Archive for the Reviews Category

Best of the Year 2013

Posted in Reviews with tags , , , , , , on December 28, 2013 by Craig Zeichner

NY Polyphony
One of the advantages of not having to regularly write reviews – like I did for my Ariama job or Early Music America magazine — is having the freedom to listen to whatever I want to. But these three are by artists/ensembles who I would listen to any time/all the time. So the gold, silver and bronze medals go to:

New York Polyphony
Times Go By Turns

Times Go By Turns is a masterpiece, a superb album of English classics by Byrd, Tallis, Plummer and contemporary composers. The music by the contemporaries — Richard Rodney Bennett, Andrew Smith, and my personal favorite, Gabriel Jackson complements the early music perfectly. For me, Times Go By Turns achieves the near impossible; it takes familiar works — Masses for four voices by Byrd and Tallis — and makes you hear them in new ways. Times Go By Turns has been nominated for a Grammy, if there is any justice in this wicked world, New York Polyphony wins. I play this  one endlessly, easily the best album of the year.

Profeti Della Quinta
Il Montavano Hebreo

Profeti
Centuries ago I worked for a record label that produced recordings of music by the Mantuan Jewish composer Salomone Rossi. The best recordings of Rossi’s music that I’ve heard are by the Galilee-based vocal ensemble Profeti della Quinta. Their new album on the sonically stunning Linn Records label is Il Montavano Hebreo, a collection of Rossi’s instrumental music — the guy invented the trio sonata — devotional music and Italian madrigals. The group is coming to New York in January. If you are New Yorkers, don’t miss them!

Stile Antico
The Phoenix Rising
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Stile Antico keeps rolling along. It’s pretty rare when an ensemble just knocks out one mind-bending album after another, especially in the rarefied world of Renaissance polyphony. Not since the early days of the Tallis Scholars have I heard Tudor church music sung with such warmth and precision. Stile Antico, like New York Polyphony, are superb programmers too. Their program is drawn from Oxford University Press’s classic Tudor Church Music collection, but programmed with a careful ear. The Phoenix Rising features Byrd’s magnificent Mass for five voices with motets and anthems by Gibbons, Morley, Tallis, Taverner, and White placed between movements of the mass.

Come to the River

Posted in Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , on August 14, 2011 by Craig Zeichner

I’m delighted that early American music continues to enjoy popularity. Definitive recordings by the Boston Camerata and Anonymous 4 put the music on the map and Rose of Sharon, a spectacular 2011 recording by Joel Frederiksen and Ensemble Phoenix Munich, honors it as true American art music. There have also been high-minded and brilliantly performed crossover records like Appalachian Waltz (with the dream team of Yo-Yo Ma, Mark O’Connor and Edgar Meyer), which stressed folk and bluegrass-rooted Americana. Both approaches are valid and welcome. Come to the River by Apollo’s Fire, a period instrument ensemble, weighs in with a decidedly crossover album that will delight fans of that genre and probably put off listeners who are more purist.

The album features a number of New England and Appalachian tunes, Southern spirituals and other traditional tunes in arrangements by Sorrell, ensemble member Paul Shipper and even one by Custer LaRue (a member of the Baltimore Consort, a group who scored big hits with just this kind of crossover). The Apollo’s Fire vocalists all possess polished voices and the instrumentalists perform well. But the spontaneous loose improvisatory style that’s the album’s chief selling point just come across as stiff and corny. I’ve no problem with creative arrangements of old tunes, but ensemble director Jeannette Sorrell’s take on “Nobody But the Baby,” speaks more of the Manhattan Transfer than anything remotely folksy. This is fun, unbuttoned music but the bluesy growls in “Hold on” sound contrived,  and the animal sounds in “Willie, Prithee Goe to Bed” are just embarrassing. When the tone is elevated in a set of Southern spirituals the arrangements don’t work for me. Listen to the studied prettiness of Apollo’s Fire’s  “Wondrous Love” and compare it with versions sung by Anonymous 4 (on Gloryland) or Lydia Brotherton and Ensemble Phoenix Munich (on Rose of Sharon).

