Sunday, 21 December 2014

A recent release from Deutsche Grammophon brings Pierre-Laurent Aimard in top notch Bach performances delivered with a simple directness that magically allow Bach’s depth and formal logic to emerge

Johann Sebastian Bach’s (1685-1750) primary purpose when he came to write Book 1 of The Well-Tempered Clavier (BWV 846-869) was to demonstrate in a practical way how a twenty four key system, with twelve major and twelve minor modes, could work. He took Andreas Werckmeister’s term ‘well-tempered’ indicating his own preference for a system of keyboard tuning that tuned all the thirds sharp thus allowing him to play in all twenty four keys without the loss that occurs if the octave is divided into absolutely equal semitones.

Over the years this somewhat academic aspect of the works has led to performers adopting an equally academic approach to the music. In recent years performances on the modern piano, with all its expressive qualities, has led to the opposite problem, that of over romanticised performances.

How refreshing then to have a new recording that allows all of Bach’s depth and substance to emerge without resorting to any extravagances. Pierre-Laurent Aimard’s new recording for Deutsche Grammophon does just that.

0289 479 2784 6

The Prelude and Fugue No. 1 in C is beautifully laid out revealing a gentle, thoughtful quality with the Fugue bringing a captivating logic as Pierre-Laurent Aimard slowly yet authoritatively allows the contrapuntal lines to unfold. The prelude of the Prelude and Fugue No.2 in C minor really takes off, Aimard’s fine, clear technique allowing every line and detail to appear, riveting the attention. In the fugue Aimard’s playing is such that one can’t help being concentrated as each detail and line appears.

Aimard brings such life to the prelude of the Prelude and Fugue No. 3 in C sharp as well as a fine touch revealing every nuance with the fugue showing such buoyancy, a gentle ebb and flow, so subtle. By allowing the music to reveal itself naturally, with no false devices, Bach’s genius is revealed all the more in the prelude of the Prelude and Fugue No.4 in C sharp minor followed by a fugue that unfolds quietly and gently before Bach’s little musical lines appear and are woven. Quiet exquisite.

In the Prelude and Fugue No.5 in D the prelude is beautifully layered with some vitally fluent playing in the fugue and such lovely poise. Aimard’s fine left hand line against a sprung rhythmic right hand theme is terrific in the prelude of the Prelude and Fugue No. 6 in D minor followed by a lovely rhythmic poise in the fugue. 

Prelude and Fugue No. 7 in E flat has some lovely fluent lines, fine phrasing and attention to every little tempi and dynamic, the fugue bringing such a carefree forward movement. It is Aimard’s naturalness with this music that gives it the feeling of being new and fresh. I don’t think I’ve ever heard such an exquisitely conceived Prelude and Fugue No. 8 in E flat minor before, crystalline and pure, beautifully laid out with Aimard showing fine artistry. Aimard leads into the fugue seamlessly; it just develops so naturally.

There is a lovely rhythmic gait as the prelude of the Prelude and Fugue No. 9 in E gently flows forward before the fugue arrives, dancing forward. There is a beautifully paced and phrased prelude to the Prelude and Fugue No. 10 in E minor with this pianist’s left hand providing a strangely distant feel before the music suddenly speeds ahead with the fugue giving a terrific forward thrust.

There is a very fine buoyancy to the prelude of the Prelude and Fugue No. 11 in F with the fugue having a natural forward flow, beautiful dynamics, every line clear.

The Prelude and Fugue No.12 in F minor has a gentle pace, leisurely but vital with subtle little variations of tempi and dynamics. Again it is Aimard’s beautiful pacing, his subtle moves of tempi and dynamics that reveal so much in the fugue with fine musical lines.

A joyous Prelude and Fugue No. 13 in F sharp opens disc two, beautifully phrased with a fugue that has fine flow and phrasing, with a wonderful clarity of line. Again Aimard’s fine left hand line adds so much to the prelude of the Prelude and Fugue No.14 in F sharp minor with a fine forward flow before Aimard slowly and thoughtfully develops the fugue in another remarkably fine performance.

The prelude of the Prelude and Fugue No. 15 in G hurtles along full of joy, buoyancy and life, a terrific spring in the rhythms. The fugue develops out of the prelude beautifully with some of the finest of Bach’s contrapuntal textures. There is a lovely flowing prelude to the Prelude and Fugue No. 16 in G minor Fugue 16 in G minor with a directness of utterance in the fugue offset by subtle variations of dynamics.

