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JANUARY 2009 DOWNLOAD ROUNDUP


My Download of the Month has to be the new Linn recording of Handel’s Acis and Galatea by the Dunedin Consort/John Butt in its original chamber version, as presented to the Earl of Caernarvon, later Duke of Chandos at his mansion (CKD319, 2 CDs). This was such a sure-fire winner that I’ve reviewed it more fully in a regular Musicweb review and it’s already a strong contender for one of my Recordings of the Year.

Like other recent Linn and Gimell recordings, this can be obtained in better-than-CD quality as a 24-bit studio-quality download, but I’m perfectly happy with the quality of both Linn’s and Gimell’s wma and flac 16-bit files. (They also offer very decent mp3 versions at a lower price.) Both companies value sound and musical quality and their download arrangements are very similar; both offer the booklet of notes and other disc liners and inserts as pdf files. (Chandos also do this for their own and some other recordings on their theclassicalshop.net website and classicsonline.com do so for their own label, Naxos.) One other user-friendly aspect of both websites is that they never seem to suffer from traffic congestion - whatever your broadband speed, some sites will download only at about 50k when they are busy; Acis downloaded at over 800k, as did the Gimell Palestrina and Brumel recordings to which I refer below.

Mention of the Duke of Chandos in conjunction with Handel reminds me that the best download versions of the latter’s Chandos Anthems come from the Chandos label’s website, theclassicalshop.net, with The Sixteen/Harry Christophers. More about these recordings next month, but the first volume on CHAN0503 (mp3 or lossless sound) is a good place to start in the meantime.

My Discovery of the Month also emanates from Linn: a recording from 2000 of the Missa Ego sum qui sum of Philippe Rogier (c.1561-1596), performed by Magnificat/Philip Cave on CKD109, together with the motet by Nicholas Gombert which provides its cantus firmus and six shorter pieces by Rogier himself. I can’t tell you much about Rogier - he’s not even named in the Oxford Companion to Music and this is one of Linn’s older downloads which don’t offer the booklet of notes - but I can tell you that the music is superb and that the performances and recording do it full justice.

I have two other Linn downloads to recommend before I move on. I haven’t yet heard their recent recording of Mozart’s last four symphonies conducted by Sir Charles Mackerras - I hope to fit that in next month - but I have heard their even newer version of Mozart’s Colloredo Serenade and the Divertimento, K251 (Scottish Chamber Orchestra/Alexander Janiczek on CKD320) and have been thoroughly delighted. A most enjoyable recording.

I also echo the recommendation that has already appeared in the main Musicweb reviews of Garden of Early Delights (Pamela Thorby, recorder and Andrew Lawrence-King, harp and psaltery on CKD291). My colleague Bob Briggs says it all - his review is full of words such as ‘delicious’ - and I readily concur: I simply direct you to his review.

Mentioning Gimell in the same sentence as Linn brings me to two of their recordings. Antoine Brumel’s (c.1460-c.1520) Missa Et ecce terræ motus is the only Mass which I know that is based on an earthquake, albeit that it’s the one recorded in the New Testament on the day of Jesus’s death. It’s no mere novelty work, especially when it’s as well performed as it is on CDGIM026 by The Tallis Scholars/Peter Phillips. Brumel’s Lamentations and Magnificat secundi toni round off a most enjoyable and well-filled recording of music from that fascinating late-medieval/renaissance transitionary period. The recording (CD-quality wma; there’s also a less expensive 320k mp3) is very good and the excellent booklet, with its striking cover, comes as part of the deal. The Gloria from the Mass is also available on a Gimell 2-for-1 bargain, The Essential Tallis Scholars (CDGIM201) which my colleague Michael Cookson recommended without hesitation (see review), but you really need to hear the whole work.

I recently compared The Tallis Scholars 2-for-1 set of Palestrina with a rival EMI budget 2-CD recording of some of the same music from King’s College Cambridge under David Willcocks and Philip Ledger and found myself preferring the Gimell version in almost every respect (CDGIM204: Missa Assumpta est Maria; Missa Sicut lilium; Missa Brevis and the great Missa Papæ Marcelli). This is a splendid bargain and the sound, though some of the tracks are AAD, is still very good. (CD-quality wma again, with an mp3 option.)

My Bargain of the Month is the classic recording of Puccini’s la Bohème, made by Victoria de los Angeles, Jussi Björling and Sir Thomas Beecham; to get this for under £1 sounds crazy, but that is exactly what eMusic have on offer. With just four tracks, one for each act, there’s no problem with the slight glitches that are sometimes experienced with downloads of operatic recordings and at 24p per track on the 50-track-per-month tariff, the cost is a mere 96p. Add the cost of a blank CDR and a 2-CD case and you’ve got the whole thing for less than £2. The recording is mono and rather dry at that - but that’s true of EMI’s reissue, too, and the ear very soon adjusts, even to the extent of imagining some spatial separation. Don’t worry about some very minor fluffs - the performance was arranged rather hastily - they won’t put you off a marvellous experience.

