Early Music at the Miller Theatre

Posted in News with tags , , , , , , , , on June 16, 2010 by Craig Zeichner


The  upcoming season at the Miller Theatre at Columbia University has some choice  early music concerts. I can’t wait to hear Stile Antico, New York Polyphony,  Sequentia and Le Poème Harmonique. The Bach and the Baroque series looks pretty  hot too – TENET is a group that more audiences need to know and they have selected some fantastic repertoire.

Here are the details from the Miller Theatre press release:

Early Music

IN PARADISUM
October 16
An ensemble of a dozen unaccompanied singers, most still in their twenties and three who are sisters, Stile Antico is revitalizing Renaissance choral music. The group performs without a conductor, approaching choral works with the dynamic cohesion of a string quartet. This program focuses on the musical responses of composers faced with their own mortality, featuring swansongs and memorials by such masters as Lassus, Dufay, des Prez, and Byrd.

Stile Antico

GIANTS OF THE FLEMISH RENAISSANCE
November 20
New York Polyphony, rising stars on the early music scene, has been likened to Anonymous 4 for their impeccable ensemble and wide-ranging programming. They perform Flemish and Tudor music for men’s voices, bringing a unique richness to selections by Ockeghem, Brumel, Dunstable, and Taverner, including excerpts from their new album, Tudor City.

New York Polyphony

SONGS FROM THE ISLAND SANCTUARY
January 22
In the 12th century, the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris was far more than a tourist mecca. It was an entire city unto itself, with a private port on the Seine and its own schools, laws, and social life. In this passionately performed, meticulously researched program, Benjamin Bagby and his acclaimed medieval ensemble Sequentia bring that bygone era to life, suffusing centuries-old music with striking immediacy.

Sequentia

ESPERAR, SENTIR, MORIR
February 19
Court composers in 17th century Spain and Italy often borrowed amply from street dances and folk songs, inspired by the rhythms, melodies, and improvisatory freedom of popular music. The ever-enticing Le Poème Harmonique returns to take us on a tour of this spirited music—complete with guitar and castanets. The program will feature the group’s soprano Claire Lefilliâtre, who garnered special mention after their performance last season: “Le Poème Harmonique’s five singers produced beautifully balanced sound, but the clear standout was Claire Lefilliâtre, who brought a virtuosic flair to the soaring, ambitiously ornamented soprano line.” (The New York Times)

Le Poème Harmonique

CELEBRATING THE GENIUS OF VICTORIA
April 2
The intensely spiritual, passionate music of Spanish composer Tomás Luis de Victoria has moved generations of listeners. The Tallis Scholars return to the series with a program celebrating the 400th anniversary of Victoria’s death, focusing on his grandest choral works, including the composer’s crowning achievement: the monumental Requiem.

The Tallis Scholars

Bach and the Baroque

SEEING DOUBLE: CONCERTO BY BACH AND VIVALDI
March 26
One of the most respected period instrument ensembles in the world, REBEL has been praised by The Boston Globe as “vital…dashing…with performances that lacked nothing in inwardness, charm, or brilliance.” Antonio Vivaldi’s concerti for two solo instruments inspired some of Bach’s most brilliant music. Rebel explores the fascinating connection between the two composers in a program of double concerti for strings and harpsichords.

Rebel

RECLAIMING BACH FOR THE RECORDER
April 28
The delightful and entertaining Flanders Recorder Quartet has set out to right what they consider Bach’s sole shortcoming: his small output for recorder. The ensemble, whose delicate sound has been likened to Baroque organ, arranges works for keyboard and other instruments in this program, featuring Bach’s lively Italianate concerti, inventive preludes and fugues, beautifully expressive chorales, and monumental passacaglie.

Flanders Recorder Quartet

BACH AND HIS PREDECESSORS
May 14
Church of St. Mary the Virgin (145 W. 46th St.)
Bach revolutionized German music, but like all great composers, he had his forbearers, such as Heinrich Schütz and Dieterich Buxtehude. The “sensational” new ensemble TENET joins forces with Spiritus Collective to perform festive German Baroque works for voice, strings, and brass, culminating in Bach’s brilliant early motet Jesu, meine Freude.

TENET

Complete details are at the Miller Theatre website

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

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

Lyrichord podcasts

Posted in News with tags on May 17, 2010 by Craig Zeichner

Lyrichord’s podcasts are a terrific idea and a great way to learn more about early music. Check them out at the Lyrichord

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

Pygmalion: My Unfair Lady

Posted in News with tags , , , , , , , , , , on April 27, 2010 by Craig Zeichner

I’m really excited about an upcoming production of Rameau’s Pigmalion by the Underworld Productions Opera Ensemble. This should be quirky fun with an extremely clever take on the always fascinating French composer’s work. I quote from the company’s press release:

“Rameau’s music stunned its original auditors with its dissonance and innovation. In order to capture his daring for modern ears, the evening’s curtain-raiser features performance artist Lynn Book in preview scene from “The Annotated Hippolyte et Aricie.” In this trans-media treatment of the Prologue from Rameau’s Hippolyte et Aricie, Book creates an alternative narrative and sonic world to the opera scene that includes video by media artist Robin Starbuck and music composed by Katharina Klement (who will appear live from Vienna via Skype). The precedent for this format is taken from a March 20, 1754 revival of Pygmalion performed alongside the Prologue from his Platèe. “

This is going to be very hip. Also very “HIP” as in “historically informed performance” because the outstanding baroque violinist Robert Mealy is leading the period instruments of the Sinfonia New York.

