Archive for the Reviews Category

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:

Vivaldi violin concertos you need to know

Posted in Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , on November 16, 2009 by Craig Zeichner

Vivaldi: Concerti per Le Solennità
Giuliano Carmignola, violin and conductor
Sonatori  de la Gioiosa Marca

It’s one of the great paradoxes that the recording industry is probably most responsible for boosting Antonio Vivaldi’s reputation while, at the same time, cutting it down. How? Pioneering record labels like Hyperion (the complete sacred music) and Naïve (the Vivaldi collection) have done tremendous service by resurrecting Vivaldi rarities. But the road to Hell is frequently paved with good intentions. Record labels have the habit of grouping all of the L’estro armonico or Il cimento dell’armonia e dell’inventione concertos (12 in each collection) in neatly packaged 2-CD sets that result in some listeners smugly nodding in agreement with Igor Stravinsky’s bitchy comment that Vivaldi wrote the same concerto 400 times. Vivaldi’s concertos were published together but not intended to be performed in one serving. You wouldn’t eat an entire box of bonbons in one sitting would you? Why listen to 12 concertos in a row?

Stravinsky in Venice, he should have been dunked in a canal

This stunning recording by violinist conductor Giuliano Carmignola and Sonatori de la Gioiosa Marca does tremendous service to Vivaldi by presenting six of his lesser-known violin concertos for solemn occasions. The solemn occasions were the various religious festivals celebrated between 1712 to 1735 in various churches in and around the Veneto. The concertos are filled with some of Vivaldi’s most innovative writing. There are two concertos for the Feast of the Assumption where Vivaldi splits the ensemble into two choirs, the only time the composer attempted this. There’s martial pomp in the “Grosso Mogul” concerto and a lovely pastoral tone in the concerto “per il Santo Natale.”

Carmignola, just the man to shut Stravinsky up

The performances of Carmignola are revelatory. More than Fabio Biondi or Andrew Manze or any baroque fiddler on the scene, Carmignola knows how to fire things up—check out the whispery fine bow work in the opening Allegro of the concerto “S. Antonio in Padua”—but also play sweetly—like in the poignant Grave of the D major Assumption concerto. Sonatori de la Gioiosa Marca provide full-blooded but always sensitive accompaniment and the sound quality provided by the consistently excellent Divox engineers is audiophile quality.

Salamone Rossi, Hebreo

Posted in Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on October 22, 2009 by Craig Zeichner
Pages from Rossi's Hashirim Asher Lishlomo

Pages from Rossi's Hashirim Asher Lishlomo

As Don Harrán points out in his fascinating book Salamone Rossi, Jewish Musician in Late Renaissance Mantua, “There were Jewish musicians before Salamone Rossi, but Rossi was the first to leave an indelible imprint on European music history as a composer.”

I first encountered Rossi’s music when I was marketing director for the PGM Recordings record label. Gabe Weiner, the label’s late and lamented founder, produced two recordings of selections from Rossi’s Hashirím ashér lishlomó (The Song of Solomon). The works were sung by the New York Baroque, a pick-up group of mostly New York-based singers under the direction of Eric Milnes. We marketed the records in every conceivable place, from Jewish newspapers to such magazines as Tikkun and Reform Judaism. The recordings were huge successes and were some of the biggest sellers by an indie record label. We also took a fair amount of heat from purists who were outraged that women’s voices were employed on the recording. Can’t please everybody I guess.

Wish I could have found a larger image!

Wish I could have found a larger image!

Rossi (c.1570-c.1630) was born in Mantua and was employed as a freelance composer and performer at the Gonzaga court. Jewish musicians in Mantua were frequently employed as performers at weddings, feasts and other occasions. Some of Rossi’s contemporaries in Mantua were Giaches de Wert, Ludovico Viadana, and Claudio Monteverdi and Rossi knew their music well. It’s entirely likely that Monteverdi and Rossi knew each other since both were violinists and both were employed at court.

