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Every day we post 10 new Classical CD and DVD reviews. A free weekly summary is available by e-mail. MusicWeb is not a subscription site. To keep it free please purchase discs through our links.

  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    



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DOWNLOAD ROUNDUP, NOVEMBER 2008

My Download of the Month is James Ehnes’ performance of the Elgar Violin Concerto (Onyx ONYX4025). I downloaded this from theclassicalshop.net.; it’s also available from eMusic. The live recording (rehearsal and public performances at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, May 2007) sounds more than adequate in 320k mp3 sound. For me, this new version just ousts Nigel Kennedy’s first recording as my version of choice among modern recordings – in fact, it reminded me of the classic 1934 Menuhin-Elgar version. The coupling, Serenade for Strings, is an added attraction. No booklet with either version, but the music is pretty well known. [The CD is available from Musicweb for £12 Sale or Return review ]

One advantage of downloading is that it encourages exploration of the back catalogue. The Metronome recording of the music of John Dunstaple, or Dunstable, one of the English composers of the 15th century to have had a considerable international reputation, is a case in point. The Orlando Consort couple the four movements of the Missa Rex seclorum with eleven shorter pieces, all prime reasons for that reputation, in first-rate performances. Some of the tracks just fall below the magic bit-rate of 192k but the sound is more than acceptable. If you insist on having a higher bit-rate, iTunes offer this recording in their ‘plus’ format but at a higher price than eMusic (15 tracks out of a monthly allowance of 50 tracks works out at about £3.60). (METCD1009).

My recent recommendation of a splendid Hyperion CD of the music of Nicholas Gombert (c.1495-c.1560) with Stephen Rice directing the Brabant Ensemble (Tribulatio et angustia, CDA67614 CD review) reminds me that the Brabant Ensemble didn’t begin Gombert’s modern rehabilitation, which was already under way with two CDs recorded by The Tallis Scholars and Peter Phillips in 2001. These Gimell CDs contain all eight of Gombert’s late-period settings of the Magnificat, four per CD, each with an appropriate plainsong antiphon sung before and after. (CDGIM037 CD review and CDGIM038 CD review). Readers may well find these Gimell recordings more to their liking – the music is more approachable, though it contains what Peter Phillips in his excellent notes describes as striking discords, and everything is excellently sung and recorded. These recordings can be downloaded from the Gimell website (gimell.com) in decent mp3 sound for £7.99 or as CD-quality wma or flac downloads for £9.99. I tried one in wma and one in flac format and am delighted to report that, as usual with Gimell, their lossless recordings truly are of CD quality. You might wish to burn them onto audio-quality CDRs rather than the usual kind, to preserve the quality. As with all Gimell downloads, purchase includes the right to download the booklet of notes and the tray insert.

Last year I recommended an excellent bargain 2-CD distillation of the performances of complete works of Tallis by Chapelle du Roi (Portrait PCL2101). That set remains available and represents excellent value – I’ve seen it on offer for as little as £4.75 – but aficionados will want some or all of the complete series, still available from Signum. All the volumes are available as downloads from theclassicalshop.net, eMusic and classicsonline.com. I’ve sampled all these and they all reproduce well, at least at 192k, though only the classicsonline versions come at a guaranteed 320k. They’re also available from iTunes in the ‘plus’ format but, as I don’t have reviewing access to iTunes, I can’t comment on their versions, except to say that if you require the supplementary ‘bonus’ CD which accompanies Volume 9, only iTunes seem to offer this – and that at twice the normal price: so much for the depreciation of the word ‘bonus’. You’d be well advised, therefore, to buy Volume 9 on CD.

A word of warning about the Portrait CDs – the tracks on CD2 are mis-numbered, so what you see on your player is not the number in the booklet. MusicWeb alerted the manufacturers to the problem, but I haven’t yet heard that it’s been corrected. So far I’ve listened to Volumes 1 to 6 of the complete series and have no criticisms worth mentioning of any of the singing – much as I like the Tallis Scholars and The Sixteen in this repertoire, Alistair Dixon’s group offers them a strong challenge.

SIGCD001 contains the early music, written in the reign of Henry VIII, SIGCD002 his music on the cusp of the Reformation and SIGCD003 the music for the restoration of the Latin liturgy under Queen Mary, including an especially fine account of the Mass Puer natus est nobis – but don’t forget the equally fine version of this Mass on Music for Philip and Mary (COR16037) on a recording by The Sixteen which I recommended in last month’s Roundup.

Volumes 4 and 5 (SIGCD010 and 016) offer the Latin music for the Divine Office, while Volume 6 (SIGCD022), Music for a Reformed Church, includes Tallis’s settings of the sung portions of Anglican Mattins, Evensong and Holy Communion. Much of this sixth volume is mainly of academic interest but the anthems and the music from Archbishop Parker’s Psalter are of interest, especially as Vaughan Williams’ famous Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis is based on one of those psalm tunes. I hope to deal with the remaining volumes in next month’s Roundup – a problem with my mobile broadband, caused by a mast down which has taken an interminable time to put right, has delayed me considerably.

