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Reviewer's Log - Robert Hugill - February 2006

Somewhere out there, thereís an interesting programme to be made on the subject of Mary Queen of Scots. Iíve always known about the Schumann songs but now comes this disc of cantatas by Carissimi which includes his Lament for Mary Queen of Scots. -review. Of course, Carissimi had a sort of religio-political stance on the matter as his employers were the Jesuits. I wonder what other items there are out there, on the subject of the unhappy Queen.

Piano recitals donít come my way very often and I must confess that I have a preference for discs which are thematically organised; I suppose I was spoiled by being introduced to Ronald Stevensonís lucid lecture recitals whilst I lived in Scotland in the 1980s. So I need to concentrate especially hard when listening to David Stanhopeís new mixed recital of virtuoso piano music. review Itís occasions like this which send me scurrying to the music library to borrow discs for comparison; no matter how large my CD library threatens to grow, there are always gaps.

Just starting a recording of Handelís Arianna in Creta, an opera of his Iíd not come across before; I might be able to name 30 or so of his operas from memory, but Iíve certainly not heard them all. Rather interestingly this disc has a Greek ancestry; itís great the way performance of this style of music has expanded away from just a small group of specialist performers. Though of course, issues of style then come into play. The singers on the disc all have a background in what you might term regular opera, so their approach to Handel is different to some of the English specialist recordings, the result can be vibrant but then the stick-in-the mud part of me kicks into play.

Every so often you get a disc which makes you feel sorry for the performers, where someone has made decisions on the presentation of the disc which are either at odds with the real content or seriously undermine the carefully wrought programme. You wonder whether something of this has happened to the new Clemens non Papa disc. It has its origins in a fascinating festival in Louvain celebrating the 16th century publisher Pierre Phalese (Petrus Phalesius); Clemens was one of Phaleseís big names. The recital surveys an interesting cross section of Phaleseís music but has been produced with the name Clemens non papa Ė priest and bon vivant. I canít decide whether this is clever marketing or simply someone picking up on one aspect of the disc and wilfully misunderstanding the rest. But you just know that a title referring to a 16th century publisher from Louvain would definitely not be seen as sexy. As it is, people might be up for a disappointment as much of the music, though of good quality, is not by Clemens.

March 2006

Another new disc of Handelís Fire-Water Music. I decided to listen to a few other comparative versions and whilst browsing in the library picked up Trevor Pinnockís version of the original, wind-ensemble Firework Music. Not strictly relevant to Kevin Mallonís new disc - which uses the traditional string version - but thrilling nonetheless. I love the idea of 24 oboe players all in one place; there canít have been an authentic oboe player left in London. Such extravagances of scoring always appeal to me, I once sang in a BBC performance of Berliozís Symphonie funèbre et triomphale with a completely ridiculous number of clarinet players on the stage, but the result was thrilling. Isnít it about time that someone re-created one of the Handel centenary (1785) performances of Messiah; these used huge forces but kept the relative balance so there was a big choir, with a big orchestra with lots of oboes and bassoons Ė sounds terrific fun and with a period practice performance the sound-world should be very interesting. review

Siegfried Wagnerís Sonnenflamen makes one admire the energy of companies like Halle Opera House who mount productions of lesser-known operas by lesser-known composers, and record companies like CPO who endeavour to ensure that such performances do not go unrecorded. It seems to me that Siegfried Wagnerís operas have been available on CD in a way that is unimaginable for a lesser-known British composer. I just wish that heíd managed to get himself a decent librettist. review

A happier example of documentation by CD, on this side of the channel, is the CD issued by Lammas to mark the end Daniel Soperís reign in charge of the choir of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. It never ceases to amaze me how choirs made up of choral scholars produce such fine results when the singers have to balance the demands of singing in chapel with the everyday demands of academe. I just hope that they have time to have fun as well. review

Weiglís Die Schweizer Familie was another case of mistaken identity. I naively assumed that I was up for an opera based on the Swiss Family Robinson, or something like. Not at all, this work turns out to have been one of the most popular singspiels in the early 19th century. Attractively melodic it is, but with a plot based on a land-owner recreating Switzerland on his estates to help his home-sick servants, this opera/operetta would seem to be doomed to remain only on CD. Except of course, as with Siegfried Wagner, German-speaking countries seem to be far more concerned about their operatic history, so you never know. review

Voyages round Carl Off seem to be cropping up in my life at the moment. Robert Blank and the Carl Orff choirís disc is the second such to have crossed my path. Having sung Carmina Burana under one of Orffís pupils and also sung in a rare London outing of Catulli Carmina, I find this composer endlessly fascinating. Not least in his refusal to simply produce further works in the Carmina Burana mode. The way he stuck steadfastly to his own groove, even though it was less melodically pleasing, has always struck me as being rather similar to the way Holst refused to follow up on the extreme popularity of The Planets. review

