Sunday, October 31, 2010

Händel: Water Music - SCO, Alexander Gibson

George Frideric Händel
Water Music
The Scottisch Chamber Orchestra, Alexander Gibson
Chandos CHAN 6642

Classics Today rating: 10/10

This recording of Handel's Water Music remains one of the finest available "big band" versions using modern instruments. It also was one of Chandos' earliest digital successes, establishing the label's reputation for sonic as well as artistic excellence, and its virtues haven't diminished at all since it was first issued in 1985. It's difficult to say exactly why the music comes off sounding so fresh and lively in this peformance. Certainly, Gibson brings an unvarnished joy to his conducting that serves these suites particularly well. From the crisp rhythms of the two overtures and rollicking horns in the quicker movements (such a delightful Alla Hornpipe!) to the perfectly gauged Adagio e staccato from Suite No. 1, you get the sense that conductor and orchestra are just having a great time in music they were born to play.

Then there's the sound: warm and clear, capturing the instruments in a truly flattering acoustic space. It's simply a pleasure to listen to, never aurally fatiguing or unnaturally balanced. Hopefully Chandos will add Gibson's stunning disc of Elgar Overtures to its reissue roster; it boasts the same virtues as this recording and for my money never has been surpassed. Really super!

David Hurwitz, ClassicsToday.com

Friday, October 29, 2010

Castrucci: Concerti Grossi Op.3 - Händel FO Halle, Anton Steck

Pietro Castrucci
Concerti Grossi Op.3
Händel Festival Orchestra Halle, Anton Steck
Glissando 779 034-2

Big thanks to Dmitry for bringing the works of this 'unknown' composer to my attention and credits to him as well for the scans for this recording. I guess I had a lazy day. ;-)

When it comes to the concerto grosso, Corelli, Vivaldi, and Handel pretty much own the field. But that doesn't mean many others didn't succeed in the form (which came to embrace several different structural types and hybrids), and Pietro Castrucci, who spent nearly half of his professional life as leader of Handel's opera orchestra, is one of them. Having met Handel during the German composer's Italian sojourn in 1707/08, Castrucci eventually wound up in London, having established quite a reputation in Italy as a violinist, reputedly managing "24 or even 25 notes on one stroke of the bow. . ." Among his other credentials are his reputed study with Corelli and his service (during his pre-London years) in the famed "virtuosi di canto e suono" of Francesco Maria Ruspoli in Rome.

Although Castrucci's composing skills are competent, he's no Corelli--or Vivaldi--or Handel. For a virtuoso violinist, these compositions are surprisingly moderate in their demands on the concertino players; and in these six selections from his 12 Op. 3 concertos, we find no sign of Handelian melodic genius nor of that same composer's theatrical capacity for touching a variety of emotions, with slow movements that pull at the heart and fast movements that dance off the page. So much for what Castrucci isn't--what he is, on evidence of these examples, is a composer who has mastered form and style, who knows how to write for strings and knows how to get to the point, but whose limited creative imagination results in derivative (mostly of Corelli) albeit very delightful concert works.

And entertaining, too, thanks to these enthusiastic, well-articulated performances by violinist/conductor Anton Steck and his period-instrument Handel Festival Orchestra Halle. Not only do they produce the requisite precision of bowing that delivers excellent ensemble, but the players really dig into these pieces with the kind of energy that makes you imagine sparks flying. No one's making any apologies for the absence of a masterpiece here! And it's all set in a generously resonant yet finely detailed sonic environment that gives brilliance to the top end and plenty of weight (nearly too much) to the lower instruments. This disc will make a fine addition to the Baroque instrumental music section of your library--a chance to experience some of the music those 18th-century Londoners were hearing when Handel had the night off (although the skimpy disc time--only 46:21--is quite a bit less than we're used to these days).