None of these sites offer any notes – nothing more than a high-res image of the cover, including the misprint on the cover of Volume 5 – but Signum very generously provide notes and texts for each volume on their website; you’ll have to cut and paste them and make your own booklet. Be aware that the track-listing for Volume 6 on the website reverses the order in which tracks 10 and 11 download and in which the texts are listed.

I mustn’t, however, forget to draw your attention to two recent 2-CD-for-1 compilations of Tudor Music by the Tallis Scholars on the Gimell label (CDGIM209 and 210). I’ve already recommended these in CD form and they’re also available as mp3s and lossless downloads from the Gimell website – sublime singing and superb value in whatever form you choose to buy them. CDGIM209 contains the music of John Browne, William Cornysh, Tohn Taverner and Christopher Tye, the latter two being represented by their Western Wynde Masses. CDGIM210 contains music by John Sheppard, Thomas Tallis and Robert White. All the performances are strong contenders for best versions of their respective works and I have always found the Gimell lossless downloads to be the equal of the CDs. You also get all the notes and artwork from the CDs when you download. I made the CDs Bargain of the Month and I see no reason to withhold the title from the download versions.

The flood of CDs brought to us by various companies in celebration of Buxtehude 2007 tercentenary is finally slowing, though I have only recently reviewed and recommended the third and final volume of the Naxos reissue of Lars Ulrik Mortensen’s complete harpsichord works (8.570581). I missed out on the Op.1 and Op.2 Sonatas in that Naxos series but two recordings from Arts Blue Line by the young Italian group L’Estravagante have filled the gap very ably (77318 and 77328) in performances which fully live up to the group’s name in the best meaning of that term. Apart from those who must have these recordings in SACD format, most will be more than happy with the quality of the 320k download available from theclassicalshop.net.

I’m planning to write in greater detail next month about the new recording by The Sixteen of Handel’s Messiah (Coro COR16062, 2 CDs) – though it was designed to be Easter music, it’s come to be associated more with Christmas. In the interim, let me just say that you needn’t hesitate to go for this new version; with very slight reservations, it’s one of the best on the market, and the 320k mp3 download from theclassicalshop.net is excellent. The only snag is that if you download, you’ll have to pay if you want the ‘bonus’ disc of excerpts from earlier recordings by The Sixteen, which comes free with the CDs. Somebody at Chandos has scrambled this to read ‘buns disc’, which is somehow appropriate; if it isn’t free, it isn’t a bonus.

I’m not sure how many versions of Schubert’s Symphony No.9 in C Sir Charles Mackerras has made but he has now re-recorded it with the Philharmonia Orchestra (Signum SIGCD133). I downloaded this from theclassicalshop.net.; it’s also available from eMusic. The tempi are very close to his earlier version with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (Virgin Classics) – the slightly faster outer movements and the slightly slower second movement in the new recording are both to the advantage of the music. Though this version was made with a modern-instrument orchestra, much of the period flavour of the OAE recording is maintained. I grew up musically with Bruno Walter’s and Thomas Beecham’s Schubert – the latter still has the power to captivate but Mackerras now makes Walter seem rather stodgy. The live recording (QEH, June 2006) is offered in very decent 320k mp3 sound.

Fauré’s Violin Sonata No.1, ‘Dolly’ Suite and Piano Quintet No.2, are very well performed by the Nash Ensemble with Susan Tomes on CRD3505 in very decent 192k mp3 sound for a mere £4.80 from theclassicalshop.net. There are no notes and even the ‘full size’ cover picture is too low-res to use but who cares at the price – be creative and make your own cover: there are plenty of images of Impressionist paintings on the web that will serve the purpose. Don’t try to cut and paste the details from the web page straight into Word – you’ll end up with a lot of formatting that you don’t want; cut and paste into a basic programme like Notepad first, then from there into Word to lose the unwanted formatting.

From the same source comes an equally desirable recording of Fauré’s La Bonne Chanson (Sarah Walker) and the Trio in d minor, Op120 (CRD3389). The low price largely compensates for the very short playing time. CRD3305 offers the much better playing time of 72:30.

I’m afraid that the Naxos recording of Richard Strauss’s Alpine Symphony (8.557811: Staatskapelle Weimar/Antoni Wit) is a complete no-no for downloading. With the music continuous across 22 tracks, there are just too many short glitches for comfortable listening. I listened to the download from Naxos’s home site, classicsonline.com and cannot imagine that other suppliers are able to improve matters. The performance and the sound quality (mp3 at 320k) are excellent, but the minute hiatuses were simply too troublesome, even using a programme which doesn’t create artificial gaps. Don’t even dream of burning it to CD or syncing to an mp3 player using Windows Media Player, which adds 2-second gaps between tracks.

