Archive for the Reviews Category

A viol record

Posted in Reviews with tags , , , , , , on June 7, 2010 by Craig Zeichner

I’ve never heard a bad recording involving viola da gambist Margaret Little. If you care anything about early music you will know her from a steady stream of excellent recordings she has made with a number of Montréal-based ensembles including Studio de Musique ancienne dé Montréal, Les Boréades and others for the ATMA Classique label. She’s probably best known as one half (with gambist Susie Napper) of the superb duo Les Voix humaines. On Senza Continuo Little goes solo in a program of French, Italian and English music from the renaissance and early baroque.

There are few instruments with as much expressive power and pure tonal beauty as the viola da gamba and since it could play both melody and harmony, there is some fine solo repertoire for the instrument. Little has chosen some real beauties for this recording. As would be expected there’s music by two French composers closely associated with the instrument: Jean De Sainte-Colombe and Marin Marais. Napper and Little have recorded Sainte-Colombe’s seminal Concerts á deux violes égales, so it’s especially pleasing to hear her in three of his solo works (he wrote nearly 177 solo works for the gamba). This is music that pushes the instrument (and soloist) to expressive and technical limits and Little excels. Little also makes the most of the pieces by Marais which were apparently intended to be played with basso continuo (the continuo parts were delayed at Marais’ printer) but played solo here. The Italian music – ricercars by Aurelio Virgiliano and Giovanni Bassano – require no small measure of technical flash and once again Little is up to the challenge. In some ways a set of pieces from Tobias Hume’s First Book of Ayres is best of all. Hume was one of the first and finest composers to write for the gamba as a purely solo instrument and the seven dance movements heard here really showcase his best efforts.

As I said earlier, Little has technique aplenty but also an almost preternatural gift for channeling the composer’s thoughts and communicating them through the instrument, for me this was particularly noticeable in the Marais and Hume. The recording quality really captures the natural voice of strings and wood and makes for some of the most intimately realistic sound I’ve heard.

Here’s a video from ATMA Classique

The sublime Les Voix humaines

Vespers, one more time

Posted in Reviews with tags , , , , , on May 11, 2010 by Craig Zeichner

I spent most of February and March writing a story about Claudio Monteverdi’s Vespro della Beata Vergine. I think I ended up listening to 20 recordings of the work and then selected 15 of them for the story. In case you are interested, the story will appear in the summer issue of Early Music America Magazine.

The Vespers, (along with Wagner’s Parsifal) is probably my favorite piece of music so you would think sitting down with a foot and a half of Vespers would be bliss. For the most part it was. The down side is that one performance can ultimately bleed into another, so you need to space your listening out or you will lose your mind.

Stack of Vespers

After I completed the story I received a live recording of the performance by the Green Mountain Project. The Green Mountain Project is a consortium of some of the finest performers on the early music scene. On January 3rd of this year they gave what was possibly the first performance of the Vespers in the 400th anniversary year. The entire production was a labor of love that was spearheaded by their artistic director Jolle Greenleaf and music director Scott Metcalfe.

If you care anything about Monteverdi you owe it to yourself to contribute to the Green Mountain Project and get a copy of the recording. What makes this Vespers better than others? Lots of things. The performance has each psalm preceded by a chant antiphon and they make good liturgical sense – antiphons for the First Vespers on the Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin. As Scott Metcalfe writes in his excellent program notes, “Besides being the Marian feast closest to today’s date of January 3, Purification, celebrated on the fortieth day from Christmas, was regarded as the last feast of the long Christmas season that began back at the end of November on the first Sunday of Advent…”

The Feast of the Purification of the Virgin, also called The Feast of the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple, or Candlemas -- painting by Hans Holbein the Elder

The Green Mountain performers opted for one voice to a part and performed at A466, a semitone above the modern 440. Metcalfe points out, “This is the most common pitch of cornetts and other wind instruments surviving from Monteverdi’s time and was the general standard in Venice and Northern Italy.” Another bonus was the use of string instruments from the late 16th or early 17th century that were set up with unwound gut strings. This was the real deal folks!

The performance is a beauty. The soloists have just the right sound for this music – clean and crisp but also abundantly warm. This is difficult music and not one singer misses an opportunity to shine. If you don’t think the Pulchra es is one of the most sublime moments in all of music, the performance of Jolle Greenleaf and Molly Quinn is going to convince you. Drama rules here too, just sit back and listen to Marc Molomot, Jason McStoots and Steven Caldicott Wilson in Duo seraphim. Those gut string fiddles sound glorious as do the wind players. Sure, the recording is live and there are some sounds from the audience, but the audio quality is very good and there is a palpable sense of occasion when you listen. Lithe and lovely, this is a recording that easily goes to the top of my tower of Vespers.