Typical for his day, Rossi wrote Italian-texted madrigals and canzonettas, but it’s his instrumental and sacred music that are the focus of an excellent new recording by the Galilee-based vocal ensemble Profeti della Quinta and the instrumental ensemble Muscadin on the Pan Classics record label.

This is the one to get

This is the one to get

I wasn’t very familiar with Rossi’s instrumental works and there’s a healthy sampling of his revolutionary trio sonatas (a form which he pretty much invented) on this recording. Rossi’s trio sonatas are scored for two upper voices and continuo and even though he designates the upper voices as violins on the title pages of these works, the ensemble Muscadin adds recorder and cornett to the mix, so the upper voices are combinations of a wind instrument with violin or two wind instruments—it’s a nice effect and really underscores the flash and fire in the music. There are some beautiful moments here. The eloquent violin playing of Leila Schayegh finds an expressive foil in Corina Marti’s recorder in the Sonata seconda from Rossi’s 3rd book of sonatas (1622). I love the sound of the cornett and the ensemble’s Josué Meléndez Peláez shines when paired with Marti in the Sinfonia seconda from that same 3rd book. Intelligent and tasteful continuo work is heard throughout.

Orthodoxy prohibited polyphonic music in the synagogue but there was a liberal movement who yearned to bring music in praise of God to the service, following the example of King Solomon’s First Temple. The movement was led by the dedicatee of the published edition of Rossi’s Hashirím ashér lishlomó, the wealthy and progressive Moses Sullam, and the colorful and influential Rabbi Leon da Modena (who wrote the preface to the edition). The music was in all likelihood intended for use in the home, weddings and the synagogue where it would be sung by a male ensemble.

Here’s Profeti della Quinta singing Rossi’s Al Naharot Bavel:

Since any resemblance to the popular secular styles of the day would be a problem, so Rossi adopts the stile antico for these sacred gems. Rossi takes a Palestrina-like care in setting text, so every word is comprehensible and there is little repetition of material. One interesting bit: Hebrew text is read from right to left, so Rossi had to reverse the word order so that the individual words still read right to left while the words are set under the notes in the usual left to right fashion!

 The performances by Profeti della Quinta are revelations. Here’s the precision and tonal beauty that this music deserves and it makes this CD the essential Rossi recording to add to your collection. I only hope Profeti Della Quinta go on to record more Rossi.

The CD is available everywhere or directly from Qualiton Imports. Since you are spending money, you should also pick up Don Harrán’s book:


and while you are book shopping, try to find Leon da Modena’s fascinating The Autobiography of a Seventeenth-Century Venetian Rabbi:


It’s good to be the King!

Posted in Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 9, 2009 by Craig Zeichner
A king-sized collection

A king-sized collection

Baroque royalty had big appetites, but there were none bigger than those of the four French Baroque kings, Louis XIII to Louis XVI. They indulged in feasts of all types, including musical ones. This 20-CD collection of music spanning 1600 to 1800 features the music these big-wig kings would have enjoyed at court, chapel and theater. This marvelous boxed set, which commemorates the 20th anniversary of the Centre de Musique de Versailles, certainly brings to mind Mel Brooks’ King Louis in History of the World: Part I, who declared, “It’s good to be the king!”

The superbly produced box divides the repertoire into four broad categories: The Secrets of Versailles at the Time of Louis XIII; The “Pleasures” of Versailles During the Reign of Louis XIV; Refinement at Versailles Under Louis XV; The Twilight of Versailles Under Louis XVI.

Louis XIII

Louis XIII

Space doesn’t permit a detailed review of each disc, but there are plenty of treasures. I’m not a big fan of the air de cour, but the subtle beauties of music by Antoine Boesset and Robert Ballard receive sensitive and marvelously nuanced performances by soprano Monique Zanetti and lutenist Claire Antonini; they’re found on the CD devoted to music from the salons of the early French Baroque.