There are positives. The purely instrumental pieces have a nice bounce and while they never really push the envelope they are some of the most satisfying performances on the album. Sorrell’s turn at the harpsichord of a set of Dances from New England and Ireland are very nice and made me wish that she played more of them. Some of the Sacred Harp tunes come off quite well too, especially “Return Again/Savior, Visit Thy Plantation.”

At times the concept seems to be at odds with itself though. In the liner notes there’s a half page of text that explains the ensemble has “developed a unique ensemble of crossover artists who specialize in traditional repertoire from early America…they approach the music with the lively freedom of folk performers.” Okay, a looser approach can work. But then there’s the erudite three paragraph discussion of shape-note hymnody where Sorrell seems to snipe at a famous women’s quartet, (who shall remain anonymous) and says, “Performance of shape-note hymns by an all-female quartet is therefore not historical.” Why bring it up? I thought this was supposed to be about “lively freedom?”

An Epiphany Gift

Posted in Reviews with tags , , , , , , , on January 13, 2011 by Craig Zeichner

On the liturgical calendar, the Feast of the Epiphany is celebrated 12 days after Christmas. But it took the combined efforts of the Spanish and U.S. postal services over a month to deliver my copy of the Glossa recording of Cristofaro Caresana’s L’Adoratione de’Magi. Glossa posted it on December 1st and it arrived early this week. No matter, I treasure the recording as much as if it were gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

My cd is somewhere in there

L’Adoratione de’Magi is a collection of three delightful Christmastide cantatas by the little-known Neapolitan composer Caresana (c.1640 – 1709). Of course, Caresana and Antonio Florio’s Cappella della Pietà de’Turchini share some history together. It was I Turchini (as they are now known) who resurrected the music of Caresana and other forgotten Neapolitan masters like Provenzale, Latilla and Vinci through a series of recordings called Tesori di Napoli on the Symphonia, Opus 111 and Eloquentia labels. Things change. Symphonia has all but disappeared, Eloquentia is extremely difficult to find and Opus 111 was absorbed by Naïve. Unfortunately, Naïve never seemed to get behind the series.

Glossa Music wisely snatched up I Turchini and the Caresana recording is the first in what I hope is a long and fruitful relationship between the label and the ensemble. I first encountered Caresana on a spectacular Opus 111 recording called Per la Nascita del Verbo, a Neapolitan Christmas music collection. This marvelous music is completely unaffected, marvelously raucous and sweetly melodic. The same can be said for what’s on L’Adoratione de’Magi.

A Neapolitan treasure indeed!

The music has an earthy, folk-like flavor. Dance rhythms pop up and blend nicely with the honeyed melodic lines. Think of your favorite rustic Italian dance whirling around arias by Alessandro Scarlatti and you’ll have an idea of what’s offered in the cantata La Veglia, and be sure to linger over “Dormi o ninno,” one of the most beautiful lullabies ever written.

I love the broad strokes with which the characters are painted. Lucifer is a bellowing lout (boisterously sung by bass Giuseppe Naviglio) in Demonio, Angelo e Tre Pastore, a comic verbal sparring match between angels and a demon and shepherds (who express their joy with a lovely dance to end the cantata). The spirit of the commedia dell’arte hovers over all and the result is delicious.

Commedia dell’arte hijinks

It’s not all high spirits though. These works were very much products of the counter-reformation and served a didactic function. I was especially struck by the pained, plunging chromaticism on a phrase one of the Magi sings in the title cantata as he presents the gift of myrrh and refers to the sacrifice the infant will make as an adult.

The Magi and the infant

There’s also a solo voice cantata honoring San Gennaro, Sembri Stella Felice, Partenope Leggiadra. San Gennaro is the patron saint of Naples and his chief feast days fall in May, September and December, so the cantata is not out of place on a Christmas record and is a stirring snapshot that captures the essence of devotion in the 17th-century city. Rounding out the recording are two sonatas for strings by Pietro Andrea Ziani, which provide nice contrast between the cantatas.

The performances are all outstanding and feature many of the singers who have made the Tesori di Napoli series one of the best ever made. The liner notes are by Dinko Fabris who knows more about this music than any living soul. Nobody performs this music with the same skill and exuberance as I Turchini and I rejoice that Glossa was smart enough to pick them up.

