timbres we have become used to. We hear solo instrument and band in the same acoustic – an unusual and refreshing result.
Well worth a listen, and not just to amateurs of "period" performance.

Schubert: Wanderer Fantasy
Schubert: Wanderer Fantasy
Price: £15.40

6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An eccentric yet utterly charming person, 7 Dec. 2015
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I first heard Viviana Sofronitsky in September 2015 at the Eisenstadt Haydn Festival. Her very name was unfamiliar. I went to the concert – listed as "Viviana Sofronitsky and her Fortepianos" – out of interest in early keyboards, not knowing what to expect. On entering the room I saw to my amazement no less than three very handsome pianos – copies of a Stein, a Walter and a Graf. The budget for getting them there alone was obviously more than that for the concert – the chamber music at Eisenstadt being mostly cheapjack. Amazement grew when the lady entered – a highly eccentric yet utterly charming person, gorgeously arrayed in what turned out to be a succession of spectacular outfits, one for each piano.

She talked and fluttered, but then she played; and it was obvious from the first note that this astonishing apparition was a formidably gifted artist. Early and late Haydn on the Stein and the Walter; on the Graf parts of the programme on this CD – the "Wanderer" Fantasy of Schubert and two impromptus. In between the acts – as she changed costumes – another eccentric person, a gentleman in braces, came forward to speak about the pianos. This was Paul McNulty, builder of the pianos, husband of the lady. After the concert ended, in a storm of applause, they both invited the audience to try the instruments and discuss them.

After this wonderful experience I researched Sofronitsky and her discography. She is the daughter of Vladimir Sofronitsky, a Soviet-era Russian piano virtuoso of whom I was equally ignorant: but put "Sofronitsky" into the search-engine and you get more of his recordings than hers. As far as I can see Viviana does not have a concert career as such, but is rather a test driver for her husband's instruments, putting on demonstrations such as the one I had the good fortune to stumble on. She did something very similar at the Wigmore in 2010, with five pianos. Her association with McNulty is a romantic story in itself, which you can pursue on Youtube, where they have interviews and concerts on their own channel, or their website,

This CD of Schubert is her most recent. The most striking thing on it is the "Wanderer" - not quite as gripping as the concert, but almost. The Fantasy is strange work, a famous graveyard for even the best pianists. On the Graf, Sofronitsky makes it sound even stranger – the whole piece descending into a clamorous nightmare, which, as informed Eisenstadt listeners agreed, probably reflected Schubert's intentions, as far as he knew them. It is, as someone remarked, Schubert trying to be Beethoven and giving himself a nervous breakdown in the process.

But for this review I listened to the D935 Impromptus in particular, comparing Sofronitsky with Andreas Staier's recording on Harmonia Mundi, and the classic Radu Lupu version. Sofronitsky yields nothing at all to Staier in terms of technique or musicianship. Both have complete command of their instruments, using every nuance of the fortepiano's capacity for tonal variety, so much greater than that of steel-frame pianos. Their interpretations differ in detail, as is natural, but unite in making Lupu's Schubert sound very dreamy and romantic – one can do romantic on a fortepiano, but it's gossamer, not soft-centre romantic. Sofronitsky sounded generally more forthright, stronger in her loud/soft contrasts, Staier darker, more brooding: but the differences are as much to do with the pianos they play, an early (1819) Graf and a late (1827) Graf as the artists. Both demand hearing, and either would open the ears of any Schubertian only used to performances on a modern piano. Lupu is a great artist – though I much prefer his recordings of the late Sonatas to that of the Impromptus – but he is limited by his instrument. He simply cannot play Schubert flat out on a beast designed to fill Carnegie Hall with sound, while Sofronitsky and Staier can play their instruments to their utmost, as Schubert himself must have done.