A big wig with Louis XIV underneath

A big wig with Louis XIV underneath

For my taste, things really get rolling during the reign of Louis XIV. There’s a CD of music by Jean-Baptist Lully, including excerpts from his opera Amadis featuring the splendid soprano Véronique Gens. Another CD offers more Lully, plus excerpts from operas by André Cardinal Destouches, Marin Marais, Pascal Colasse and my favorite composer of the period, Marc-Antoine Charpentier. They feature the sensational young mezzo-soprano Stéphanie d’Oustrac.

Stéphanie d’Oustrac

Stéphanie d’Oustrac

Fans of instrumental music didn’t go hungry during the reign of Louis XIV (only the peasants did). There is a delightful CD that focuses on the chamber music of François Couperin, performed by Les Folies françoises, and sets of Symphonies pour les Soupers du Roi by Michel-Richard De Lalande and played by Musica Florea. While the performances don’t match the polished accounts by Jordi Savall’s Hesperion XX and Le Concert Des Nations recorded on Alia Vox, they are still plenty good.

There are three CDs dedicated to the sacred music that was heard at the court chapel and the parish churches. Grands motets by Lully, Henry Du Mont and Henry Desmarest sit alongside petit motets by Couperin and Charpentier. The performances are the best you will ever hear in this repertoire, and feature William Christie leading Les Arts Florissants (in a recording licensed from Warner France), Hervé Niquet directing Le Concert Spirituel (a recording licensed from Glossa) and stunning live performances by the Ricercar Consort. The mix of live recordings and carefully selected licensed performances are one of the many things that make this big box unique (although for seasoned collectors of this repertoire there might be some duplication).

William Christie, the king of the French Baroque

William Christie, the king of the French Baroque

A more refined style took hold during the reign of Louis XV, and one of the chief masters of the new sound was Jean-Philippe Rameau. Rameau is well-represented on a CD of excerpts from his Hippolyte et Aricie (licensed from a Universal studio recording), with Gens singing and Marc Minkowski conducting Les Musiciens du Louvre, and live selections from Les Fêtes d’Hébé, Hippolyte (again) and Zoroastre with the ever-present Gens and Les Talens Lyriques under Christophe Rousset.

Véronique Gens, she sings like a goddess too!

Véronique Gens, she sings like a goddess too!

It was good to be the king, indeed, and there are a few works that pay homage to His Majesty. Zélindor, roi des Sylpes, a one-act opera-ballet by François Rebel and François Francoeur in praise of Louis XV, is given a fetching performance by some fine vocalists and the ensemble Ausonia. The favors of Madame de Pompadour were also enjoyed by the king. She commissioned a number of works for her theater and even appeared in many of them. One of them is the delightful divertissement Ègine, by the little-known composer François Colin De Blamont, performed by vocalists and the instrumentalists of Les Nouveaux Caractères.

Louis XV

Louis XV

The sacred music of the time of Louis XV is represented with two CDs that feature such composers as Jean-Joseph De Mondonville and Rameau. Mondonville was a master of the concerted style (massed voices and orchestra), and the performance of his motet Dominus regnavit by Christie’s Les Arts Florissants is thrilling. The excitement Christie and company bring to the Mondonville is matched by the refined elegance that marks their performance of Rameau’s In convertendo.

Louis XVI with his head still attached

Louis XVI with his head still attached

The music of Louis XVI’s illustrious predecessors is better known than the works from his reign. And yet, in some ways I think the music from the reign of Louis XVI is the most fascinating in the set. There’s an absolutely stunning CD of music by the Italian composers Antonio Sacchini and Niccolo Piccinni, performed by the glorious soprano Roberta Invernizzi accompanied by Antonio Florio’s Cappella della Pietà de’Turchini. Invernizzi is in splendid voice and is the model of elegant vocalism in the Mozartean “Je ne vous quitte point” from Sacchini’s Oedipe à Colone, and blows the roof off the joint with a virtuoso showcase in “Son regina e son amante” from Piccinni’s Didone abbandonata.

