01_Ensemble_Vesuvio.jpgLa Meglio Giuventù
Vesuvius Ensemble
Modica Music MM0014
(vesuviusensemble.com)

With Giovanni Kapsberger the only named composer on just two of the 13 tracks on this CD, it is clear that its performers were seeking a selection of popular Italian music, reflecting their dedication to the performance and preservation of traditional folk music from Naples and Southern Italy. Take O matrimonio do Guarracino, a traditional piece from 18th-century Campania. Francesco Pellegrino’s voice is as Italian as his name and not only are we transported to Campania with his vocals but the four accompanying instruments all have a strong Italian heritage: mandolin, baroque guitar, chitarra battente and colascione. The third of these is played without a plectrum and can be plucked, strummed or beaten, hence the term battente.

 And colascione? That is a long-necked Italian lute. One of the Kapsberger pieces fully tests its capabilities with the demanding techniques of the Italian baroque guitar. Those who yearn for something else equally unknown can enjoy a hurdy-gurdy courtesy of Ben Grossman, who accompanies Pellegrino’s magnificent voice. Invocazione alla Madonna dell’Arco, for all its traditional Campanian background, could have graced any medieval court, enhanced by the haunting sound of the hurdy-gurdy.

 A more conventional Kapsberger composition is Sfessiana, a soothing and thoughtful duet for theorbo (Lucas Harris) and baroque lute (Marco Cera). Another piece enjoying a normal setting is La morte de mariteto, where Pellegrino’s voice and Lucas Harris’ lively lute playing show the enduring popularity of this combination throughout the Renaissance.

After introducing us to four popular plucked instruments, La Meglio Giuventù concludes with three percussion instruments and the ciaramella, a double reed conical bore instrument which eventually became the oboe. It is raucous and passionate – like the Vesuvius Ensemble.

 

02_Marais.jpgMarais – Suites for Oboe
Christopher Palameta; Eric Tinkerhess; Romain Falik; Lisa Goode Crawford
Audax Records ADX 13702
(audax-records.fr)

Fans of baroque music on period instruments will appreciate this recording, not only for its sheer beauty, but also as a musicological project. Baroque oboist Christopher Palameta, a Montrealer who did a four-year stint with Toronto’s Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra, currently lives in Paris and is in demand with period instrument ensembles in Europe and North America. This recording is a culmination of several years of research into some of the neglected works of French composer Marin Marais (1656-1728; some might recall Marais as the central figure in the 1991 movie Tous les Matins du Monde).

All of the music here is drawn from Marais’ Piéces de viole; published in five volumes, the six suites included are from the second (1701), third (1711) and fourth (1717) volumes. While written for the viol, Marais himself insisted that his compositions could be played on a wide range of instruments, including the oboe; as Palameta explains, for technical reasons some pieces are better suited to a high wind instrument than others, particularly those written for the viol’s top string – my understanding is that these are the movements selected and transcribed for this project.

Each of the suites is comprised of five to seven movements: beginning with a prélude. Typical dance movements follow, which might include a courante, sarabande, menuet, gavotte, gigue, and sometimes a rondeau champêtre, passacaille, or fantaisie for variety. My personal favourites include the muzettes in the Suite in G Minor, and the short but unusual La Biscayenne (referring to the Basque country of northern Spain) which concludes the recording.

Palameta plays with the highest degree of refinement and musical sensitivity throughout, displaying a velvety warm tone and fluid ornamentation. He is accompanied by Eric Tinkerhess (viola da gamba), Romain Falik (theorbo) and Lisa Goode Crawford (harpsichord). To learn more, visit ensemblenotturna.com.

 

03_Greene.jpgMaurice Greene – Overtures
Baroque Band; Garry Clarke
Cedille CDR 90000 152

Aficionados of English classical music endured decades of the taunt “Who was the greatest English composer between Purcell and Elgar? Handel!” Dr. Arne’s masque Alfred (including Rule Britannia) and William Boyce’s eight symphonies (“as English as a country garden”) somehow weren’t up to scratch. William Boyce’s tutor was Maurice Greene, who is forgotten even among baroque enthusiasts. Enter Chicago-based Garry Clarke and the Baroque Band. Their interpretation of Greene’s Overture for St. Cecilia’s Day is lively and effervescent – how appropriate for the patroness of music!

This spirited approach continues with the allegro assai, andante and vivace of Greene’s first overture (D major). The other overtures too, delight the listener: note the chirping first allegro of the fourth overture or the presto of the fifth, just two of what the sleeve-notes describe as “whistleable melodies.” And what else does the Baroque Band cram into this wonderful introduction to Maurice Greene? Well, Greene composed a pastoral opera Phoebe. The allegro to its overture must have conveyed a tremendous sense of expectation to the audience.

There’s even more. David Schrader is soloist in Greene’s Collection of Lessons for the Harpsichord. As an example, the pieces in C minor are demanding but still bring home the liveliness of English baroque music. Greene deserves much more recognition, not least as he was organist of St. Paul’s and of the Chapel Royal, Master of the King’s Music and Professor of Music at Cambridge. Garry Clarke is, I hope, the pioneer of a long-overdue revival.

 

04_Bach_Well-Tempered.jpgBach – Well-Tempered Clavier Book II
Luc Beauséjour
Naxos 8.570564-65

In the CDs of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier some performers use a modern piano, while other performances are on instruments that Bach was familiar with: the clavichord, the organ and (most often) the harpsichord. I am not about to launch into a diatribe on the unsuitability of the modern piano. It is true that I have never liked Glenn Gould’s Bach (sacrilege!) but I have listened with pleasure to Rosalyn Tureck, to Keith Jarrett and especially, to Angela Hewitt.