Here’s another good thing about the recording. When you go to the Green Mountain Project website and order the CD (which also comes with a terrific souvenir program), all proceeds go to funding future performances. So figure it out folks, you get a document of a revelatory performance and lay the groundwork for future performances. Do the right thing!

Mei Mei was blown away by the Green Mountain Project's Monteverdi too!

Visit the Green Mountain Project

Mendelssohn’s piano trios on period instruments

Posted in Reviews with tags , , on April 20, 2010 by Craig Zeichner


“It is the master trio of today…” wrote Robert Schumann of Felix Mendelssohn’s Piano Trio in D minor, Op. 49. Schumann’s comments appeal to my sense of irony since I was recently contracted to write liner notes for a recording of  Schumann’s piano trios.

It wasn’t repertoire with which I was especially familiar but a paying gig is not to be turned down. The Schumann trios don’t hold the same place in the repertoire as the trios of Beethoven, Schubert or Brahms so I was concerned about summoning up the enthusiasm to make a case for them. The truth is the Schumann trios are not great music and probably deserve the scant attention they receive.

But how about the relatively unfamiliar piano trios of Felix Mendelssohn? Judging by what I’ve heard on a new Avie recording by the Benvenue Fortepiano Trio (Eric Zivian, fortepiano; Monica Huggett, violin; Tanya Tomkins, cello), the Mendelssohn trios should have their place in the sun.

The Benvenue Fortepiano Trio's Mendelssohn on Avie

Schumann’s praise of the Trio in D minor, Op. 49 is on the money. I probably wouldn’t have identified Mendelssohn as the composer of the stormy Molto allegro agitato opening movement. This is hyper-Romanticism at its best. The second movement Andante con moto tranquillo might strike some as a bit “schmaltzy” but boy oh boy what melodies! We are back in the world of airy flights of fancy in the Scherzo where Mendelssohn certainly asks a fair amount of virtuosity from all. The closing movement is a gushing Allegro appassionato with some high profile fireworks for the pianist. No surprise here, while writing the work, Mendelssohn was offered advice from the composer Ferdinand Hiller about re-working the piano part – Mendelssohn paid heed and the results are fantastic.

The other work on the recording is the Trio in C minor, Op. 66. The Trio bursts out of the gate with a surging Allegro energico e con fuoco that’s plenty intense while the ravishing second movement Andante espressivo rivals Schubert in its tender lyricism. A typically bustling Mendelssohn Scherzo trips along before the soaring Finale—Allegro appassionato with its quotation of the chorale “Vor deinen Thron” closes the work. This is big-boned and heroic music that puts the lie to the belief that much of Mendelssohn’s music is prissy.

While I’m familiar with the work of each of the members of the trio I’ve never heard them play chamber music together. This is a terrific ensemble that makes every note sing. Zivian plays an 1841 Franz Rausch fortepiano and the instrument lacks nothing in muscle. Zivian really turns things lose in the Op. 49 finale and it’s thrilling. Cellist Tanya Tomkins also gets to stand out in the Op. 49 with some rich singing tone in the main themes of the first movement. Violinist Monica Huggett is one of our most treasured period instrument players and her sweet tone and measured vibrato is lovely. For those who think period instrument performances lack warmth or passion, check out this recording on Avie.

A kick in the sagbutt

Posted in Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , on February 10, 2010 by Craig Zeichner

I couldn’t resist the puerile wordplay in the title. It must be the blizzard that’s  covering New York City taking me back to my youth…A new recording by His Majestys Sagbutts & Cornetts (HMSC) with the Purcell Quartet and Chordophony has me thinking about Giovanni Gabrieli and things Venetian.

Venice is on my mind a lot these days. Much of my listening has been Venetian music. I’m writing a story about Monteverdi’s Vespro della beata Vergine and have been sampling lots of recordings of the work. I’m not suggesting the Vespers were written for San Marco – the genesis of the Vespers is a story unto itself and you’ll have to read my article to get the scoop on that – but Monteverdi and Venice are certainly bound together.