A singer I adore, Roberta Invernizzi

A singer I adore, Roberta Invernizzi

A CD of arias and orchestral music from French opera is another gem of the set. Here’s the dawn of Romanticism, with highly dramatic music by the rarely heard Rodolphe Kreutzer, Pierre-Alexandre Monsigny and the slightly better-known François-Joseph Gossec and André Ernest Modeste Grétry. Remember the name Pierre-Yves Pruvot: he’s the muscular-voiced baritone who makes a huge impression in arias from operas by these composers. I want to hear this guy sing Don Giovanni some day!

The remaining CDs are also quite good if not life-changing. Symphonies by Gossec, Simon Leduc and Henri-Joseph Rigel receive performances by Le Cercle de l’Harmonie under the direction of Jérémie Rhorer that are better than the music deserves, and you can’t help but be delighted by the energy and drive of the ensemble. The always superb fortepianist Andreas Staier plays a recital featuring music by Claude-Bénigne Balbastre, Hyacinthe Jadin and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. There are some virtuoso turns here, especially in Mozart’s Variations on “Lison dormait.” I was bored with some too-precious chamber music by François Devienne, Pierre Vachon, Giuseppe Maria Cambini and Luigi Boccherini. Perhaps the best was saved for last—a CD devoted to sacred music by Gossec, François Giroust, and Rigel. Check out the Gossec motet for some superb vocal writing!

 The set comes with a thick booklet that, oh wonder of wonders, includes complete texts, translations and essays that are actually worth reading. One small complaint: the booklet provides a link to a website where there are supposed to be composer biographies, but alas, they are not to be found.

This is an essential set for anyone interested in the Baroque, and offers performances that are as state-of-the-art as anything currently out there. A magnificent achievement all around!



Mr. Brooks has his say

Porpora has his day

Posted in Reviews with tags , , , , on October 1, 2009 by Craig Zeichner

Gauvin Porpora

Nicola Porpora
Karina Gauvin
Il Complesso Barocco
Alan Curtis
(ATMA Classique)

To many modern listeners the Neapolitan composer Nicola Porpora is mostly remembered for being one of Handel’s rivals for supremacy on the London stage. Anti-Handel factions formed The Opera of the Nobility, a company whose purpose was to bring down the Royal Academy of Music (Handel’s company) and Porpora was their chief composer. Despite the fact that Porpora wrote five operas, an oratorio and other works, the company failed and Porpora left London.

The London affair is only part of Porpora’s story because he was a major talent and a widely respected composer of his day. He wrote over 50 operas, taught the singers Farinelli and Cafarelli as well as the composer Hasse. He was Kapellmeister at the Dresden court and while at Dresden took on a young man named Franz Joseph Haydn as his valet, pupil and accompanist.

While there have not been many complete recordings of Porpora’s operas—even the seminal Neapolitan Baroque series on Naïve hasn’t touched him—this disc by Canadian soprano Karina Gauvin with Alan Curtis leading Il Complesso Barocco fills a huge gap. I think Gauvin is one of the most exciting singers on the scene and while she is quite familiar to fans of early music (check out her Handel and French Baroque recital albums on ATMA Classique); this recording should have enough appeal to put her on the radar of anyone who enjoys glorious singing.

Glorious it is. Porpora’s music is rich with twisting vocal lines, highly dramatic recitatives and melody aplenty, it is very Baroque indeed. I can find no fault with anything Gauvin sings here. She is blessed with a bountiful voice that lacks nothing in warmth or clarity and she handles the treacherous fioritura with ease. When needed she can summon plenty of brightness too, but it’s not an Emma Kirkby-styled English soprano glow, think of something more Mediterranean. Curtis and company are superb accompanists and even get to take a solo turn in the Overture to Porpora’s Arianna. This is fattening music so I would suggest enjoying it in small sips, perhaps a few arias at a time, and you will be well pleased. I was.