Beauséjour is a French-Canadian musician, who studied in Montreal with Mireille and Bernard Lagacé and subsequently in Europe with Ton Koopman and Kenneth Gilbert. He won First Prize in the 1985 Erwin Bodky International Harpsichord Competition in Boston. He has recorded a substantial number of works by Bach, including Book I of The Well-Tempered Clavier (also on Naxos).

For the sake of comparison I have been listening to two other performances on the harpsichord: those by Masaaki Suzuki (on BIS) and those by Christophe Rousset (on Harmonia Mundi). I felt that Beauséjour was holding his own, although of the three I liked the Rousset best since he found a poetic quality that was not always there in the other two. I have to add though, that when I want to listen to these Preludes and Fugues, it is the Angela Hewitt recording (on Hyperion) that I shall play most often. That goes to show that, for me at any rate, a stupendous technique, clarity of voicing, a wonderful sense of phrasing, a subtle sense of rubato and a thorough grasp of baroque performance practice matter more than whether these pieces are played on the “correct” instrument.

 

05_Bach_Viola.jpgBach – Krebs – Abel
Helen Callus; Luc Beauséjour
Analekta AN 2 9879

Though Bach’s longest and most major career posting, in Leipzig, kept him more than busy writing and preparing music for the church, he managed to find time to continue composing extraordinary chamber music as the director of the town’s Collegium Musicum. This ensemble of students and young professionals would give weekly performances at Zimmerman’s coffee house. It is thought that Bach wrote the three sonatas for viola da gamba and harpsichord (BWV1027-1029) for performances by members of this Schola Cantorum. They are a combination of new compositions and arrangements of existing music written for other forces.

These three extraordinary pieces form the centrepiece of this fine recording by violist Helen Callus and harpsichordist Luc Beauséjour. Also included are a gamba sonata by Carl Friedrich Abel and Callus’ arrangement of a movement from a trio by Johann Ludwig Krebbs. Both Krebbs and Abel had close family connections to Bach.

From the opening plaintive notes of this beautiful recording, violist Callus’ rich and gorgeous tone announces that these will be performances of a high standard. Though they share a range, there are major differences in timbre and intensity of sound between the viola and the gamba which take getting used to, but the clarity and sensitivity of Callus’ playing is so compelling that one is drawn past the instrument directly to the music. As always, Luc Beauséjour’s playing is elegant and stylish. Highly recommended.

 

06_Beethoven_Period.jpgBeethoven, Period
Matt Haimovitz; Christopher O’Riley
Pentatone PTC 5186 475

Beethoven’s interest in the cello appears to have begun early on. His first set of two cello sonatas Op.5 were written in 1796 in his 26th year, his last, Op.102, dates from 1815, by which time the composer was experiencing the trauma of increasing deafness. In between came another sonata and three sets of variations, all of them presented here in this two-disc Pentatone/Oxingale recording featuring cellist Matt Haimovitz and pianist Christopher O’Riley, the first in a series titled Beethoven, Period.

Most cellists choose to perform on early instruments, and Haimovitz is no exception – his cello of choice is a Goffriller, crafted in Venice in 1710. But rather than overpower the cello with a modern concert grand as is sometimes the case with cello/piano pairings, O’Riley proves to be the perfect musical partner in his use of an 1823 Broadwood pianoforte, both instruments tuned slightly below the standard A440. The result is a wonderfully authentic sound, very close to what Beethoven would have heard in the early 19th century

The first CD contains the earliest two sonatas and the 12 Variations on See the Conquering Hero Comes of Handel. From the opening hesitant measures of the Sonata in F Major, we sense the two artists are in full command of the repertoire. Their playing is stylish and precise while the interaction of the two period instruments allows for a compelling degree of transparency.

In disc two, we move into a new period in Beethoven’s style – the Sonatas Op.69 and Op.102 show evidence of a more mature style, somewhat darker and more dramatic, while the seven variations on Bei Männern... from Mozart’s The Magic Flute aptly demonstrate Beethoven’s facility at extemporizing on a popular theme. The “magic moment” for me on this disc came in the second movement Adagio con moto sentimento d’affetto of the Sonata Op.102, No.2. Here Haimovitz’s lyrical tone and the sensitive interpretation by O’Riley evoke a wonderful sense of mystery before the start of the jubilant Allegretto fugato, bringing both the sonata and the set to a most satisfying conclusion.

Bravo to both artists in this exemplary pairing; the “great mogul” himself would have been pleased.

 

07_Assi_Karttunen.jpgBeyond the River God
Assi Karttunen
Divine Art dds 25120
(divineartrecords.com)

This intriguing program of music for solo harpsichord makes unexpected but successful partners of Baroque France’s great François Couperin, who died in 1733, and the gifted English composer Graham Lynch, who is still very much alive. Couperin’s music here, a prélude from his L’Art de toucher le claveçin and four other pieces from various of his Ordres, makes up just over one-third of the substantial track list, and Finnish harpsichordist Assi Karttunen’s supple interpretation of L’Exquise from Ordre XXVII is particularly beautiful.

That said, where Karttunen really shines is in Lynch’s music for her instrument, which reflects both a panoply of stylistic influences and a well-nuanced understanding of how to compose for the harpsichord. Karttunen’s playing is deftly mercurial in the second Rondeau of the five-movement Beyond the River God, and she’s introspective yet always welcoming in the many meditative movements of this and other works. A particular small delight is the short, stand-alone Ay!, which to me sounds a little like what Edgar Allen Poe might have improvised over a French ground bass. The four movements of Lynch’s Petenera make perhaps the best connection in spirit to the unmeasured préludes of Couperin’s time; you can almost see Couperin listening curiously from the doorframe. The recorded sound is beautiful, and Karttunen’s notes offer much food for thought. The combining of old and new music can be tricky alchemy, but this experiment is a happy success.

 

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