Singing groups based around the adult male members of a Cathedral choir are a very English phenomenon, or so it seems to me. They can vary from a local group who are simply useful in extending the cultural activities in their region to better known groups whose links to the parent choir disappear as the singers get older. The Clerks of Christchurch still retain links with their alma mater and for their most recent disc they have even gone as far as to perform a world premiere, a group of songs by Robert Pantcheff. And very good they are too. Unfortunately less imagination went into the fillers. But you canít have everything. review

April 2006

Do I review lots of discs from Australia or is it just that I notice them? The most recent, a complete performance of Monteverdiís Orfeo includes talented soprano Sarah Macliver who has featured on two recital discs that Iíve come across. The accompanying orchestra is the Orchestra of the Antipodes who similarly have featured on a number of discs. The recording, which is based on live performances features Mark Tucker who rather impressed me in the title role when he performed it on the South Bank with Philip Pickett and his New London Consort. Itís tricky doing a recording of Orfeo which balances authenticity with the constraints of performance. This is particularly true when youíre recording a staged performance; staging Monteverdi almost always means compromise in some way. As a critic all you can do is try to appreciate the musicality of whatís on offer and try not to whine too much when what you hear does not correspond to that ideal Monteverdi performance that you only ever hear in your inner ear. review

Lydia Vierlinger is a talented German contralto who obviously has a knack with Handel, I just wish that she had had better advice over what language to sing in. Or am I being too mean? Are the British too susceptible to badly sung English in performances, should we be more forgiving; after all the Germans put up with us singing in their language. I recall an English-based German friend in the 1980s saying that he could not live with Reginald Goodallís Tristan because he desperately wanted a native German speaker as Isolde and could not live with Linda Esther Grayís German. So perhaps Iím not alone. review

I have a sneaking regard for English viols consort music. Over and above its musical considerations, Iíve always loved the idea of the non-commercial aspects. This was music written for private performance, not for an audience. The idea is of people coming together simply to play in a professional but clubbable way. Perhaps this might explain why the genre seemed to persist after the Civil War when it could reasonably have been expected to die out. When I listen to the music on CD I always succumb to the warm, dark viol sound. review

I dread typing up historic recital discs like the latest Tito Schipa from Naxos. Not because of the standard of musicianship - which is excellent - but because singers of the period included so many contemporary items; songs by composers whose sole claim to fame is that their work was recorded by Tito Schipa or Caruso etc. It makes a nightmare of the job of finding their basic biographical information, almost as bad as trying to track down the composers on a disc of Russian Orthodox Music recording in the 1970s by a Bulgarian choir.review

Some groups impress by the clarity and freshness that they bring to the music. This is particularly true of choral repertoire where you can sometimes get a little jaundiced regarding the extremely sophisticated choral sound from our mature professional groups. The Rodolfus Choir are one such group who, in the Tallis disc, brought a lovely gust of youth and passion to these jaundiced ears.review

I am sorry to say that these ears remained firmly jaundiced when it came to the narrator on Dan Welcherís tone poem Haleakala, recorded by the Honolulu Symphony Orchestra. The tone poem is designed to function either with or without a spoken role and I just longed for the narrator to disappear, even though it was Richard Chamberlain. This prejudice was in danger of carrying over into the remainder of the disc; always a problem with these things.review

May 2005

Judith Weirís music is always a tonic to tired ears. She has a wonderful way of boiling things down to their essence. Written descriptions of her chamber operas can sound alarmingly like the plot of an opera by Strauss and Hofmansthal or even a Monty Python sketch. But in real life they are bracing and gripping. I just wish that the original recordings were available; it is such a shame when recordings of such iconic performances disappear out of the catalogue.

Iíve just finished a brace of Messiah reissues. One is Trevor Pinnockís brilliant revitalisation of the traditional work. The other is billed as by Handel/Mozart but omits some of Mozartís changes, leaving me to worry about tradition and schlamperei even though it is conducted by Charles Mackerras. The really odd thing is that both were recorded the same year. Pinnockís bass soloist was John Tomlinson and 1988 was the year he made his debut as Wotan. There can be few contemporary examples of a singer retaining such a wide range of material in their career, something that pre-war singers like Walter Widdop would have found quite natural. He continued singing Handel (notably Messiah) whilst having a career singing Wagnerian tenor roles. Could we expect that from any of our current Siegmunds?

Robert Hugill

 



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