David Vernier, ClassicsToday.com

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Händel: Concerti Grossi Op.6 Nos. 9-12 - TEC, Trevor Pinnock

George Frideric Händel
Concerti Grossi Op.6 Nos. 9-12
The English Concert, Trevor Pinnock
Archiv 410 899-2

This release of Handel's Concerti grossi, op. 6 Nos. 9-12 completes the CD issue transferred from the original three LP set. Readers will know that, apart from a small number of quibbles, I have been enthusiastic about The English Concert's performances of Handel's finest set of concertos. Trevor Pinnock and his players are fastidious in matter of detail and I find these readings well thought out, effectively phrased and very well played. The Overture of the Tenth Concerto, beautifully poised and with a nicely judged tempo, is one movement which shows off some of the strongest elements in these performances; the bustling vigour of the penultimate Allegro of the same concerto is another, whilst the captivating little D major Allegro moderato, which ends the same work, is pleasingly light-footed. There Pinnock captures the dance-like spirit of the piece with affection.

Recorded sound is clear and fairly resonant throughout, but that goes, too, for the LPs. Both versions, and indeed a third on cassette, can be warmly recommended.

Nicholas Anderson, Gramophone Magazine

Monday, October 25, 2010

Händel: Concerti Grossi Op.6 Nos. 5-8 - English Concert, Pinnock

George Frideric Händel
Concerti Grossi Op.6 Nos. 5-8
The English Concert, Trevor Pinnock
Archiv 410 898-2

The first four concertos of Handel's Op. 6 in The English Concert's performances have already been released on CD (410 897-2AH, 5/84). Here now are Concertos Nos. 5-8 which have been transferred from the original LPs equally satisfactorily. When I first reviewed the set I found the playing and the approach invigorating and, by and large, satisfying. I have not changed my mind since and still find it far and away the most stylish of those currently in the catalogue. Of course there are small things that one can take issue over, but they are few and far between and I doubt if many listeners will be disappointed by the high technical standards and the musicianly performances on display here. The Andante of the seventh concerto in the set is too slow for me but the Hornpipe which concludes it is bubbling over with vitality and good humour. I am a great admirer of Trevor Pinnock's Handel performances with The English Concert and these can be very warmly recommended. The recorded sound is excellent.

N.A., Gramophone Magazine

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Händel: Concerti Grossi Op.6 Nos. 1-4 - English Concert, Pinnock

George Frideric Händel
Concerti Grossi Op.6 Nos. 1-4
The English Concert, Trevor Pinnock
Archiv 410 897-2

I found these performances satisfying and invigorating when I first reviewed them in these pages in 1982. I have listened to them a great many times since with increasing pleasure and admiration for the English Concert. The only newcomer to the catalogue since my original review has been a set with the Vienna Concentus Musicus directed by Nikolaus Harnoncourt. I thought those performances so eccentric and wayward that in spite of a respect for much of what they have given us in the past, it would be impossible to regard them in any sense as a serious rival to the Archiv Produktion recording. Interpretation apart, it seems to me that on this occasion orchestral ensemble, recorded sound and intonation are also preferable to Harnoncourt's customarily polished group of players. The English Concert, by contrast with the other, does not pull the rhythms around, does nothing in the way of seeking for effect by means of sensational and often inappropriate gestures, and does not introduce wind instruments to movements where Handel did not specify them and to which, strictly speaking, they do not belong. Add to all of this Pinnock's personal rapport with Handel's music, his common sense and his unfailing control of all that he sets out to achieve and you have a version of Handel's finest concertos which, I suspect, will not be superseded for quite a while.

Of course, there are some things which come off better than others. The Hornpipe which concludes the Seventh Concerto is a splendid affair and so are most of the dance movements, on account of the elegance of the phrasing and the degree of poise. Less happy, though, are moments of intonation and ensemble in the Third Concerto, notably in the second movement. In this work it is Harnoncourt, I think, who has the advantage over Pinnock with what struck my ears as being some of the finest playing in that set. Elsewhere, however, as I have already implied, it is game set and match to the English Concert and I can recommend these recordings without hesitation and without any serious grouse. Archiv Produktion has captured an effective recorded sound.

It is sensible to issue the three records piecemeal as well as in the original boxed set though it may not, in the long run, benefit the buyer financially. It seems to me that boxed sets are more susceptible to competitive pricing and 'special offers' than are single discs; but one fiver or so is certainly a more frequent occupant of my wallet than a trio of them and there is an added pleasure, furthermore, in becoming aquainted with these works gradually, rather than all at once.

