Sunday, December 5, 2010

Early Music News


The American lutenist James Tyler has died on November 23. There is an obituary in The Guardian.


One of the six awards of the Deutsche Schallplattenkritik for the year 2010 was given to the recording of Johann Sebastian Bach's motets by the Bach Collegium Japan under the direction of Masaaki Suzuki.
The Musikfest Bremen awarded the Belgian keyboard player and conductor Jos Van Immerseel with its Musikfest-Preis for 2010. It is a token of acknowledgement for his artistic achievements on the music scene and his programmatic contributions at the festival. Previous prizewinners include John Eliot Gardiner, Nikolaus Harnoncourt and Marc Minkowski.

From the recording studios

Some interesting productions will be released in the coming months.
The ensemble Ordo Virtutum has recorded music by Notker Balbulus. It is the first in a series of recordings of musical treasures from the library of the convent Sankt Gallen (label: Christophorus).
Music by female composers from Italian convents of the 17th century is recorded by the Cappella Artemisia under the direction of Candace Smith (label unknown; probably Tactus).
Le Concert Brisé, directed by the cornettist William Dongois, has recorded a programme with sonatas and motets by Buxtehude. Next year a disc with sonatas by Fontana will be recorded and in 2012 either a programme with antiphons and sonatas by Cazzati or sonatas by Bertali. All productions will be released by Accent. At the German label Carpe Diem a disc with music by Pandolfi Mealli and Froberger has appeared.
The United Continuo Ensemble from Germany has recorded excerpts from a collection of arias from Leipzig, Die Musicalische Rüstkammer of 1719. Next year a disc with music for bass instruments by composers from Italy and Spain (Frescobaldi, Vitali, Rognoni, Ortiz et al) will be recorded. Both are produced by PanClassics.
The Canadian ensemble Constantinople has recorded a programme with Mexican baroque music (Sanz, Ribayaz, Murcia) (Analekta).
One of the most prominent British all-male college choirs is the Choir of New College, Oxford, since long directed by Edward Higginbottom. Although its repertoire ranges from the Middle Ages to the 21th century it is especially renowned for its performances of early music. Recently a recording of Monteverdi's Vespers was released. Other new recordings include Bach's motets and Mozart's Requiem. These all appear on the choir's recently-founded label Novum.
A series of five discs with sacred music by Johann Sebastian Bach and some contemporaries will appear at the Belgian label Passacaille, with the ensemble Il Gardellino, directed by Marcel Ponseele. The first has just been released.
Johann Sebastian Bach's harpsichord concertos have been recorded by Aapo Häkkinen and Helsinki Baroque (Aeolus), whereas Andreas Staier and the Freiburger Barockorchester have recorded keyboard concertos by Carl Philipp Emanuel for Harmonia mundi.


Last October the first performance since 300 years of the opera Berenice und Lucilla by Christoph Graupner (1683-1760) took place in the Orangerie in Darmstadt, where Graupner worked most of his life. The performers were the Konzertchor Darmstadt and the Darmstädter Hofkapelle on period instruments, conducted by Wolfgang Seeliger. Interesting was the historical approach of the staging, by the Belgian choreographer Sigrid T'Hooft, who is a specialist in baroque gesture.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

The operas of André-Ernest-Modeste Grétry

For a long time the interest in French music of the ancien régime was mostly limited to the music during the reigns of Louis XIV and Louis XV. Only fairly recently the music which was composed and performed in France in the second half of the 18th century has been given some attention. It can't be a coincidence that this year no less than two recordings of operas by André-Ernest-Modeste Grétry were released, conducted by Hervé Niquet and Guy Van Waas respectively. With Grétry we have one of the most successful composers of that era in French music history. Part of his success came from the fact that he was the favourite of Marie-Antoinette. She was a music lover and also played the keyboard and the harp. Recently I reviewed a disc which contains a survey of the music played and sung in the salons of Marie-Antoinette and the upper class of her time.

