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ROBERT HUGILL REVIEWER’S LOG - January 2008

This is by way of a catch-up session as family matters have meant that my reviewer’s log has fallen behind.

Over the years, styles of performance in baroque music have changed. Sometimes older performances - period performances in the other sense - are well worth while listening to. After all, I would not want to be without Joan Sutherland’s performances in Handel operas even though the performance practice can sound a little dated. Unfortunately the excerpts from Handel’s Serse, sung by Polish forces do not fall into that category. This is partly because they commit the solecism of allocating the title role to a tenor - curious how mezzo-soprano roles when transposed down become tenors. This is something that Handel did, but only in extreme desperation. Whatever the role, the resulting octave transposition of the vocal line has a profound effect on the character of the piece with the running passages always sounding more effortful. But the disc also makes the mistake of choosing just two characters from the opera, rather than a whole cross section of the opera.

Maria Bayo is an opera singer from a younger generation and her Handel recital is a complete delight. But it has a special place in my heart because she sing’s Handel’s cantata No se emendara jamas, his only Spanish language setting and his only use of guitar as continuo instrument. Despite its Spanish links, the work was written in Rome in 1707, probably to flatter a Spanish visitor to his patron, Prince Ruspoli. Bayo is not a baroque specialist but like many younger singers she has successfully flitted between period and modern performance styles.

Emma Kirkby, on the other hand, has remained securely in the period performance camp - with one or two notable exceptions. Kirkby’s voice has often reminded me of Isobel Baillie’s; both have a narrow focus, secure sense of line and a clear bright sound. Baillie successfully recorded the love duet from Madam Butterfly, turning in a performance which makes Butterfly sound a convincing 16 year old even though Baillie’s tone is not very Italianate. I have always wondered what Kirkby would have sounded like in such repertoire, but it is probably too late now. However, Hyperion has reissued - on their Helios label - her disc of arias from Vivaldi operas. This is a real box of delights. I still find Vivaldi’s operatic output easier to cope with in small bites, so this disc is ideal. Kirkby might not be as Italianate in tone as others, but her musicality is excellent.

Vivaldi’s operatic output is large and insufficiently exposed on disc, but his instrumental works are so numerous as to be entirely bewildering. The guitar duo, the Katona Twins, have gathered together a group of works involving guitars or guitar-like instruments. The result is a charming and imaginative mixture, one that helps capture the imagination and help focus on a small but worthwhile part of Vivaldi’s output. It helps that they include some trio sonatas with the continuo played on the second guitar, a lovely touch.

On a more traditional CD set, Ottavio Dantone’s Accademia Bizantina give us Vivaldi’s complete L’Estro Armonico. These are not concertos to give a single soloists, the set involves up to four soloists. So a group like this, with soloists being drawn from the ranks of the ensemble, is ideal for the works.

Dantone’s group is relatively small, a common occurrence in period performance. On Burkhard Glaetzner’s disc of Bach oboe concertos he demonstrates the advantage of a small group of performers when using modern performance practice. These are period-aware performances and the works are not overwhelmed by the string tone as they can be with bigger modern groups. A little creative reconstruction work is needed as few of Bach’s solo oboe works survive in their original form, still it does mean that oboists can be free to exercise a little creative imagination in the works.

Bach’s motets are rather better documented; we have a reasonably clear idea of how he performed them. I prefer these works done one to a part, but am not dogmatic. Robert Fountain on his disc of the motets, taken from live recordings, uses them as teaching pieces for his University choir. The results are illuminating in terms of choral technique, but hardly everyday listening.

Ton Koopman, meanwhile, continues to soldier his way through the work’s of Bach’s great predecessor, Buxtehude. With Buxtehude it is amazing how much of his work has not survived. So Koopman’s 2 CD set of Cantatas gives us a glimpse into the delights of the missing oratorios. The advantage of the CD format is that nowadays the most exotic repertoire can find its way into the library. CD is the ideal medium for exploring the complete works of such composers like Buxtehude.

