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DOWNLOAD ROUNDUP: OCTOBER, 2008

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DOWNLOAD ROUNDUP: OCTOBER, 2008

Welcome to what is planned as the first of a series of monthly overviews of available downloads.

I’m starting with what has to be my DOWNLOAD OF THE MONTH:

Tomás Luis de Victoria (1548-1611) Requiem (1605 ), Salve regina, etc., recorded by The Sixteen under Harry Christophers in April, 2005 (CORSACD16033).

We don’t seem to have reviewed this as a CD or download on Musicweb, though we carried a review of a live performance as part of the ensemble’s 2006 tour – see RJF’s appreciative recommendation to attend any performances in the readers’ vicinity, "regardless of whatever your previous experience of this music and this type of singing might be."

At the same time, I couldn’t resist a reminder of the virtues of an older recording by The Sixteen from 2002, of motets and hymns by Victoria, The Call of the Beloved (COR16007), which Jonathan Woolf has already dubbed a marvellous disc – see review. Add to the Requiem this recording of Victoria in more festive mode, the Tallis Scholars’ recording of the Tenebræ Responsories,on Gimell (CDGIM022 – also available to download) and one of the Hyperion Westminster Cathedral recordings, and you have the makings of a first-class collection of Victoria’s music.

For many Victoria’s Requiem is a quintessential work of the Spanish renaissance. Don’t look for the dramatic power of the Mozart or Verdi Requiems: with only parts of Dies iræ set here, the overall mood is one of tranquil grief and quiet hope – a mood which Fauré and Duruflé were to capture again in their settings.

Everything comes together here: music, singing and recording. The performance seems just right – moving the music along at quite a brisk pace yet allowing space for contemplation and never sounding hurried. The instrumental accompaniment, where it occurs, is discrete and unobtrusive; it includes the use of the bajón, one of the ancestors of the bassoon. The recording, too, even in ordinary stereo, sounds excellent.

The Sixteen also offer several shorter pieces, including an affective performance of the funeral motet Versa est in luctum – slightly faster than the Tallis Scholars on Naxos, but equally effective.

The chief competition for this recording of the Requiem comes from The Tallis Scholars, whose version can be obtained as part of a 2-CD package entitled Renaissance Giants (CDGIM207) recommended as Bargain of the Month by Dominy Clements – see review – or on another 2-for-1 offer where Victoria’s music is set within the context of a Requiem Mass (Requiem, CDGIM205). As usual, the Tallis Scholars tend to take the music at a more stately pace (6:13 for the Introit, for example, against The Sixteen’s 5:05) but I always find it difficult to choose between these two excellent ensembles and I’m not going to try here – merely to point the difference and let you take your pick. Those who prefer to have the music set in a liturgical context (not quite in the Paul McCreesh manner) will prefer CDGIM205. There’s no doubt that Gimell’s El Greco artwork on CDGIM205 and 012 makes for an attractive cover.

There’s little that I can add to JW’s review of The Call of the Beloved: this is marvellous music, excellently performed in The Sixteen’s usual brisk but not insensitive manner, and very well recorded. The Requiem would be my first recommendation, but I’m sure you’ll want the other recording when you’ve heard it.

The Sixteen are download pluralists, so these recordings are available from classicsonline.com, whence I obtained the Requiem, from Chandos’s theclassicalshop.net, my source for The Call of the Beloved, and from emusic.com. The versions from classicsonline and theclassicalshop come in 320kbps sound, the highest quality for mp3 and fully acceptable as far as I am concerned.

The booklets, offered free on the Chandos website, are handsome and informative. The texts and translations which they include are essential – how about offering these in future, classicsonline and eMusic? Hyperion and Gimell usually include some contemporary artwork with their recordings of renaissance music; these Coro covers are a little nondescript by comparison. It’s also well worth looking at the notes on Victoria on the Gimell website.

Whilst I’m on the subject of The Sixteen, let me also strongly recommend Music from the Sistine Chapel, on COR16047 and Music for Monarchs and Magnates on CORSACD16016. The former offers some less predictable, but attractive works by Anerio, Allegri, Marenzio and Palestrina (not the over-exposed Allegri Miserere, for example, but his Missa ‘Che fa oggi’) and the latter music for Elizabeth I and James I; though it includes what may be your umpteenth version of Tallis’s Spem in alium it also contains the contrafactum of this work, in which the music is recast to English words, and some of the pieces are accompanied by The Symphony of Harmony and Invention. I downloaded COR16047 from eMusic and CORSACD16016 from theclassicalshop; both come in very acceptable sound, though, of course, you get only the CD version of Music for Monarchs and the Victoria Requiem, both of which come in SACD format on disc. Theclassicalshop offers the excellent booklets of notes and texts for all these Coro recording.