The Prelude and Fugue No. 17 in A flat brings some fine phrases, so lightly managed, every little nuance carefully revealed.  The fugue has more beautifully judged tempi with a moderate forward flow that sounds just right. There is more lovely ebb and flow in the opening of the Prelude and Fugue No.18 in G sharp minor with nicely judged tempi and dynamics, before a fugue that sounds just right, unfolding naturally, the rhythmic pulse in the left hand holding the tempo as the right develops over it.

The prelude of the Prelude and Fugue No. 19 in has a lightness and buoyancy with Aimard managing to reveal little clipped phrases without any loss of flow or momentum. The fugue has a terrific flow in its weaving of rhythms and musical lines. Aimard sets off again at a fine pace in the prelude of the Prelude and Fugue No. 20 in A minor with some tremendous playing, Bach’s lines flowing and weaving. In the fugue Aimard finds a moderate, beautifully poised tempo with a very fine evenness of tone.

A nicely sprung, buoyant prelude with great fluency and lovely textures precedes a terrific, rollicking fugue of the Prelude and Fugue No.21 in B flat. Prelude and Fugue No.22 in B flat minor opens with a deliberate feel, yet soon Aimard brings a lovely sensibility, with a depth that is often missed. The fugue picks up beautifully from the prelude retaining a degree of introspection but with a broader line.

A delicate, beautifully agile prelude opens the Prelude and Fugue No. 23 in B with a superb lightness of touch. In Aimard’s hands the fugue sets off at a lovely pace, finding a natural flow for Bach’s contrapuntal ideas. There are some lovely rhythmic qualities to the prelude of the Prelude and Fugue No. 24 in B minor as Aimard slowly allows the music to develop, rising beautifully in the middle before finding its way naturally home. Aimard’s phrasing and tempi is really fine as he allows the final fugue to develop with lovely rises and falls and a fine sense of inevitability, making one marvel at Bach’s terrific flow of invention.

This is top notch Bach in every way. Aimard doesn’t romanticise these immortal works but instead he delivers them with a simple directness yet magically allowing Bach’s depth and formal logic to emerge. It is often as though these works are being improvised as he plays.

My downloaded recording is nicely balanced and clear.

Friday, 19 December 2014

A most rewarding disc from Navona Records features pianist Patrick Hawkins in works by Maria Hester Reynolds Park and Haydn played on an 1831 William Geib Square Piano

Maria Hester Park (née Reynolds) (1760-1813) was born in England and, as well as being a composer and pianist, she was a noted piano teacher who taught many students in the nobility, including the Duchess of Devonshire and her daughters.

Before her marriage, she was a keyboard performer for the permanent orchestra in the Music Room in Oxford. By the age of twenty two she is reported as having played a harpsichord concerto at the Hanover Square concert series in London, played a Clementi duet with Jane Mary Guest on 29 April 1783, a concerto at Willis's Rooms, London in March 1784 and a performance as Mrs Park in May 1791.

After her marriage in 1787 to Thomas Park, an engraver turned antiquarian, she ended her career as a performer, continuing to compose and teach. Maria and Thomas Park came into contact with Joseph Haydn who, on 22 October 1794, sent her a copy of his Sonata in D major, Hob. XVI:51 and a thank you letter in exchange for two of her pieces. She died in Hampstead, London at the age of 53, after many years of ill health, leaving four daughters.

The music of Maria Hester Park Reynolds and the link to Haydn is the subject of a new release from Navona Records , entitled Haydn and the English Lady, featuring pianist Patrick Hawkins  who plays an 1831 William Geib Square Piano.
NV 5981

The disc includes enhanced content which can be accessed by placing the CD in a computer to find a wealth of information concerning the music, the performer, the instrument, and two excellent videos where Thomas Strange, the restorer of the instrument used here, gives a history of the square piano.

Maria Hester Reynolds Park’s Sonata in E flat major, Op.4 No.2 receives its premiere recording here. In the Allegretto the 1831William Geib square piano produces a surprisingly rounded tone. Although the re-occurring opening theme is a little plain there are some fine passages as the music is developed with some fine flourishes, adeptly played here by Patrick Hawkins who shows a fine fluency.

There is a delightful, limpid Andante e cantabile with playing of fine dexterity and some lovely phrasing before the Rondo (Allegro) which moves forward with a fine flow, Hawkins extracting some lovely fluent, rounded phrases from his instrument.

