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

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’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

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

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

Johann Hermann Schein: Opella Nova
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

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.

Charpentier’s Messe de Minuit

Posted in News with tags , , , , , , on December 6, 2010 by Craig Zeichner

Charpentier’s Messe de Minuit was the first piece of French baroque music that I ever encountered. Sir David Willcocks’ with the Kings College Choir, Cambridge and the English Chamber Orchestra on Angel was the first recording of the piece that I owned and many years later it remains a favorite.

Charpentier’s use of traditional French noëls gives the work its unique charm. Here’s a terrific post about the piece on this from the Magnificat blog, hopefully we will get a Magnificat recording of it some day.

A Charpentier Discovery

Posted in News with tags , on November 9, 2010 by Craig Zeichner

Marc-Antoine Charpentier

Patricia Ranum has discovered a new Marc-Antoine Charpentier manuscript. Read about it

Antonio Florio’s Cappella della Pietà de’ Turchini on Glossa

Posted in News with tags , , , , , on September 2, 2010 by Craig Zeichner

Rave all you want about Harmonia Mundi, I think the best early music label is Glossa. They have fantastic artists, interesting repertoire, superior engineering and gorgeous packaging. The artist roster is about to get better with the addition of the superb Naples-based Cappella della Pietà de’ Turchini. Their recordings of obscure Neapolitan baroque music were mainstays of the Naive label, but Naive stepped away from the Neapolitan project and decided to shift their energies to recording every note that Vivaldi wrote. That’s not a bad thing but I sure missed those Cappella della Pietà de’ Turchini recordings. Here’s the news.

To learn more about the Cappella della Pietà de’ Turchini, visit them at their website.

Here’s the ensemble in an excerpt from Cristoforo Caresana’s marvelous Christmas cantata

4 X 4 Baroque Music Festival

Posted in News with tags on August 26, 2010 by Craig Zeichner

I’m sorry I missed tonight’s Bach and Before concert, but there are still some tasty things to come. What a great opportunity to hear A-list performers in terrific repertoire. Check out the artist roster.

Tomorrow night’s Across the Alps: Handel in Italy has music by Muffat (I so love saying “Muffat”) Bach and Handel (his terrific Dixit Dominus). Saturday night’s Three, Songs from Venice and Rome is right in my groove zone with music by the underrated but relentlessly brilliant Giovanni Felice Sances and Barbara Strozzi (and others) and Monday has concertos from the blessed Antonio Vivaldi’s L’estro armonico – listen closely and you will realize that Stravinsky had his head up his…sleeve when he said Vivaldi wrote the same concerto 400 times. All this great music and what does it cost you? Nothing! These are free concerts. Miss them at your own peril.

Georg Muffat, have you heard the muffat man?

For more information visit the 4 X 4 Baroque Music Festival

New York Polyphony at Saint Thomas Church Fifth Avenue

Posted in News with tags , , , , , on August 11, 2010 by Craig Zeichner

I am happy to see that New York Polyphony will be singing this Sunday’s service music at Saint Thomas Church Fifth Avenue. They will be singing:

13th Century English Mass, from the Worcester Fragments (c. 1300)

Andrew Smith (b. 1970): Flors regalis

Beata viscera, from the Worcester Fragments

There will also be organ music by Buxtehude, Dupré and Langlais.

For more information, visit the Saint Thomas Church

A new friend

Posted in News with tags , on August 5, 2010 by Craig Zeichner

One of the great things about having my early music blog is feedback from readers. Here’s a video sent to me by the Swedish lutenist and guitarist Jonas Nordberg. He’s playing Robert de Visée’s Prélude et Allemande from the Suite in a minor. Mr. Nordberg told me that he is working on a recording of music by Visée. The label and release date are yet to be decided, but based on this video it’s certainly worth waiting for!

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.

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, (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