Archive for Naxos

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.

September’s harvest

Posted in Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 29, 2009 by Craig Zeichner

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

 Singer pur factor orbis
 (Ars Musici)

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.