Grétry is also represented in the programme, with a duet from his opera La Caravane du Caire. A complete recording of that opera was released in the early 1990's, under the direction of Marc Minkowski [1]. But that remained a single event, and didn't create any real interest in Grétry's music.

Grétry was first and foremost famous for his comic operas. It is ironic that the two operas Niquet and Van Waas have recorded, both don't belong to that genre. It could well be that comic operas of that time don't go down that well to the audiences of our time. Some years ago I heard a recording of the comic opera L'irato ou l'Emporté by Etienne-Nicolas Méhul [2], and I didn't find it very funny at all. But maybe it had more to do with having a different sense of humour.

Considering his reputation it was quite surprising that in 1778 Grétry was commissioned to compose an opera on a libretto after the tragedy Andromaque by Jean Racine, the most famous French poet of the 17th century. But the then director of the Opéra wanted to offer various styles to his audience, and give them the opportunity to compare them. Andromaque [3] wasn't a great success when it was first performed in 1780. The libretto by Louis-Guillaume Pitra was sharply criticised for disfiguring Racine's tragedy. The same critic also had some bad things to say about Grétry's music: "In this work there is nothing but a shrill and tedious noise (...)." The opera was also criticised for the number of choruses and the lack of divertissements. It was considered too tragic, and particularly the ending. For later performances it was therefore reworked by the librettist and the composer, and that made the work more successful. Niquet decided to perform the original version. It is a pretty modern work in which the three acts are actually three large scenes, in which recitatives, arias and choruses merge into one another almost without interruption. There are very few long arias and the number of dances is limited. The chorus is part of the dramatic development and comments the events or pushes them forward. The orchestra is playing a particularly important role by depicting what is going on. It is also full of contrasts in dynamics and colour, thanks to the scoring with flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns, trumpets and timpani plus strings. There is no keyboard: all recitatives are accompanied by the orchestra.
It is easy to understand that the audiences had problems with the tragic ending: one of the four main characters dies, another commits suicide, and a third is becoming mad.
Hervé Niquet's interpretation is almost ideal. The orchestra is just as colourful and dynamical as the score requires, and greatly contributes to the dramatic character of the performance. The choruses are also splendidly realised. The casting of the main protagonists is spot-on: Karine Deshayes (Andromaque), Maria Riccarda Wesseling (Hermione) and Tassis Christoyannis (Oreste) all give excellent accounts of their characters. Sébastien Guèze (Pyrrhus) gives a fairly good interpretation of his role, but is a bit undifferentiated: he mostly is too loud, and stylistically his singing is debatable.
This recording makes it abundantly clear that Andromaque is a masterpiece, and one has to be thankful to Hervé Niquet for digging it up.

I find it harder to consider Céphale et Procris [4] a masterpiece. It was called a ballet-héroïque and was first performed in 1773. It received a mixed reception, and that was largely due to its ambivalent character. Grétry tried to incorporate elements of the Italian style of his time into the traditional French opera. On the one hand there are sequences of recitatives - which are accompanied by the orchestra -, arias and choruses, on the other hand it includes ballets as in the classical French opera. The work is also traditional in its mythological subject matter and the appearance of allegorical characters. In addition the libretto was considered problematic: Céphale is not a very heroic character, and there are few direct conflicts between the protagonists. As a result the work is not very dramatic, and the fact that the performance under the direction of Guy Van Waas was recorded live doesn't make any difference. All in all, this is an interesting piece because of its form and the quality of the music, but not very captivating. On the whole the interpretation is good, but also a bit flat. Pierre-Yves Pruvot is good as Céphale, but Katia Vellétaz is too uninvolved as Procris. Bénédicte Tauran (Aurore) and Isabelle Cals (Palès, Jalousie) give good accounts of their respective roles, but their continuous vibrato is disturbing. Stylistically Caroline Weynants (L'Amour) and Aurélie Franck (Flore) make a better impression. The choir is, as one would expect, excellent, and the orchestra - more or less of the same constitution as in Andromaque - is also playing well. This production is definitely interesting, and enhances our knowledge of Grétry as a composer of music for the theatre. It is just a shame it is musically not completely satisfying.