In another premiere recording, Reynolds Park’s Waltz in E flat major, follows the French tradition and has an Introduction (Andante) before the Waltz (Allegretto). The introduction has some unusual dynamic interruptions in the form of firm chords to interrupt the gentle flow. Hawkins lays out the introduction beautifully before an attractive Allegretto that reveals some inventive little ideas. 

With Reynolds Park’s Sonata in F major, Op.4 No.1 Hawkins has decided to insert the Andante cantabile e sostenuto, from the composer’s Sonata Op.2 No.2 to make this a three movement work. Given that Haydn is represented later on this disc by a two movement sonata, it does at first sight seem a little unnecessary but can of course be programmed out. The Allegro has a more interesting and flowing opening than Op.4 No.2 with a lovely central section that is harmonically interesting. It is surprising the strength and power that can be encouraged from this piano by Hawkins.

It must be said that the Andante cantabile e Sostenuto does fit well into this sonata with its gentle flow and attractive slower moments, justifying Hawkins’ decision to insert it before the Tempo di minuetto that has an attractive sprung rhythm finely brought out by Hawkins. The theme is varied centrally before the opening returns to take us to the coda.

Reynolds Park’s Sonata in C major, Op.7 opens with an Allegro spirito, full of panache as it pushes forward with a lovely recurring rising theme. This is a most attractive work, a significant advance on Op.4 though apparently only published a year later. Hawkins delights in revealing so many attractive elements of the music with a light fluent touch, fine phrasing and a sense of discovery. There is a rather attractive Larghetto full of fine details nicely brought out here. The concluding Rondo (Allegramente) that follows has a really catchy tune with a lively rhythm that and some particularly fluent playing. Later there is a rising scale to reflect the first movement with this pianist extracting some fine dynamics from the instrument.

Franz Joseph Haydn is represented by the very Sonata that, in 1794, he sent as a gift to Maria Hester Reynolds Park, his Sonata in D major, Hob XVI/51. Patrick Hawkins brings much delight in the Andante, nicely phrased, with a rhythmic lilt that is most attractive, bringing out all of Haydn’s flowing invention. An absolute delight as is the Presto with Hawkins handling all of Haydn’s rhythms so well, managing to pull so much variety of tone and sonority from this instrument.

More Haydn follows with a nicely shaped Adagio in G major, Hob. XV/22, where some lovely textures are drawn from the piano with beautifully fluent little runs on the keyboard and fine control of dynamics.

Haydn’s Capriccio in G major, Hob XVII/1 provides a buoyant piece to conclude, bringing out Haydn’s lighter side in a performance that evokes sheer joy with some lovely little trills and a terrific coda.

Maria Hester Reynolds Park has no ground breaking ideas to convey but there are many attractive features to her works showing her to be an accomplished musician. Patrick Hawkins has chosen the right scale of pieces by Haydn to sit beside Reynolds Park making a satisfying recital. This is a fine opportunity to investigate an aspect of musical life in London around the time of Haydn’s last visit with, indeed, some attractive music.

Navona Records have got the recorded balance just right with clear detail and none of the intrusive sounds that can often emanate from old instruments. This is a most rewarding disc.

Sunday, 14 December 2014

Authoritative performances of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Trio in A minor and Rachmaninov’s Trio élégiaque No. 1 from Trio Testore on a new release from Audite

In April 2013 I reviewed a terrific new recording made by Trio Testore of Brahms’ complete Piano Trios on a release from Audite
Now Audite have just released a new recording from Trio Testore of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Trio in A minor coupled with Rachmaninov’s Trio élégiaque No 1


The Trio Testore was founded in 2000 by three internationally established concert artists, pianist Hyun-Jung Kim-Schweiker, Violinist Franziska Pietsch and Cellist Hans-Christian Schweiker. The name of the trio comes from the fact that Franziska Pietsch and Hans-Christian Schweiker both play instruments made by the well-known Milanese luthier family Testore (the violin by Carlo Antonio, 1751 and the cello by Carlo Giuseppe, 1711).

Rachmaninov’s Trio élégiaque No. 1 in G minor is an early work written in 1892 coming just after his first piano concerto and in the same year as his opera Aleko and famous Prelude in C sharp minor. It took him only a few days to write and was performed soon after by the composer with violinist David Kreyn and cellist Anatoly Brandukov. It is in a single movement marked Lento lugubre – più vivo.

