Mstation Classical Reviews

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Fri, 29 Apr 2005

Monteverdi, Vivaldi, Handel

Sara Mingardo with Concerto Italiano directed by Rinaldo 
Alessandrini With Monica Bacelli (mezzosoprano)

Tarquinio Merula (c.1595-1665)	Hor ch'e tempo di morire
Giovanni Salvatore (1600-c.1688)	Allor che Tirsi udia
Giacomo Carissimi (1605-1674)	Deh, memoria, e che piu chiedi
Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643)	Vorrei baciarti
Francesco Cavalli (1602-1676)	Erme e solighe cime
Claudio Monteverdi			Se i languidi miei sguardi
Giovanni Legrenzi (1626-1690)	Costei ch'in mezzo al volto 
                                scritt'ha il mio cor
Georg Frideric Handel (1685-1759)	Lungi da me pensier tiranno
Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741)		Pianti, sospiri e dimandar mercede

Recorded in the Sala Accademica del PIMS, Rome, Italy in January 2004
NAIVE OPUS111 OP 30395 [71.37]

A pretty standard recital programme of Italian 17th and 18th century music accompanied by a highly polished small band of period instruments. So what's unusual about it? Legrenzi, Cavalli, Monteverdi, and the ubiquitous bit of Vivaldi. Nothing strange there. The striking thing about this recital is that it is sung by a woman. Early music may be full of famous pure-voiced women, but this programme is the repertoire of the countertenor, a voice that has become so ubiquitous as to be almost the defining characteristic of the "period instrument" school of performance. Sara Mingardo, however, is one of the very few true contraltos around these days and is reclaiming this repertoire from the Andreas Scholls, Robin Blazes and Rene Jacobses of the early music world.

So does it work? Well, given that the texts being sung are all in Italian and of that manner of fairly execrable baroque love poetry of the "I die, I die, Amantis and Thyrsis in the meadows, Oh, love I am wounded by your dart" kind, an assessment can be made purely on the instrumental sound of Mingardo's voice. In which case the result is superlative. The reason Andreas Scholl became so popular was that he is a countertenor who avoids the grating or the hooty that afflicts that voice-type so readily. None of that in Mingardo who has real warmth and colour across her whole vocal range and a low register that is almost tenor-esque, with no apparent loss of control or power. Quite incredible really, and very much putting one in mind of the vocal quality of Kathleen Ferrier, but without the lack of control that singers explain away as being bel canto.

Interesting repertoire throughout, with a particularly arresting opening track in which Merula weaves a good six minutes of gorgeous melody over a bass line that constantly repeats just two rising notes. This is positively hypnotic minimalism, and Mingardo wrings every drop of passion out of it. The one duet track, Vorrei baciarti by Monteverdi, with the mezzo Monica Bacelli provides a welcome variation in the texture, as does the superb violin playing of Concerto Italiano, judiciously used in a couple of tracks. One wonders slightly about the decision to add the cantatas by Handel and Vivaldi as the last 20 minutes. These are both fine works and show off Mingardo's ability with later Baroque repertoire, but the contrast of styles between the 17th and 18th centuries is not inconsiderable. From a programming point of view, there was a lot to be said for making the whole disc a collection of 17th century music. Certainly, anybody hearing this and then being given the opportunity to buy a follow-up disc of 18th century cantatas would be foolish to pass on the opportunity. Further, the 18th century repertoire is so vast and interesting that the inclusion of only two works does not scratch the surface. One would love to hear Mingardo in a disc of more Vivaldi, but paired with his contemporaries rather than his precursors. Vivaldi and Scarlatti make a disc on their own. Handel demands a disc of his own and this would be wonderful given performances like that here. The chosen format gives a bit the feel of a sampler disc, which was probably not the intended impression.

Nonetheless, if you have not yet heard Sara Mingardo in early Italian repertoire now is your chance, and there is a strong recommendation to be made. Her voice reminds us of just how much we have begun to miss from the demise of the contralto voice.

(c) 2005 Peter Wells

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Lux Aeterna
Music by Morten Lauridsen (b.1943)
The Britten Sinfonia
Conducted by Stephen Layton

Lux Aeterna (1997) [26.33]
	Introitus [6.36]
	In te, Domine, speravi [4.13]
	O nata lux [3.39]
	Veni, Sancte Spiritus [2.20]
	Agnus Dei Š Lux Aeterna [9.33]
Madrigali (1987) Six Ōfire songsÕ on Italian Renaissance poems [19.36]
	OvÕ¸, LassÕ, il bel viso [2,41]
	Quando son pi¯ lontan [4.13]
	Amor, io sento lÕalma [1.48]
	Io piango [3.24]
	Luci serene e chiare [2.44]
	Se per Havervi, oime [4.12]
Ave Maria (1997) [6.38]
Ubi caritas et amor (1999) [6.57]
O magnum mysterium (1994) [6.40]

Recorded in The Temple Church, London on 31 July and 1 August 2003 and in St Jude-on-the-hill, Hampstead, London on 3 April 2004 (Tracks 1-5, Lux Aeterna) Hyperion CDA67449 [66.45]

The notes that accompany this disc of choral music by the American composer Morten Lauridsen describe the music at various times as follows: "...sonorously beautiful and immaculately crafted..." "...Imbued with a pervasive sincerity..." "...true to an inimitable inner singing..." "...preternatural sensitivity to textual nuance..." "...suffused with warmth and consolation..." "sensuous and spare..." and so it goes on. This is the best way of summing up this music, which aims for the popular "spiritual" appeal of Taverner or Paert, mixed with the listener-friendly aspect of Rutter.

