CD and Other Review

Review: Nouveau Monde: Baroque Arias & Songs (Patricia Petibon, La Cetra, Marcon)

It’s not often that an aria disc has you dancing, but this adventurous album from Patricia Petibon might just do the trick. The French soprano has combined two of her musical passions – Spanish music and the Baroque – into one program, in which 17th- and 18th-century arias and folksongs from England, France, Spain and Latin America mingle with gay abandon. Dance rhythms and catchy tunes abound, from the seguidilla of José de Nebra’s En amor, pastorcillos, to the chaconne of Charpentier’s Sans frayeur dans ces bois to the zippy French folksong J’ai vu le loup, which comes complete with bagpipes and historically informed pronunciation. There’s typical Baroque fare too, chosen to reflect the Old World’s fascination with the New: arias from Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, Charpentier’s Médée and Rameau’s i, all of them set in farflung lands. It’s a diverse program, whose varied strands intertwine in fascinating ways. Dido’s Lament, for instance, is an intriguing companion to Le Bailly’s Yo soy la locura, and it’s interesting to hear Handel’s Spanish aria No se emenderá jámas amid its native counterparts. Petibon brings her own lively artistry to the mix, moving easily between Old World and New. She has the depth…

November 14, 2012
CD and Other Review

Review: John Cage: As it is (Alexei Lubimov, Natalia Pschenitschnikova)

It’s tempting to think of John Cage as the dangerous, if smiling, radical. After all, he did pioneer the prepared piano, welcomed turntables and radios into the concert hall, and scored the most famous four-and-a-half minutes of silence in history. Unlike his close colleague Morton Feldman, however, the musicality of his work is easily overlooked. This haunting recording from ECM reminds us of the colour, precision and sheer beauty of his compositions. The pieces are mostly from Cage’s early rhythmic period, the 1930s and ‘40s, and are for solo piano or prepared piano with occasional voice. Pianist Alexei Lubimov is a significant proponent of 20th-century music in Russia, giving premieres of pieces by Boulez, Stockhausen and Ligeti; by the time he met Cage in 1988, he had been playing this music for decades. He is also known for his Haydn and Mozart, and to that end brings a considered, even classical approach to Cage’s work. The opening Dream of 1948 sets a tone of hypnotising reverie. By contrast, the chiming pieces for prepared piano, such as the buoyant The Unavailable Memory Of, are rhythmically repetitive; other works are a little more astringent and evoke Cage’s teacher Schoenberg and the ghost…

November 14, 2012
CD and Other Review

Review: Mouton: Tu Es Petrus (The Brabant Ensemble, Stephen Rice)

Jean Mouton (1459–1522) was a beneficed priest whose composing career developed slowly in provincial France until 1501, when he took a position in Grenoble. Spotted by Anne of Brittany, Mouton jumped ship to work in her chapel and subsequently that of her son-in-law Francis I. He was probably therefore in charge of the musical festivities when the latter monarch hosted Henry VIII on the famous Field of the Cloth of Gold. From these lofty heights he attracted the attention of the Medici Pope, Leo X and died a revered master and wealthy man at a respectable age. His most frequently recorded piece is the sublime Christmas antiphon, Nesciens Mater. The work has an instantly memorable main theme and an ingenious canonic structure, combining constraint with variety, to create one of the choral masterpieces of the 16th century. This disc, however, contains all of Mouton’s eight- part choral works in a veritable feast of polyphonic discoveries. The centrepiece is his Missa Tu es Petrus which demonstrates that while Mouton may be rhythmically uniform, “his melody flows in a supple thread,” as 16th-century music theorist Heinrich Glarean put it. Indeed, it is this tuneful quality that makes the program so beguiling – it’s…

September 19, 2012
CD and Other Review

Review: SCHUMANN Dichterliebe, Liederkreis (tenor: Werner Gura, piano: Jan Schultz)

The same is true, in a way, of great paintings, and of most Baroque and classical music. But there is something different about art song: while the works of the old masters now carry a patina of age, the stripped-back nature of the song-cycles means they have defied the years. On this recording, the words of the German poets Joseph von Eichendorff (Liederkreis) and Heinrich Heine (Dichterliebe) are brought to us with their freshness untouched by time. These compositions speak to us as a friend would in the most intimate conversation. Schumann’s songs of the joys of love and the anguish of unrequited yearnings are given a lucid and heartfelt reading by German tenor Werner Gura, who specialises in Lieder and oratorio. Although a tenor, he is reminiscent of the youthful Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau – this is a light voice, never strained, and with a flexible baritonal extension. His accompanist Jan Schultsz (who is also a horn-player and conductor) is supportive at all times, but very much the partner. Everyone has their favourites in this repertoire, but this one is a worthy rival for the most celebrated Lieder recordings. A recital for the ages.

