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Fri, 28 Jan 2005

Peerson, Latin Motets

Ex Cathedra Consort
Jeffrey Skidmore
LP, Hyperion

Martin Pearson lived between 1572 and 1651. Educated at Oxford, later a Sacrist at Westminster, and then Almoner and Master of the Choristers at St. Paul's Cathedral, this is the first time these pieces have been heard since the seventeenth century.

Unlike Byrd in the 1580's, there is no suggestion here that the pieces reflect an underground Catholicism. In fact they would have been appropriate, and legal, for performance at places like Westminster Abbey.

This is a very nice rendition of the pieces which were recorded in London at St. Paul's Church, New Southgate, at the end of January 2004. (Count K)

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Messa di Gloria

Pietro Mascagni, Messa di Gloria
LP, Warner Fonit

Pietro Mascagni lived between 1862 and 1945 and is chiefly known for his Cavalieri Rusticana. If you were to look at the dates and have a guess that this might be a Bel Canto mass, you would be correct... in a way.

Masagni was influenced by the writings of Peter Lichtenthal, a friend of Mozart's son Karl. His views about how a mass should be presented were rather puritan -- not too much decoration, and understandability a must for the words.

The result here is richer than one might suspect and perhaps not totally in keeping with his beliefs. It is an operatic sort of mass, and with its swirls of instuments and dynamic range, quite Romantic as well. (Count K)

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Mendelssohn, Dvorak

Mendelssohn: Trio No.1, Dvorak: Dumky Trio
Beaux Arts Trio
LP, Warner Classics

2004 celebrated half a century for the Beaux Arts Trio and, remarkably enough, one of it's members is an original member from 1954.

Here we have pieces by Mendelssohn and Dvorak played with a nice, light, but not too sugary, touch. These pieces were the first the trio recorded on ... was the vinyl LP record in by then? (Count K)

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Boccherini, Cello Concertos

Boccherini, Cello concertos vol. 3 Nos. 9 - 12
Northern Chamber Orchestra
Nicholas Ward, Raphael Wallfisch
LP, Naxos

Boccherini (1743-1805) came from a cultured Tuscan family of musicians and dancers. He was a child prodigy in Vienna when fifteen and from that time on led a busy life. He was in Paris at the time of Louis XIV and then Spain and Prussia, then Spain again where his patron was the French ambassodor, Lucien Bonaparte.

These works were only recently rediscovered and Manchester, UK's Northern Chamber Orchestra have done a very nice job of bringing them back to us. (Count K)

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Bach, Mass in B Minor

J.S. Bach, Mass in B Minor
The King's Consort
Robert King
2 CD's, Hyperion

Did I state my opinion that Bach is close to God? That will give you an idea of what is to come, but even without that, this is a very interesting piece of music.

Bach wrote this late in his long life, and in some ways it seems to be a demonstration of all he had learnt. It is a forceful, swirling work with both grandeur and delicacy. There is a small mystery however.

And that mystery relates to the fact that this is a Mass that could not have been performed in a Protestant Church because Luther had removed references to Christ's sacrifice from the liturgy and there are references to it in the B Minor Mass. The Mass also didn't follow the Roman Catholic way of proceeding so could not have been performed in a Catholic Church (which would have caused some ructions I imagine). In addition to that, the Mass is nearly two hours long and so, with the post reformation need of clergy to sermonise for hours, it would have been rather a large pill to swallow for an average Sunday.

What was Bach's motive in this? Academic opinion seems to like the idea that it was a "top this" statement by Bach but does that really chime with what we know of his character? Could it have been a statement, not only of his skill, but also an opinion on the liturgy as it then stood? Who knows? It is interesting to speculate though.