Pygmalion: My Unfair Lady (Jean-Philippe Rameau’s Pigmalion, 1748) is being performed on May 13, 2010 at 7:30 PM at the Leonard Nimoy Thalia Theater.

For more information visit Underworld Productions Opera Ensemble at their

Mendelssohn’s piano trios on period instruments

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

Mendelssohn

“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.

Monteverdi Vespers at Saint Thomas Church, Fifth Avenue

Posted in News with tags , , , , , , on March 3, 2010 by Craig Zeichner

The Saint Thomas Choir of Men and Boys

If you are a member of the Saint Thomas congregation, or have ever strolled into the church for a Sunday morning service, or dropped in for Evensong you know about the choir. They are one of the finest in the world.

Regular visitors to this blog know that I can go on and on about Monteverdi and his miraculous Vespro della Beata Vergine 1610. We celebrate the 400th anniversary of the Vespers this year and the March 19th performance with John Scott conducting The Saint Thomas Choir of Men and Boys with His Majestys Sagbutts & Cornetts, Concert Royal and some superb soloists is going to be another highlight of New York’s celebration of the work. Festivities kicked off with the Green Mountain Project’s revelatory one-voice-on-a-part performance at Saint Mary the Virgin in January and if you enjoyed that, you owe yourself the treat of hearing the “big band” version of the work at Saint Thomas Church, Fifth Avenue.

The 1610 Vespers title page

I’m a member of the Saint Thomas congregation and have the joy of hearing the choir every Sunday morning. Whether it’s Victoria or Vaughan Williams, it’s always a sublime experience. The choir excels in Italian music of the early baroque— I’ve heard them sing Croce, Andrea Gabrieli (the marvelous Missa brevis, a work that deserves wider recognition), Grandi and others—so they are going to soar in the Monteverdi.

Tickets are available at the Saint Thomas Church website.

Playlist

Posted in Playlist with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 22, 2010 by Craig Zeichner

When I’m  not digging my way through a dozen plus Monteverdi Vespers recordings for an upcoming magazine story, I’ve been enjoying some other treasures.

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

Giovanni Paolo Colonna
Salmi da Vespro per il giorno di S. Petronio
Cappell Musicale ei S. Petronio
Sergio Vartolo, director
(Tactus)

Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck
Psaumes français & Canciones Sacrae
Cappella Amsterdam
Daniel Reuss, director
(Harmonia Mundi)

Antonio Vivaldi
Pyrotechnics
Vivica Genaux, mezzo-soprano
Europe Galante
Fabio Biondi, director
(Virgin Classics)

Robert White
Hymns, Psalms & Lamentations
Gallicantus
Gabriel Crouch, director
(Signum Classics)

I’m really excited about the White recording which features a group of men from the superb choir Tenebrae. White is a composer who deserves wider recognition and this CD should do much to put him in everybody’s ears.

And if you want to read one of the most entertaining poems ever written, check out the translation by Anthony Esolen of Torquato Tasso’s Gerusaleme liberata. Christian armies battling for the Holy City in some of the most splendid poetry you will ever encounter. If you care anything for the Italian madrigal tradition, you need to read Tasso.

Torquato Tasso
Jerusalem Delivered
translated by Anthony Esolen
(John Hopkins University Library)

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

More Monteverdi

Posted in News with tags , , , , , on February 4, 2010 by Craig Zeichner

I can never get enough of the sacred music of Claudio Monteverdi. Last week I heard the Saint Thomas Choir of Men and Boys sing Monteverdi’s Messa da capella and look forward to the same choir singing the Vespro della beata Vergine on March 19th.

Monteverdi magic from Saint Thomas Choir of Men and Boys

Another splendid opportunity to hear some of Monteverdi’s spectacular sacred music is being served up by Tenet, a group of some of New York’s finest singers and instrumentalists, on February 13th at Saint Ignatius of Antioch Episcopal Church.

Tenet will be performing selections from Monteverdi’s epochal Selva morale e spirituale. If you don’t know this music your life has been all the poorer. In 1640 or so, Monteverdi compiled a massive collection of sacred works that he composed during his three decade tenure as maestro di cappella at San Marco in Venice. The collection was published in 1641 in Venice in ten partbooks containing no fewer than 37 works for various groups of voices and instruments. There are virtuoso solo motets, concertante psalms and polyphonic mass movements composed in the old style. This was the last collection of works published in Monteverdi’s lifetime and no other composer in 1640 could dip into such a deep bag of musical magic tricks.

I don’t know what Tenet has scheduled for the concert but if you love Monteverdi’s madrigals or Vespro della beata Vergine, you are going to be blown away by the Selva.

For more information about the Selva concert, visit Tenet

For more information about the Vespers concert, visit Saint Thomas Church Fifth Avenue

Here’s a taste of some of the music from Selva morale e spirituale

Confitebor primo performed by Ensemble Elyma

Laudate Dominum in sanctis eius performed by Philippe Jaroussky

Dixit Dominus II performed by Ensemble Elyma

Pianto della Madonna performed by Agnès Mellon