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 factor orbis
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.