This is one of a number of classic recordings being revived by Past Classics and available from eMusic; several of them are also available on Amazon’s new UK download facility at Amazon.co.uk; this Puccini is not yet among them, but Beecham’s Berlin Magic Flute is (at £1.58! 2 tracks from eMusic for 48p!) together with his recording of Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben (for 79p! - or just one 42-minute track from eMusic, for 24p!) eMusic also have Beecham’s Berlioz Harold in Italy (4 tracks, with William Primrose), his Sibelius Second Symphony (3 tracks), Dennis Brain’s Mozart Horn Concertos (11 tracks), Anatol Fistoulari’s Strauss Graduation Ball (1 35-minute track only, surely worth 24p of anyone’s money) and many other treasures. There are also some jazz recordings, such as the Dave Brubeck Quartet: Jazz at the Black Hawk (£6.32 from Amazon or 8 tracks from eMusic, i.e. less than £2). Rest assured that I’ll be trying many of these.

I have a number of other recommendations from eMusic. The Nash Ensemble give as good a performance as any I have heard of Ravel’s Introduction and Allegro, Sonata for violin and cello and Piano trio on a CRD recording which runs to nine tracks. Excellent value.

The eMusic mp3 version of Herbert Howells’ Music for Strings (Chandos CHAN9161, 9 tracks) comes at variable bit-rates, with some tracks at 192k and some at 256k. I plan to compare this with Chandos’s own CD-quality or 320k mp3 download of this Richard Hickox recording next month.

Biber’s extremely colourful Missa Bruxellensis comes from La Capella Reial under Jordi Savall (Alia Vox AV9808) in slightly rough-and-ready, but very enjoyable, performances (5 tracks of very acceptable mp3 sound at bit-rates from 207k to 224k). The recording was made at the Salzburg Spring Festival in May, 1999, in Salzburg Cathedral. This adds a degree of authenticity, since the work was probably first performed there - though found in Brussels, hence the title - but the resonant acoustic may present a problem for some listeners - it certainly makes it almost impossible to disentangle the 23 separate parts for which the music is composed. There are no notes with any of these eMusic downloads, a serious omission for anyone coming fresh to Biber - I’ve suggested before that they should consider making notes available for the cost of an extra track.

Another, rather less strident - but equally enjoyable - account of a Biber Mass, the Missa Christi resurgenti, comes from the English Concert/Andrew Manze, a Harmonia Mundi download on eMusic - fifteen tracks, this time, but the music’s attraction is more permanent than that of the Missa Bruxellensis and the whole is well worth the modest cost (less than £4 if you’re on the 50-track tariff). Some tracks fall just below the magic 192k but some are at the full 320k and all sound perfectly acceptable. (Recently reissued on Harmonia Mundi Gold as HMG90 9397 at mid-price but still rather more expensive than the download.)

An eMusic Lyrita download was spoiled for me by discontinuity between tracks. The first piece, Hadley’s The Trees so High, is fine and the Vernon Handley performances throughout are excellent, but the music in the coupling, Finzi’s wonderful Immortality Ode, is continuous across tracks and the mood of this beautiful Wordsworth-derived music is destroyed by even the most minute glitches. Some of the drop-outs are more than minute, so I can only recommend that you purchase the parent Lyrita CD (SRCD.238 - see RB’s recommendation of this as a Recording of the Month) or the Hickox version on EMI. If it’s just the Hadley that you want, there’s a 2-for-1 Chandos version, coupled with Sainton’s The Island (CHAN241-22 - see RB’s recommendation of this; another Recording of the Month). Download or CD, this Chandos recording is a real bargain.

The pick of my downloads from eMusic this month must be the Smetana Trio’s recent release of the Tchaikovsky Piano Trio, Op.50, coupled with Dvořák’s Trio in g minor, B56 on Supraphon SU3949-2. This is as fine a performance of the Tchaikovsky as any I have heard and the Dvořák is the equal of the Borodin Trio version on Chandos which I recommended in the November Roundup. If you download this and the equally fine Smetana Trio versions of the third and fourth trios which I also recommended in November (SU3872-2) you’ll have an excellent set of the three mature trios. The mp3 sound is more than acceptable in both cases (bit-rates from 199k to 320k). 

Two Naxos recommendations from their own website, classicsonline.com. The rediscovery of the wonderful music of Abbess Hildegard of Bingen was begun by the Gothic Voices on Hyperion - A Feather on the Breath of God is a classic - and continued by the likes of Sequentia and the Oxford Camerata/Jeremy Summerly. The most recent recording by the latter (Celestial Harmonies: Responsories and Antiphons, 8.557983) is far more attractive than the rather dour title suggests. I found this much less dull than my colleague Gary Higginson - see review; I’m more inclined to agree with Mark Sealey’s more positive review. If you haven’t yet encountered this readily-enjoyed music, this is as good a place as any to start and the 320k download from classicsonline is very recommendable. I’m pleased to note that this site is now offering 320k replacements to anyone who downloaded any of their earlier 192k versions - valid until the end of May, 2009. They also tell me that they’re planning to add lossless flac versions at some unspecified future date.

Very different music but equally enjoyable - and equally well performed: Copland’s Dance Symphony, Symphony No.1 and Short Symphony (8.559359: Bournemouth SO/Marin Alsop). The ‘star’ here is the Dance Symphony, a spin-off from the unsuccessful early ballet Grohg. None of the music has quite the immediate appeal of Appalachian Spring, the Fanfare for the Common Man or the Third Symphony - try those first, if you haven’t yet encountered Copland - but this is a recommendable download, again from classiconline.

Somewhere between Hildegard and Copland chronologically comes the mighty J S Bach - I’m surprised that I left him completely out of the last Roundup and that he featured only in Walton’s arrangements in the previous one. Let me make amends by recommending the classicsonline download of John Eliot Gardiner’s most recent recording with The Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists on his own SDG label: Cantatas 45, 46, 101, 102, 136 and 178 (SDG147, 2 CDs). The music may have been written for those boring Sundays after Trinity but that makes no difference. I’ve seen minor reservations about this latest volume in some quarters; if they’re valid reservations, I can only say that I wasn’t troubled by them. The (live) recording may not have the ideal balance of studio sound but it won’t interfere with your enjoyment at all - and neither will the 320k sound.

I started this month’s roundup with the absurd ambition of doing justice to the recorded legacy of Vernon Handley and Richard Hickox, but one month is simply not enough to do even one of them justice, so I’ll spread my tribute over the next few roundups. Both recorded frequently for the Chandos label, whose download site, theclassicalshop.net is second to none, so I’ll concentrate on downloads from them. That means omitting, for example, Handley’s wonderful series of Vaughan Williams recordings, notably the symphonies and Job, for the Classics for Pleasure label, but you would be better obtaining those performances on CD - you’re likely to find them costing more as downloads. My favourite among these CFP recordings has to be the coupling of Job, the Tallis Fantasia and Dives and Lazarus on 5 75314 2, with Handley conducting the LPO - the CD is on offer online as I write this review for as little as £4.65, much less than the £7.99 charged by iTunes and Passionato for CFP downloads. Alternatively, the Symphonies plus Job and other works are available on 7 CDs for £17.62 from the same supplier (5 75760 2).

Vernon Handley also made several splendid recordings of Delius for CFP - again, go for the CD, on which most of the contents of two earlier discs have been combined (5 75315 2). Don’t spend £7.99 on a download of the earlier, shorter CD. Handley and Hickox combine their talents on a Chandos 2-for-1 set The Essential Delius (CHAN241-37) which offers splendid performances of the neglected Florida Suite, North Country Sketches (Ulster Orchestra/Handley), Song before Sunrise, etc. (Bournemouth Sinfonietta/Norman del Mar), The Walk to the Paradise Garden and In a Summer Garden (Bournemouth SO/Hickox). The performances are excellent - you couldn’t do better, short of the classic Beecham GROC recording, which now offers only a truncated Florida Suite - and the CD-quality wma download from theclassicalshop.net is excellent. I haven’t heard the mp3 version, but I have yet to find an mp3 download from this website which wasn’t more than wholly satisfactory.

The classic 1950s Beecham recording of Delius’s Sea Drift is available from classicsonline.com in their Naxos archive series, for a mere £1.99 (9.80097, coupled with Paris). This series is well worth investigating - there are some very interesting items here in 320k transfers: the Meyerbeer/Lambert Les Patineurs with Massenet’s Ballet Music from Le Cid (9.80453 LSO/Robert Irving) brought back fond memories. Only the non-descript covers detract and some of the timings are very short, reflecting the original 1950s LPs - but who cares at £1.99. The classic Pears/Sitwell/Collins version of Walton’s Façade clocks in at 37 minutes, but what a 37-minute experience it is (9.80156). The LSO/Irving coupling of the two Façade Suites and Constant Lambert’s Horoscope Suite (9.80159) runs for a more respectable 45 minutes.

