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REVIEWER’S LOG - April 2008
Robert Hugill  

Sometimes you end up reviewing records, never entirely sure why this particular record has crossed your portals at this time, whether it be record companies re-issuing discs in another format or just trying to generate more interest. Lincoln Cathedral’s Ascension Day Matins is a case in point, as it was recorded way back in 1993 and is an interesting snapshot of Matins at the Cathedral.  Recording services is tricky and this disc attempts to record the entire Matins service, though the spoken passages sound a little distant. Frankly, I can’t see myself sitting down of an evening and deciding to play a recording of a complete Matins or Evensong service.
When it comes to plainchant, though, things are rather different and I can listen to acres of this. The Abbey of St. Joseph de Clairval, Flavigny have recorded a couple of discs of plainchant on the Traditions Monastiques label. Their Easter chant disc has a certain naïve charm as it sounds as if someone has simply popped in to the church with a recorder and switched it on. The result, though not sophisticated, has the realistic feel of monks singing chant. Good chant singing only comes about with experience, and that’s the beauty of this type of disc. The voices may not be perfect, but they’ve been singing chant every day of their lives.
Another, even more curious mass was the reconstruction of the service as it might have been celebrated by the Jesuits in Peking. This included pretty routine settings; after all the priests in Peking could not rely upon a large musical establishment. The mass was coupled with pieces in Chinese using Chinese musicians. Until coming across this disc, I had not realised that foreign missions tended to include sections of the mass in the local dialect; a use of the vernacular which precedes Vatican 2 by quite a way.
Some discs stand out so much, that you can understand why the record company might re-issue them, to try and widen the market. Look at Binchois Consort’s pair of Dufay discs which are now available on Hyperion’s cheaper Helios label - hurrah! Andrew Kirkman’s group are stunning on both discs, performing Dufay’s early masses for St. Antony of Padua and St. James the Greater; he of Santiago de Compostela fame. What is so brilliant about these discs is that they combine fine musicology with some toe-tappingly infectious performances. Frankly I had not realised that Dufay could be such fun.
Inevitably you can end up reviewing discs of music by composers of whom you have heard little or nothing. I have endless curiosity about these forgotten petits maitres and love listening to new discoveries and first recordings. You may never hear a forgotten masterpiece, but you can hear pieces which help fill in gaps in the musical background. Clemence de Grandval was from a well-to-do 19th century French family so she could afford to compose without having to worry about making a career of it. Taught by Flotow and Saint-Saëns, friend of many French musicians, her music was played by some of the major players of the day. Forgotten partly because the orchestral scores have disappeared, her reappraisal has required some work to re-create her orchestrations.
Janos Fusz occupies a similar position in earlier musical history. He is mentioned, not favourably, in one of Beethoven’s conversation books. His songs break little new ground, but they help provide background to the world of Beethoven and Mozart. It helps our understanding of composers if we can hear more of the background to their world, it can make us realise when the famous composers were really being adventurous and when they were simply recycling the music that went on around them. Another 18th century Eastern European composer is Frantisek Brixi, from a family of musicians who were related to the famous Benda family. His work is interesting as his influences mix in the Neapolitan school. Despite an extensive output, few of his pieces have made it on to disc.
Domenico Scarlatti is a well known name, but his repertoire from the Italian period prior to his departure for the Iberian peninsula is less well known. He undertook his career rather in his father’s shadow and his sacred music from Italy seems similarly to exist in Alessandro Scarlatti’s wake. The new disc from Naxos lets us hear some of Domenico’s music. What it seems to tell us is that Domenico really only came into his own when he managed to get away from his father. His Italian music is pleasant and well crafted but lacks the flair and remarkable edge that he brought to the sonatas.
Robert Parsons is hardly an unknown name, after all his Ave Maria crops up rather a lot. But the bulk of his output is still under recorded; until now he has not received the accolade of the sort of single composer disc that is commonplace for his contemporaries. Of course, this is another disc where someone (in this case Barnaby Smith) has had to do a substantial amount of musicological work before the music could be performed. This is a perennial problem with lesser known composers - and lesser known pieces by well known composers; before you can perform it you need the music which means someone must have transcribed it from the sources. And, of course, following the Hyperion court case editors and conductors are increasingly wary of the copyright issues, so just borrowing someone else’s edition has become a fraught enterprise. I can only applaud the enthusiastic souls who spend the time in the libraries making this happen.
Elgar is certainly not a petit maitre, but parts of his output are relatively neglected on disc. A new complete song edition is in progress from Channel Classics. Though this uses the talents of Amanda Roocroft the record company is not English and the onlie begetter of the project is Dutch pianist Reinild Mees, showing that Elgar’s music really is becoming international.