Gramophone Magazine

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Tartini: Violin Concertos - Wallfisch, Ragland BP, Kraemer

Giuseppe Tartini
Violin Concertos
Wallfisch, The Raglan Baroque Players, Kraemer
Hyperion CDA 67345

Two of Elizabeth Wallfisch's very first offerings for Hyperion were recitals of Giuseppe Tartini's violin sonatas, both recorded in 1991. Here, 12 years on, Wallfisch returns to Tartini, this time devoting her attention to four of the composer's lesser-known though equally prodigious Op. 1 violin concertos, in addition to an unidentified concerto in C major. Comparisons with L' Arte Dell' Arco's outstanding first recording of Tartini's complete Op. 1 (Dynamic) are revealing.

Though Wallfisch does not list her source for the opening Op. 1 No. 12 concerto, Giovanni Guglielmo (L' Arte Dell' Arco's director and first violinist) does--it's from the first edition of Op. 1, published between 1728-34. Tempo indications differ, as does the timing (the L' Arte Dell' Arco performance is longer by half); but more importantly, Wallfisch's score often abbreviates the youthful Tartini's ideas to the point of unrecognizability. However, what's even more distinctive are the stylistic differences between the two accounts. While thoroughly accomplished, Wallfisch's treatment sounds relatively mild mannered and even reticent compared to L' Arte Dell' Arco's more brazen, sharply delineated, devil-may-care, vital rendering. Guglielmo and colleagues sound as if they're more on a mission to bring Tartini's treasures to the fore, warts and all, rather than just offering another pleasant recital.

Listeners simply in need of a well-recorded sampling of Tartini's Op. 1 will find little fault with Wallfisch's reading. Others who want to hear the real deal should waste no time acquiring L' Arte Dell' Arco's stunning, comprehensive traversal. And hurry--they're already up to volume 10 (type Q6438 in Search Reviews)!

John Greene, ClassicsToday.com

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Vivaldi: The Four Seasons - Orpheus Chamber Orch., Shaham

Antonio Vivaldi
The Four Seasons
Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, Gil Shaham
DG 439 933-2

Besides being my favorite recording of The Four Seasons this release also includes Shaham's take on Kreisler's highly recommendable "Concerto for Violin in the style of Vivaldi".

The early decades of this century were the heyday of the purveyor of pastiche masquerading as the genuine article and, in Sir Henry Wood's case, the pseudonymic arranger; Kreisler was perhaps the prime example of the former. Their motives were diverse: the annotator of the present disc states that Kreisler "found himself short of repertoire for celebrity recitals", and that, as little baroque music was then available (1905) and Kreisler was too "notoriously indolent" to search the archives, he chose to write some himself! His 'Vivaldi' Concerto, at first presented as genuine, is so unlike the music of its eponym that, even in those dark days, it is little wonder that the critics smelled a rat. The touching Andante doloroso has something of the ethos of an aria-like slow movement of Vivaldi, but there any resemblance ends. Forget Vivaldi, just take the concerto for what it is, a pleasing and skilfully written work in its own right.

There are a huge number of recordings of The Four Seasons currently available and whilst it is impossible to nominate any one as clearly the best it is safe to say that Shaham's represents a middleof-the-road 'vintage year', recorded in his own twenty-third one. His musical maturity, secure technique and purity of tone have been the subject of previous comment, as have the precision, responsiveness (to one another, since they have no conductor) and life-enhancing qualities of' the OCO; put the two together and you have a performance that is as fresh-sounding and sharply, but not theatrically, characterized as any in its category. Youth, extraordinary talent and clearsighted imagination have their day. With the unusual bonus of the Kreisler Concerto it deserves a place on anyone's shelf, whatever else may already be there. Recording and annotation are praiseworthy.

JD, Gramophone Magazine

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Pisendel: Sinfonia e Concerti - Virtuosi Saxoniae, Güttler

Johann Georg Pisendel
Sinfonia e Concerti
Virtuosi Saxoniae, Ludwig Güttler
Berlin Classics BC 1079-2

No proper review to be found anywhere...
This must be a true rarity then.
Get it while you can.