One last recording by The Sixteen: music by Spanish and English composers of the mid-sixteenth century on Music for Philip and Mary, i.e. Philip of Spain and his wife Queen Mary of England (COR16037), including Tallis’s Missa: Puer nobis nascitur, probably written in anticipation of Mary’s pregnancy, which, in the end, turned out to be a non-event. The music certainly is an event and the performances are equally fine. I downloaded this recording from eMusic, an mp3 recording ranging from 192k to 320k, but it is also available from theclassicalshop, where the excellent booklet is also available, and from classicsonline.

I’ve already mentioned briefly in another review the music of William Byrd and Philippe de Monte on a 1997 Chandos recording entitled The Caged Byrd (CHAN0609), available as an excellent download from theclassicalshop.net. This recording, like the bargain price Harmonia Mundi Music for a Hidden Chapel – see review – shows the private side of Byrd, the composer of music for Elizabeth’s Established Church who also wrote for the recusant community of which he was a part. The Hidden Chapel recording is available to download in good mp3 sound from iTunes and eMusic.

Staying with the late 16th century, Signum have recently released a recording entitled Vox in Rama, the second book of motets of Giaches de Wert (1535-96), an excellent recording of the church music of a composer more famous for his madrigals and as the tutor of Monteverdi. The performances by Collegium Regale, alias King’s College, Cambridge, choral scholars, directed by Stephen Cleobury, are superb and the 320k download obtained from theclassicalshop offers very acceptable sound. I have put in my ‘bid’ for the CD of this recording – if successful, I shall be able to compare the mp3 sound with the disc. The download comes complete with an excellent booklet.


Chandos already had two excellent recordings of early Bach Cantatas in their catalogue, with Emma Kirkby et al and the enlarged Purcell Quartet. CHAN0715 contains Cantatas Nos. 4, 131, 106 and 196. CHAN0742 offers Nos. 12, 18, 61 and 161, all composed for Weimar. Now they have added a third volume (CHAN0752 – slightly confusingly labelled Weimar Cantatas II) - equally excellent performances of Nos. 172, 182 and 21. My only reservation about recommending the new recording as a download from Chandos’s theclassicalshop.net is that in wma format it costs more than the CD equivalent, which is on offer as 2-for-1, an offer not extended to the lossless download. Even the mp3 download is not much cheaper. The Chandos Press Officer has informed me that they intend to solve this anomaly: 2-for-1 recordings will in future also be offered as 2-for-1 downloads."

My recent delight in hearing the Avison Ensemble in some of that composer’s concertos on the Divine Art label led me to the eMusic downloads of their performances of the Cello Concertos of his contemporary John Garth – a real discovery: he isn’t even a name in the Oxford Companion to Music. (DDA25059, 2 CDs) Strongly recommended: as I’ve already said in my review of the Avison CDs, I’d now like to hear the cellist, Richard Tunnicliffe, in the Haydn Concertos. This Divine Art recording is now available from theclassicalshop, too, in 320k sound together with the full booklet, rear inlay and CD labels. I hope to include the ensemble’s recording of the Avison Concertos after Geminiani next month, also available either from theclassicalshop or from eMusic.

The recent reissues on the Harmonia Mundi Gold label at mid price, welcome as they are, must not be allowed to obscure their even better value Musique d’Abord and Classical Express series. Schubert’s Octet in F on Classical Express HCX395 7049 is particularly recommendable – an excellent performance by a period-instrument ensemble available in very acceptable 256k sound from iTunes and also available from eMusic. My only grumble is that, as with all this series, the cover is unimaginative in the extreme. eMusic and classicsonline also have a very acceptable Naxos recording of the Octet, coupled with an earlier Schubert Octet, but Music from Aston Magna, directed by Daniel Stepner on the HM recording win hands down, unless you’re allergic to period instruments – there are a very few very minor fluffs here, inevitable when playing early wind instruments, but nothing to spoil a delectable 64 minutes.

My recommendations of other recordings in the Classical Express series have already appeared in the main Musicweb reviews section: the Byrd Music for a Hidden Chapel to which I refer above and two CDs containing Corelli’s Op.6 Concerti Grossi – see review.

We’re spoiled for versions of Dvořák’s chamber music. I’ve been looking at available download versions of his Piano Trios and found an embarrassment of riches. Chandos’s theclassicalshop offers all four of these works from their 2-for-1 Borodin Trio recordings (CHAN241-24), recorded in 1985 and 1992 in very good DDD sound, which sounds equally well as a lossless download and in mp3 format (I tried both). If you want all these works, this is the version to go for, but be warned – the second disc is so full that I couldn’t burn it all on one CDR. If you just want the best-known of these Trios, No.4, Dumky, theclassicalshop also offers the same performance of it with Smetana’s Piano Trio on CHAN8445.