Similarly Jean Christoph Frisch and his musicians transport us to 18th century Peking and the music of the Jesuits. Their services mixed rather straightforward 18th century vocal music with some extremely exotic Chinese music, which survives in manuscripts sent back to France. Interestingly, it seems to have been standard in Jesuit missions to include some sections in the vernacular in a way which would have been unthinkable in Western Europe.

Still in the East, Japanese lutenist Ryosuke Sakamoto chose to play a wide range of material on a Renaissance lute. As he plays music ranging through Bach to the 19th century, the result is rather puzzling. It seems slightly perverse to play so much later music on a renaissance instrument, but at least it should give the CD personality. Unfortunately it doesn’t quite, so we must look forward to Sakamoto doing a more conventional disc.

But on their new disc, Love Letters, Il vero modo take a different, rather imaginative attitude to programme composition, mixing a series of lettre amorose into striking groupings. A disc that definitely has personality, of the right sort. Constructing programmes from disparate smaller pieces requires personality and imagination and not everyone succeeds. The Brabant Ensemble have a new disc out with a series of fine performances of motets by Nicolas Gombert. Here both the motets and the performances are superb, so we can overlook the fact that the programming is not overly imaginative as the musical material and the musicianship more than compensate.

A rather longer term sense of imagination is what characterises the Laudantes Consort’s Requiem project. This is a group of discs which will chart the Requiem across the centuries. Their first disc, with Requiems from Ockeghem and de Lassus makes a fine start. Subsequent discs will march steadily forward in time until the final disc with a new commissioned Requiem setting.

Gerard de Lesne’s Purcell programme is also beautifully and imaginatively constructed and sung with superb musicianship. It is almost ideal, there is just one essential ingredient at fault – Lesne’s English is poor.

Finally in the Baroque and Renaissance pile is a part of discs which illuminate some standard repertoire. Jeremy Summerly and the Oxford Camerata give Tallis’s Spem in Alium with fine intelligence and a good performance of Salve Intemerata. Then I Sei Voci attempt to illuminate Allegri’s Miserere. They do provide us with a fascinating reconstruction of the motet as it might have been performed in the Baroque era. But they make the mistake of including the traditional 20th century confection as well. This is a case where you find multiple layers of tradition, a nightmare for performers constructing a programme.

With contemporary CD’s I am discovering the other side to record reviewing as my own new CD, "The Testament of Dr. Cranmer" is currently being reviewed. Suddenly the reviewer’s job looks very different!

Stephen Hartke’s opera, The Greater Good, was performed at Glimmerglass and is released by Naxos. I wish I could be more enthusiastic about the work itself, especially as other reviewers seem to have liked the piece. I am currently writing an opera and have had endless discussions with my librettist about how a libretto should be constructed. Hartke seems to have assembled his own based on an existing play. The result is, for my taste, a little too wordy. It would surely have been improved if Hartke had had someone to mull things over with and suggest cuts.

Stefan Wolpe had a rather more eclectic taste in words, he even set excerpts from an address by Einstein. In fact he didn’t write much vocal music and this shows, the pieces on this disc from Bridge Records are either folk song arrangements or rather insistent serious pieces, despite the best intentions of composer and performers. But of course, such explorations are what makes CDs so versatile.

An even further corner of the repertoire is reached in another disc, entitled Gustav Holst: Composer as Arranger. Here we have a selection of dances and folk song arrangements by Holst along with his version of some of Purcell’s suites. The result must be a disc which received my vote as appealing to the most specialised of tastes – Holst completists only.

Paderewski is in some ways well known, but we know such a small selection of his music. A new disc from Poland gives us his three major song cycles. Stretching from his parlour ballad style to far more sophisticated settings of Catulle Mendes, here we are discovering more hidden corners but this time it is repertoire and performances that I would certainly wish to return to.

Finally we have a forgotten instrument, the Ophicleide. Nick Byrne gives us a fascinating disc of music for Ophicleide and piano, including some recently written pieces. Musical archaeology of the highest order.

Robert Hugill




 


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