Celebrate Epiphany and get this one now!

Best of 2010

Posted in Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 16, 2010 by Craig Zeichner

It’s been a pretty good year for early music recordings with self-produced projects and indie label releases rising to the top of the class. Two New York-based ensembles won glory this year and recordings on the ATMA Classique label proved that Montréal is an early music capitol city. Here’s some of the best, what were your favorites?

Claude-Bénigne Balbastre: Music for Harpsichord
Elizabeth Farr, harpsichord
(Naxos)

Farr plays a big Keith Hill harpsichord with two buff stops and makes a great case for this music which balances wit with tenderness.



I Mercanti Di Venezia

La Bande Montréal
Eric Milnes, director
(ATMA Classique)

This is a superb recording of music by Jewish composers in Italy. It’s performed by an ensemble of A-list players from the city which has supplanted Boston as the epicenter of North American early music.

Monteverdi: Vespro della Beata Vergine
Green Mountain Project
Jolle Greenleaf and Scott Metcalfe, directors
(Green Mountain Project)

This was one of the most inspiring stories of the year, a recording by a handful of super-dedicated musicians who mounted a production of the Vespers to celebrate the work’s 400th anniversary. They performed the work on January 3rd, in what was probably the first performance of the Vespers in the anniversary year. By the way, it’s one of the very best recordings of the Vespers out there.

You can order directly from the Green Mountain Project and proceeds will help these folks repeat the performance on January 2, 2011.

O Praise the Lord, Restoration Music from Westminster Abbey
Westminster Abbey Choir
James O’Donnell, director
(Hyperion)

Hyperion’s ongoing series with the Westminster Abbey Choir has been uniformly superb. This one has music by John Blow, Henry Purcell and some lesser-known Restoration composers.



Peter Philips: Cantiones Sacrae 1612

Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge
Richard Marlow, conductor
(Chandos)

The Cantiones Sacrae are scored for five voices and glow with spiritual fervor and melodic beauty. The excellent Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge under the direction of Richard Marlow are marvelous.



Rosso, Italian Baroque Arias

Patricia Petibon, soprano
Venice Baroque Orchestra
Andrea Marcon, director
(DG)

Petibon is ideal in these high-flying showpieces by Handel, Scarlatti, Porpora and others.

Johann Hermann Schein: Opella Nova
Sagittarius
Michel Laplénie, director
(Editions Hortus)

Schein was one of the first German Protestant composers to assimilate the Italian style and write vocal concertos based on German chorale tunes—that’s a tasty blend! The French ensemble Sagittarius is superb and I hope they continue to record more of Schein’s music.

Senza Continuo
Margaret Little, viola da gamba
(ATMA Classique)

When I reviewed this one earlier this year I wrote, “I’ve never heard a bad recording involving viola da gambist Margaret Little.” I stand by the statement, this recording of works by English, French and Italian composers is essential listening.

John Sheppard: Media vita
Stile Antico
(Harmonia Mundi)

Audiences and critics have been tripping over themselves dishing out praise for this excellent ensemble and the truth is Stile Antico delivers as promised. Their vocal blend and tonal quality are brilliant, the clarity of their singing is top-flight.

Tudor City
New York Polyphony
(Avie)

While the Stile Antico love-fest/press blitz was rolling along, you might have missed Tudor City. I hope you didn’t, because this is a superb album, the best recording of early vocal music of the year. Worcester Fragments, Eton Choirbook music, Dunstable, Byrd, Tallis, Tye and Smith all sit together so well and the performances are stunners.

New York Polyphony – Tudor City

Posted in Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , on July 14, 2010 by Craig Zeichner

I liked these guys the first time I heard I Sing the Birth, their outstanding Christmas record of medieval, renaissance and contemporary music. The program was beautifully sung and the mix of repertoire really hung together well. It’s fine to program Perotin, Byrd and Kenneth Leighton on the same recording, but it’s another thing for it to all make musical sense. I Sing the Birth hit on all counts and it’s one of my favorite Christmas albums.

Each Sunday I get to hear some members of the group at church in the Saint Thomas Choir of Men and Boys. I believe it was last year when New York Polyphony sang the Sunday morning service from the rear gallery of the church and it was a stunner. It’s sometimes tough to focus on the service when a group of such quality is singing.