This is an absolutely magnificent work, perhaps Bach's finest, and this recording of the King's Consort by Hyperion is also very fine. (Count K)

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Sibelius String Quartets

Complete String Quartets
Jean Sibelius (1865-1957)
Sibelius Academy Quartet / New Helsinki Quartet

CD1
String Quartet in E flat (1885)
String Quartet in A minor (1889) 

CD2
String Quartet in B flat Op4 (1890)
String Quartet in D minor Op56 "Voces Intimae" (1909)

Recorded in Järvenpää Hall, December 1988 (E flat), Convent Church,
Naantali, October 1984 and November 1984 (a minor and B flat) and Sigyn
Hall, Turku, September 1997 (Op 56)

Finlandia Records1927-40872-2 [47.22] & [65.02]

Mention of String Quartets and Sibelius and most aficionados look knowing and mutter about "Voces Intimae" (assuming that they haven't got confused and start extolling the virtues of "Intimate Letters" - the similarly named string quartet by Janacek) but "Voces Intimae", although certainly Sibelius' most profound utterance in the String Quartet medium, was actually the culmination of a process of quartet writing that covered the composer's whole career. Finlandia records are gaining an enviable reputation for imaginative projects, but have here adopted a more traditional approach to the music of Finland's greatest. This production of the complete quartets does, however, throw the famous "Voces Intimae" into a new context by juxtaposition with Sibelius other three quartets.

Admittedly, these are all earlier works dating from the three main periods of Sibelius student career. However, one has to take issue with the booklet note, which describes these works as "youthful" and comments that the composition of the Kullervo Symphony of 1891 "marked the beginning of his (Sibelius') true career as a composer". This comment implies that, although the Kullervo Symphony is indeed usually considered the starting point of Sibelius' international reputation, there is something of the nature of juvenilia about the first three quartets. This is far from the case.

The E flat quartet was written when Sibelius was 20 and before he moved to Helsinki from his childhood home of Hämeenlinna. The town had an active musical life in which Sibelius and his siblings played an active part in the performance of chamber music. The quartet undoubtedly shows this influence in being essentially cast in a Viennese mould, especially reminiscent of Haydn. However in the scale of the work (the first movement alone being nearly 10 minutes long) and in the, often, idiosyncratic harmonic touches, we see the beginnings of that individuality which makes the later Sibelius so instantly recognisable. The E flat quartet is imbued throughout with youthful vigour and sunlight - a glitteringly charming piece of quartet writing that deserves to be much better known, and certainly gives the lie to the oft-repeated comments about Sibelius being a slow developer.

The a minor quartet of 1889 is an even larger work, the proportions of the movements, one to another, having the beginnings of a symphonic relationship. Even the third movement scherzo is five and half minutes long. While still in an essentially classical idiom the individual sound of Sibelius' musical world is beginning to show clearly in this work. By the following year (1890) when the B flat quartet was completed Sibelius was handling the technique of string quartet composition with a mastery that belies the fact that he was still only 25. Here is a masterpiece of the repertoire and this was the first of the quartets to which Sibelius attached an opus number.

The performances of these three early quartets by the Sibelius Academy Quartet are thoughtful and take the music on its own merits, which are considerable. Given that the recordings were actually made in 1988 they are not showing undue signs of age. The balance between the players is excellent, avoiding any undue domination by the first violin which, it must be admitted, carries an important role in musical material in all of these works - Sibelius himself long dreamed of being a virtuoso violinist and only turned fully to composition on belatedly realising that this ambition was not to be fulfilled - and Sibelius handling of violin writing was always not only assured by full of the confidence of the performer/composer.

A more modern recording, made in 1997, features for the performance of the famous Opus 56 quartet "Voces Intimae" written in 1909 and here performed by the New Helsinki Quartet. This is another group of Finns with the music of Sibelius flowing through their veins. The recorded sound is splendid and captures not only the luminosity of the quartet sound but also gives due gravitas and richness to the lower registers of all the instruments. "Voces Intimae" is a weighty and serious work, straddling the transitional phase between the romanticism of the third Symphony and the more taut internally rich classicism of the forth Symphony. In this it has an important place as not only the sole work of chamber music from Sibelius mature period, but also as a precursor of the stylistic change that occurred between the third and forth symphonies. It is not, however, without its lighter moments - witness the scherzo second movement, organically linked to the more elegiac opening movement, or the virtually continuous accelerando of the finale, with a nearly unbroken moto perpetuo of semiquavers. Sibelius manages to mould these features with a strong sense of organic growth - movements are linked through motifs and themes but these never appear as identical mottoes or signature tunes - and the New Helsinki Quartet understand the importance of the long-term view in this music. This underlines the sense of growth and almost continuous process of development that becomes such a feature of Sibelius later symphonic writing. All of this is encapsulated here in what must be regarded as one of the masterworks of the twentieth century quartet repertoire.

