Archive for Avie

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.

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

Mendelssohn’s piano trios on period instruments

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


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

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

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

The Benvenue Fortepiano Trio's Mendelssohn on Avie

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

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

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

Shoot the flute player — Bach for our time

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



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.



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.



Who do you want serving your Bach?



Café Zimmermann's baristas

Café Zimmermann's baristas