As the strings open Trio Testore create a lovely, almost other worldly sound to which the piano adds the rather Brahmsian melody, beautifully paced and soon increasing in passion. There is some lovely playing as cello then the viola takes the melody against a fine piano accompaniment. There are bursts of emotion with the music at times rising to an intense passion finely revealed by this trio who provide fine string textures and some glorious piano passages. They deliver terrific ensemble whilst maintaining a wholly spontaneous feel.  

Tchaikovsky’s Piano Trio in A minor, Op.50, completed in 1882, is dedicated ‘à la mémoire d’un grand artiste’ (to the memory of a great artist). The great artist in question was the pianist, conductor, composer and director of the Moscow Conservatory Nikolai Rubinstein (1835-1881) who had died the previous March and, despite his devastating criticism of Tchaikovsky’s first piano concerto continued to support Tchaikovsky, conducting many premiere performances of his works.

The Piano Trio is in two movements, the first, Pezzo elegiac is marked Moderato assai – Allegro giusto – Adagio con duolo – Allegro giusto. Trio Testore bring the same emotional sensibility together with a fine breadth and a lovely rubato. They display some terrific interplay rising to moments of fine passion conjuring up a real stormy sequence before the Adagio con duolo where they reveal a wistful, gentle beautifully shaped section and some exquisitely hushed moments full of restrained emotion before allowing the storm to subside for the lovely coda.

In the second movement Tema con Variazioni the piano sets out gently the simple, very Russian theme, recalling a folk song that was lodged in Tchaikovsky’s memory from a picnic taken with Rubinstein nine years earlier where the theme had been heard. The whole Trio join for the first variation with a spontaneity that sounds as though they have been caught improvising. There are some lovely little nuances from the Trio, beautifully shaped to which they bring a nice rhythmic lift. There are some beautifully fleet moments from pianist Hyun-Jung Kim-Schweiker and beautifully delicate sprung pizzicato passages. Variation six, Tempo di Valse, has a lovely light playfulness. Their great ensemble is shown particularly in the Fuga with this Trio really seeming to enjoy themselves.  In the Andante flebile the fluent rippling of the pianist is joined by the violin of Franziska Pietsch in a lovely variation full of introspection with cellist Hans-Christian Schweiker taking the theme before it is shared. The Mazurka receives a lovely lift from Hyun-Jung Kim-Schweiker in some terrific passages with the changes of tempi and rhythm superbly done. The strings return before variation eleven brings a gently bubbling flow.

Trio Testore bring a confident opening to Variazioni Finale e Coda pushing forward with great panache in the Allegro risoluto, finely controlled each time the pressure is eased.  There is some real edge of the seat playing here that is absolutely terrific before reaching a peak and moving into the Andante con moto with terrific piano chords over passionate strings and the theme from the opening re-appearing.  There is playing of great weight and authority from the Trio before we arrive at the resigned coda.

This is as fine a performance of the Tchaikovsky Trio that you’ll ever find with these players putting their hearts and souls into the music. The engineers provide a fine recording in the acoustic of the Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Berlin-Dahlem, Germany the venue for so many fine recordings. There are informative notes.

Pianist Tien Hsieh gives a first rate Beethoven C minor Piano Sonata, op.111 combined with Bach and Beethoven transcriptions that are full of wonder and fantasy on a new release from MSR Classics

Pianist Tien Hsieh was born in Taiwan of Chinese parents immigrating to the United States when she was nine years old. She began her musical training with her mother, Sylvia Hsieh. She was a full scholarship student at University of Houston where she received her Bachelor of Music degree, studying with Abbey Simon and Ruth Tomfohrde and was awarded a scholarship to study at the Manhattan School of Music where she received the prestigious Roy M. Rubinstein Award, a Bettingen Corporation Grant and the Professional Studies Diploma and Master of Music degree under the tutelage of Dr Marc Silverman. As a full scholarship student at the St. Louis Conservatory of Music she studied under the guidance of Jane Allen and Carol Tafoya.

Tien Hsieh was a prize winner at the Los Angeles International Liszt Competition and has since performed at the Liszt Museum in Budapest, Hungary, in solo recitals and chamber music in China and Germany. Throughout the USA she has appeared as soloist with the Spokane Symphony at The Festival at Sandpoint, Redlands Symphony at Redlands Bowl, Oregon Mozart Players, Manhattan Philharmonia and Houston Civic Orchestra.  Her musical collaborations include performances with Czech Republic’s Graffe Quartet, with the Schumann Piano Quintet, Sacramento Ballet, Manhattan Symphony Orchestra, UC Davis Symphony Orchestra and State Street Ballet.