If you want the Naxos version of the Alpine Symphony – and you could do a great deal worse – you ought to buy it on CD; after all, that isn’t a great deal more expensive than the download. If you are looking for a download source without the glitches, go for the Royal Scottish National Orchestra under Neeme Järvi from theclassicalshop.net (CHAN7009). This offers another excellent performance and comes with a substantial filler in the form of Tod und Verklärung. I still counted one minor transition blip on the wma version, but it was far less troublesome than the Naxos, and the wma sound is, if anything, better than Naxos’s 320k mp3 (as, indeed, it should be). There is also an mp3 version of this Chandos recording at a lower price – and mp3s from theclassicalshop come with the ability of joining tracks to avoid dropouts: you should at least join tracks 4 and 5. This is a 2-CD set, but it is possible to download just CD1 if you wish.

I fell in love with J B Foerster’s Velika noc (Easter Eve) Symphony from a Supraphon LP, picked up in a sale, with the Prague Symphony Orchestra conducted by Vačlav Smetáček. That same recording is once more available from Supraphon (111 822-2) and as a first-rate mp3 recording from eMusic. It’s only at 192k or a little higher for some tracks, but the ADD sound, like the DDD recording of the symphonic poem Springtime and Desire which has been added, reproduces very well. Even with the filler, the CD plays for little more than an hour, but one of the advantages of downloading is the ability to create your own programme. Adding Me mladi (My Youth), the coupling from the equally fine Naxos CD of the symphony (8.557776, also available from eMusic) extends the programme by a further 16 minutes; the performance by the Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra under Lance Friedel is every bit the equal of the Supraphon performers and the DDD recording, if anything, even better. This really is the music of a neglected composer and, even with the ‘borrowed’ track, will cost you very little.

There was a time when no primary school assembly was complete without the playing of a 7" ep of Sheep may safely graze from Walton’s Bach-based ballet The Wise Virgins. That music is rather out of fashion nowadays but I have to admit to a weak spot for this kind of updated baroque. For all my love of authentic performance, it finds a ready response in me. So, too, do Respighi’s baroque-based works, such as the Ancient Airs and Dances and Gli Uccelli (The Birds). Both the Walton Wise Virgins and Respighi’s Birds are available as downloads from Chandos’s theclassicalshop.net. The Walton comes on CHAN8871 with the complete ballet The Quest – a less immediately appealing work, but well worth getting to know. The performances (LPO/Bryden Thomson) are excellent and the lossless recording first-rate; there’s also a less expensive mp3, albeit at an adequate 192k rather than the more recommendable 320k.

Respighi’s Birds come with the Three Botticelli Pictures and Il Tramonto as first-rate couplings in first-rate performances from the Bournemouth Sinfonietta and Tamás Vasary and the lossless recording is again of CD quality. (CHAN8913) There’s also a cheaper 192k mp3 version. One small correction to the rather brief notes in the booklet: O come, o come, Emmanuel, which Respighi weaves into The Adoration of the Magi movement, is an Advent hymn, not for Epiphany.

Returning to Walton, we’re spoiled for choice for his symphonies. The Naxos recording of Symphony No.1 (8.553180 English Northern Philharmonia/Paul Daniel) is available from eMusic, whence I obtained it, classsicsonline and theclassicalshop. Again, all three offer at least 192k, with classicsonline only at 320k. There’s also an equally fine LSO Live version with Colin Davis to be had from theclassicalshop, again in more than acceptable mp3 sound though not, of course in the SACD format in which the disc may be obtained (LSO0076). eMusic offer practically the whole LSO catalogue but not, apparently, this recording. Both performances are fully recommendable, but the Naxos is more generous in also offering the Partita. Full notes are available from the Naxos website.

eMusic and theclassicalshop also offer the Naxos version of Symphony No.2 – it’s not as immediately appealing as its predecessor, but I’m surprised at its comparative neglect. I’m going to recommend, however, Chandos’s own recording from theclassicalshop, chiefly because the coupling is more unusual and more adventurous – the suite which Christopher Palmer made from Walton’s little-heard Troilus and Cressida, music which certainly deserves to be heard. The performances (LPO/Bryden Thomson) are excellent and the lossless recording fully CD quality. There’s also a very decent mp3 version available more inexpensively.

Finally, let me recommend the Naxos coupling of Walton’s Violin Concerto (Dong-Suk Kang) and Cello Concerto (Tim Hugh), available from eMusic, classicsonline and theclassicalshop. (8.554325, ENP/Paul Daniel again). My only reservation about this recording is that it cuts across my favourite coupling, of the Violin and Viola Concertos with Nigel Kennedy on EMI, but I imagine that most listeners would prefer the Cello Concerto as coupling, especially when it’s so well performed.

 

Brian Wilson


 


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