They were singing from up here

Tudor City is their new recording on the always interesting Avie label. Like I Sing the Birth, Tudor City is marvelously programmed. This time its English music from the reign of the Tudors (1485-1603) and four specially commissioned pieces by Andrew Smith that are worked into the mix.

What a great sampling of English music! There’s a bit from the Worcester Fragments (just wondering, does anybody remember the Accademia Monteverdiana recording of the Fragments on Nonesuch?), an Eton Choirbook piece, some Dunstable, Byrd, Tallis, Tye and others that make for one powerful album. The Smith pieces fit smoothly into the medieval and renaissance soundscape yet have their own pungent, contemporary tone. Mr. Smith deserves to be better known because his Surrexit Christus and “To Mock Your Reign” are brilliant. Come to think of it, he is getting better known since Bora Yoon and Brian McKenna have remixed Surrexit Christus and it is now available on download from iTunes. I kid you not.

Bora Yoon

How does Tudor City sound? Damned good. Critics may trip over themselves praising Stile Antico (the fantastic mixed voice group from the UK), but as far as I am concerned Tudor City is the album they should be talking about. The New York Polyphony voices are perfectly balanced, lush and warm but with enough bite to give the tangy dissonances some punch. This is truly a breakout album.

Here’s New York Polyphony in Christopher Tye’s In Pace

By the way, for those of you who are not fortunate enough to live in New York, Tudor City is also a legendary residential complex on the Eastside (the cover of the album features the complex’s famous sign). New York Polyphony – Tudor City, it’s kind of a New York state of mind.

Heads-up to New Yorkers

New York Polyphony will be singing Flemish Polyphony at the Miller Theatre on November 20th.

One more bit, Jerusalem from Thomas Crecquillon’s setting of the Lamentations of Jeremiah

American Music

Posted in Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 3, 2010 by Craig Zeichner

“Nothing is more agreeable, and ornamental than good music.”
–George Washington, 1777

On this Independence Day I’ve been thinking about my country’s early music. Sometimes it’s rough and raw, sometimes as polished as anything from Europe. Here are some of my favorite recordings.

William Billings
The history lesson begins with the masters of New England singing schools. The schools were part of the Puritans desire to regularize congregational singing which, according one Puritan minister in 1721, was a “horrid Medley of confused and disorderly Noises.” The singing masters at these schools were itinerant musicians,tradesmen and frequently composers. The best of these was William Billings (1746-1800).

My favorite recording of Billings’s music is His Majestie’s Clerkes’ A Land of Pure Delight. Most of the famous Billings tunes are here, with the exception of “Chester,” which was the unofficial national anthem during the Revolutionary War.

Revolutionary Times
Some of the best songs of the Revolutionary period were set to pre-existing tunes and many were British ballads, dance tunes and hymns. Here are some records that I think capture the essence of the times.

Music of the Revolution: The Birth of Liberty on the New World label is one of the best. The record has military music, patriotic songs and religious anthems. The recording also has some songs that present the Tory side of the struggle. These are hardly historically informed performances, but they are plenty powerful.

The best recording of the music of the period is Liberty Tree: Early American Music 1776-1876. The Boston Camerata under the direction of Joel Cohen presents a mix of patriotic anthems, bawdy songs, ballads and dances. Cohen’s exhaustive research turned up some obscure numbers but it’s the familiar “Yankee Doodle” that is presented as a racy song with references to Boston’s gay community. Lots of great stuff here: there’s a stirring version of “Chester” with fife and drums and some moving singing by bass Joel Frederiksen throughout. This is the essential recording of the music from a time that changed the course of civilization.

The Federal Period
The war was won and European-trained musicians were in the cities performing for the elite while the countryside was home to working-class amateur musicians who formed “bands of musick” and sang unaccompanied choral music.

Music of the Federal Era is another gem on the New World label that presents music from the Republic’s early days with emphasis on the more genteel chamber music heard in salons of the wealthy.

