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MusicWeb Reviewer’s Log: February 2007
Reviewer: Robert Hugill 

Artists who move between modern performances and period performance practice can sometimes make assessing a recording difficult. After all, much baroque music was written for the greatest performers of the day, which means we often have to compromise. Either we hear a great voice singing, but not in period style; or we hear period style performance with voices not quite in the great category. Admittedly there are exceptions. But it seems to have been exceptionally brave of Emanuelle Haim to work with Rolando Villazon on Monteverdi’s Il Combatimento. Villazon had never done any early music before and has taken on board much period practice, though his voice production is still firmly based in the 19th century. The results are mixed but fascinating (see review).
Anne Sofie von Otter is a singer who has always seemed to be able to flit from Handel to the present day and back, adjusting her style accordingly. Proprius are to be commended for releasing her first solo recital. It is amazing to hear how much of the mature singer was present on that 1983 disc. Though this seems to be the second time in a few months when I’ve come across a high voice singing Handel’s ‘Where’er you walk’. I don’t think the transposition works that well and it’s not as if Handel didn’t write some wonderful music for the alto voice (see review).
Catherine Bott is another singer whose career has spanned various styles, in her case this even includes a stint singing with the New Swingle Singers. Bott is a national treasure and her fabulously communicative style can be heard regularly on Radio 3. It was with much pleasure that I came across her new disc, on the slightly oddly named Fred Label. The label has been set up by an Art Gallery owner and has an eclectic mix of performers. Bott’s disc is equally eclectic in its own way as she mixes period performers with contemporary Arab ones to shed some light on the various influences in Spanish music. For me the best pieces were when the performers threw away the rule book and improvised together, I just hope that we can look forward to another disc with much more of the same (see review).
Sometimes discs appear on my reviewing pile which, for whatever reason, have been around a while. Perhaps because the recording has been sitting in a vault somewhere or perhaps because the disc is being re-launched. For whatever reason, this month I came across a disc by the German Ensemble Armarcord which was recorded in 1998 and issued in 2001. This sort of time span means that, no matter how much you like the group, you are aware that they might have changed immensely in the intervening years. Still, all you can do is listen and report (see review).
Making records is not always a profitable business and some of the smaller labels get assistance from foundations etc to help produce music of interest. This is usually reported on the ‘sleeve’. But you sometimes come across discs where you wonder at the reasons for their release and have guilty thoughts about money changing hands and subsidies being provided. This is especially true when the work in question is not in the ‘fascinating but neglected’ box. I must confess that all sort of thoughts passed through my mind when I heard Cho-Liang Lin’s new recording of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons on Naxos. The violinist has been concentrating on more contemporary repertoire recently, so there are any number of reasons for postulating why he might want to record the work. In this case, some sort of explanation in the CD booklet would not go amiss rather than the usual PR speak (see review).
And now for something completely different. Really. I’d never heard of Sacchini and until listening to his music had presumed that he fitted into the early 19th century Italian pre-Rossini school. Not a bit. His last opera, Oedipe, was written for Queen Marie Antoinette and out-Gluck’s Gluck in the classical French nobility of the music. This is definitely an opera that I’d like to see performed. Not much chance of that I suspect as Gluck’s French operas are hardly ten a penny (see review).
Arvo Pärt is one of those composers who seem to mine the same seam repeatedly, always finding something new. Well, nearly always. There are moments when I listen to a piece and think that he’s written that before, but then you come across another of such transcendent beauty that you forgive him. Many of his choral pieces are deceptively simple, if you’ve ever tried to sing any then you’ll know how difficult they are to bring off. The sort of clarity and ease that the pieces need are tricky to achieve. All the more reason to commend the achievement of the Elora Festival Singers on their new disc. Naxos do seem to have a gift for digging out these fine groups and giving them a chance to show what they can do (see review).
The new disc of Nicholas Maw’s music is one of those recordings that seems to have been sitting on someone’s shelf; the recording was made in 2000. Still, that makes it all the more welcome. Maw was born the same year as Pärt but the two composers’ catalogues are pretty different. Maw has written a distinguished body of choral music, much for amateurs and it is good to have such an attractive selection on disc. I think Maw makes the listener work more than Pärt does, but that is no bad thing. Again, from personal experience, I can testify to how satisfying Maw’s music is to sing; last year I sang the solo quartet tenor part in Maw’s lovely ‘One Foot in Eden still I stand’ (see review).
Ronald Stevenson is another composer whose output on disc does not really reflect his real output as a composer. Stevenson is a prolific composer and has written much fine piano music, a lot of it for himself to play. Now Dunelm have issued a recital by long-time Stevenson supporter and friend, Sheena Nicoll. Part of me wanted to hear some of Stevenson’s bigger more bravura pieces, but Nicoll’s recital is beautifully put together and should win the composer new friends. Stevenson was himself a fine recitalist; evidently the BBC have many fine performances of his locked in the archives. For anyone interested in hearing the composer himself, a new disc consists of a 1976 recital that Stevenson gave for Canadian Radio, full of transcriptions including the composer’s own Peter Grimes Fantasia and the Bach/Busoni Chaconne. I heard Stevenson give similar recitals in Scotland in the late 1970s and can testify that his playing was magnetic. The only thing missing from the disc is the sound of his voice; Stevenson played a mean lecture recital (see the review by my colleague, Jonathan Woolf).
Finally back to period performance debates; this time the great Bach choral music question; how many singers to a part do we use? I doubt that consensus will ever be achieved, but there is no reason why it should. After all Bach’s music is great enough to cope with a variety of performance styles and practices. But a couple of issues repeatedly come up when I listen to this music. The first is that many conductors seem to have a blind spot when it comes to balancing this music; too often the balance is wrong. And this leads into the second point: no matter what forces you are using, or you think Bach used, you must remember that his background was the Lutheran organ loft where single voices to a part was the norm. This raises all sorts of issues when it comes to balance and structure. Frieder Bernius’s new recording does not solve all the issues, but he seems at least to have thought about them and the result is highly recommendable.
Robert Hugill




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