Much is made of the melodic beauty that is central to Lauridsen's music, and all the lines are well crafted and, indeed, beautiful. Lauridsen can be seen as the epitome of the post-post-modernist rejection of all things modern. This music is filled with echoes of the past. Lauridsen himself has made much of his immersion in the music of the renaissance, and of plainchant, both of which contribute heavily to his style. There is also much of the sound-word of Faure, and the booklet notes even draw a direct comparison between Lauridsen's Lux Aeterna and Faure's Requiem as being "suffused by warmth and consolation". Bits of this work also sound as if they are about to become Nimrod from Elgar's Enigma Variations but that great peroration never quite comes. Essentially, Lux Aeterna sounds most like film music; particularly the sound track to any of those American "feelgood" films about people, preferably families, overcoming personal tragedy to triumph through their inner strength. The trouble is, the style is generic and fits any of these scenarios without really showing very much of itself. The notes claim that the music is never pastiche, but this somewhat disingenuous as there is undoubtedly a considerable aspect of pastiche in such conscious avoidance of the musical developments of the last 50 or 60 years, to write music redolent of the romantic era more than of the era in which the music was created.

The other works are for unaccompanied chorus, whereas Lux Aeterna is for chorus and orchestra. The six madrigali are undoubtedly more interesting works than Lux Aeterna as they make much greater play with contrast and with rhythmic variety. The performance of Stephen Layton's group Polyphony is as good here as it is anywhere; a confident sound in all dynamics, and with immaculate control over the nuances of shading and movement. Polyphony is not a large group, being 25 singers in these madrigali, but each voice is able to contribute fully. These are the cream of the young professional choral singers of London, and Layton can make them do anything.

The disc concludes with Latin motets from the mid/late 1990s. In Ave Maria Lauridsen employs a lush eight-part texture and Polyphony rise easily to the challenge of the music's complexities. However, the soundscape is essentially that of Lux Aeterna again, and while it is constantly beautiful, it is not terribly memorable and easily moves towards the borders of the saccharine. Ubi caritas draws immediate comparison with the well-known setting of the same words by Durufle, and makes similar use of the plainsong, opening with an unadorned verse of plainsong, which makes for a pleasing variation of texture away from Lauridsen's usual lushness. In the rest of the motet he manipulates the plainsong melody in contrapuntal elaborations. There is more variety of texture and tempo than elsewhere and the result is highly successful. O magnum mysterium was written just before Lux Aeterna and again inhabits those slightly sugary realms that have been already noted. Beautifully sung though...

(c) 2005 Peter Wells

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Elgar, Marches

Edward Elgar (1857-1934) Marches 
Pomp and Circumstance; Polonia; Caractacus and others 

Coronation March Op.65 [10.37]
Funeral March (from Grania and Diarmid Op.42) [10.21]
Pomp and Circumstance Marches Op.39
	No 1 [6.13]
	No 2 [5.08]
	No 3 [5.48]
	No 4 [5.14]
	No 5 [6.16]
March from Caractacus Op.35 [7.06]
March from the Mogul Emperors Op.66 No.4 [3.50]
Empire March [4.17]
Polonia, Symphonic Prelude Op.76 [14.25]

The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by James Judd

Recorded in The Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington, New Zealand 
on 7, 8 and 10 February 2003
NAXOS 8.557273 [79.16]

You either love Elgar or hate him; nobody ever seems to have an attitude of ambivalence towards him or his magisterially imperialistic music. The overriding Edwardian confidence doesn't always sit easily with our own, less sure, times. This recording presents the Marches that Elgar wrote, either as freestanding works or as an incidental part of other works. The Pomp and Circumstance Marches are, of course, amongst Elgar's best-known works and the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra under James Judd relish every note of the famous "big tunes". There must be a degree of confidence in the performance of this music to make it sound right - anything even vaguely timid will reduce the grandeur to absurdity. This is never apparent in these performances as can be heard in the reprise of the trio in the first March. The famous tune (which Elgar himself described as 'a tune that will knock 'em flat', is preceded by a large pulling up of the tempo and a pause that is fractionally longer than the listener expects. The fortissimo statement of the tune that follows this delay has all the greater impact for it. The other truly great tune is that in the fourth march. Here Judd employs all the restraint possible until the very end. Frequently one hears these march tunes with a chuntering accompaniment of repeated notes being far too prominent. Judd is well aware of the need to balance his orchestral forces at all times and the result gives a greater sense of profundity to these works than is often the case.