[1] Grétry, La Caravane du Caire
Greta De Reyghere, Isabelle Poulenard, Guy De Mey, Jules Bastin et al, Choeur de Chambre de Namur, Ricercar Academy/Marc Minkowski (Ricercar RIC 100084/085; 1991)

[2] Méhul, L'Irato ou l'Emporté
Pauline Courtin, Svenja Hempel, Cyril Auvity, Alain Buet, Georg Poplutz, Miljenko Turk, Bonner Kammerchor, L'arte del mondo/Werner Ehrhardt
(Capriccio 60128; 2005)

[3] Grétry, Andromaque
Karine Deshayes, Maria Ricarda Wesseling, Sébastien Guèze, Tassis Christoyannis, Choir and Orchestra of the Concert Spirituel, Les Chantres du Centre de Musique Baroque de Versailles/Hervé Niquet
(Glossa GCD 921620; 2009)

[4] Grétry, Céphale et Procris
Isabelle Cals, Bénédicte Tauran, Katia Vellétaz, Caroline Weynants, Aurélie Franck, Pierre-Yves Pruvot, Choeur de Chambre de Namur, Les Agrémens/Guy Van Waas
(Ricercar RIC 302; 2009)

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Opera recitals

Discs with arias from operas and oratorios appear regularly. They are mostly a vehicle to make the soloist shine in his or her favourite repertoire. I am always rather sceptical about this kind of discs. Firstly, because I believe the music should always take first place rather than the interpreter. If the name of the soloist is printed in larger letters than the name(s) of the composer(s), you just know something is wrong.
Secondly, isolating arias from an oratorio or an opera is mostly unsatisfying, as they lose some of their meaning without their dramatic context. It depends what kind of arias are sung: in Italian operas, for instance by Handel, arias often are not strongly connected to the dramatic context. Sometimes arias were moved from one opera to another and given to another character. It is more problematic in French operas where the arias are more closely connected to the dramatic development. That is one of the reasons the disc by Anne Sofie von Otter which I review on my site, is highly unsatisfying. It is not the only reason, the performances are rather bad as well.

The two discs I would like to mention here are not convincing either. The German mezzo Mareike Morr has finished two musical studies, piano and singing, and has diplomas in teaching both as well. But she has decided to concentrate on a career as a singer of oratorio, opera and songs, basically from every period in music history. As far as I know this is her first solo recording. I don't understand why she has chosen almost exclusively 'evergreens' of the baroque opera. Only the excerpts from Vivaldi's operas are lesser known, but all other pieces are available in numerous other recordings. This way she has to compete with interpreters who have more experience in this particular repertoire, and she fails to live up to that competition. In the two pieces by Monteverdi Ms Morr's performance is far from the ideal of recitar cantando. In general she pays too little attention to the text, and often there is a lack of declamation. She has certainly a nice voice, and that makes it all the more disappointing that her performances are rather one-dimensional and undifferentiated, for instance in regard to articulation and dynamics. And expressive her interpretations are mostly not. In Handel's 'Lascia ch'io pianga' her performance lacks subtlety, and I don't think anyone will be moved by her singing of Gluck's 'Che farò senza Euridice'. Lastly, the orchestra - with two violins, viola, cello, violone, theorbo, harpsichord and the additional wind instruments - is far too small for most arias. The recording is also very direct, and as a result there is no theatrical atmosphere at all.