Handel: Partenope
Handel: Partenope
Price: £15.85

11 of 14 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Minasi's second Handel venture offers a better cast, 16 Nov. 2015
This review is from: Handel: Partenope (Audio CD)
Minasi's first Handel opera was his "Tamerlano" in 2013, a recording I did not much care for. I thought he had no sense of Handelian style, and I disliked his band and some of his singers. This "Partenope" (recorded last February) is an improvement, but retains many former problems. Minasi is generally too fast or too slow except when a singer asserts him or herself, which Minasi (to his credit) lets them do. The band, as before, lurches and slashes: and if there are fewer solo lute breaks, this time we get a running right-hand commentary from the harpsichords during arias which the recording makes distressingly audible.

What is much better is the casting. Cencic and Xabata have departed – though they are currently touring "Tamerlano" with this band and a different conductor. John Mark Ainsley remains, and as before is the strongest link in the performance: elegant, stylish and expressive he is a model Handel singer: listen to Emilio's "La gloria in nobil alma" in Act 3. A new voice – altogether new to me – is Teresa Iervolino, a dark-toned mezzo who sings powerfully and cleanly, and is very competent in coloratura and ornament: a real find, quite capable of Senesino roles I would think. Also very good is Emöke Baráth, a soprano last heard as Sesto in the late Alan Curtis' "Giulio Cesare" in 2012. She is perhaps a little light-voiced for Armindo, the "Second Man", but she is accurate and sounds eager and stylish, though she has to fake her trills (quite well).

Phillipe Jaroussky comes in as "First Man" Arsace, a role Handel wrote for the castrato Bernacchi, who apparently had a rather higher voice than Senesino. The part only drops below middle c five times, and consists mostly of languishing, so it suits Jaroussky pretty well. He just about stays afloat in "Furibondo" at the end of Act 2, his only really fast coloratura. Karina Gauvin remains as Partenope herself, and as in "Tamerlano" she is a problem, even more so in this role which lies very high and demands skills in coloratura she no longer has. I wish she and Emöke Baráth could have exchanged roles; both would have been more comfortable.

"Partenope" is not one of Handel's better operas. Its libretto offered him a convoluted plot which involved rapid-fire exchanges between Queen Partenope's many suitors, appropriate perhaps before an Italian audience in a small Venetian theatre, but hopeless in the big London house. Handel knew it and pruned the recitatives savagely for performance. Here (and in the other two CD sets of "Partenope") all his cuts are opened out – a bizarre decision. Modern listeners no more wish to hear yards of secco recitative than the 1730 audience did, especially when (as here) the recitative labours along to give the harpsichordists time to practice arpeggios. Nor are there, to be honest, many great arias apart from those ending the acts, though there is a good battle scene at the start of Act 2.

You will gather that I broadly agree with Jeremy's intelligent review of this set. Where I differ is in my estimate of the alternatives. The Chandos recording is limply conducted in my opinion (Minasi does not lack energy, even if it is often misdirected), its Partenope no better than Gauvin, and the rest of its cast (even Larry Zazzo) inferior to Minasi's line-up. Sigi Kuijken's 1979 set – made in the days when Rene Jacobs was a singer – was a great achievement at the time but sounds dated now. So, despite my reservations, I think this the best CD set of "Partenope" available. The best recorded performance, however, is Lars Ulrik Mortensen's 2008 Copenhagen Opera DVD (with Scholl) – provided you turn the picture off! – though it too has an unsatisfactory Queen.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Nov 16, 2015 3:29 PM GMT

Julia Lezhneva - Handel
Julia Lezhneva - Handel
Offered by mrtopseller
Price: £7.90

15 of 16 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A marketing exercise which favours neither the singer or the music, 16 Nov. 2015
This review is from: Julia Lezhneva - Handel (Audio CD)
I heard Julia Lezhneva and Giardino Armonico at the Barbican in May 2014 giving a version of this programme. They toured it round Europe and parts of it can be seen on Youtube. I greatly enjoyed the concert; but that only increases the disappointment I now feel when I listen to their new CD.