(c) 2005 Peter Wells

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Matsudaira

Yoritsune Matsudaira (1907-2001)
Bugaku Dance Suite

Theme and Variations for Piano and Orchestra (1951)
Danza Rituale e Finale (Enbou) (1959)
Sa-Mai (1958)
U-Mai (1957)
Danza Rituale e Finale (Chogeishi) (1959)

Recorded in Century Orchestra House, Osaka, Japan, 29 July - 2 August 2001.
Ichiro Nodaira, Piano; Osaka Century Orchestra conducted by Ken Takaseki
NAXOS 8.555882

Naxos has been producing several national classics series in recent years and their Japanese Classics has produced some very interesting releases (See, for example, separate review of Qunihico Hashimoto (1904-1949) Symphony No1 in D and Symphonic Suite 'Heavenly Maiden and Fisherman' NAXOS 8.555881). This release of music from the 1950s by Yoritsune Matsudaira brings a name that will probably be unfamiliar to most western listeners to the fore. Matsudaira, who only died in 2001, was a progressive in the blending of traditional Japanese court music (Gagaku) with western symphonic structures and sounds. Whereas many of his contemporaries adopted at first a strongly western approach (Hashimoto - q.v.) and then moved to a more rigorously Japanese sound world (most later Takemitsu), Matsudaira, was from a fairly early time, experimenting with the combination of the western avant garde (as represented by figures such as Stockhausen and Boulez) with traditional Japanese forms of dance music and suite structures.

Of the works presented on this disc the most approachable, and certainly the most enjoyable from the listener's perspective, is the Theme and Variations for Piano and Orchestra from 1951. Ichiro Nodaira is a stylish exponent of this virtuoso music, revelling in the almost jazz-like flow of the piano figuration. The Osaka Century Orchestra play with crisp accuracy although one can suggest that Ken Takaseki could have made much more of the range of colours and textures than he does. The percussion (of which Matsudaira makes very considerable - indeed arguably excessive - use) is too unvaried and soon takes on an aspect of monotony that the rest of the music does not share. There are moments of relief, the great climax in the middle of the last variation, for example, but even this is followed straight away by a return to exactly the same percussion timbre and balance. Overall, the work is impressive and grand, although the surprisingly restrained and quiet ending, with a tiny right hand arpeggio, pianissimo, is unexpected and perhaps a little disappointing, if beautifully handled by the pianist.

The later works that fill the rest of the disc suffer much more than the Variations in sounding dated. The 1950s were possibly an exciting time to be a composer, but 50 years on, most of the music written then holds minimal appeal to the listening public. Danza Rituale e Finale (Enbou) from 1959 comes across as the average listener's perception (or perhaps generalisation) of modern music; viz. unstructured melodic fragments, surrounded by a lot of random crashing and banging. Basically for two flutes which alternate in improvisatory style, with percussion which punctuates the fragments, the work is made of 22 fragments, mostly as short as 11-15 seconds. These are adjusted serially - showing strong Stockhausen/Boulez influence. Unfortunately the result on cd comes across as random waffle, being unable to capture the dramatic sense that could be achieved in live, carefully staged, performance.

Even more regrettable is the fact that it becomes impossible to tell where Danza Rituale e Finale (Enbou) has finished and the following work, Sa-Mai (1958) has begun, because they exist in exactly the same sound world. Unfortunately, where Danza Rituale e Finale (Enbou) is 6'40" long Sa-Mai ploughs on without change or apparent variation for fully 21 minutes and is followed by 14 minutes of U-Mai (1957) which also sounds exactly the same - small fragments of wind melody punctuated by short bangs and crashes on a couple of dry drums. The only apparent addition is a cymbal and a gong doing much the same thing as the drums. There remains no discernable change in tempo and very little change in dynamic and the serial changes in the structure are not discernable without prior careful study of the score. Frankly it all gets monotonous and is not an easy or particularly enjoyable listen.