More recently she has given solo recitals throughout California, Alaska, Washington, Wyoming, Idaho and Oregon.  Of her first volume in her series Mostly Transcriptions released on the Titanic label , the American Record Guide said, ‘The effect is that Liszt himself was sitting in my living room…Hsieh plays with grace and energy.  She has a keen ear for the music’s architecture, and makes the piano sing in every register.’  

Volume 2 of her Mostly Transcriptions series has just been released by MSR Classics and features works by Bach and Beethoven transcribed by Busoni, Liszt and Siloti.  
MS 1531

Tien Hsieh opens her recital with Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in D major, BWV 532 transcribed Busoni. The Prelude brings a formidably powerful opening. Hsieh shows very fine phrasing and great dynamic contrasts, though just occasionally I felt she could be a little too direct. She delivers a particularly fine fugue with a lightness of touch and a fine flow, nicely phrased with a lovely spontaneity, as well as some of those formidable dynamic passages.

With Liszt’s transcription of Beethoven song cycle An die Ferne Geliebte, Op.98 (To the Distant Beloved) she gives a performance full of wonder and fantasy, handling the changes of rhythm and mood seamlessly with a beautiful poise and lightness of touch and, again, some fine dynamic passages.

Returning to Bach with Liszt’s transcription of the Prelude and Fugue in A minor, BWV 543, Hsieh builds the Prelude wonderfully from its relatively simple beginnings to passages of tremendous power and fluency with a fine breadth of playing. This really is fine Bach. There is a beautifully light and flowing Fugue revealing all of Bach’s contrapuntal lines with Hsieh bringing all her power to the more dynamic passages.

Tien Hsieh is particularly impressive in the Adagio from Bach’s Sonata No.5 in F minor, BWV 1018 as transcribed by Alexander Siloti to which she brings a sense of withheld strength, a finely controlled emotion. This is quite exquisite playing.  

Busoni’s transcription of Bach’s Chorale Prelude Ich ruf zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ, BWV 639 is beautifully done, nicely paced and beautifully shaped.

The final work on this disc is Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No.32 in C minor, Op.111. There is a finely controlled Maestoso before the Allegro con brio ed appassionato arrives where Hsieh brings much thought and sense of structure, never allowing the tempo to run away yet with great forward flow. This is beautifully phrased playing with a clarity of line combined with a feeling of spontaneity.  The slower, quieter passages are full of care before leading to a finely expressed coda.

With the Arietta: Adagio molto semplice e cantabile Hsieh really comes into her own bringing all her sensitivity, thought and care, moving seamlessly through the changes of rhythm and tempo with light, restrained playing and lovely control of dynamics.  There is some especially fine playing in the faster passages, so fluent with fine clarity as well as moments of fine tension and exquisite sensitivity. Later this pianist brings some beautifully fluent passages full of strong dynamics before leading to a lovely, beautifully set out coda.

This is a first rate Beethoven Op.111. I would like to hear more from this fine pianist. She receives an excellent recording made at Blue Wave Productions, Vancouver, Canada and there are informative booklet notes.

Saturday, 13 December 2014

Erudition continue their impressive series of eBooks, entitled Masterpieces of Music, with Brahms’ Piano Concerto No.1in D minor, Op. 15

Erudition’s first two eBooks in their series are entitled Masterpieces of Music featured Bach's Mass in B minor and Beethoven's Symphony No. 3 Eroica. (reviewed September 2014:

These eBook guides are produced in partnership with the record company Harmonia Mundi and combine the latest scholarship with multimedia content and interactive functionality in a way that will enhance the listener’s appreciation and understanding of some of the world greatest pieces of classical music.

The publications are available in a range of formats suitable for viewing via different devices and platforms i.e. a web-based version for laptops and tablets, Apple iBooks and Amazon Kindle. 

Their latest publication in this series features Brahms’ Piano Concerto No.1 in D minor, Op. 15. Again authored by the writer, editor and critic Matthew Rye, this new eBook will enable readers to uncover the inner workings of and troubled history behind Brahms’s great masterpiece.
File Size: 4191kb
Publisher: Erudition 27 Oct 2014
Language: English
The layout of these eBooks is, usefully, the same for each publication with a facsimile colour front cover followed by an Introduction to the series, Information about the author, and a Table of Contents that enables one to easily access a particular section of the book. This is followed by a User’s guide including an online helpline. The publishers have gone to great lengths to make this eBook intuitive but, as an additional guide, there is a section explaining the Features of the publication including audio playback, links to supplementary articles, enhanced timelines and walkthrough features as well as an interactive extracts from the score.