Some of the items from the concert – the "Rodrigo" aria and the Salve Regina – have reached the disc in presentable condition. But for me these are outweighed by the unrelated detached chunks of the young Handel's output thrown in to flesh out the programme, thrown in without enough preparation or thought.

The very first track gives the game away: even before the voice comes in, the pace is so hectic that the strings can't articulate their runs: and when Lezhneva sings, not a word can be made out – not because her diction is poor ('tho it's not her strong suit) but because no singer on earth could spit out the words at such a speed. Much the same could be said of the two quick arias from "Il Trionfo". Then with the final "Trionfo" aria – a foolish attempt to out-Dessay Natalie Dessay's languid recording – and also with the famous "Lascia la spina", this crazy exaggeration goes into reverse. Now we go so slowly that if we tried to dance to Handel's rhythm we should fall over.

I doubt if Lezhneva herself is to blame for these gross misjudgements, except in the sense that she is working with the wrong people. Because she is capable of very fast coloratura and has perfect breath control, they want to turn her into a speed-monkey to please the unthinking crowd. I gather that's what was going on in Paris during the recent run of "Siroe" and the same urge has informed this recording. To hear what she can really do you need to hear her directed by (say) Minkowski or Norrington, or go back to her previous Decca recital from 2012, which was far more musical than this.

Musicology is probably not very relevant to this production, but perhaps it's worth saying that most of the items here are not appropriate for Lezhneva's voice. The opera arias are within her fach, and possibly the aria from "Apollo e Dafne" (though it lies very high) but the rest were meant for male castratos with higher and more powerful voices than she. The vocal centre of this music is at least a third higher that hers and the problem is probably made worse by the pitch used, which should be a semitone or so lower (Roman pitch at the time being comparatively low). The high pitch alone would make diction difficult, even if the speeds were less frantic.

Engineering is also an issue. Lezhneva's voice is put in a different acoustic to the band – it sounds as if it has additional resonance and is nothing like her live voice as I hear it – and the band itself is given comically artificial treatment. What is the dominant sound we hear in that first, express-train, track, overshadowing sixteen strings and a couple of trumpets? Why it’s the theorbo, strumming away for dear life, just in case we might think that Handel was a dull old stick.

Andrew Clark, reviewing that same Barbican concert I went to last year, wrote:

Lezhneva .. has a phenomenal gift, a voice that ranges evenly over the most intricate coloratura, with never a blemish or sign of aspirating … a serene, sleek voice, beatific in timbre, with a bell-like resonance… Technically it is flawless.

I agreed with him entirely – which is why I regard this travesty of a recording with great sadness.

Mozart: Die Entführung aus dem Serail
Mozart: Die Entführung aus dem Serail
Price: £26.15

6 of 9 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Listen to this one in the car, 9 Nov. 2015
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I heard a BBC review of this set praise it as a sort of radio play - made by layering instrumental, vocal and spoken elements of "Seraglio" over each other. The reviewer probably got his ideas more from the set booklet than from listening to the recording.

It is true that many technical tricks are employed but they don't do that much to improve the listener experience. What we get in practice is lines of speech laid over the beginnings of arias ("Marten alle arten" suffers particularly) and a lot of fortepiano twiddling laid under the spoken dialogue. Jacobs is trying to make the spoken German text more interesting, and he is clearly right to try, but the trouble is that, maddeningly, he uses the fullest possible spoken text, even adding new sections to it.

There is just too much dialogue in "Seraglio" for the non-German listener, and even modern Germans hardly enjoy it much, many being embarrassed by its casual Islamophobia. "Seraglio" can be made to work on the stage if the singers are good comic actors, but on record the spoken text (which occupies half the time on this set) is a bore. It has to be cut to be tolerable. Audio tricks may relieve the problem, but Jacobs' experiments here demonstrate that they don't solve it.