The other works are not so well-known although, again, there is no lack of depth in the writing. The Coronation March Op.65, with which the disc opens, begins in surprisingly restrained fashion and is worked out on a large scale. As in the Pomp and Circumstance works the balance of the various orchestral sections is excellent and the overall sound of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra is admirable. There is pleasing warmth in the string sound with excellent intonation throughout. Woodwinds are clear and the brass grand without ever becoming too dominant. The tremendous opening of the March from Caractacus shows this section well. Great solidity in the trumpets' opening fanfare figures has all the grandeur that this noble march requires, and is seen in contrast to the virtuosity of the horns in the rapid figures of the first theme that follows. It is a model of control and shows how much valuable work James Judd has been doing with this band in the six or so years since he became their first ever Music Director.

The final track adds a touch of extra gravitas to the programme. The symphonic prelude Polonia Op.76 at nearly 15 minutes long is more akin to Elgar's collection of overtures such as "In the South" than to the marches themselves. Here symphonic construction takes over from the more clearly defined march and trio structures common in the other works. It provides a suitably substantial ending to a programme that otherwise could run the risk of sameness.

If you don't like Elgar, these fine performances probably won't make much impression on you. If you do, this is a disc worth adding to the collection. The Pomp and Circumstance Marches are presented in performances as good as you will hear anywhere else, thoughtfully controlled and not just blasted with bombast, but the other works are really where the interest lies more. These show Elgar as a deeper exponent of the march form than most other composers and the performances are undeniably excellent throughout.

(c) 2005 Peter Wells

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Bax, Baroque

Baroque Reflections
Alessio Bax - Piano

Bach trans. Busoni	Toccata and Fugue in D minor BWV565
A. Marcello arr. Bach	Concerto in D minor BWV974
Bach trans Siloti	Prelude in B minor BWV855
Bach trans Hess	Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring BWV147
Gluck arr Sgambati	Melodie from Orfeo ed Euridice
Liszt			Sarabande and Chaconne from Handel's Almire
Rachmaninov		Suite from the Partita in E BWV1006 by Bach
Rachmaninov		Variations on a theme of Corelli Op.42

Recorded in The Maltings, Snape, England in May 2004
WARNER CLASSICS 2564 61695-2

Alessio Bax came to prominence by winning the Leeds International Piano competition in 2000 and seems to have been having a busy career ever since. This is his first recording for Warner Classics, although not his first CD by any means, having previously recorded the Brahms first and Beethoven third piano concerti and two piano works by Ligeti, amongst other things. Choosing a recital programme of baroque transcriptions and arrangements may seem a somewhat daring thing for a young virtuoso in his first recital disc for a major label and, indeed, the result is a bit of a curate's egg; parts of it are indeed excellent - the limpid phrasing and beautifully controlled sound of the slow movement of the Marcello/Bach concerto for example. At other times, young man's exuberance rather takes over - as in the peculiar stabbing gestures in the opening of the first movement of that same concerto or the overblown attempt at organ-esque levels of fortissimo in the D minor toccata and fugue.

Most of the repertoire here is fairly standard stuff for this type of programme, some of it better than others. The Busoni transcription of the D minor toccata and fugue mentioned above must fall into the latter category. Compared to Bach's Organ original or Stokowski's mighty orchestration the piano version struggles to maintain the long lines and held chordal structures and always produces a less-than-satisfying result, no matter how virtuosic the performer. In this case it was an unfortunate choice for the opening track. Similarly, one can live without Myra Hess's essentially bland transcription of Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring, a work which relies entirely on the variation of timbre between the melody and its accompaniment, as Bach so often did in his chorale preludes, or in the chorale elaborations in the cantatas. The uniform timbre of the piano does not suit.

Elsewhere there are many moments to enjoy. Bax has a reputation as a 'young virtuoso' but is at his best in this disc when exhibiting the delicate side of his playing. The slow movement of the Marcello concerto mentioned above is one such example, and he keeps this delicacy in a beautifully controlled fast third movement too. The big Liszt and Rachmaninov works at the end of the disc (much more compositions based on baroque models than just transcriptions) are most successful. The Liszt Sarabande and Chaconne based on Handel is a less often heard work, but none the worse for it. Liszt's obvious admiration for Handel is apparent, and his command of piano writing shines through all the time. Again, the contrast between Bax's rather over heavy forte and his superb pianissimo sound is apparent in the exchanges of the opening. All of the virtuoso passages are carried off with aplomb and the recorded sound is generally good, although it does favour the quieter moments.

This is an interesting disc with much to enjoy, if you don't mind the occasional thump and bang and can get over the rather pretentious cover photo of Alessio in "pretty-boy" format in a corn field. Why a corn field? I don't know either. (c) 2005 Peter Wells

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