Mstation Classical Reviews

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Mon, 29 Aug 2005

Stainer, The Crucifiction

Sir John Stainer, The Crucifiction
James Gichrist, Simon Bailey
Choir of Clare College, Cambridge
Timothy Brown
2 CDs, Naxos

The second CD included with this is actually a bonus CD in relation to Naxos's recently celebrated eighteenth birthday. It is entitled English Choral Classics and includes the likes of Finzi, Elgar, Britten, Berkeley, Vaughn-Williams, Walton, and Taverner.

The main CD is Stainer's most well-known work and is still regularly performed. Stainer's objective was to write music that was able to be performed by an average village choir and so simplicity is one of his hallmarks. He managed to convey pomp and majesty by forceful passages intermingled with radical volume shifts. Power, this piece certainly has and it is also a child of its time in it's use of dynamics. Whether it is likable or not will depend on your own musical prejudices -- and perhaps even your religious ones if you are given to such things. The general lack of delicacy will cause dislike for some, and the dynamics can seem rather hectoring. This might be what one would expect of a Victorian but still, there is little doubt that a performance reverberating through a large cathedral could be quite moving. (Count K)

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Monteverdi, Poppea

Claudio Monteverdi, L'incoronazione di Poppea
Deneder Ladse Opera
Les Talons Lyriques
recorded for TV, Amsterdam, 1994
2 DVD's, Opus Arte

In what way is Monteverdi like Wagner? Not many actually, but this prologue and three acts covers most of 2 DVD's so occasional huge length is a similiarity. In this opera Monteverdi explores the sheer nastiness of Poppea from the days of the Emperor Nero with some grit. There are no happy endings and the good do not triumph. You can, of course, completely miss all that by just taking the music as it comes. Some idea of the background to Monteverdi's thoughts can be judged from reading Jacob Burckhardt's famous book called The Civilisation of the Renaissance in Italy. In it you will learn that the warring city-states that made up Italy were mostly ruled by tyranical despots who killed off each other and their subjects with glee and regularity -- nice arts, an uncertain foundation for the concept of individualism, and thoroughly nasty everything else.

I was talking to my colleague, Peter Wells, about this, and it turns out theat he may have seen a performance from this series in Amsterdam. He commented on the effective, though modern, staging and the quality of the performance. All this is evident on these DVD's. The staging is striking and the performances are excellent although, as usual, I quibble with what happens with compression and the high registers of voice. Not that's it's horrible -- it just subtracts a little. (Count K)

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various, The Golden Age of Light Music
Mantovani - By Special Request - Vol 2
compiled by David Ades
restored by Alan Bunting
LP, Guild distributed in the UK by Priory

This is music from Mantovani from between 1940 and 1951. Mantovani was an orchestra leader who created soft, syrupy, versions of whatever took his fancy. He was almost a precursor of musac or elevator music. As such he was roundly disliked by all those who had academic leanings in their music or those who wanted things to be "real".

Listening to this sort of thing now, it has a certain kitsch charm. It is music to talk over or eat to or just set a background scene of pleasant, slightly old-fashioned, optimism. Optimism itself seems quaintly old-fashioned at this very moment so anything that boosts it seems quite a good thing. There is also a Volume 1 of this. (Count K)

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Lully, Comedies-ballets, Phaeton

Jean Baptiste Lully, Les Comedies-ballets, Phaeton
Les Musiciens du Louvre
Marc Minkowski
recorded by Radio France, 1987
2 CDs, Apex

One might picture Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632 - 1687) in the court of Louis XIV as being a raised-eyebrow kind of guy with effete mannerisms and a complete sense of humour bypass. As it happens this is untrue and he was well known for being a practical joker. On one occasion at Versailles a Duchess was lamenting that what the view from a particular window required was a statue ... right there. The next day she looked out the window to discover, to her complete amazement, that a statue had appeared there. She went outside to examine it and discovered it to be Jean-Baptiste on a plynth, playing an instrument.

On the first CD is a collection od Comedies-ballets. These are spirited and fun and I'd love to see some on DVD where the super-stylised baroque dance could be enjoyed to the fullest. The second CD has the French opera, Phaeton. It was first performed at Versailles in 1683 with a libretto by Phillipe Quinault.

Both CDs are excellent, and being for Warner's cut price label, Apex, are good value for money as well. (Mr Monsieur)

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Marc-Antoine Charpentier, Motet a double choer
The Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra
Ton Koopman
2 CDs, Apex

If you see the dates of Charpentier's life (1643 - 1704) you also see that he was around at the time of Louis XIV and this might lead you to suspect that there might be a little bit of majesty in what he did. And so there is.