Sacred Harp
As the nation grew people gathered at camp meetings to hear some high-octane preaching and sing hymns and anthems. Some of the tunes of the New England singing masters found their way South and new tunes were also added. This groundswell of sacred singing resulted in the creation of such songbooks as:
The Kentucky Harmony, The Missouri Harmony and The Sacred Harp, arguably the most famous collection. Rivers of Delight, American Folk Hymns from the Sacred Harp Tradition performed by The Word of Mouth Chorus is a classic recording on Nonesuch that presents this music in all its raw, unaffected power—it is a masterpiece.

Moravians
Last but not least are the contributions Moravians made to  American musical life. These German immigrants who settled in Pennsylvania in 1741, introduced European composers to America, Haydn being a notable example. They their own musical traditions and Lost Music of Early America, Music of the Moravians performed by Boston Baroque on the Telarc label is a fantastic introduction to their music.

More please
If you can find them, you will want to track down some additional recordings:


In Freedom We’re Born
(Colonial Williamsburg WSCD 124)
Period instrument performances of colonial songs.


Heavenly Meeting
(Northern Harmony NHPC 103)
Shape note music, gospel and English West Gallery music


The American Vocalist, Spirituals and Folk Hymns 1850-1870
(Erato 2292 45818)
The Boston Camerata in folk-inspired hymns.

Johann Hermann Schein

Posted in Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on June 23, 2010 by Craig Zeichner

Johann Hermann Schein

Johann Hermann Schein (1586-1630) has been overshadowed by his friends and colleagues Heinrich Schütz (1585-160) and Gottfried Scheidt (1593-1661). Schütz was the best of them and he’s well-represented on recordings, but according to Arkivmusic.com, (the definitive CD retail site), there are only 67 recordings of Schein’s music currently available.

Thankfully, this new recording by the French ensemble Sagittarius and their director Michel Laplénie will do much for Schein’s reputation. Sagittarius, an ensemble whose recordings of Charles Levens’ music I’ve written about in the defunct Goldberg Early Music magazine, have just released an outstanding new recording of selections from Schein’s Opella Nova and Fontana d’Israel (Hortus 075).

The newest from Sagittarius

There are two volumes of Opella Nova concertos for voices and instruments. The first volume was published in 1618 and the second, less stylistically conservative collection, in 1626. Schein was one of the first German Protestant composers to assimilate the Italian style and write vocal concertos based on German chorale tunes—that’s a tasty blend! There are some fine works in the collection. “Aus tiefer Not” (from Psalm 129) is powerfully cast for soprano, tenor and continuo. “O Jesu Christie, Gottes Sohn” for soprano, solo violin and continuo and “Erbarm dich” for solo tenor and the same instrumental forces. The performances are all terrific. I was impressed with the sensitive playing of violinist Johannes Prahmsohler and sopranos Dagmar Saskova and Sophie Pattey really shine in a gorgeous setting of “Von Himmel hoch.” Best of all was “Komm heiliger Geist.” This is a marvelously melodic work that receives a perfect performance with tenor Olivier Fichet singing from the church gallery (the record was made at St-Etienne-de-Baïgorry Church in the French Basque country) while the two sopranos sing the chorale melody in the nave. Lovely!

Fontana d’Israel, published in 1623, has enjoyed a good life on recordings. Manfred Cordes and Weser Renaissance have recorded the complete collection for CPO (999959) and it’s quite good. Apparently Philippe Herreweghe has done the same for Harmonia Mundi, but since I never heard the recording I can’t speak of the performance. What we have on the Sagittarius disc is excellent. Fontana d’Israel showcases Schein’s assimilation of the Italian style and his gift for wedding it to German traditions. Set to Old Testament texts, Schein’s five voice gems are highly expressive and very well crafted. There are some daring things happening throughout. “Wende dich, Herr, und sei mir gnädig”opens with some pained chromaticism depicting sorrow before shifting gears and bursting out in full-voiced joy. “Ist nicht Ephraim mein teurer Sohn” has a terrific echo effect while “Zion spricht; der Herr hat mich verlassen” makes a great case for Schein’s gift for text-setting.

Sagittarius has a pretty extensive discography and I wish I was able to round up some of their other recordings, but this Schein disc is a great way to become acquainted with a first-rate ensemble and I strongly recommend it.

Visit Sagittarius at their