These works may have merit on their own and any one of them included in a disc could have been interesting, even though they will always give the listener a serious challenge - no bad thing in itself. However, the juxtaposition of so many works that occupy essentially the same type of soundscape is pushing the bounds of being realistic in considering what the domestic listener is able to tolerate. One finds it very hard to imagine a situation where anybody is likely to sit down and listen to this disc without reaching for the remote control, either to skip large chunks or switch to the radio. Not a recommendable release - save your fiver.

(c) Peter Wells 2005

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Faure songs

Au bord de l'eau
Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924) - Complete Songs Volume 1

Christopher Maltman; Jennifer Smith; John Mark Ainsley; Geraldine
McGreevy; Stella Doufexis; Felicity Lott; Stephen Varcoe and Graham
Johnson (piano)

Recorded on various dates in 2002, 2003 and 2004
Hyperion CDA67333

Hyperion really seems to be able to do no wrong of late. It is beginning to get embarrassing reviewing yet another excellent release from this label. However, it is all their own work and no brown envelopes change hands. This label, or in the case of so many of the song discs from Hyperion, Graham Johnson, thinks through the project in detail before attempting to record anything. The result so often shows how this pays off - Hyperion are a master class to the major labels in showing how a series or single disc should be approached to maximise its appeal without any risk of "dumbing down" in classical music. All the talk one hears of disaster in classical cd sales seems like so much tosh when faced with a disc like this; these French songs simply cry out to be owned by any listener with an ounce of sensitivity.

French song has always been something of a specialist area, if only because it has not had the exposure of German lieder and presents a language problem to English speaking audiences. However, the latter argument is as relevant to German lieder as it is to French song and the importance of music as an art form that transcends boundaries of national self-interest or even language is apparent in the sheer delight to be had from these songs on a purely musical basis, without attempting to even understand the words. Fauré's success in England during his own lifetime shows this to be the case. That his popularity is perhaps not as wide in England now (the Requiem excepted) is unfortunate.

An understanding of the words however, does lead one to a higher level of appreciation. Fauré wrote songs throughout his career and this first volume of the complete songs takes an imaginatively structured approach. As Graham Johnson points out in his, as ever, elegant booklet notes, the programme adopts a loosely chronological order while all of the songs are focused on Water and its natures. The disc takes its name from the sultry opus 8 no 1 song Au bord de l'eau ("At the water's edge") - here beautifully sung by the inimitable Dame Felicity Lott. It is indeed interesting to note the line-up of singers. Clearly many of the 'big names' of English song are represented on this disc, but while Felicity Lott is well-known as an exponent of French song it is interesting to hear how singers more frequently associated with the English repertoire fare - especially John Mark Ainsley, one of the most quintessentially English of tenors, who finds new reserves of Gallic richness of tone in the charming Opus 7 no 3 Barcarolle and the somewhat austere Opus 51 Au cimetiŹre, wherein he conjures up a beautiful combination of purity of tone, tempered by warmth of colour.

Throughout the recording there is continuous variety. As Johnson points out, with this issue the Hyperion French Song Series moves into the mainstream, the other luminaries of which are Debussy, Ravel and Poulenc. This range of contrast with which Fauré was capable of composing is seen juxtaposed in the Opus 51 Larmes in which Christopher Maltman is able to give full scope to a powerful baritone sound, and the frothy exuberance of the Op 58 Verlaine texts set as the Cinq mélodies "de Venise" wherein Felicity Lott and Graham Johnson conjure up the most delectably camp joie de vivre, especially in the opening Mandoline. It is odd that here Johnson makes an uncharacteristic error in his notes, describing the charming cover illustration of the original print (reproduced in the booklet) as showing a gondola on the lagoon in front of the San Marco basilica, while the picture clearly shows Palladio's famous Venetian church of San Giorgio Maggiore, on the other side of the water facing San Marco. A surprising slip up. Otherwise the notes form a solid and thoroughly informative introduction to the music - a substantial booklet of 37 pages, well illustrated and including full texts and translations of all the songs. Put quite simply, this is how such a disc should be done and one has to look forward to the three further discs that will complete this intégrale of Fauré's wonderful songs.

Peter Wells

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