If you are looking for excellent versions of Nos. 3 and 4, look no further than the 2006 Supraphon recording by the youthful players of the Smetana Trio (SU3872-2), available as a download in very acceptable sound from eMusic. I compared their recordings with the now classic accounts by the Florestan Trio on Hyperion (CDA66895) and found very little to choose between them. I’ve derived great pleasure from the Hyperion version on CD; it’s available from iTunes, but not as one of their superior ‘plus’ recordings – the piano is notoriously intolerant of recordings at less than 192k. Go for the Supraphon if you’re downloading.


From theclassicalshop on CRD3403 comes a version of the Fauré Piano Quartets to challenge the hegemony of another Hyperion recording – the Nash Ensemble on CRD certainly challenge Domus, especially in download format, where iTunes again offer the Hyperion recording at a less than ideal bit-rate. The price of £4.80 for the CRD recording is extremely competitive, too.



Several other Nash Ensemble recordings are available at the same price. I hope to refer to more of these next month but will mention just one more to whet your appetite – the splendidly tuneful Spohr Nonet and Octet, delightfully played and in perfectly acceptable 192k mp3 sound (CRD3354).

Mention of Dvořák leads me to his son-in-law Josef Suk, a composer whose music I like but whose Asraël Symphony has always eluded me. Theclassicalshop offers the Chandos version conducted by Jiri Bělohlávek, both as a single CD, in which form it is deleted on disc but available to download, and on a 2-disc coupling. Despite Rob Barnett’s recommendation of this version in its 2-CD form (CHAN9640) – see review – I still haven’t come to terms with the work, though I liked this version better than the now-deleted Pešek version once available on HMV Classics; I must try again. The download version of the symphony – I didn’t try CD2, as I have the other works on Supraphon recordings – comes in very acceptable sound.

I’ve been meaning for some time to sample Marin Alsop’s recordings of the Brahms Symphonies with the LPO on Naxos, generally well received, not least here on Musicweb. I began with the First, coupled with the Tragic and Academic Festival Overtures (8.557428). I had expected to find this clearly preferable to Naxos’s earlier Rahbari recording; it is, but in the event, I was slightly disappointed, finding the performance a little tentative in places, even in the lead-up to the big tune in the Finale. The recording, downloaded from eMusic at around 192k (it varies slightly from track to track) is perfectly acceptable: it starts by sounding somewhat heavy but matters soon improve. Perhaps there would have been a case for a 320k or a lossless version. There’s no booklet with this recording, even with the version from theclassicalshop, but the Naxos website offers all the notes, plus the rear insert as a pdf. Buy it from classicsonline, Naxos’s own download site, and you’ll get the booklet and insert.

I began with my Download of the Month; I’ll end with my Bargain of the Month. This is not a static recommendation, since the bargain in question changes every 24 hours. A new source of classical downloads launched in mid-September at passionato.com. I have a number of reservations about what they have to offer, not least their pricing policy which means that, like iTunes, they offer all the recordings from a particular label at the same price, irrespective of the cost of the equivalent CD, which sometimes makes the offerings on both these sites more expensive than the cost of the equivalent CD from many retailers.

eMusic have the opposite problem, since they charge a flat rate per track: a 4-movement Mahler symphony is excellent value from them, but a 25-movement CD of Corelli or Vivaldi certainly is not.

Where passionato score, however, is that they have one recording on offer for £1.99 each day – sometimes even a 4-disc opera recording, such as Parsifal. I couldn’t resist trying the Pavarotti, Sutherland and Mehta version of Puccini’s Turandot when it was on offer. I can’t imagine a better performance – even Peter Pears is just right as the King – yet, for some unaccountable reason, I owned this recording only as a set of excerpts. I was delighted with the quality of the download, in 320k mp3 sound – a flac version is promised but not yet available – and I shall certainly make this my version of choice.

Two small grumbles: the download came out back to front and took some sorting out – which ‘track 1’ belonged to CD1, which to CD2? – and passionato have not yet mastered the difficult task of making the music continuous across tracks, so that there are some very brief and disconcerting dropouts. Theclassicalshop offer the opportunity to join tracks when downloading and, in some cases, to download a whole CD as a zip file, to avoid this problem. Passionato – and others – please emulate.

As I write this roundup, the offer one day is Karajan’s DDD remake of the Brahms Symphonies, certainly well worth £1.99 of anyone’s money, though not my first choice. The following day’s offer of the Pinnock Corelli Concerti Grossi, Op.6 certainly would be my first choice if they ever reappear at £1.99. Next day even better value – John Eliot Gardiner’s superb Archiv Bach Mass in b minor.

For an even better bargain, sign up for Chandos’s monthly email newsletter; every month it comes with a free download of a complete CD.

As I close this roundup, I note that James Ehnes’s version of the Elgar Violin Concerto, available from theclassicalshop, has come first in category in the Gramophone awards. I’m downloading it even as I write and hope to report more fully on it next month. Will it replace Nigel Kennedy’s first version in my affections?

Brian Wilson



 


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