It is always difficult finding suitable ways to perform and record lesser known pieces. With Schumann’s choral music, of which there is a not inconsiderable amount, an entire disc of his music might seem a little daunting. Not everyone wants to hear 70 minutes of 19th century part songs, even well written ones. A German group had the interesting idea of commissioning pieces to go with the Schumann ones, interleaving the old and the new, a fascinating idea which makes for challenging and stimulating listening; something that other groups ought to consider. Not everyone will like the confluence of old and very new, but to me the exciting nature of the project and the vivid performances transcend any doubts I may have had about the individual pieces.
An even more daunting prospect is an entire disc of contemporary Anglican worship music from Texas; individual pieces are charming but the whole ensemble is a little too much. David Ashley White has a long pedigree of writing for the Episcopal Church in American and his pieces are all well made and very, very useful. But, as I have found with my own sacred music, useful pieces do not necessarily make good programmes on disc. What this disc lacks is that element of challenge which the Schumann disc had. To make a good programme you need to give the listeners something substantial to get their teeth into, whereas this disc of Ashley White’s music presents 27 shorter items.
With Simon McEnery’s Resurrection we have something of the opposite problem. This is a long, single-disc piece which feels rather over-extended for McEnery’s rather film-music like talent. Much of the piece feels as if it has wandered over from the world of the contemporary musical. But it is not McEnery’s first such piece. Resurrection was premiered in Salisbury Cathedral where McEnery has premiered previous pieces, so presumably McEnery delivered precisely the sort of accessible music which his commissioners wanted. The tragedy of contemporary church music is that few composers of the stature of Sir Harrison Birtwistle are writing pieces and that the idea of a Birtwistle piece to be listened to and enjoyed by everyday Salisbury congregants seems rather unlikely. I rather suspect, that if approached, Birtwistle would not have been entirely happy with Canon Jeremy Davies’s libretto with its over reliance on hymn based structures. The composer was lucky with his performers, the piece was recorded by Salisbury Cathedral choir, unfortunately his has not given them much that is challenging in the way of music.
Stephen Goss, who is based at Surrey University, seems adept at persuading people to go into the studio to record his pieces; it probably helps that he has a fine studio set up at his University. This means that the discs of his chamber music are always fascinating mixes of pieces. He has followed up his disc The Garden of Cosmic Speculation with Frozen Music, an equally fascinating and challenging mix. Two of the pieces involve frequent references to Terry Gilliam films. I am never sure about revealing too much of the programme that underlies a piece, after all if you either don’t know or don’t like Terry Gilliam’s films, what are you to think of the music. I can begin to sympathise with Berlioz who wanted to withdraw the programme of the Symphonie Fantastique and get us to listen to it purely as music. Still, programme or no, Goss’s disc is worth a second listen.
Philip Glass’s music would seem to offer little scope for that rather traditional combination of choir and church organ. But Howard Williams and the Choir of the 21st century have taken the remarkable step of re-working Glass’s Another Look at Harmony Part 4 for this combination. Originally written for vocal ensemble and electric organ, the definitive recording is close miked (as is most of Glass’s writing from this period), giving an intimate studio feel. Williams and his Choir manage to make a good case for their new choral version though I doubt whether many choirs and organists will have the stamina required to perform the piece.
Oystein Baadsvik is a Norwegian Tuba player who has devoted much playing time to revitalising the repertoire for this instrument. On his new disc, his partners in crime are the Swedish Wind Ensemble conducted by the trombone virtuoso Christian Lindberg. The disc’s punning title Prelude, Fnugg and Riffs refers both to the Bernstein piece and to a new work Fnugg Blue by Baadsvik and Svein Giske. This is a disc which wears its contemporary music ID lightly and allows you to mix challenging music with real fun and enjoyment.
Naxos recordings give you a good opportunity to experiment at low cost. Few people would buy one of the full price recordings of Rossini’s La Donna del Lago just to see if they liked it, but they might experiment with the Naxos one - based on the performances at the Rossini in Wildbad Festival. The danger is that the performance will not do justice to the piece and our experimenter will be put of Rossini opera seria for life. Luckily the new performance, whilst not quite top notch, is more than serviceable and well worth the experiment.  Naxos have also built up a nice line in re-issues of old recordings. Sometimes these would only really seem to have an appeal for cognoscenti, but with something like Victoria De Los Angeles’s Manon, the recording is essential listening. This is not just for the star, but because her recording is based on the ensemble of the Opéra Comique, recorded when that ensemble still regularly performed French opéra comique in a recognisably French style. Any of their recordings from the 1950s are essential listening - windows onto a forgotten and lost world. The advantage that these 1950s recordings have is that their recorded quality is such that you can listen to them regularly. The Opéra Comique recording of Bizet’s Carmen complete with spoken dialogue, is still my favourite recording of that opera.       
Even the Naxos publicity refers to Callas’s 1954 recording sessions as problematic. Their new disc of Puccini heroines includes so many vibrato-laden accounts of well known arias in operas that she no longer (or never did) perform on stage that our intrepid experimenter might be put off for life. It has taken me a long time to come to appreciate Callas’s talents. I still prefer the live recordings where the coruscating performances make up for any vocal defects.
Robert Hugill


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