In his background information Matthew Rye places Brahms and his concerto in a historical context quoting Donald Tovey on an unexpected chord in the first movement ‘One of the grandest surprises in music since Beethoven.’ As with the previous eBooks in this series there are numerous illustrations.

There is a timeline of Brahms’ life, together with an interactive enhanced version as well as a separate section on Brahms and the Schumanns. The Story Behind Brahms’ first piano concerto covers the work’s tortuous compositional history culminating in a section The concerto finds its true form and Performance and reception. Further sections include Brahms and the piano and A piano concerto apart – what makes it different that also places Brahms’ concerto within a chronological list of other 19th century concertos from Beethoven’s third (1800) to Rachmaninov’s first (1891). There is a work timeline that goes into some depth placing the concerto in its historical context.

Walk Through takes us straight into a detailed analysis of Brahms’ Piano Concerto No.1in D minor with piano and fully orchestrated excerpts to accompany single stave or short score musical examples. Divided into each of the three movements the analysis includes diagrams of the musical structure.

There are numerous links throughout to the glossary of musical terms. Nowhere is Matthew Rye’s musical analysis dry, always holding the listener’s attention using headings such as An elemental beginning, Spinning the yarn and A subtle arrival to draw the reader into explanations of the various aspects of Brahms’ musical construction.

Resources include Supplementary Articles that contain two articles, Brahms’ melodies and a Thematic table both of which continue the use of musical examples together with musical extracts. Further listening gives selected recordings which, again, can be bought on line by clicking a link and there are details of Further reading and Web Resources.

There is the full Glossary of musical terms that can be accessed specifically throughout the book. There are so many little features that can be accessed that it is quite possible that I may have missed some in this review.

The fully orchestrated excerpts used throughout this book are from Harmonia Mundi’s recording featuring pianist Cédric Tiberghien with the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Jiří Bĕlohlávek

As the Masterpieces of Music series of eBooks progresses I continue to be very impressed. As I have stated in my previous review these books are suitable for the ordinary music lover as well as music students and, indeed, anyone who wishes to gain an extra depth of knowledge of these works of genius. Above all they are a joy to use and bring great fun to learning more about these wonderful works.

Friday, 12 December 2014

There’s nothing like an English Cathedral or Collegiate Choir at Christmas and the Choir of Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford under their Director, Stephen Darlington are one of the finest with their new recording for Nimbus of sacred Christmas works from the 16th to the 20th century

As Christmas approaches I am reviewing just one new release of Christmas Music, from Nimbus , by one of our finest choirs the Choir of Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford under their Director, Stephen Darlington

What is particularly attractive about this new disc is that it avoids the usual selection of Christmas carols and, instead, brings us some of the finest sacred Christmas choral works from the 16th to the 20th century.

This new disc opens with William Byrd’s (1543-1623) A solis ortus cardine (The sun rises) a plainsong hymn which transports us back over 400 years with the Christ Church Cathedral Choir providing some lovely individual voices in the various passages, building in texture and power before  the end.  

The Welsh composer William Mathias ((1934-1992) wrote much choral music, his Ave Rex – A Carol Sequence, Op.45 being one of the longer pieces on this disc.

Ave Rex (Hail King) opens with an organ flourish before the choristers sing a repeated Ave, Ave.  The adult voices and organ continue in this thoroughly contemporary yet strikingly attractive setting before all the choir come together blending beautifully in Mathias’ harmonies.

The choir rise up beautifully in the joyful Alleluya A new work is come on hand with many little subtleties and some terrific weaving and overlaying of texts. The choristers open There is no rose of such virtue against a hushed organ chord before the adult voices take over. After the choristers return the whole choir then leads on with a beautiful flow and texture, so exquisitely gentle. The music rises up passionately before calming with a solo treble and choir leading to a very fine coda.

Staccato organ chords open Sir Christèmas before the choir sound out in this joyful concluding section. There is a central organ section before the choir rejoin bringing some exceptionally fine, powerful singing.

We go right back to the 16th century with John Taverner’s (1490-1545) Mater Christi sanctissima (Mother of Christ most holy). How this choir seem to excel in such diverse repertoire. Here they bring a transparency and brilliance to this fine piece, an antiphon on which the composer built his Mass of the same name; some absolutely splendid weaving of contrapuntal lines before rising to a final amen.