Gluck has been a key figure in the history of opera. But only a handful of his theatrical works are known. Everyone knows Orfeo ed Euridice and maybe two or three other works, but most of his about 50 operas are largely unknown. In January 2010 Ian Page staged a concert in the Wigmore Hall in London in which he directed the Classical Opera Company in a selection of arias from various Gluck operas. Of course it couldn't be without 'Che farò senza Euridice' from Orfeo ed Euridice, but there were also arias from La Semiramide riconosciuta, Paride ed Elena, Ezio, Antigono and L'ivrogne corrigé. The latter is a comical opera - a genre one doesn't immediately associate Gluck with. Historically speaking the programme which was recorded in the Wigmore Hall Live series, is quite interesting, and in particular opera aficionados should love it. But musically it is very disappointing. Like in the Mareike Morr's recording the orchestra is too small: just 7 violins, 2 violas and 2 cellos and one bass. In addition the playing is mostly dull and undramatic. As far as one can tell from extracts the singers give a good account of the respective roles from a dramatic point of view, but stylistically the performances of the sopranos Ailish Tynan and Sophie Bevan and the mezzo Anna Stéphany are wide of the mark. Too little attention is given to the text and the continuous wide vibrato of the ladies is unbearable and - more importantly - against all we know about the aesthetic ideals of the 18th century. This disc is another example of a great idea which has gone awry due to an inadequate performance.

- "Lamenti - furore e dolore" - Mareike Morr, Hannoversche Hofkapelle (Genuin GEN 10176)
- Gluck: "Blessed Spirit - A Gluck retrospective" - Ailish Tynan, Sophie Bevan, Anna Stéphany, Classical Opera Company/Ian Page (Wigmore Hall Live WHLive 0037)

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Frans Brüggen, José Antonio Abreu & politics ... and Vivaldi

After a long break it is time to revive this weblog. More than 10 years ago I started a website with reviews of discs with early music. The number of discs which I receive is so huge that it is simply impossible to review all of them, as interesting as they may be. Therefore I have decided to use this weblog to give more general impressions of such discs, as well as of recordings which have been reissued.

But this week I would like to pay attention to some news which deserves attention.

Frans Brüggen may be 75, he still has a busy schedule. In August and September he has conducted the Orchestra of the 18th Century in Warsaw in a series of piano concertos by Beethoven, Chopin and Schumann, as well as the latter's violin concerto. Among the soloists in these performances, which have been recorded, were Kristian Bezuidenhout and Thomas Zehetmair. After returning he received the Medal of Honour in Arts and Sciences from Queen Beatrix in The Hague. A well-deserved award for someone who - with the likes of Gustav Leonhardt and Nikolaus Harnoncourt - fundamentally changed the way music of the past has been played.
He still has big plans. Next month he will perform and record Beethoven's Triple Concerto, with Isabelle Faust, Jean-Guihen Queyras and Kristian Bezuidenhout, and in October of next year all Beethoven's symphonies will be performed and recorded once again. And in April 2011 the orchestra will return to Bach, with some of the orchestral suites and the Easter Oratorio.

Brüggen has regularly conducted the Netherlands Radio Chamber Philharmonic, one of the three orchestras of Dutch radio. There is a good chance all of them will be disbanded, as the result of the compulsive economizing of the upcoming right-wing coalition government. The world-wide financial and economic crisis makes savings inevitable but the rigorous measures in the making to cut short the expenses of the Dutch national channels are far over the top and could well be a fatal blow to music life in the Netherlands. The radio orchestras - and the radio choir - play a major role in music life and several concert halls are highly dependent on their performances. The Amsterdam Concertgebouw fears that it will be impossible to balance the books and some even fear its closure. Representatives of the arts will argue against these drastic measures, but as the radical right-wing party this coalition depends on has a strong anti-cultural bias - considering arts as a "left-wing hobby" - it is hard to see them finding a response.

It is ironic that the same day the prospective prime minister received the order to build a cabinet the Venezuelan pianist José Antonio Abreu received the prestigious Erasmus Prize from Crown Prince Willem-Alexander. Abreu is the founder of what is generally known as El Sistema, a project which aims at bringing children from the lower classes into contact with classical music. They participate in a choir or an orchestra and receive private music lessons. The system has had great success and is now copied in other countries. The combination of cultural education and social elevation is praiseworthy and is ample justification for awarding Abreu the Erasmus Prize. One would hope his message of the importance of musical education, particularly for those who don't have the financial means to really participate in society, is not lost on those who will decide which austerity measures have to be taken.