Charles Avison: Concerti from opus 9 - The Georgian Concert

Charles Avison
Concerti from opus 9
The Georgian Concert
Diversions 24108

Charles Avison (1709-70) is one of the most interesting provincial composers of eighteenth-century England. Although he may have studied with Geminiani in London, he worked for much of his life in his native Newcastle upon Tyne, becoming organist of St Nicholas (now the cathedral) in 1736. Burney spoke of him as "an ingenious and polished man, esteemed and respected by all who knew him". He organised important concert series in both Newcastle and Durham and was connected with some of the leading players of the day; his 1752 treatise, An Essay on Musical Expression, remains an important document for present-day players. Avison's best-known works are the orchestral arrangements of Scarlatti sonatas published in about 1743, but there are also five other sets of concerti grossi, very few pieces form which have ever been recorded. This new disc by The Georgian Concert is thus a welcome opportunity to assess Avison's place among his English contemporaries - Arne, Bond, Boyce, Hebden and Stanley - and of course Handel.

The 12 op.9 concertos were published in London in 1766, with a note that they could be performed as concerti grossi (with solo and tutti), keyboard Concertos, string quartets or keybord solos. The Georgian Concert opt for minimal orchestral dress, with one instrument to a part, plus a violone and keyboard (harpsichord or organ) continuo. For the most part this works well, though I would also like to have heard at least one of them in full orchestral dress. Avison himself proves a most engaging companion; his very real melodic gift means that there is barely a dull movement to be found here. As musical "entertainment" in the eighteenth-century sense, I would rate these almost the equal of Handel - though whether Avison would have been complimented by this judgement is open to question, as he believed that Geminiani and Benedetto Marcello were superior composers to Handel!

Founded in 2000, The Georgian Concert include members of the long-established Concert Royal, together with a number of names familiar from London's early-music circuit. They have a real feel for this music, lying as it does between the English Baroque concerto and the graceful gestures of the Italianate galant - the pizzicato accompaniment to the aria ending of op.9 no.4 is beautifully done, to cite but one example. The excellent recording, by Ben Turner, was made in the new National Centre for Early Music in York. So, very high marks to both Avison and the Georgian Concert. Can we now have the remaining works from op.9 please?

Francis Knights, International Record Review

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Boyce: The 8 Symphonies - I Solisti di Zagreb, Antonio Janigro

William Boyce
The 8 Symphonies
I Solisti di Zagreb, Antonio Janigro
Vanguard Classics 08 6115 71

Okay honestly, I think this is just another release of a recording previously uploaded here but the music is as wonderful as ever.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Zelenka: The Orchestral Works - Camerata Bern, Wijnkoop

Jan Dismas Zelenka
The Orchestral Works
Camerata Bern, Alexander van Wijnkoop
Archiv 423 703-2

This three-CD package contains all the extant orchestral music by Zelenka. Here to a greater extent, even than in the six trio sonatas which are reviewed on page 1181, the individuality of this composer is vividly on display. The horn writing in the five Capriccios makes even Telemann sound conservative though there are plenty of stylistic traits common to both composers mainly deriving from the influence of a central European folk tradition. Evidence of this can be heard at once in movements such as "Paysan", "Canarie" and "Villanella" where folk-like melodies and characteristic dance rhythms abound. Each Capriccio is scored for pairs of oboes, horns, a bassoon and a string ensemble sometimes with and sometimes without viola. The horns have the best or, perhaps worst time of it with uncommonly high parts—the opening movement of the Capriccio No. 4 in A major is a notorious example—and a dominating role almost throughout. The music's originality is easily matched by its charm, at times, irresistible. The second movement "Canarie" of the Capriccio No. 2 in G major is enchanting as is its three-section opening movement which begins in an identical manner to the first movement of Handel's Organ Concerto in F major, Op. 4 No. 4. Few listeners will be disappointed either by the Capriccios themselves or by the performances which are crisp and invigorating.