This recording continues with three more pieces by William Byrd, firstly his Hodie Christus natus est (Christ is born today), a fast flowing celebratory motet with this choir in full flow. Byrd’s O magnum misterium (Oh Great mystery) is a more measured setting, as befits the text, with some beautifully controlled singing. Puer natus est nobis (For is born to us) brings more of Byrd’s weaving of contrapuntal lines superbly handled by this choir.

John Sheppard (c.1515-c.1559) is still much undervalued yet he surely deserves to be recognised as one of the finest of 16th century English composers.  Here his Gaude, gaude, gaude Maria (Rejoice, rejoice, rejoice Mary) provides a substantial example of just how fine he was. Stephen Darlington paces the choir perfectly with Sheppard’s rather melancholic setting sounding so fine. There is a lovely restraint in the slower, reflective passages and beautifully soaring passages elsewhere, bringing out Sheppard’s little harmonies and with some fine individual groups of voices.

Returning to the 20th century we come to Francis Poulenc (1889-1963). He wrote many very fine choral works of which Salve Regina (Hail Queen) is a fine example with this choir finding much beauty in the composer’s lovely harmonies.

Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina’s (c. 1525-1594) Magnificat (Sexti Toni à 6) is built on a plainchant melody that opens this work. Soon Palestrina’s genius suddenly allows the music to soar and what a sound the choir produces. They are magnificent. in this fine work with some lovely individual contributions including a fine treble. This is a particularly fine performance full of power, control, lovely weaving of musical lines and a glorious Amen.

The Portuguese composer João Rodrigues Esteves (1700–1751) is not a name that will be known to many. He has a link to Palestrina in that he studied in Rome with Ottavio Pitoni (1657-1743) a disciple of Palestrina and the writer of some 3,000 masses, psalms and hymns in the contrapuntal style of the earlier composer.

Esteves’ Beata Dei Genitrix (Mother of God) has a lovely swaying gait to it before it pushes ahead rhythmically. There is an odd little middle section for a smaller group of voices before the choir all join to lead to the coda.

Verbum caro factum est (The Word became flesh) has a gentle opening before Esteves pushes the music forward, again with a central section for a small group of soloists, very finely sung here. The choir rejoin and move forward but Esteves includes another section for the small vocal group before the choir lead to the fine coda.

There’s nothing like an English Cathedral or Collegiate Choir at Christmas and here is one of the finest we have. There are informative notes by Stephen Darlington but no texts. With singing as fine as this it hardly matters. This should be at the top of your Christmas music list.

See also:


Tuesday, 9 December 2014

De Profundis is a terrific new Naxos release of sacred choral works by Pizzetti, Malipiero, Allegri, MacMillan and Puccini beautifully sung by The Vasari Singers under their Director Jeremy Backhouse

Founded in 1980, the Vasari Singers are one of the UK’s leading chamber choirs. Their Music Director, Jeremy Backhouse has worked with the Guildford Philharmonic Choir (now the Vivace Chorus), the Salisbury Community Choir, the BBC Singers, the Philharmonia Chorus, the London Choral Society and the Festival Chorus.

The Vasari Singers have been described by the The Times newspaper as ‘passionate and precise’ and by Gramophone Magazine as ‘a consistently outstanding choir…one of the most accomplished small choral groups of our time.’

The choir performs regularly in most of London’s major concert venues and has taken part in numerous commercial concerts and festivals, including the BBC Proms. They have an extensive critically acclaimed discography with their world premiere recording of the Gabriel Jackson Requiem reaching number five in the specialist classical charts.

The Vasari Singers are acclaimed for their versatility, performing choral music from a wide range of styles and eras, from the Renaissance to contemporary. This is something that is reflected on their new release from Naxos entitled De Profundis with works by Pizzetti, Malipiero, Allegri, MacMillan and Puccini.


Ildebrando Pizzetti (1880-1968) was born in Rome and studied at the Parma Conservatory before teaching in Florence, Milan and finally at the Academia di St Cecilia in Rome. In addition to operas, orchestral, chamber and instrumental works he wrote many choral works including the two featured on this disc.

The first of Pizzetti’s works on this disc is De Profundis (1937) which has a wonderful opening as the voices of the Vasari Singers slowly build the textures providing a fine rubato. Pizzetti layers the music especially well with a lovely passage where the female voices come in over the male voices, rising to a fine peak before falling back for the gentle coda.

Gian Francesco Malipiero (1882-1873) was born in Venice where he studied at the Licei Musicali before continuing his studies in Bologna. His study of the works of Monteverdi and the influence of Stravinsky, whose Rite of Spring he heard in Paris, remained influences on his music. His compositions covered most genres from opera through to piano music.