Check in for my post about Shannon Mercer and Suzie LeBlanc, two more Canadian singers who have won my heart.

Here’s a look at the Porpora recording sessions.

September’s harvest

Posted in Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 29, 2009 by Craig Zeichner

Here’s some new releases that have come my way




Consider the case of Anonymous, one of the most prolific of all creative artists. A poet, playwright, painter and composer, Anonymous has been published in dozens of volumes, Anonymous’ art has been displayed in museums (and on cave walls and the sides of subway trains) across the world. Anonymous is buried in cemeteries everywhere.

 The Anonymous this recording celebrates is the musical Anonymous, a composer who flourished in the Middle Ages and early Renaissance and who composed in many genres. Obviously we are not speaking of one composer but one of many who wrote some highly engaging music. If you put the witty conceit aside and take the recording at face value, what we have is a very well chosen compilation of early music drawn from over a dozen Naxos recordings. What makes this work is the sheer variety of musical styles. There’s lots of chant from the East and West, troubadour songs, selections from the Medieval Carmina Burana, English songs and consort music and… You name it and it is here. This kind of compilation might be too disjointed for early music purists who want to hear all of their Carmina Burana in one sequence; all of their consort music is one set, etc. No matter, it’s an interesting mix of repertoire and certainly works as a solid introduction to early music. 

 One small cavil – it would have been a bit more user-friendly if there was something that identified the original album from which each selection was drawn but there is only so much space in liner notes. Perhaps the somewhat cute at all costs liner notes could have been trimmed some? Rest assured though, musically this is a top-notch package. The performances are all outstanding and there is plenty of music on the two discs. Perhaps not the set for a detailed exploration of a particular genre, but it is ideal if you want to enjoy Medieval Times in your living room. Wait a minute; there were no CDs in Medieval Times…Get this one anyway!

singer pur

 Singer pur factor orbis
 (Ars Musici)

Here’s a real sleeper, a thirteen year old recording of Renaissance polyphony by Singer Pur, a German mixed voice ensemble comprised of singers who received their training as choristers at Regensburg Cathedral. The group’s name roughly translates to “singers neat” and I agree, I think they are pretty neat (although the name actually refers to clean vocal tone).

The ensemble has put together an interesting program of sacred music that spans the early to late Renaissance. Many of the usual suspects are here: Josquin, Lassus, Victoria and Byrd. But it’s the lesser-known composers who provide added value to this very well sung recording. I’ve sampled many recordings of polyphony over the years and must admit that I don’t recall ever encountering the music of Alexander Utendal (c. 1530/40-1581), Conrad Rupsch (c. 1475-1530) or Raniequin de Mol (late 15th century).

From the first notes of Victoria’s O Domine Jesu Christe that opens the recording, I was impressed by the ensemble’s smooth tonal quality (neat indeed). While they don’t have the bright top notes that marked the early recordings of the Tallis Scholars, they possess a beautifully blended sound with a firm bottom. There are some wonderful stand-outs: Verbum caro factum est, an expansive six-part Christmas motet by Senfl and Gallus’s Viri Sancti, a beautifully crafted double choir work. The works by the lesser-known composers I’ve mentioned before are all quite good. While there are some moments of rhythmic slackness, in Byrd’s In resurrectione tua for example, but not enough to spoil things.

There is something of a sonic haze over the recording that sometimes blurs individual voices but the overall production values are quite good with full texts and translations accompanying some decent liner notes.


