Archive for the Reviews Category

Shoot the flute player — Bach for our time

Posted in Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 28, 2009 by Craig Zeichner
Casals

Casals

 

The Bach orchestral recordings I grew up with were anything but historically informed performances. I still own and enjoy LPs of the Brandenburg Concertos with Pablo Casals conducting the Marlboro Festival Orchestra and Otto Klemperer leading the Philharmonia Orchestra in the Bach Orchestral Suites. But now that the period instrument movement has won the day these recordings sound like they are from another planet. It’s a beautiful anachronistic planet, but still in another galaxy.  I worship Klemperer in Romantic repertoire, but must admit his slow tempi and vibrato-laden singers make his Saint Matthew Passion recording play like the Oberammergau Passion Play on a propofol binge.

Oberammergau Passion Play

Not the DeMille version

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My Bach shelves are now filled with period instrument performances by such ensembles as the Leonhardt Consort, the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin, I Barrochisti, the Academy of Ancient Music and Concerto Italian. But the 70s are over and a new Bach recording on period instruments, or as they used to call them “authentic instruments,” is not enough to merit attention.

Suites

 

Attention must be paid to Ensemble Sonnerie’s daring new take on the Orchestral Suites on the excellent Avie label. Ensemble directors Monica Huggett and Ruiz suggest the Suites were written in Köthen for Prince Leopold. The Prince’s orchestra at Köthen consisted of strings, oboes, bassoon and harpsichord (the scoring for the First Suite) so Huggett and Ruiz think this is the original scoring for the other three Suites. Following that logic what’s on the recording could be the original version of the four suites.

The shining centerpiece of the set is oboist Gonzalo X. Ruiz’s oboe and strings version of the Second Suite. Ruiz plays the solo part beautifully and with plenty of flash when needed. The oboe sounds better suited to the piece then the flute. Time for a confession I suppose. I am one early music guy who detests the sound of the flute and recorder as solo instruments. It works for me when joined by other instruments or voices, but when I hear it solo I reach for my gun. That being said, Ruiz’s performance has forever banished the memories of Jean-Pierre Rampal or James Galway tweeting their way through this music.

Galway and one of his musical peers

Galway and one of his musical peers

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I miss the trumpet and drums in the Third Suite but Ensemble Sonnerie plays this music with such elegant lyricism that it is okay. I’m not ready to trash my Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin recording (Harmonia Mundi) but this fascinating reading by Ensemble Sonnerie is a must have and an essential for anyone who cares about Bach.

Café Zimmermann

The Bach performances I’m enjoying the most these days are coming from the cleverly named Café Zimmermann. They honor Gottfried Zimmermann’s Leipzig coffee house, where Bach’s concertos were performed, with their name.  Each of the four recordings Café Zimmermann they have released (on the super classy Alpha Production label) to date feature an orchestral suite, a concerto or two and one of the Brandenburg Concertos. I like this concert as album concept. Café Zimmermann is packed with some top-notch talent and is anchored by founders, violinist Pablo Valetti and the phenomenally talented harpsichordist Céline Frisch. Check out any volume in the series and enjoy the most thrilling Bach recordings currently available.

NMZ_Bach_Cafe

 

Who do you want serving your Bach?

Klemperer

Klemperer

Or
Café Zimmermann's baristas

Café Zimmermann's baristas

Hesperion Dos Equis Reissues

Posted in Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , on August 26, 2009 by Craig Zeichner
The Sean Connery of Early Music

The Sean Connery of Early Music

 

Few early music artists have as deep a discography as gambist Jordi Savall and his ensemble. Years ago the group was Hesperion XX, these days it’s Hesperion XXI. Who knows, in a few years it might be Hesperion XXI.1. Jordi and company just keep knocking out recordings. He made a huge number for the Astrée  label and then launched his own Alia Vox label.  One of the ensemble’s older efforts has turned  up on the Ars Musici label.

Hammerschmidt

Bohemian-born Andreas Hammerschmidt’s duties as kantor at the Johnanniskirche in Zittau—he was responsible for all the liturgical music— made him a prolific composer by necessity. Hammerschmidt (1611-1675) is probably best remembered for his sacred works which were inspired by the great Heinrich Schütz. Schütz even thought so highly of Hammerschmidt that he penned a laudatory poem for the preface of an edition of Hammerschmidt’s music. This recording (made in 1986) features Hesperion XX under Jordi Savall’s direction and presents another side of Hammerschmidt with a set of instrumental suites.

 

The suites on this recording were popular in their day and show a preference for the French forms that were the rage in the 17th century. Two of the suites are scored for viol consort, one for viols and winds and one for winds. This is refined music with fetching melodies and a stately grace. Savall and his consort of viols play beautifully with a marvelously rich, warm tone. The suites for winds feature the cornettist Bruce Dickey and other wind players who would join him in the ensemble Concerto Palatino. The contributions by Dickey and the wind players make for some of the most stirring music on the disc. This is a polite, well-performed recording of some pleasant but not revelatory music. Hammerschmidt’s music is solid but lacks the sweetness of the French music of the period and the pure invention that is animates the instrumental music of his Italian and German peers.  If you are interested in hearing more from Hammerschmidt I would suggest going for the sacred music and the terrific collection of motets performed by Weser Renaissance led by Manfred Cordes on the CPO label.

Buy this

Buy this

I love Savall and his ensemble. His wife, the soprano Montserrat Figueras, is a marvelous singer and one of early music’s greats. That being said, I do find Hesperion performances to occasionally be a bit glossy, just too perfect. At times they remind me of the many sleek recordings Herbert von  Karajan made in the 1980s that were beautiful museum pieces but lacking heart. There is also a bit of superstardom ego at work too. I remember a DVD performance of Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo conducted by Savall that featured as many close-ups of the great man as there were of the singers on the stage. There was also a Boston Early Music Festival appearance some years ago where  the ensemble hit the stage wearing facial expressions  that suggested somebody kicked their dog. Apparently Ms. Figueras was unhappy with the air conditioning of the hall.
 
It looks like Alia Vox is undertaking a major digital push. A heap of Astrée digital only reissues are appearing on the Alia Vox label and are available on eMusic. There are some beautiful things here and if you can sort through eMusic’s execrable butchering of metadata you will find some treasures:  Jordicopia at eMusic
 
Here’s some gorgeous Dowland from Jordi.