The blessed Monteverdi

Another composer who is synonymous with Venice is Giovanni Gabrieli (b. c.1554-7; d. 1612). I grew up with two recordings of Gabrieli’s music: The Glory of Gabrieli had the Edward Tarr Brass Ensemble, Gregg Smith Singers and organist E. Power Biggs in a program of canzoni and motets that were actually recorded in San Marco in Venice.

Gabrieli from Biggs and company

My other “go-to” Gabrieli record was Processional and Ceremonial Music with the Choir and Orchestra of the Gabrieli Festival under the direction of Edmond Appia. The LP was available on the old Bach Guild of Vanguard Classics, it cost $2.99 and I played it until the groves wore out.

A Gabrieli bargain

This new recording of music from Canzoni per sonare con ogni sorte di stromenti (a 1608 publication by Alessandro Raverii), which features works by Gabrieli and his contemporaries, excites me the same way. Raverii was a crafty publisher, and in its day the collection appealed to a broad spectrum of musicians because of the “ogni sorte di stromenti” (all kinds of instruments) tag. The collection contained 36 canzonas by 12 composers, and all the composers are represented on the recording. These include a good cross-section of respected and recently deceased (in 1608) elders (Claudio Merulo, Luzzasco Luzzaschi and Florentio Maschera), a sampling of respected contemporaries (Gabrieli and Gioseffo Guami) and a taste of the interesting youngsters (Girolamo Frescobaldi, Pietro Lappi and Orindio Bartolini).

Many of the Gabrieli pieces are well-known but the HMSC play them with a freshness and vitality that make such old favorites as the Canzon Prima ‘La Spiritata’ à 4 and Canzon Seconda à 4 really open your ears and remind you of how damned good Gabrieli was. The lesser-known works are great finds too. I never heard much of Lappi but the peppery Canzon Undecima ‘La Scrasina’ à 4 played by the Purcell Quartet and elegant Canzon Vigesimaesta ‘La Negrona’ à 4 played by Chordophony, (a lute quartet) are keepers.

The mix of instrumental combinations makes the recording very appealing. Instead of listening to 20+ pieces scored for sagbutts and cornetts in a row, there are works for strings, lutes and an occasional keyboard tossed into the mix. Like I said, HMSC are outstanding throughout. They are one of the preeminent ensembles playing this music and it’s nice to hear them stretch out on this album.

Giovanni Gabrieli

New Yorkers take note. His Majestys Sagbutts & Cornetts will be performing with the Saint Thomas Choir of Men and Boys on March 19th. The program? Monteverdi’s Vespro della beata Vergine.

His Majestys Sagbutts & Cornetts

Yo Adrian!

Posted in Reviews with tags , , , , on January 28, 2010 by Craig Zeichner

Marvelous madrigals in the old style

The Flemish composer Adrian Willaert (1490-1562) deserves wider recognition. A student of Jean Mouton, he made his name as a singer in the service of Cardinal Ippolito I d’Este and reached the height of his career as maestro di cappella at San Marco in Venice. Willaert was one of the key figures in the ascendency of 16th century Venetian music and his students included such luminaries as Ciprian de Rore and Andrea Gabrieli. Many of Willaert’s sacred works were ground breakers in the development of music for double choir, so it’s no surprise that what Willaert we have on recordings is mostly sacred music.

But wait, there’s more! Willaert also composed chansons and madrigals and it’s his collection of Musica Nova madrigals that we have on this excellent recording by Singer Pur. Written around 1540, the Musica Nova collection is comprised of 25 madrigals that are scored for four to seven voices and are set to texts by Petrarch. This is serious music and showcase Willaert’s remarkably expressive style. Willaert’s writing is subtle and filled with delicate shifts in color and rhythm that draw the listener in. This is dense music and its subtleties require careful attention. They also require careful attention from the singers and that’s what makes these winning performances.

Singer Pur, haven't heard a bad recording from them yet

Singer Pur, a German group comprised of a soprano, three tenors, baritone, bass (the male singers were all choir boys in the Regensburger Domspatzen) and, for this recording, a guest countertenor sing brilliantly. I’ve become a big fan of the ensemble since I first heard their Factor Orbis (Ars Musici 232226) a terrific program of Renaissance sacred music. This music must be sung with precision and Singer Pur consistently delivers the goods with performances that are highly musical and technically polished. Take these madrigals in small servings because they are rich indeed, but the rewards are enormous. If there is any justice this recording will catapult this ensemble to greater recognition and set them on a path that explores more of the lesser-known madrigalists. For that matter, I hope they also take a shot at Willaert’s marvelous motets too.