These works are all for double choir which Charpentier studied while he was in Venice and Rome. Double choir doesn't necessarily mean a huge choir as it was common at the time to have choirs which consisted of one voice for each range. The idea was to have contrasts which were frequently highlighted by the two choirs being in different places -- galleries in a cathedral for example.

Some of these works are sacred and others have to do with the likes of celebrating a victory over the Netherlands. As it happens all of these motets are performed by the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra and very nice performances they are too. People unfamiliar with Early Music might not realise that the Netherlands is one of the great homes to this music. The University of Utrecht, for example, is one of the world's foremost places to study this kind of thing. (Count K)

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Chanticleer, Sound in Spirit

LP, Warners

Some people will gasp in admiration at these vocal ululations based on the idea of ancient chants and others will gasp in other ways. The idea is that the ancients knew a thing or two about making and sustaining moods and even states of health by the use of vocal music. The idea is also that we know a bit more and these "experimental" pieces seek to take you to a land of meditative well-being.

Perhaps. The first thing I found was that with quite a large dynamic range and some very quiet passages, I was continually having to reset the volume. Obviously the producers made the heroic assumption that their work would be listened to in quiet places. In any case continual volume resetting did not engender a zen state or any other state approaching calmness.

What it really is, is a series of vocal soundscapes that are actually quite well executed. If that is your thing, you should check it out. (Count K)

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Bach, Barenboim

J.S. Bach, The Well-Tempered Clavier Book 2
Daniel Barenboim
3 CD's, Warners

While Bach says this whole series is for Clavier, which means keyboard rather than a specific keyboard instrument, it is well known that he rather liked the clavichord and so purists might be tempted to not consider a piano rendition just because the piano sound is rather obvious and in some hands rather soulless.

Daniel Barenboim has made a good fist of this though. The combination of touch, the piano itself, and the recording give us delicacy and subtlety. It is a very skilled performance. People who know this work very well (how many of them could there possibly be?) might quibble with some parts of the interpretation. I say this not because I am an expert on interpretations of this work but because Barenboim's stated opinion on interpretation is quite free. (Count K)

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Arias, Hampson, Harnoncourt

Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert
Thomas Hampson
Concentus musicus Wein
Nikolas Harnoncourt
LP, Warners

I'm not normally a great fan of collections of little bits from other things. It always seems like dumbing down writ large. There is one quite good excuse though and that is for playing in automobiles. A full opera will almost never be got through in the normal course of daily drives so it makes sense to have an assortment. I remember this from my father who did just that, pootling around in a large Land Rover, swaddled in the smell of leather and cigar and dog, and occasionally breaking forth in great, thankfully short, bursts of operatic accompaniment.

There is a nice selection here with the overall mood being one of pleasing majesty rather than buffo running around. The notes are excellent and there is even a libretto.

I recommend it to your CD changer.

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The Grand Organ of The Royal Albert Hall

First Recording of the Restored Organ

Franz LISZT (1811-1886)

Fantasia and fugue on “Ad nos, ad salutarem undam” [28.11]

Franz LISZT arr. Lionel Rogg 

St Francis of Paola walking on the waves [10.26]

Herbert HOWELLS (1892-1983)

Rhapsody No 3 in C sharp minor [7.12]

Sir Hubert PARRY (1848-1918)

Toccata and Fugue (“The Wanderer”) [13.53]

John COOK (1918-1984)

Fanfare [4.26]

Sir Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)

Nimrod [4.07]

Sir Edward ELGAR 

Pomp and Circumstance March No 1 in D [3.32]

Marcel LANQUETUIT (1894-1985)

Toccata in D major [5.01]

Dame Gillian Weir

rec Nov 2004, The Royal Albert Hall, London, United Kingdom


The organ in the Royal Albert Hall, the biggest in Great Britain and, at the time of its building in the 1870s, the biggest in the world, has been a British Institution for well over a century. Not all of this time has it been regarded favourably by the musical establishment. An instrument of such vast size is always difficult and expensive to maintain, and undoubtedly suffered from having less attention and money lavished on its upkeep than would have been ideal. For many years in recent decades it has been best known amongst organ aficionados for the vast quantities of air that leaked out of it before going anywhere near a pipe – huge swathes were silent for years and the full power of the organ could never be used. The recent major refurbishment and upgrade of the Royal Albert Hall has finally given reason and incentive to get the organ back into top condition. The work has been carried out by the famous London organ-building firm of Noel Mander and Co over a two year period and at a cost of more than £1.5M. This Priory disc is the first recorded results of that restoration.

