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À Portuguesa: Iberian Concertos & Sonatas
William CORBETT (1680-1748)
Concerto Op.VIII N° 7 Alla Portugesa from: Le bizzarie universali Op.VIII, Book III [9:28]
José António Carlos de SEIXAS (1704-1742)
Concerto a 4 con vv. e cimbalo obligato (harpsichord concerto) in g minor [14:19]
Domenico SCARLATTI (1685-1757)
Sonata for harpsichord K8: Allegro in g minor [2:33]
Sonata for harpsichord K13: Presto in G major [4:09]
Sonata for harpsichord K173: Allegro in b minor [4:44]
José António Carlos de SEIXAS
Concerto a 4 con vv. e cimbalo obligato (harpsichord concerto) in A [5:15]
Charles AVISON (1709-1770)
Concerto 5 in d minor from: 12 Concertos in Seven Parts, arranged from Harpsichord Sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti [8:06]
Luigi BOCCHERINI (1743-1805)
Quintettino Op.30 N° 6 (G324): La Musica Notturna delle strade di Madrid in d minor (transcribed for string orchestra and harpsichord by Andreas Staier):
I. Ave Maria. Imitando il tocco dell’Ave Maria della Parrochia [1:01]
II. Minuetto [2:09]
III. Rosario. Largo assai [4:37]
IV. Los Manolos. Passa Caille. Allegro [2:00]
V. Ritirata con variazioni. Tempo di Marcia [6:20]
Orquestra Barroca Casa da Música Porto/Andreas Staier (harpsichord)
rec. February 2018, Casa da Música, Porto, Portugal. DDD.
Reviewed as 24/96 download with pdf booklet from eclassical.com.
HARMONIA MUNDI HMM902337 [64:53]

Fresh from having been named the best by BBC Radio 3’s Building a Library in Bach’s Harpsichord Concertos (Harmonia Mundi HMC902181/2, mid-price), Andreas Staier now turns to much less mainstream repertoire and does so with a baroque orchestra whom I hadn’t encountered before. Before I move on, let me echo my approval of the encomium for the Bach – DL News 2015/8 – though I also like a recent recording of Nos. 1, 2, 4 and 5 from Fabio Bonizzoni and La Risonanza (Channel Classics CC72773, review pending). That’s labelled Volume 1 and I’m looking forward to its successor(s).

If this had been a review in one of my Second Thoughts and Short Reviews roundups, I would have labelled it a Discovery of the Month. William Corbett’s Concerto alla Portuguesa, from his ‘bizarre’ collection published between 1728 and 1742, is unique to this recording. Other works in that collection are also labelled as in the Iberian style: alla Portugesa (sic) or alla Spagniola (sic). The new recording makes me hope that we may have more of them.

Don’t let the ‘bizarre’ label put you off; this is very enjoyable music and it receives a fine performance from an orchestra whom I also hadn’t encountered before. Indeed, the ‘Portuguese’ label is somewhat misleading: if you like Italian music of the post-Corelli era, Corbett’s concerto is more akin to that than to anything specifically Iberian.

Indeed, Spain and Portugal at this time were heavily influenced by Italian composers, two of whom, whose music is included here, made their homes there for a time. The three solo Scarlatti sonatas, so effectively played by Staier that I could wish for a CD or multi-CD set of them from him, and the closing Boccherini evocations of Madrid at night – five of the seven original movements – are the most familiar pieces here.

I’ve called the Boccherini familiar, but these arrangements by Staier for harpsichord and orchestra of music originally for string quintet are anything but. There’s a very striking Luciano Berio arrangement of the final Ritirata (Beating the Retreat; try Ondine ODE12275: Recording of the Month), and there are some fine recordings of the original. Staier’s Ritirata is different from the Berio – less dramatic in giving the illusion of the marchers coming towards and away from the listener – but equally effective. The other arrangements are striking, too.

The music is descriptive even in the original quintet format, with musical depictions of the Ave Maria bell, Drum rolls from the barracks, a Minuet of the blind beggars1, the Rosary prayer, the street singers, a Drum roll1 and the Retreat. I enjoyed the Cuarteto Casals with Eckart Runge in the original quintets, on Harmonia Mundi HMC902092, as downloaded in 24/44.1 sound with pdf booklet from eclassical.com. They don’t fail to bring out the qualities of each piece; though they don’t achieve the stereo effect of marching troops coming and going in Ritirata, they capture the maestoso effect demanded by the marking in the score. The rest of the CD contains fine accounts of a string quintet, string quartet and guitar quartet (with Carles Trepat); none of it great or very memorable music, but well worth hearing.

In Staier’s arrangement the Ave Maria bell comes over with a much bigger sound and the stridency hinted at in the original2 is much more marked; oddly, coming from an authenticist, all the music sounds much more modern. Having said that it sounds odd for music of this period, I should add that Biber’s Sonata representativa, farmyard animals and all, and the scordatura tuning in his Rosary Sonatas from an even earlier period sound even more advanced for their time. No guitar is credited in the booklet, but its sound is evoked in Los Manolos, the street musicians.

The Seixas concertos are almost as unfamiliar as the Corbett: I can trace only one other recording of the A major (Hungaroton HCD12392) and no others of the g minor, an even more striking work. I must confess to knowing Seixas mainly from his organ music, contained on collections such as a single Sonata in C on Batalha, a selection of Iberian organ music performed by Ton Koopman (CC72320 – review). From the quality of the music as revealed in these performances, I’m surprised that we haven’t heard more of these concertos. Is it a case of Staier, Beecham-like, making second-class music sound almost first-class? If so, I don’t mind; Bach it ain’t – just enjoy.

Avison’s music has become much better known in recent years, a process of which I thoroughly approve, so I’m happy to find one of his concerto arrangements ‘after’ Scarlatti included here. It should be enough to tempt you to explore more from the set, in which case I point you towards Café Zimmermann on mid-price Alpha (ALPHA315: Nos. 3, 5, 6, 9, 11 and 12 – review). Better still, the complete set from the Brandenburg Consort and Roy Goodman on Hyperion Dyad CDD22060, available as I write on two CDs or as a download for just £6.50 from hyperion-records.co.uk.

Staier’s harpsichord, unspecified in the booklet, sounds less mellifluous than on his Bach recording – a little more like Beecham’s description of two skeletons copulating – but certainly not disagreeable and appropriate to the music. He holds the whole programme together extremely well.

I started by saying that I hadn’t encountered the Orquestra Barroca Casa da Música Porto before, though its regular conductor Laurence Cummings is, of course, well known in music of this period. His live recording of Handel’s Arminio from the Göttingen Festival is waiting in my to-do pile (Accent ACC26409). I hope to hear more from this group, with either Staier or Cummings in charge of proceedings.

Overall, I was attracted by the novelty of this recording and the striking cover, but came away having derived much more than that. Perhaps this is one to sample first, if you can, from Naxos Music Library, where it can be heard in very decent 320kbs mp3, but I think you will then want the CD or, better still now that Harmonia Mundi have ditched the SACD format, the very good 24-bit/96kHz download. 

Even with the Brexit-reduced state of the £ – at $1.29 as I write – UK purchasers will find the $ price from eclassical.com competitive with the CD, especially as 24-bit is initially available for the same price as 16-bit. Overall, this is a real find, which I recommend for much more than the novelty value of much of the music.

1 Not included in Staier’s arrangements.

2 Boccherini apologises in a note for the unconventional aspects of the music.

Brian Wilson

Previous review: Philip Buttall





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