Best of 2009

Posted in Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 30, 2009 by Craig Zeichner

Lots of early music recordings came my way in 2009. Here are my favorites for the year.

CD of the year

More Divine Than Human, Music from the Eton Choirbook
The Choir of Christ Church, Oxford
Stephen Darlington, director
(Avie Records)
This is how the Eton Choirbook was intended to be heard.

J. S.Bach: Orchestral Suites for a Young Prince
Ensemble Sonnerie
Monica Huggett, violin and director
(Avie Records)
Refreshing new takes on old favorites.

J. S. Bach: Preludi ai corali
Quartetto Italiano di Viole da Gamba; Tölzer Knabenchor
(Winter & Winter GmbH)
Gorgeous strings blending with treble choir.

G.F. Handel: Clori, Tirsi e Fileno
Roberta Invernizzi, Yetzabel Arias Fernández, sopranos; Romina Basso, alto
La Risonanza
Fabio Bonizzoni, director
(Glossa Music)
The newest release in the brilliantly performed complete Handel cantata series.

Nicola Popora: Arias
Karina Gauvin, soprano
Il Complesso Barocco
Alan Curtis, director
(ATMA Classique)
Perhaps this is the recording that finally puts Gauvin at the top of the soprano heap.

Salomone Rossi: The Song of Solomon and Instrumental Music
Profeti Della Quinta
Ensemble Muscadin
(Pan Classics)
It’s about time an ensemble finally made a truly excellent recording of Rossi’s sacred music.

Alessandro Scarlatti: Messa per il santissimo natale
Giovanni Battista Pergolesi: Messa di s. emidio

Concerto Italiano
Rinaldo Alessandrini, director
Two major additions to the repertoire and nobody performs this music better than Alessandrini and crew.

Song of Songs
Stile Antico
(Harmonia Mundi)
All the buzz about Stile Antico is true—reminds of the records the Tallis Scholars used to make before all of their recordings started to sound the same.

Georg Philipp Telemann: Telemann and the Baroque Gypsies
Ensemble Caprice
Matthias Maute, recorder and director
Sensational performances by Maute and company in a lively program.

200 Years of Music at Versailles
Various artists
(Centre Musical de Baroque de Versailles)
A miraculous collection. Would have liked some music by the great clavecinists, but easily the greatest survey of the French Baroque available.

Where’s Papa?

Posted in Reviews with tags , , , , , , on November 23, 2009 by Craig Zeichner

"Papa" Haydn

I adore Haydn—“Papa” Haydn, as Mrs. Nettles, my high school music teacher, taught me. I always thought it would be cool to have Haydn as my papa. We’d go down to the park throw the ball around and then he’d head home and write a string quartet. Parent-teacher-night? No problem, Haydn would meet with my music teacher and then show her a thing or two about sonata form. Many of my “sophisticated” music friends take Haydn for granted. I guess his music isn’t ugly enough. That’s pretty much how they feel about Vivaldi, too—I guess it has something to do with them being prolific. As if writing more means less. The flipside is true for me though: I wish Elliott Carter was half as prolific as he is.

It’s fitting that one of the final recordings of the Haydn anniversary year (the 200th anniversary of his 1809 death) is Die Schöpfung (The Creation), one of Haydn’s last works. René Jacobs, the RIAS Kammerchor and Freiburger Barockorchester with soprano Julia Kleiter, tenor Maximilian Schmitt and baritone Johannes Weisser do the honors on a new recording for Harmonia Mundi.

Haydn’s Inspiration

At the end of 1791, Haydn attended the Handel Commemoration in Westminster Abbey and heard the master’s works performed on a large scale. Haydn heard Handel done in the big English style, with hundreds of performers on stage, and was floored. His Italian biographer, Giuseppe Carpani wrote, “Haydn confessed to me that when he heard the music of Hendl [sic] in London, he was struck as if he had been put back to the beginning of his studies and had known nothing up to that moment. He meditated on every note and drew from those most learned scores the essence of true musical grandeur.”