There could not really have been any other choice than Dame Gillian Weir to make such a recording. She has been intimately associated with this organ for the whole of her career, being launched to prominence by stepping in at short notice to play the Poulenc organ concerto for a televised first Night of the Proms soon after she arrived at the Royal College of Music across the road, and has been the world’s most famous organist just about ever since. Her playing here has all the virtuosity and command that is to be expected of somebody so firmly at the top of their particular tree. Flair and style come naturally to Dame Gillian and the programme she has chosen to record (while in many respects odd) gives ample scope to these attributes.

All of the music dates from the period of the organ itself, so there is no Bach, which could be viewed as an unforgivable omission from any disc of organ music. On the other hand, the organ in the Royal Albert Hall does not do Bach well – the whole tonal scheme is wrong for the master’s music. This instrument was always intended to be as much a one-man orchestra as it was to be an organ and Dame Gillian’s programme has a heavy concentration on late 19th/early 20th century “orchestral” organ music with a few well-known bonbons thrown in for good measure. Most of the choices, other than the lollipops, are pretty well unknown. Certainly the Fantasia and fugue on “Ad nos, ad salutarem undam”  by Liszt, at 28 minutes and 11 seconds long is unlikely to be on most people’s top 20 listening lists. The Toccata and Fugue by Parry (the name “The Wanderer” is apparently given after the name of the composer’s yacht, but why is unknown) at nearly 15 minutes is equally dense and could not be described as “user friendly”. Both of these huge works show off the resources of the organ well – ranging as they do from the softest pianissimos to conclusions in organo pleno with the famous trumpet and pedal reed stops of the Albert Hall organ really powering forth in a blaze of noise.

There are two problems. Firstly, the music does all tend to sound rather the same. By the end of the middle third of the Parry it is hard to remember whether or not we are still listening to one of the long quiet bits of the Liszt/Rogg transcription of St Francis of Paola walking on the waves. A re-ordering of the programme to avoid all the substantial works at the beginning and all the lighter or better-known works at the end would have considerably improved the appeal of this disc to the non-specialist. Dame Gillian is right to have stuck out for a programme of serious music that shows the organ’s capabilities to the full, but this ordering makes heavy going of it for all but organ buffs. There is nearly a solid hour of heavy, largely Germanic romantic music before any relief in the form of John Cook’s jaunty Fanfare of 1954. The two pieces of Elgar are as well known as any organ arrangements, but their juxtaposition in the programme is unaccountable. Additionally, in the long lines of Nimrod that Dame Gillian sounds a bit tired. The big swell at the end, doesn’t really surge into a breaking wave and the sound of the tutti tune is rather harsh. The same must be said of the “big tune” in the Pomp and Circumstance March No 1. This sounds too lacking in chorus and too depended on reeds. The tonal quality is somewhat akin to many of the large American organ’s that this writer usually criticises as “brash”. The tempo is also far too fast. The real find of the programme is the Toccata by Marcel Lanquetuit (1894-1985) who was organist of Rouen Cathedral for most of his career. Similar to the famous Widor toccata beloved of wedding couples, but not hackneyed like that work, this shows the sheer virtuosity of Dame Gillian Weir in glorious form. It is quite a spectacular ending.

The second problem is the Priory Records policy of recording everything with a single microphone. This is allegedly to give the impression that a listener has when sitting in the hall, and the microphone itself is undoubtedly good gear. The downside is that there is less control over the recorded sound, which our ears do for us automatically in a live situation. The capture quality and sound spectrum just isn’t up to what a decent modern stereo is capable of reproducing, and invariably some of the depth and colour that could be obtained from careful use of multiple microphones for different purposes is lost. As one example, the lack of ambient microphones positioned at the back of the hall just to pick up that tiny residual sound of the space itself is lost, and it is noticeable. There is less feel of the “tangible” aspects of sound than could have been gained.

This is an important release in terms of British music history, and there is much to enjoy. A few quibbles about the programming and the order, as well as a not entirely satisfactory recorded sound do give cause for reservations. Organ buffs will want to own this disc come what may; for the rest of us, the live experience will probably be more enjoyable.