Amour et Mascarade, Purcell & L’Italie

The opening paragraph of the liner notes made me flinch, “…the artistes of the Amarillis ensemble are all very young, and they play and sing with the dash and spirit of their youth…The works [by Purcell and Frescobaldi]…are known as it were in slow motion, rather cramped, without the brilliance that players under thirty can bring to bear on them.” These recordings were made in 1999 and trust me, there were plenty of energetic recordings of Purcell and Frescobaldi played with dash and spirit before Ensemble Amarillis appeared on the scene. That being said, this oddly programmed disc of some anonymous English dance tunes, canzone of Frescobaldi, vocal music of Purcell and a rarely-heard cantata by Francesco Mancini is mostly pleasing.

Soprano Patricia Pettibon and tenor Jean-François Noveli are the featured soloists in the vocal works and the instrumental ensemble comprised of (in various combinations) flûte à bec, oboe, low strings and harpsichord are featured in the Frescobaldi and English dances. I loved the blend of oboe (sounding here like a cornetto) and Pettibon’s high, bright voice in Purcell’s “Bid the Virtues.” Sure, I couldn’t understand a word Pettibon was singing but the tonal quality was gorgeous. However, the absolutely miserable English pronunciation of Pettibon and Noveli sink Purcell’s “Sound the Trumpet,” despite Pettibon’s delicious attempts to imitate the sound of a trumpet with a lovely trill. Pettibon delivers a glorious performance of Mancini’s cantata Quanto dolce è quell’ardore where she ornaments every line beautifully and even makes the recitative memorable, this is the high point of the program.

I mostly overcame my distaste for the flûte à bec (recorder to us vulgar Americans) in the Frescobaldi canzone, which were played with dexterity by Héloise Gaillard. The best moment in the Frescobaldi sequence was the lush and darkly rich cello playing of Ophélie Gaillard and tasteful accompaniment by harpsichordist Violaine Cochard. The English dances were charming and very well played. Speaking of English dances, I was surprised how closely the opening of “The second witches dance” resembled the “Popeye the Sailorman” song.  This is a pleasant recording which offers a glimpse of two artistes, Pettibon and Ophélie Gaillard, who have gone on to great careers in the world of early music.

Baroque Gold of El Dorado

Posted in Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 16, 2009 by Craig Zeichner
Bolivian art from the 18th century

Bolivian art from the 18th century

I know it’s politically incorrect to suggest anything good came of the arrival of Europeans in Latin America. Yes, the conquistadors were rapacious churls who subjugated the natives and yes, they did commit barbaric acts. As is usually the case, missionaries followed hard on the heels of the European soldiers who arrived in Latin America. And yes, the natives were not necessarily looking for a new religion. (And yes, their old religion included human sacrifice.) But…

Bad conquistador!

Bad conquistador!

One of the best things that Franciscan, Dominican and Jesuit missionaries shared with the native populace was music. According to the great musicologist Robert Stevenson, Hernando Cortez (Cortez the Killer for you Neil Young fans) had a band of Spanish minstrels traveling along with his army to entertain himself and his soldiers. Speaking of Stevenson, if you want to learn anything about the music of Latin America, read his Music in the Aztec and Inca Territory.

In 1609 it was primarily Jesuits who established the first settlements or “reductions” in what was then Paraguay and now includes Argentina, Uruguay, Chile, Bolivia, and Brazil. Music was one of the subtle tools the Jesuits used to convert the natives.

For over a century and a half the Jesuits lived and worked with native peoples, and both groups shared cultures and music. Jesuit successes threatened the economic boom that the slave trade brought to Europe, so the Jesuits were eventually expelled from Latin America by order of King Carlos III. This was one of the subjects of the magnificent film The Mission.

An actor portraying a good Jesuit and oboist

An actor portraying a good Jesuit and oboist

The music that was played in the Jesuit missions represents a spectacular cultural fusion. Missionaries came from all over Europe, with Spaniards and Italians dominating. The music followed the European Renaissance and Baroque styles—mostly polyphonic Masses and Psalm settings. But here’s the really good bit: European composers added native colors and rhythms to the long-established liturgical forms. And then native composers (educated by missionaries) picked up the European forms and merged them with their own music.