When we put the "concept" aside, what are we left with? As often happens with Jacobs, we get a well-performed conventional version of the work, sung by fresh, eager voices accompanied by an expert band. Maximilian Schmitt as Belmonte is excellent, the best of the singers, but the others are not far behind: Robin Johannsen as Konstanza is a little hard-pressed at times, but she has the most difficult music. The Russian Osmin is just the powerful blusterer the role requires. The only general criticism I would make is that the class-distinctions are flattened out: Belmonte and Konstanza are not very aristocratic, and Pedrillo and Blonde are not very comic-servant. This makes the style of music Mozart gives to them less comprehensible. One specific beef – the casting of the spoken roles. Why does the noble Pasha sound like a superannuated mafioso? And why do his guards sound like Tolkein dwarves? Weird.

The recording is very "studio" and has no hesitation in putting spoken voices, singing voices, instruments and sound-effects into obviously different acoustics. These techniques are common enough in other genres, and more common in classical records than is often realised, but here they have the disadvantage of making the listener feel he or she is being pushed around the listening space. I use reasonably good speakers and I found that I had to adjust the volume constantly to avoid either being deafened or missing what was being said. Listen to this one in the car: it sounds better there.
Comment Comments (5) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jan 22, 2016 3:35 AM GMT

J.S. Bach: Magnificat & Christmas Cantata - SACD/CD - plays on all CD players
J.S. Bach: Magnificat & Christmas Cantata - SACD/CD - plays on all CD players
Price: £11.70

19 of 25 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Ideal Christmas Present for Bach-lovers, 19 Oct. 2015
This Linn CD carries the headline "Bach Magnificat" but this is misleading – it isn't quite the Magnificat you might expect, and there's much more to the disc than the canticle. The subheading "Reconstruction of Bach's first Christmas Vespers at Leipzig" is more to the point, but I suppose Linn thought an academic-sounding title would put off potential buyers. If you are such a buyer – and I encourage you to be – please don't be put off. This is a splendid recording, of great interest to anyone who enjoys Bach's church music.

John Butt and his team have recorded the cantata and the Magnificat Bach put on for the evening service in the Nikolaikirche in Leipzig on Christmas Day 1723 (when Bach had been in office as Kantor for just six months). Around these two dynamic, substantial works Butt has placed the organ preludes, congregational chorales and an anthem which made up the rest of the service. There's a little speculation involved and the Vespers is not quite complete – we are spared a sermon, and the responses have to downloaded – but the overall effect is convincing. The performers, the solo organ, and the "congregation" singing the chorales are clearly all in church acoustic – Greyfriars in Edinburgh – in which they sing and play stylishly, with great energy and commitment.

My only mild complaint, and it is very mild, is that Butt adds ripienists to these single-voice performances; that is, he doubles the vocal line in most of the four- and five-part music. No doubt this stems from his recording of the John Passion (also a liturgical reconstruction, also on Linn) where ripienists are specified by Bach and essential. But there is only slight evidence for extra singers in Cantata 63, and none for the Magnificat, and the trouble with doubling is that it makes life hard for the singers. There is nothing more difficult than for two voices to sing a line in unison – try it and see. The principal singers cope well but there is a consequent slight blurring which is not their fault. Butt generally favours energy over polish and does not seem to care much about the odd rough edge – the reverse of, say, Sigi Kuijken’s approach – but everything we know about Bach’s performance conditions justifies him. Do not expect “Once in Royal” – Christmas at Leipzig in 1723 was a very red-blooded affair.

There are already many excellent recordings of Bach's Magnificat – though not so many of this first version in Eb – and the Cantata too; there are even several fine versions performed like this, one voice per part, as we now think Bach performed them. But comparisons are beside the point. This disc lets you hear the music in its proper context, a healthy corrective to purely concert treatment. The only relevant comparison, besides Butt's own John Passion, is Paul McCreesh's 1998 "Bach Epiphany Mass", a similar reconstruction of the morning liturgy at Leipzig, even more elaborate and impressive. If you enjoy this disc – as I am sure you will – have a look for a copy of that.