Peter Wells

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Georg MUFFAT (c1645-1704)

Armonico Tributo (1682) 

Sonata 1 in D major [11.53]

Sonata 2 in G minor [12.45]

Sonata 3 in A major [9.38]

Sonata 4 in E minor [7.32]

Sonata 5 in G major [16.55]

The Parley of Instruments dir. Peter Holman and Roy Goodman

rec April 1981, St Jude-on-the-hill, Hampstead Garden Suburb, London

HELIOS CDH55191 [59.05]

It is almost unbelievable that this excellent recording, originally released on Hyperion and now re-issued on their budget Helios label, was made nearly 25 years ago. We still tend to think of the period instrument revival as a relatively new thing, and yet this recording is more accurately described now as a “classic” or “vintage” recording. The Parley of instruments was one of the second generation of period instrument groups that emerged in the late ’70s and early ’80s and brought an extra level of professionalism to the early music scene. Previously enthusiasm for something new had been the hallmark of such groups, often at the expense of perfect intonation and tight ensemble. The Parley of instruments began to change that towards a much slicker approach, setting the period instrument revival on the road towards consummate professionalism that has since become such a pervasive aspect. Many lament the high gloss that now covers all such performances and regret the loss of a bit of the “dirt” that used to give historically informed performances that edge of risk and excitement. In these older Parley recordings it is possible to hear the better aspects of both approaches.

The Parley of Instruments has always specialised in the smaller and mid-scale repertoire of Baroque ensemble music, firmly based around music for strings. Occasionally they added guest wind or brass players – their famous recording of the Sonatae Tam Aris Quam Aulis Servientes by Muffat’s close contemporary Heinrich Ignaz von Biber, (also available on Helios as CDH55041 and well-worth hearing) which was hugely influential on this undergraduate reviewer in the mid ’80s, showed the perfection that could be obtained with natural trumpets expertly played. This Muffat disc shows the group in possibly its classic formation of two violins (Roy Goodman and Roy Mowatt) two violas (Theresa Caudle and Annette Isserlis) and mid-sized continuo team of cello, violone, theorbo and harpsichord or organ (Mark Caudle, Amanda Macnamara, Tim Crawford and Paul Nicholson or Peter Holman). The sense of ensemble with this line-up is like that of a string quartet – the players know each other and know intimately they way the others play. The result is not so much the slick polish borne of consummate professionalism that characterises most recordings now, but a true sense of inherent musicianship.

This musicianship has certainly stood the test of time. The recording seems to have lost none of it freshness, sparkle or style. The booklet notes (reprinted exactly and still dated 1981) should have been revised as they take no account of musical or musicological developments of the last quarter century and are still lamenting the fact that Muffat’s “relatively small output is largely ignored”. In part thanks to recordings such as this, this is certainly no longer the case – Muffat is a well-known name again, and frequently performed by keyboardists and string ensembles alike. The music is elegant and listenable; Muffat was one of the first German composers to attempt Couperin’s Goûts réunie, the unification of German, Italian and French musical styles. There is clear influence of Muffat’s time in Rome, where these works were played to Corelli, who made suggestions, as well as Muffat’s grounding as a Fugueist in the German manner. The implied solo-tutti relationship between a concertino of two violins and continuo and a ripieno including the two violas and bass, while never explicitly exploited by the composer, nonetheless comes across clearly throughout the performances. There is constant variation of texture and timbre, albeit within the apparently limited palette of the string ensemble. 

Of the five sonatas it would be invidious to pick one out as superior as each has its individual charms. For sheer compositional skill however, attention should be drawn to the last sonata, which, at nearly 17minutes, is significantly the longest of the group. Muffat ends his collection with a tremendous Passacaglia (a minute and a half longer than the whole fourth sonata) of 25 variations over a bass pattern closely related to that used by J S Bach in the Goldberg Variations. The composer was obviously pleased with it, as it reappears at the end of his 1701 collection of Concerti Grossi. The Parley of Instruments perform this great movement with perhaps more fluidity than the tempo marking of Grave would suggest – and, indeed, are well over a minute quicker than the 1985 recording of the same work by London Baroque on Harmonia Mundi France (HMA 1901220) which also featured Roy Goodman, as it happens. The tempi on the whole err on the quick side, but the elegance of the playing is undeniable. Overall, the whole disc is a joyous pleasure to listen to, and, as mentioned earlier, age is no barrier to quality. It would still be hard to find a more convincing performance of this wonderful music. Now that it is available at budget price, this disc recommends itself as a good use of the buyer’s money.

Peter Wells

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