January 12, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: Lettere Amorose (mezzo: Magdalena Kožená; Private Musicke/Pitzl)

Having already conquered Handel, Vivaldi and Bach on recent discs, Czech mezzo-soprano Magdalena Kožená is back in the Baroque yet again, but this time treading earlier and much less familiar ground. Lettere Amorose, her latest effort, is an esoteric and enchanting selection of vocal music by Monteverdi and his Italian contemporaries. These are songs, rather than arias: intimate and relatively simple in scope, and given luminous voice by Kožená. Rarities abound – nothing here could claim to be over-recorded – and Kožená revels palpably in the possibilities of this colourful and crucial musical era. From the tripping dance rhythms of Kapsberger’s Felici gl’animi, to Vitali’s silvery O bei lumi, to a vividly bereft rendition of Si dolce è il tormento (Monteverdi’s only appearance in the program), she is in superb form, remaining true to both the period and her own distinct, emotionally driven style. Another notable inclusion is Merula’s extraordinary (and extraordinarily long) lullaby Hor ch’é di dormire, in which Mary sings to the infant Jesus of his own crucifixion, accompanied by a ground bass of just two chords – a deceptively simple piece which Kožená sustains with devastating sincerity. Her opalescent timbre is well suited to this music, her…

January 12, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: Officium Novum (sop saxophone: Jan Garbarek; The Hilliard Ensemble)

Sadly I was forever turned off the soprano saxophone by smooth jazz superstar Kenny G. Not by his success – any instrumentalist who sells more than 75 million albums earns my awe, if not respect. No, it was his effortless frippery and shinily sugared tone that soundly nailed the coffin. Which brings me to that other soprano sax superstar, Jan Garbarek, and his latest pairing with The Hilliard Ensemble. On this, the second follow up to the phenomenally successfully 1994 collaboration Officium, they dovetail what they individually do best – liquefied saxophone improvisations and crisply sung early music – to create a gentle atmospheric fusion. The comparison that springs to mind is of a graffiti artist wandering through the Sistine Chapel and tagging at will. Don’t get me wrong – I’m all for breaking down genres. No, it’s the slack aesthetic and overall lack of purpose that I have a problem with. On the plus side, the recording itself is superb. Like the first two CDs, it was recorded in a richly reverberant Benedictine monastery in the Austrian mountains. Likewise, I cannot fault the technique and expressivity – they are, frankly, sublime. It’s just that overall the venture feels inconsequential.

January 12, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: Hear my Words: Choral Classics from St. John’s (Choir of St. John’s College, Cambridge/Nethsingha)

For many, the hot ticket item will be Allegri’s Miserere, which opens the disc. The old Kings College recording set the benchmark with impeccable boy solo work. So it is a pleasure to say that the St John’s boys are in top form. Worth noting is the difference in style between the two famous choirs. St John’s evince a more robust sound. Grieg is represented by Ave, maris stella, which is a bit dull. Pärt’s brisker, O virgin, Mother of God, is welcome, and Rachmaninov gives us an entirely different reading of the same text, steeped in deep-throated Russian orthodoxy. Palestrina, Parsons and Tallis remind us of the austere world of earlier church music. Following the beautiful piety of these early composers, and especially the perfumed sweetness of Franck’s Panis angelicus and Fauré’s exquisite Cantique de Jean Racine, it is a relief to get to the engaging heartiness of Stanford’s Jubilate Deo. Vaughan Williams, John Rutter and James MacMillan are represented by O taste and see, Oh Lord, thou hast searched me out, and A New Song, respectively. Appropriately, Parry’s Hear my words, ye people brings this attractive collection to an end with a vigorous show of Anglican robustness. At…

January 11, 2011