Arias for Luigi Marchesi - The Great Castrato of the Napoleonic Era
Arias for Luigi Marchesi - The Great Castrato of the Napoleonic Era
Price: £16.80

7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars New Heights of Obscurity, 12 Oct. 2015
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This is one of the best recordings of coloratura singing - fast runs and ornaments – that I have ever heard. Anyone into coloratura should listen to it. It's important to say that first, before I go on to a fair amount of negativity.

The music here mostly dates from the 1780's & 90's but forget Haydn, Mozart or early Beethoven. This stuff looks back fifty years and comes from composers whose work soon vanished from sight; Cimarosa is probably the only name you might recognise. The Opera titles alone – Rinaldo, Alessandro, Pirro – reveal that we are back in the immediately post-Handel stylistic world. The peg all this hangs on is a Castrato billed as "the greatest of the Napoleonic era" but we have to remember that by the early 1800's the Castrato was a rare and antique bird – the heyday of the voice was over by 1760.

It is true that Luigi Marchesi attracted a big following in his day, but it consisted of fans who went to hear fireworks not music, much as fans of a younger Juan Diego Flores used to go hear him sing top c's – and not give up until he'd sung them twice through (at least). I expect Marchesi had the same experience. This would explain why he prepared parallel elaborations of some arias, which Hallenberg demonstrates in her programme. For Marchesi's speciality was not high notes, though he had a big range. His excellence was in fast elaborate runs and ornaments – but then so is Ann Hallenberg's.

I have been a Hallenberg fan for many years. I regard her as one of the great Handel singers of our time and I think it a great pity that she's been pushed out of heroic Handelian roles by the fashion for fake-castrato falsetto singing. Nevertheless she has made many distinguished recordings, and in a recent tour of a Farinelli programme with Rousset it was clear that her voice is still in good shape. But on this disc she moves to a new level. She sounds even more confident and relaxed in impossibly difficult arias, her ornamentation is free and easy, her top notes are clear and true; there is not a hint of strain or tightness anywhere. It easily her best recording - in purely technical sense.

And not just Hallenberg. Unlike her last album, obviously made on a shoestring, we have here a properly resourced effort, with a reasonable-sized band - not huge but big enough – well-prepared and playing with evident commitment in works they have never seen before and never will again. Much thought has gone into the balance of the programme which makes for a pretty satisfying listen – one can easily manage four or five tracks at a go. The booklet notes are very good and do their level best to make a case for Marchesi and work written for him. Yet the music itself is all great tosh – the single exception is a distinctly Mozartian scena by Myslivecek.

Hallenberg likes to explore the unknown; fair enough. I admired her disc of arias for Marietta Marcolini by obscure contemporaries of the young Rossini. But I do wish she would give us a recording of real music from the castrato golden age. A disc of her Farinelli programme would be something; an album of arias for Senesino – whose voice she matches exactly, as far as one can tell – would be one to treasure.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Nov 5, 2016 5:05 AM GMT

Schuetz:Symphoniae Sacrae 1 [Weser-Renaissance , Manfred Cordes ] [CPO: 777929-2]
Schuetz:Symphoniae Sacrae 1 [Weser-Renaissance , Manfred Cordes ] [CPO: 777929-2]
Price: £22.78

4.0 out of 5 stars The German Monteverdi, 8 Oct. 2015
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
This is a complete recording of Heinrich Schütz's 1629 Symphoniae Sacrae, a set of 20 settings of (mostly) psalm-texts for one, two or three voices accompanied by various small groups of instruments. Published in Venice, they closely resemble Monteverdi's smaller-scale religious music (think the solo bits of the 1610 Vespers) and reflect Schütz's training in Italy. The big difference is that Schütz used much more varied instrumentation than the Italians, so we get not just violins and cornetts, but consorts of sackbuts and dulcians too, to delicious effect.