The recordings

I’ve been crazy for this music for over a decade and have collected dozens of recordings. It offers the best of all worlds: luscious Italianate melodies wed to some of the most driving rhythms you will hear this side of the Fania All-Stars. A uniquely Latin sound colors the music. It’s present in the spicy instrumentation, which frequently includes guitars, bandolas, harps and a battery of exotic percussion. The native mix is combined with many instruments found in European baroque music, such as trumpets, recorders, oboes and bassoon, as well as the standard continuo instruments like the harpsichord and organ.  If you are setting out to explore this music, here are some of the recordings you must have:

Spain in the New World

Spain in the New World

Spanish songs and instrumental music are performed by the late Scott Reiss, Tina Chancey and company on this recording. The disc Includes songs by the Canichanas Indians of Bolivia and showcases the impact native rhythms made on old  Spanish forms.


New World Symphonies

New World Symphonies
Ex Cathedra
This is probably the best one-CD collection of the music – as a matter of fact the disc’s subtitle is From Araujo to Zipoli: an A to Z of Latin American Baroque – and features top-notch performances of music by the key composers of the genre. The centerpiece of this recording on the Hyperion label is the Missa Ego flos campi by the most well-known of all the New World composers, Juan Gutiérrez Padilla (1590-1664).

At any rate, villancicos and motets by other composers of the period are interspersed between movements of the mass. It’s a spectacular recording and one of my favorites. Ex Cathedra have two more discs of this music on Hyperion: Moon, sun & all things (CDA67524) and Fire Burning in Snow (CDA67600). Get them all and thank me later.

Mexico Barroco

Padilla: Maitines de Navidad 1652
Angelicum de Puebla
(Urtext Digital Classics)
Speaking of Padilla, the Mexican Urtext label has released several excellent recordings of his music in their ongoing Mexico Barocco series. My favorite in the series is Maitines de Navidad 1652, a collection of villancicos for Christmas. Very simply stated, a villancico is a song form that was born in Spain. When the form took root in Latin America it embraced rustic themes and pastoral imagery. Some of the most exciting music in Mexico are the rhythmically charged villancicos for Christmas by Padilla. One down side to the Urtext recordings, the texts are in Spanish only but the music is so infectious it really doesn’t matter.

Missa Mexicana

Missa Mexicana
The Harp Consort
(Harmonia Mundi)
While I’m on the subject of Padilla and Mexico, another essential recording is the Harp Consort’s superb Missa Mexicana. Here’s the Missa Ego flos campi again but this time with some gorgeous dance music and villancicos interspersed between the mass movements. The performances by Andrew Lawrence-King’s Harp Consort are brilliant.


The Great Garrido

No musician has done more for this music than the Argentine director of Ensemble Elyma, Gabriel Garrido. Garrido has an impressive discography on the French label K617. K617 recordings can sometimes be frustrating because they rarely provide English translations to the obscure texts of much of this music. No matter, you can’t go wrong with any of the recordings Garrido has made with his excellent Ensemble Elyma. If pressed, I would say you should hunt down these five essential recordings:

Lima La Plata

 Lima – La Plata
Music by Araujo, Zipoli, Velasco and Salazar






Domenico Zipoli: Vespres De San Ignacio






Musique Baroque a la Royale Audience de Charcas





Torrejón y Velasco: Musique á la Cité des Rois






L’Or & L’Argent du haut – Pérou






The best way to go, if you can find the recordings, are two big boxed K617 sets Musiques Sacrées Missionnaires, Volumes I & II. The specially priced boxes contain most of the Garrido recordings mentioned above along with music from the missions in Québec and Montréal as well as complete discs devoted to music by Domenico Zipoli.


Here’s a villancico by Juan de Araujo performed by Garrido and his ensemble, the image is static but the music will have you jumping

Please let me know what you think about your explorations of this glorious music. I have dozens more recording recommendations if you are interested.