The Baron van Swieten and The Creation

Enter the Baron Gottfried van Swieten. He was the guiding spirit of the Gesellschaft der Associirten Cavaliere, an association of noble music lovers who organized concerts of large-scale choral works in Vienna. So yes, Handel’s works were played in Haydn’s Vienna (sung in German), but were frequently re-orchestrated by Mozart and contemporaries to bring them up the standards of late 18th century orchestration. Mozart’s wrong-headed mash of Messiah is the classic example—has a great composer ever committed a hate crime to equal this? Swieten had been nudging Haydn to write an English oratorio (even before Haydn’s journey to England) in the “spirit and manner of Handel.”

Thoughts of an English-style oratorio had been swirling in Haydn’s head since 1794, when he began an oratorio based on a 17th century treatise proclaiming England’s natural right to sea sovereignty (that cries out for a musical treatment, doesn’t it?). The English impresario Johann Peter Salomon, was also thinking about a Haydn English oratorio, and it was Salomon who obtained the libretto for The Creation, probably at the end of Haydn’s second visit to England. Papa brought the libretto back with him from England and showed it to Swieten. Swieten adapted it (he said he wanted to “clothe the English poem in German garb”) and kept pushing Haydn to write the oratorio.

Much of Swieten’s text is an adaptation of John Milton’s Paradise Lost, the epic poem that became known in Germany in the latter part of the 18th century. The libretto also contains bits from the book of Genesis. As Haydn worked on the piece (from autumn of 1796 to early 1798). Papa and Swieten had lots of back and forth about the work, and the baron even had individual numbers played for him by a small orchestra. Apparently, Haydn frequently bowed to the baron’s suggestions. I guess my poor papa, a lifelong Esterházy servant, was conditioned to nod “yes” to the wealthy.

Haydn Triumphant

The Creation premiered at the Palais Schwarzenberg on April 30, 1798, with Haydn conducting before an audience of wealthy folk who were given tickets by the Gesellschaft der Associirten Cavaliere. It was such a success that two more performances were added. The general public got to hear the work several months later, and once the score was published it was played all over Europe. The Creation was premiered in America by Boston’s Handel and Haydn Society in 1819.

The Creation is sublime—one of my favorite works in the choral repertoire. Every drop of Haydn’s skill as an orchestral master are on display in the vivid tone painting that depicts everything from the chaos before creation, to flashes of lightning, to descriptions of all kinds of wildlife—including slithering worms! The vocal writing is direct and lyrical and the choral writing is suitably grand. I leave it to the journalist Joseph Richter (a contemporary of Haydn) to sum up the appeal of the work: “What I really liked is that [the work] is written in high style, and yet I could understand it.”

René Jacobs

René Jacobs’ Haydn

The Creation joins two other superb Haydn recordings conducted by René Jacobs on the Harmonia Mundi label: The Seasons and the Symphonies Nos. 91 and 92. I was licking my lips in anticipation of this recording of The Creation. Was the salivatory experience fulfilled? Mostly yes, but there are also some fumbles. First the good stuff. Despite the fact that there’s been some bitching from the anti-period-instrument camp about the Freiburger Barockorchester and their string sound (will the strident fatwah about lack of vibrato ever end, because nobody really cares anymore), I love their crisp articulation and verve. Wind and brass playing? Stunning. There is spice and warmth throughout, and the ensemble nails Haydn’s Disneyesque special effects. The choral singing of the RIAS Kammerchor is spot-on clear and energy pulses through every phrase they sing. While the vocal soloists don’t quite stand up to the roster of artists who have recorded the work before, which includes (just naming some of the noteworthy sopranos) Elly Ameling, Gundula Janowitz, Lucia Popp and Emma Kirkby, they are all fresh-voiced and technically secure.

There are some missteps, however. As on Jacobs’ Idomeneo recording, fortepianist Sebastian Wienand’s incessant mugging and silly improvisations during secco recitatives are getting on my nerves in a big way. The keyboard noodling that made the recitatives on Jacobs’ recordings of Mozart’s Così and Nozze fun don’t make sense here—The Creation is not a drama giocoso, so basta Sebastian! The biggest negative is scale. I quote the liner notes that speak of the Handelian model, “Haydn later considered that large forces were indispensable for effective performance of his Creation.” We don’t have that here. The string ensemble is small, and while winds and brass are two and three on a part, the sound is not grand. It’s not altogether a bad thing because there is a lovely transparency, but there is no denying that the performance lacks grandeur. Is that enough to sink the project? Not in the least. This is a low-fat performance, delicious in many ways, but it’s not the Cecil B. DeMille version of The Creation.

Here’s bit of the documentary DVD that comes with the recording: