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MARCH 2009 - DOWNLOAD ROUNDUP

 
King Alfonso X earned the nickname el Sabio, the wise, for his tolerant rule and encouragement of learning and the arts, though it didn’t protect him from the enemies who overran his kingdom.  He’s best known today for the collection of songs relating miracles of the Virgin Mary, mostly in the Galician dialect of North West Spain and Portugal, known as Cantigas de Santa Maria.  I reviewed a Martin Best Nimbus recording of some of these last year (NI5081) and referred there also to a Naxos collection – both well worth acquiring: see review.  Pneuma, the independent label owned by Eduardo Paniagua, have begun a project to record the whole collection; many of these feature as downloads from eMusic and you can make a good start with El Camino de Santiago, recounting miracles associated with the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostella in NW Spain.  They’re sung with verve on PN680, eight tracks in very decent mp3 sound from eMusic.
 
Paniagua and his Musica Antigua also perform music from a later period, the late 15th century, on the equally enjoyable La Conquista de Granada: Isabel la Católica – eight tracks from eMusic (PN660).  See also Rob Barnett’s recent review of another Pneuma recording by Paniagua and others (PN1100, El agua y los árabes, not available as a download at the moment.)  This would make an excellent supplement to the Linn recording Music from the Time of Columbus (CKD007) which I recommended last month.
 
Last month’s recommendation of The Tallis Scholars’ new Josquin recording (CDGIM042 and downloads) reminds me to mention their superb value 2-CD-for-1 set of earlier recordings of this composer (The Tallis Scholars Sing Josquin, CDGIM206: Missa Pange lingua, Missa La sol fa re mi and the two Masses based on L’homme armé).  This is also available to download from Gimell in excellent CD-quality and very decent mp3 sound, the latter at the maximum 320k.  Download either version or buy the CDs and I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.
 
Some time ago I recommended a Claves recording of music by the 16th-century composer Philippe or Philippus de Monte (50-2712, Ensemble Orlando Fribourg/Laurent Gendre); in fact, I made it Recording of the Month – see review.  If you followed my recommendation and are looking for downloads of more music by de Monte with very little duplication, Cinquecento have recorded his Missa Ultimi miei sospiri, together with the Verdelot piece which serves as its cantus firmus on Hyperion CDA67658, £7.99 in fully acceptable 256kbps AAC sound from iTunes.  I can the more wholeheartedly recommend this download since I paid for it myself.  Like Gary Higginson – see review – I am disappointed only by the short playing time of this recording and the less-than-appropriate cover painting, an unusual lapse for Hyperion whose presentation is usually spot on.
 
Another first-rate recording of music by de Monte comes from Christ Church Cathedral Choir, Oxford/Stephen Darlington (Metronome METCD1037 – twelve tracks from eMusic).  There is just one short overlap with the Hyperion CD, Miserere mei, Domine; otherwise the main work is the Missa Aspice Domine, preceded by Jacquet of Mantua’s piece which inspired it – surely Metronome are right to place this first and Hyperion, as GH suggests, wrong to place the Verdelot piece Ultimi miei sospiri last.  Like the Hyperion, the Metronome is disappointingly short measure at 58 minutes.  Invidious as it is to rank such fine performances, I’d go for the Hyperion first as likely to be more immediate in its appeal.  Watch out, too, for Cinquecento’s forthcoming new Hyperion recording of Vaet’s Missa Ego flos campi (CDA67733); if I don’t get a review copy, I shall be looking to download that or buy the CD at the earliest opportunity on the basis of their de Monte.
 
No Purcell this month but a reminder that the music of his contemporaries should not be overlooked.  The Palladian Ensemble’s A Choice Collection: Music of Purcell’s London fits the bill in fine fashion on Linn CKD041 – download in excellent CD-quality or very acceptable mp3 sound.  Expect mention of more of these excellent Linn recordings of the Palladians in coming months.
 
A dull, cold and wet Friday evening in late January was brightened up for me by listening to soprano Mhairi Lawson and La Serenissima in Vivaldi L’Amore per Elvira, a Linn recording of three of the composer’s secular cantatas interspersed with trio sonatas from the Graz collection.  At times I felt that Lawson tried a little too hard to make the singing dramatic, but the enterprise is otherwise highly successful. (CKD281 – see review by Robert Hugill: “The disc is definitely high on my list of recommendations for this year.”)  The parent disc is in hybrid SACD format, otherwise the wma download from linnrecords is fully its equal.
 
The ensuing, equally dull, weekend weather was enlightened by a combination of one of this year’s anniversary boys and Richard Hickox, whose recordings, along with those of Vernon Handley I have been featuring – both are sadly missed but, thankfully, they left us a rich recorded heritage mostly, in latter years, on the Chandos label.  Hickox’s recordings of the Haydn Masses are excellent.  Though still available as single albums, with more interesting covers, they are best downloaded from the complete set from theclassicalshop.net on CHAN0734 (8 discs) even if you don’t want the whole set – £7.99 per CD in lossless format, rather than the £9.99 from the individual catalogue numbers:
CD1: Theresienmesse and Kleine Orgelmesse; CD2: Schöpfungsmesse and Rorate cæli; CD3: Harmoniemesse and Salve Regina; CD4: Te Deum and Paukenmesse; CD5: Nelsonmesse, Ave Regina and Missa brevis; CD6: Heiligmesse and Nikolaimesse; CD7: Missa Cellensis and Missa Sunt bona mixta mala and CD8: Große Orgelmesse and Missa Cellensis No.2.
I tried tracks in both wma and wav formats and both are excellent – the latter take longer to download but can be accessed directly by the iTunes library, which takes a little time to convert wma files.
 
Some time ago I gave a strong recommendation to Emma Kirkby’s performance of four of Handel’s Italian Cantatas on the inexpensive Eloquence label (476 7468 – see review).  Without detracting from what I said then, let me also recommend the four discs of recordings of these cantatas, written for Italian patrons such as Cardinal Ottoboni and Marchese Ruspoli, which Glossa have recently issued and which may be obtained from classicsonline in very good 320k mp3 sound – Glossa GCD951521-4 (available separately).  The sopranos here, Roberta Invernizzi, Emanuela Galli, Raffaele Milanesi, Maria Grazia Schiavo and Nuria Rial, may be less well known than Kirkby but they all give her a good run for her money and they are ably supported by Salvo Vitale, bass (Volume 3) and la Risonanza, directed by Fabio Bonizzoni.
 
All of these were very strong contenders for Download of the Month.  In the end, however, the accolade must go to Linn and Nigel North for their 4-CD box set Bach on the Lute (CKD300).  Reviewing Peter Croton’s recent Guild release Bach on the Italian Lute (GMCD7321) sent me to the North recording for comparison and led to my deciding that, good as it is, the new recording is outshone by the Linn set.  The four CDs which make up the set are available separately but, as the set is offered in all formats at £20, just twice the price of individual downloads at CD quality, I recommend going the whole hog from the start.  Timid downloaders might even wish to consider buying the CDs on this occasion, since these are also available direct from Linn at £20 – follow link – or for even less from some online dealers.  Volumes 1 and 2 offer transcriptions of the solo Violin Sonatas and Partitas, CDs3 and 4 transcriptions of the Cello Suites.  Purists shouldn’t be put off – Bach himself transcribed some of this music for the Lautenwerck or lute-harpsichord – may even have composed the lute version of one of the Cello Suites first.  For further details, see Kirk McElhearn’s enthusiastic review and use the Musicweb Purchase button on that page if you prefer the physical CDs.
 
Nigel North’s earlier recording of Bach for Saydisc Amon Ra (CDSAR23) is also available as a 14-track download from eMusic.  In the main the music here complements rather than duplicates that on the Linn set.
 
Those who must have Julian Bream in this repertoire will be pleased to know that the Bach album from the complete RCA collection, the absence of which on CD I complained about, is available from amazon.co.uk as a download at £7.99, as also is his EMI CD of this repertoire – guitar and lute with harpsichord on the RCA, guitar on the EMI.  His Baroque Guitar recital, including Bach, Sanz, Sor, Vissée and Weiss is available for £7.99 from iTunes.
 
A surprisingly close runner-up for Download of the Month comes in the form of the new Chandos recording of Leonard Bernstein’s Mass, a very different work from their box of the Haydn Masses and one which I’ve tended to fight shy of in the past.  It’s a very eclectic piece and I’m not sure that I’ve yet come completely to terms with it but the new performance has done wonders in bringing me much nearer to doing so, bringing out the optimism inherent in the music as well as the despair.  Randall Scarlatta as the Celebrant is very ably supported by The Company of Music, Tölz Boys’ Choir, Chorus Sine Nomine and Absolute Ensemble under the capable direction of Kristjan Järvi (CHSA5070, 2 SACDs).  Some may prefer more excitement but this is a straightforward interpretation which allows the very different strands of the music to gel together. 
 
The Chandos CD-quality sound is superb – much better than Bernstein’s own recording, currently, I believe, available only in a 10-CD set – but those desiring surround sound will, of course, need to buy the physical discs.  In fact, these cost exactly the same as the CD-quality download (the mp3 version is slightly cheaper) and the booklet prints out too large and cumbersome to fit into a standard slimline 2-CD case, so you may wish to purchase it in physical form.
 
With Holy Week and Easter not far off, you may like to try something different from the Bach Passions and Handel’s MessiahReinhard Keiser, their slightly older contemporary, was once regarded in some quarters as their equal; his music certainly doesn’t deserve to have sunk almost without trace.  His Markus Passion (St Mark Passion) comes in a good performance on Christophorus CHR77143 from able soloists and Parthenia Vocal and Parthenia Baroque under Christian Brembeck – available in very good 320k mp3 sound from classicsonline.
 
Classicsonline also offer the Naxos recording of the Fasch Passion which I reviewed last year and which would have been awarded a Thumbs Up had it not been for the poor presentation (8.570326 – see review and Johan van Veen’s review.)  The errors in the online libretto which I criticised don’t seem to have been amended.
 
John Sheppard made Imogen Cooper’s performance of Mozart Piano Concertos 24, K491 and 25, K503, with the Northern Sinfonia, co-directed by herself and Bradley Creswick, his Recording of the Month last May – see review – and other reviewers were equally impressed, so I was keen to try the download from eMusic (AV2175, 7 tracks in very acceptable mp3 sound – or purchase the CD direct from MusicWeb).  Like JS, I had some marginal reservations, though they were different from his: I thought parts of both slow movements a trifle too slow, for example.  Overall, however, I agree with him in placing this version in the same league as my Mozartean greats, Curzon and Kovacevich chief among them.  The Brendel cadenza employed for K503 makes the first movement rather long  at 15:37 against 14:05 from Jenö Jandó/Mátyás Antal (Naxos 8.550207, with No.16) and 14:54 from Stephen Bishop/Colin Davis (Philips 476 5316, with No.21) but is certainly appropriate.  One advantage of downloading is the ability to move tracks – I thought the solo Fantasia in d, K397, much more appropriate sandwiched between the two concertos rather than at the end of the programme.  Now I’m strongly tempted to obtain Nos. 9 and 23 in the same series – next month, perhaps.
 
Competition is quite keen in Concerto No.9, K271, partly because it has a name, the Jeunehomme, but chiefly because it is the best of Mozart’s early concertos.  There’s an excellent version by Howard Shelley, directing the London Mozart Players, on Chandos, coupled with No.17, K453 (CHAN9068 – CD, lossless and mp3 downloads from theclassicalshop.net).  Good as the eMusic mp3 version of the Imogen Cooper recording is, Chandos’s CD-quality wma download is even better and Howard Shelley’s performances are also excellent.  Were it not for the fact that they come coupled with other concertos, these Shelley performances would oust Jenö Jandó’s very decent Naxos versions from my collection – Jandó’s version of No.17 happens to be coupled with a very fine version of No.18 (Naxos 8.550205 or mp3 download from classicsonline.com.)
 
Even better is a PentaTone recording of Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante in E-flat, K364, and the Concertone in C, K190, in which Julia Fischer is joined as soloist by Gordan Nikolić in both works and accompanied by the Netherlands Chamber Orchestra/Yakov Kreizberg (PTC5186 098 – seven tracks from eMusic).  The 320k mp3 sound is likely to satisfy all but those who demand the surround tracks on the parent SACD.  This recording is a winner.  Jonathan Woolf was also impressed by Fischer’s version of Violin Concertos 3 and 4 on PTC5186 064 but I can no more imagine this replacing Grumiaux, available in different couplings, on two Philips sets, than he could – see review.  (NB JW’s review had the wrong catalogue number but it’s probably been amended by the time you read this.)
 
Howard Shelley and the London Mozart Players bring me to this year’s birthday-boy Mendelssohn, since they also offer excellent versions of his Piano Concertos.  The Concerto No.1 and the Capriccio Brillant are to be found on Chandos’s excellent mid-price Introduction to Felix Mendelssohn, together with recommendable versions of The Hebrides (SNO/Gibson), the Wedding March (RLPO/Groves) and the Fourth Symphony, ‘Italian’ (Philharmonia/Weller) on CHAN2025 – see review.  My only reservation in recommending this Introduction is that it will inevitably make you want the other music on full price CHAN9215, from which the two Shelley/LMP items are taken – it also includes the Second Concerto: shorter value than the Introduction, but strongly recommended.  Both these Chandos recordings come in CD, lossless and mp3 versions.  In each case the CD-quality wma downloads are excellent.
 
Better value is to be had from the Cyprien Katsaris recordings on Teldec/Warner, with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra/Kurt Masur in Concertos Nos. 1 and 2 and the Franz Liszt Chamber Orchestra/Janos Rolla in the early Concerto for Piano and Strings in a minor (Classical Diamonds 0630-18662-6) – a mere £2.99 from iTunes, my source for this download – £4.29 from amazon.co.uk, both of these in 256k mp3 sound, or £3 in wma from warner.freshdigital.  The recording is a little heavy at the outset but the ear soon adjusts and the performances are excellent.  Apart from the hideous Classical Diamonds cover – you may prefer to cut and paste the drab Apex equivalent for once, or even to buy these recordings on Apex 8583-89088-2 for around £5 – strongly recommended.  The early concerto is no great shakes but it’s well worth hearing.
 
Warner.freshdigital also have the Gewandhaus/Masur recording of Mendelssohn’s Third and Fourth Symphonies for £3 (9031-72308-6) and the complete 5-CD album of the Symphonies and Piano Concertos 1 and 2 for £12.50 (2564-62769-6).  I haven’t heard any of these downloads, but their CD equivalents have received general praise, as has Harnoncourt’s coupling of the Third and Fourth Symphonies with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe (£2.79 from amazon.co.uk; recently reissued on CD on mid-price Warner Maestro, 2564 69367 4).  This Harnoncourt recording is available at both £2.99 and £7.99 (both 256k) from iTunes – the latter is more expensive than the CD: you know which one to choose!
 
Another excellent Teldec/Warner recording comes in the form of the Dvořák Piano Concerto and The Golden Spinning Wheel (Pierre-Laurent Aimard/Concertgebouw Orchestra/Nikolaus Harnoncourt).  This is available at £3.95 from iTunes, £3.99 from amazon.co.uk, both in 256k mp3, or £5 from warner.freshdigital in wma format.  I can report that the sound of the Amazon version is very acceptable and that the performances are first-rate.
 
Returning to Mendelssohn, I recently recommended the Cherubini Quartet’s 3-CD budget-price set of all six String Quartets (5 00857 2 – see review).  iTunes will offer you these very same performances as downloads for a mere £29.99, when the CDs may be had for about a third of that price: one online dealer currently offers the set for £9.66.  Caveat emptor, indeed.  Nor should you purchase the Henschel Quartet versions as downloads for £7.99 per disc when you can buy their 3-CD Arte Nova set (82876 64009 2 ) from the same online dealer for £13.69. 
 
Amazon.co.uk offer the 3-CD Cherubini set for a very reasonable £9.27.  eMusic have two volumes of the highly-regarded Talich Quartet versions on Calliope: Opp. 12 and 13 (8 tracks) and the three Op.44 Quartets (12 tracks), also Volumes 2 (8 tracks) and 3 (11 tracks) of the equally highly-regarded Eroica Quartet on Harmonia Mundi.
 
Of the many recordings of Mendelssohn’s Octet available to download, my own favourite is provided by The Nash Ensemble on Wigmore Hall Live WHL001, coupled with Beethoven’s Clarinet Trio (the alternative version of the Piano trio, Op.4/1).  The rather close recording doesn’t open out ideally in the eMusic mp3 download (7 tracks) but a small volume boost helps and the performance more than compensates.  If you like the Finale to go with a bang, you may be slightly disappointed that they take 6:46 for a movement which the original ASMF Ensemble (Decca, no longer available) performed in 5:54 and which their more recent counterparts on Chandos dispatch in 6:05.  At 55 minutes, the Wigmore Hall playing time is rather short, but remember that with eMusic you pay by the track.
 
The Chandos version (CHAN8790, the ASMF Chamber Ensemble) also offers a mere 55 minutes and the performance of the Mendelssohn is generally regarded as less successful than the earlier ASMF version.  You could, however, probably purchase the four tracks of the Chandos coupling from eMusic, or in lossless sound from theclassicalshop, the attractive but hardly earth-shattering Raff Octet, and just squeeze them onto the same CDR as the Nash Ensemble.  (I’ve tried – it works, giving a total time very close to the maximum.)

The record companies are beginning to rediscover Sir Hubert Parry but Lyrita got there some time ago in recordings with the LSO and LPO conducted by Sir Adrian Boult, reissued on SRCD.220 Boult conducts Parry.  The main works are An English Suite and Lady Radnor’s Suite in beautifully affectionate performances.  There is a Naxos recording of these on a well-filled disc entitled English String Festival (Capella Istropolitana/ Adrian Leaper on 8.550331).  The Naxos performance of the English Suite goes well enough, except that the final movement, Frolic, doesn’t quite live up to its name, but Lady Radnor’s Suite is disappointingly slow throughout.  Don’t economise, go for the Boult (16 tracks from eMusic or purchase the CD direct from Musicweb International).  See reviews by David Dunsmore and Colin Clarke.  I note that William Boughton’s Nimbus version of Lady Radnor’s Suite to which DD refers, also available from eMusic, is slower throughout than Boult’s.
 
I’d almost forgotten the fifth composer with a significant anniversary in 2009 – Bohuslav Martinů died in 1959.  I understand that Supraphon have some major plans but, in the meantime, there is surprisingly little on offer from them via eMusic.  There is, however, a good deal of recommendable Martinů available from Chandos on their home site, classicsonline.net.  Let me start with one of their older recordings, from 1990, still at full price, but well worth having – Bournemouth Sinfonietta/Tamas Vasary in Sinfonietta Giocosa (with Julian Jacobson, piano), Toccata e due Canzoni and Sinfonietta la Jolla: attractive and tuneful music in lively and enjoyable performances, well recorded.  La Jolla, composed for the music society of the Californian town of that name, is a special favourite of mine.  (CHAN8859 in lossless and mp3 sound – the CD equivalent seems to have been deleted, perhaps ahead of a mid-price reissue in this anniversary year?)
 
For the recording of Martinů’s Cello Concertos 1 and 2 and the Concertino recorded by Chandos one year later in Prague Castle, with Raphael Wallfisch, the Czech Philharmonic and Jiři Bělohlávek, I need only refer you to Rob Barnett’s recommendation of the CD as “the first choice for the Martinů Cello Concertos” (CHAN9015 – see review) and report that the lossless download from theclassicalshop comes in sound to match the ample acoustic of the CD which, this time, also remains available.  The Supraphon recording to which RB referred is available from eMusic, but its omission of the Concertino relegates it to second choice.
 
Martinů’s Double Concerto, Concerto for String Quartet and Orchestra and Three Ricercari seem good value from warner.freshdigital at £3 (2564 62035-6, Orchestre National de France/James Conlon) but this comes in ‘locked’ format 192k wma and can be played, burned or transferred to an mp3 player except via windows media player.  With the parent CD costing around £5, you may think that the better buy.
 
The Brodsky Quartet offer very fine performances of Britten’s String Quartets Nos. 2 and 3 on Challenge Classics CC72099 – eight tracks from eMusic in perfectly acceptable sound at varying bit-rates.  I haven’t tried their version of the First Quartet but if the rather odd coupling with Tchaikovsky’s First Quartet appeals, that’s also available from eMusic (11 tracks).
 
Tippett’s Triple Concerto and Concerto for Orchestra come in excellent performances from the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra/Richard Hickox, with three very good soloists in the Triple (CHAN9384 – available from the classicalshop.net in lossless and mp3 and from classicsonline in mp3 sound.)  There are equally fine performances of the very approachable Concerto for Double String Orchestra with Little Music for String Orchestra and Sellinger’s Round on CHAN9409 – Hickox with the City of London Sinfonia this time and John Mark Ainsley in The Heart’s Assurance.  Next month I hope to look at other downloads of Hickox’s Tippett recordings.
 
As well as the Bernstein Mass, my runner-up Download of the Month, Chandos have a number of other very interesting releases this month.  Chief among these are the first recordings of three works by David Matthews (b.1943), The Music of Dawn, Concerto in Azzurro and A Vision and a Journey (CHAN10487).  I’m not normally a great fan of much contemporary music, but I found this new recording captivating.  Guy Johnson is the able cello soloist in the revised version of the Concerto, originally written for Stephen Isserlis, and the BBC Philharmonic are on fine form throughout under the direction of Rumon Gamba.  The CD-quality download from theclassicalshop is excellent, though both iTunes and Roxio refused to convert track 7 from wma to wav, believing it to be a protected file.  Fortunately, a return to my download history at theclassicalshop allowed me to download the file in wav format and iTunes was then happy to burn the whole disc.  It’s £9.99 for the lossless download, but if you’re happy with 320k mp3 sound, both theclassicalshop and classicsonline offer this recording at £7.99.
 
Last month I thought that Volume 1 of Holst’s music (CHSA5069) had been Richard Hickox’s last recording for Chandos.  In fact, he was also working with Howard Shelley and the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra on what would have been a series of recordings of the music of Sir Eugene Goossens, of which the first and only volume is released this month (CHSA5068).  There can hardly have been a more musical family than the Goossens, except, perhaps, the Bach dynasty and, possibly, the Dolmetsch family.  One thinks of Eugene principally as a conductor, but it is now evident that he was also a talented composer.  My first impressions of the First Symphony and Phantasy Concerto have not been revelatory, but though the music isn’t immediate in its appeal, it’s well worth getting to know in these sympathetic first recordings.  The lossless sound of the download from Chandos’s theclassicalshop is excellent.  Again, an mp3 version is also available from classicsonline – congratulations to them for putting Chandos recordings online as quickly as their parent provider.  Downloaders don’t, of course, get access to the surround-sound tracks on these SACD recordings.
 
At first sight, the combination of Ernest Chausson’s lyrical Poème for violin and orchestra with André Jolivet’s tough late Concerto pour violon et orchestre (1972) may not seem a match made in heaven, but it’s well worth persevering.  Isabelle Faust and the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester conducted by Marko Letonja make a strong case on a rather short Harmonia Mundi recording, HMC90 1925 (4 tracks from eMusic).  As Herbert Culot puts it in his review of the only other recording of the Jolivet, “This is music that takes one by the scruff of the neck and will not let you go.”
 
I’ve run out of space to mention the Naxos Archive historical downloads from classicsonline and, in any case, Rob Barnett, the Classical Editor, is preparing a sequel to his earlier piece on these.  With the EU poised to extend copyright for musical performances to 95 years, you’d be well advised to download any of these which interest you, at a mere £1.99 per LP, while the going is good.
 
Brian Wilson

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