Also available from classicsonline in 320k mp3 sound is the only modern version which I’ve ever heard challenge that classic Beecham account: Bryn Terfel/Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra/Richard Hickox on CHAN9214. Better still, download that recording from Chandos’s own the classicalshop in very decent mp3 for the same price (£7.99) or in CD-quality sound for a little extra. The couplings, Songs of Farewell and Songs of Sunset, receive equally fine performances. This and the 2-CD Essential Delius would make the foundation of a truly first-class Delius collection.

Space compels me to leave many other Hickox recommendations, but you can be sure that they will include his Chandos recordings of the absurdly under-rated Herbert Howells - the 2-for-1 recording of his Orchestral Works on CHAN241-20 is a good place to start; don’t go for the original separate releases on CHAN9410 and 9557, which are still available, but at twice the price - and of Edmund Rubbra, since these were the versions which really made me aware of the value of these two composers. I’ve already made a Rubbra download one of my Recordings of the Year 2008; I recommended this recording of his choral music some time ago (CHAN9847 - available only as a download). I originally downloaded that recording as an mp3; the lossless version sounds even better and it completely eliminates the gaps between tracks which I found slightly disconcerting.

For the Symphonies, start with Nos. 3 and 7 on CHAN9634. I had originally intended to make this recording my Download of the Month until the new Acis and Galatea took its place. Let the music grow on you, especially in such excellent performances, and you’ll come to recognise Rubbra as one of the greatest English composers of the 20th century. Three of my colleagues have already said just about all that there is to say about this recording in a joint review.

The Rubbra recording is available from Chandos’s theclassicalshop.net as a CD, as a CD-quality download and in mp3 format. The lossless wma version which I downloaded does ample justice to the first-rate recording; short of Chandos’s emulating Linn and Gimell in offering 24-bit studio-quality downloads, which can’t be burned to CD, I doubt whether the sound could be bettered. One small grumble - the black-and-white photograph of Rubbra on the cover of the booklet (but not on the separate download of just the cover) has been reversed to a ghostly negative. Otherwise, the splendid Samuel Palmer painting on the cover really sets off the recording. Those who have already taken Rubbra on board may prefer to purchase the box set, offering 5 CDs for the price of 4 (CHAN9944); unfortunately, the lossless and mp3 downloads don’t reflect the same saving.

One final, brief, postscript recommendation - another 2-for-1 set reminds us that there’s a great deal more to Holst than The Planets: The Cloud Messenger, Hymn of Jesus, Choral Fantasia, Ode to Death etc., mainly conducted by Richard Hickox, with contributions from the Finzi Singers/Paul Spicer. The Hymn of Jesus, an elusive work, is very well performed - and better recorded than the Decca/Boult version from which I first got to know it. (CHAN241-6)

Doing justice to Vernon Handley represents even more of a challenge than Richard Hickox. Just looking at the very inexpensive sampler CD which Chandos brought out in 2004 (TOD001, at £1.95) gives a reminder of the range of his interests and strengths: Grieg, Stanford, Bax, Britten, Delius, Finzi, Bridge, Leighton, Dvořák, Bliss, Vaughan Williams and Moeran, just for starters. Typing ‘Handley’ into the search box on the Chandos website brought 571 responses (though some are duplicates, CD, mp3 and lossless versions of the same recording.) Then there are his Lyrita recordings.

Most of the Chandos recordings which I’ve mentioned are available from eMusic - usually the cheapest option for works with fewer than a dozen tracks, but at variable bit-rates - classicsonline, now at a guaranteed 320k, and, of course, especially from Chandos’s own theclassicalshop.net in 320k mp3 or lossless versions. eMusic and classicsonline have always recompensed me for the very occasional dud track but, for the best assurance of quality download of Chandos recordings, go to theclassicalshop.

The only real rival to the Hickox set of the Rubbra symphonies comes from the Lyrita coupling of Nos. 6 and 8 with the Soliloquy, the last-named very ably conducted by Vernon Handley, on Lyrita SRCD.234. (Seven tracks from eMusic).

I’ll be returning to Handley’s Chandos recordings in coming months, but it’s two Lyrita recordings that I want to close with. John Joubert meant only one thing to me - his very striking carol Torches - until I heard Handley’s account of his First Symphony, issued as a short mid-price CD by Lyrita to mark the composer’s 80th birthday (SRCD.322). This revelatory performance, like the Rubbra, is available in very decent mp3 sound from eMusic: the four tracks will cost you less than £1. My only complaint is the rather dour portrait of Joubert on the cover. 

Another Handley Lyrita recording, available as a download from eMusic, introduced me to John Foulds’ Dynamic Triptych and the solo-piano version of the Vaughan Williams Piano Concerto (SRCD.211). The VW is more impressive in this form than in the more usual 2-piano version and the Foulds coupling combines power and lyricism - a real discovery. The bit-rate varies from track to track, but most are at the maximum 320k.

Brian Wilson 

 


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