The remaining works are in a mixture of forms: a sinfonia, an overture-suite with a markedly Handelian opening, a piece in three movements formally occupying territory somewhere between a suite and a concerto and eccentrically called Hipocondrie, and a concerto grosso for four concertante instruments and strings. There are interesting features in each of these works though occasionally, as in the Allegro finale of the Concerto in G major, recurring patterns are somewhat overworked. Zelenka can be repetitive in a way which Telemann usually though not invariably, avoided, but the initial ideas are often so fresh in their conception that a degree of forbearance is perhaps called for; but at his best, as he certainly is in the extended concerto-like Allegro opening movement of the Sinfonia in A minor, Zelenka can hold his own comfortably alongside most of his German and Italian contemporaries. The Italian influence, and that of Venice in particular is strong in this robust piece and not only the solo passages but also the tuttis are splendidly varied.

Berne Camerata and an impressive line-up of soloists present a vibrant portrait of Zelenka in this fascinating anthology. The playing is sympathetic and stylistically alert whilst unashamedly making use of instrumental refinements and interpretative gestures of our own time. A thoroughly estimable achievement well documented and pleasingly recorded.

Nicholas Anderson, Gramophone Magazine

Saturday, October 2, 2010

The Essential Tallis Scholars - The Tallis Scholars

The Essential Tallis Scholars
The Tallis Scholars
Gimell CDGIM201

Classics Today rating: 10/10

Perhaps after nearly 25 years of recordings (and an amazing 30 years since the originators of this group gave their first concert at the Church of St Mary Magdalen, Oxford), we've come to take the Tallis Scholars and their special, uniquely identifiable ensemble sound and veracious commitment to renaissance polyphony for granted. But this release--an irresistible two-discs-for-the-price-of-one compilation--reminds us anew just how blessed we are to have enjoyed the benefits of Peter Phillips and his pioneering efforts (and they truly were pioneering back in 1973) in not only rediscovering and restoring but enlivening music from ancient centuries, and showing it to be every bit as exciting and meaningful today as it certainly was in its own time. The fact is, the Tallis Scholars--a group of 10-plus hand-picked singers drawn from Britain's rich pool of highly trained specialists--since its inception has been a leader in the early-music movement and has strongly influenced virtually every important renaissance vocal ensemble to emerge during the last couple of decades.

This ideally-chosen collection taken from the Tallis Scholars' catalog shows a representative range of repertoire and styles--from England, Spain, France, and Italy--and reflects the group's various ensemble configurations. You notice that changes in quality/color of the ensemble sound is more dictated by the character of the composition than by any differences in the group's personnel from year to year or piece to piece. In fact, these selections show how remarkably consistent the group's sound has remained, effectively adjusting to the differences in texture, register relationships and voicing, and aspects of line--from more syllabic to melismatic, and from densely textured Flemish works to more open-spaced English pieces, including the remarkable "high-treble" scoring of Sheppard and Cornysh.

It would be foolish to try to list highlights: everything here is a highlight. Yet it is important to give special mention to such masterful performances as the amazing Allegri Miserere, from the ensemble's first recording (Alison Stamp's treble solo has never been surpassed), Palestrina's Sicut lilium, three gorgeous Lassus pieces, Sheppard's Media vita, the Gloria from Brumel's Missa Et ecce terrae motus, the gentle and lovely song Ah, Robin by William Cornysh the Younger, and the stunningly brilliant Salve regina by his father. The set concludes with a performance of Byrd's five-part Mass that's as close to definitive as we can expect. In fact, that's the case with everything you hear on these CDs. No matter how experienced you are as a listener (or performer), you can't help but marvel at the exceptional standard of vocalism, musicianship, ensemble unity, and collective understanding of style and the ability to convey it in a coherent, aurally and emotionally engaging manner. Taken all together, this set represents the highest achievement in modern performance of renaissance vocal music--not to mention the demonstration-quality sound--and presents it in all of its vibrant, joyful, meditative, sensuous, and compelling glory. Full texts and translations are included in a very classy package. If I had to choose just one recording to demonstrate the radiance, richness, and sheer beauty of renaissance vocal music, this would be it. [8/16/2003]

David Vernier, ClassicsToday.com