Cordes deploys a group of singers and players expert in the genre. His voices are familiar from many continental recordings: all are flexible, stylish and entirely wobble-free. The star of the show is the veteran Harry van der Kamp who gets the most famous single work, Schütz's setting of King David's lament for his errant son Absalom. Van der Kamp has a little less resonance and depth than once he had, but still sings very cleanly and expressively, as do all the rest.

Manfred Cordes' style is characteristically low-key. He treats the set more as liturgical work than spiritual chamber music, which is fair enough, though I think I can imagine a more heart-on-sleeve-approach to the eroticism of some of the texts and the music.

Like many Schütz recordings this is organised on a “completist” basis – all the items from one publication on one disc. This is hard work for the listener, and seems a bit dated now. Indeed an almost identical set appeared on the Accent label 25 years ago, made by Concerto Palatino with distinguished singers - Barbara Borden, Rogers Covey-Crump, John Potter and again Harry van der Kamp who, not surprisingly, was in slightly better voice then. The overall stylistic approach was very similar to Cordes'. If you have that set I should stick to it: this recording says nothing new. Anyone looking for an introduction to Schütz might do better to start from one of the discs which make up a Vesper or Liturgy sequence from the various different works – Neumann, McCreesh, Haller and Cordes himself have all produced good compilations.

CPO (a label I salute for their commitment to rare repertoire) gives us a low-level recording. Turn the volume right up to hear the detail – it is worth hearing. The booklet note reads like a section of a dull thesis. Tracks 5/6 and 7/8 on disc one are listed in reverse. We are not told who sings what, so although we can distinguish the voices easily, we do not know who they belong to. The SWV numbers are not listed – another minor nuisance.

You can get free downloads of the scores of the whole set at the Petrucci library.

J.S. Bach: Harpsichord Concertos
J.S. Bach: Harpsichord Concertos
Price: £18.02

10 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Staier bowls another googly, 8 Oct. 2015
Andreas Staier often likes to tease his listeners. The tease on this set lies in the instrument he chooses to play, his copy of a Hass harpsichord made in Hamburg in 1734. The Hass is a monster by early 18th century standards, with a weight and registration more like that of an organ: no doubt it was made as a house instrument for an organist (one better off than Bach!). It is a fine instrument in many ways and Staier has already used it to good effect on three Bach recordings, but it cannot possibly be the sort of instrument these concertos were first played on – Bach must have used much lighter and more portable harpsichords.

Of course one cannot condemn this recording on those grounds: I simply make the point that the use of a harpsichord does not make these performances "authentic". That they are very good performances no-one could deny – punchy, strongly rhythmic, a little deliberate perhaps – but they fall into the same category as the recordings on modern pianos by (say) Murray Perhaia or Angela Hewitt, that is, they bear little resemblance to anything Bach's audience might have heard. To my mind the one advantage Staier gains by using the Hass rather than a piano is that he can play the slow movements expressively without sounding at all romantic, as pianists playing slow Bach are almost bound to do.

The booklets notes say nothing of this – Staier rarely says a word about such things – but a page from the Teldec Studio engineers is refreshingly honest about the artificiality of the recording, the artifice required to balance even the Hass against a small chamber orchestra – which, by the way, plays with all the precision and panache one expects from the Freibourgers. The result sounds very well but could not be replicated in a live performance.

We know nothing about the early performances of these concertos. They may have been intended for home performance by Bach's sons, or in Zimmerman's concerts, or both. Either way they would have been heard in relatively small rooms, and the harpsichords would have been supported by very few strings, single instruments most likely, perhaps without a 16' bass (which figures rather too prominently for my taste in Staier's performances). If you want to sample such a performance you would have to look for the Purcell Quartet Hyperion CD's made in the 90's. They include all the concertos (the multiple concertos too, which are good fun) on four discs. They still sound fresh. Another possibility on lighter harpsichords is the set by Staier's colleague Christine Schornsheim on Brilliant (all the concertos on three discs), but this is with a bigger band (and hence even more artificial balance).
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