On this new disc we can hear the World Premiere recording of his De Profundis (1937). The work opens with deep pedal notes from the organ before a viola melody appears. Baritone, Matthew Wood is really fine when he enters in this melancholy setting. There are some especially lovely passages for viola and organ but it is the fine singing of Wood that makes this performance. The music rises centrally before, with deep organ, bass drum and viola the somewhat dark coda is reached.

Gregorio Allegri (1582-1652) is mainly known for the one work performed on this disc, his Miserere. Just as well-known is the story of Mozart writing down the work from memory whilst hearing it performed in Rome whilst visiting with his father, thus breaking the monopoly that the Vatican held on performances. Allegri was a singer and composer at the cathedrals of Fermo and Tivoli before becoming maestro di cappella of Spirito in Sassia, Rome as well as a singer in the Papal Choir.

Here the Vasari Singers bring a beautifully blended tone to the Miserere, beautifully poised with the female and tenor voices providing some lovely sections. Both Jocelyn Somerville and Susan Waton (sopranos) are credited in this work. Certainly the soprano taking the spectacularly difficult treble part, as it soars high up, is terrific. This is a very fine performance where subsequent passages are decorated and varied as indeed it is thought would have been the practice in Allegri’s time. The small group of singers that also includes Elizabeth Atkinson (alto) and Keith Long (bass) provide some beautifully decorated passages. The choir as a whole bring a very fine, mellow blend of voices that often have a mesmerising effect.

James MacMillan (b.1959) was born in Ayrshire, Scotland and studied at Edinburgh University before undertaking further studies with John Casken at Durham University. His music is influenced by both his Catholic faith and Scottish folk music. Amongst his many compositions including opera, orchestral, chamber and piano works, sacred choral works hold a prominent place.

The Vasari Singers fine textures are particularly revealed in their performance of his Miserere (2009) with some very fine little rhythmic inflections and fine handling of MacMillan’s harmonies. When the music suddenly breaks out of its withdrawn calm there is singing of biting precision, the male voices showing fine incisive qualities.  There are moments that are reminiscent of Allegri’s Miserere, the work intended to be a 21st century take on the setting of this penitential psalm. The music eventually rises suddenly for whole choir with moments of intense stasis over which the voices of Julia Smith (soprano), Julia Ridout (alto), Paul Robertson (tenor) and Matt Bernstein (bass) intone. The music rises finally for the whole choir in a moment of intense feeling before leading to the gentle coda. What a fine setting this is, receiving here a really lovely performance.

Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924) is, of course, known as an operatic composer. He wrote a number of sacred choral works earlier in his career but his Requiem, written to commemorate the fourth anniversary of Verdi’s death, dates from 1905. As with Malipiero’s De Profundis, it is written for choir, viola and organ. It rises slowly and gently with a fine melody before the viola enters full of restrained emotion. The music soon rises more passionately but falls back as the viola adds an anxious feel. The choir, viola and organ lead to the sad coda with a simple amen and final organ chord.

The other work on this disc by Pizzetti is his Messa di Requiem (1922) a work given a higher profile with an award winning Hyperion recording by the Choir of Westminster Cathedral under James O’Donnell coupled with Frank Martin’s Mass for Double Choir.

The male voices open the Requiem before the female voices join, as this lovely setting moves forward. Jeremy Backhouse draws from his Singers a natural forward flow with little surges finely brought out. The Vasari Singers weave some lovely vocal textures and, towards the end some beautifully luminous singing.

The Dies Irae has a gentler opening yet with a nervous tension, this choir bringing a fine control with some beautifully woven musical lines. The music soon rises with singing of stunning brilliance and power. The old plainchant appears openly in a lovely passage.  Lower and upper voices overlaid, rich lower textures and pure upper voices in a gloriously held section as we are led into the lovely coda.

There is a luminous opening to the Sanctus before it gains in richness. There is first rate singing here with so many textures emerging before rising to a central peak. At the end there is a very fine Hosanna in excelsis.

There is a gentle yet often soaring Agnus Dei with these voices providing a terrific blend of textures and a superb, deeply felt coda. The Libera me slowly rises to some powerful writing with some exceptionally fine choral work as the choir gently lead to the conclusion with some lovely rises in passion before the end.

Finely recorded in the excellent acoustic of Tonbridge School Chapel, Tonbridge, Kent, England, with excellent documentation and with full texts and English translations what more could one want. This is a terrific disc.