And then some positive news: recently a flute concerto by Vivaldi has been discovered. The Gramophone writes: "University of Southampton research fellow Andrew Woolley stumbled across the score of a Vivaldi flute concerto among papers housed in the National Archive of Scotland in Edinburgh. “This piece was previously known only from a mention in the sale catalogue of an 18th-century Dutch bookseller. Discovering that it is actually in existence is unexpected and hugely exciting,” he said. The concerto is named Il Gran Mogol and is a cornerstone of a quartet of “national” concertos (the others celebrate France, Spain and England, but alas they are have not come to light). The score is virtually complete: a part for second violin had to be reconstructed using another manuscript that appears to be based on the same concerto." This is exciting indeed, and I can't wait to hear this piece. It shows that music still can be found at unexpected places. Time to clean up your attic! Who knows?

Lastly, some months ago I have joined the world-wide Twitter community. I don't see any reason to keep other people up-to-date with what I am doing. Many people overestimate the interest of others in their activities or thoughts. But it gives the opportunity to follow the activities of musicians and ensembles at the early music scene. Many use it to inform their followers about their concerts and recording plans. Anyone who likes to know what is going on at "the scene" should consider following the musicians and ensembles of his liking.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

The murder of Tarquinio Merula

From time to time discs are released with a mixture of early and contemporary music. The latter term shouldn't be taken too litterally: here I refer to music composed later than, say, the mid-20th century. Even though I can't get tuned in to modern music, such programming can be interesting, in particular as some modern composers are influenced by composition techniques used in the past, especially the renaissance. It can only be assessed positively that they don't feel obliged anymore to follow slavishly the 'rules' of contemporary music.

In such cases composers specifically link up with old traditions. But there are also modern composers whose works show some similarities with early music, even though they are not explicitly influenced by it. Some composers of the 20th century give much freedom to interpreters, allowing them to achieve very different results in the realisation of their scores. This freedom, turning the performer into a kind of 'co-composer', is sometimes considered as not very different from the liberties interpreters of early music should take. A recent recording by the German ensemble Lautten Compagney, directed by Wolfgang Katschner, underlines the similarity between the role of 'improvisation' in the music of Philip Glass (1937), the main representative of 'minimal music', and the Italian composer Tarquinio Merula (1595-1665) (*).

In her programme notes Babette Hesse underlines the fact that in Glass' music, in particular after him becoming acquainted with the music of Ravi Shankar, the absence of bar lines gives an almost endless freedom to the interpreter. And then she states that modern interpreters can look at Merula's music the same way. "There is a basic beat, but no bar lines, and no cross bars grouping the notes clearly together. Nor is there a score as such showing the entire composition at one glance: instead, the editions only provide the separate parts, which don't come together until the piece is actually played." Merula is not unique in this respect. "17th centry composers didn't see any necessity to record every detail of the performance in writing: they assumed that the players themselves would make their own creative contribution."

For decades interpreters of early music concentrated on finding the right instruments and understanding the way they should be played and the music should be interpreted. The amount of freedom they took was limited. As today the playing of early instruments has greatly evolved and the understanding of early music has increased, it is possible to grasp and explore the freedom composers of the past gave the interpreters.

In order to use the room for improvisation correctly, one first needs to understand the character of a particular composition and the style and performing habits of the time in which it was composed. In that respect the evolution from a strict performance of what was written down to a more improvisational style is logical. It is therefore regrettable that modern performers who should know better, don't hesitate to use the freedom to perform compositions in such a way that the composer wouldn't recognize them.

I don't know if the freedom Philip Glass expects his interpreters to take is limitless, and whether he wants them to at least respect his style. Would he be satisfied with a performance of his compositions in the manner of the 17th century? At least that is historically possible as the instruments of the 17th century are still used and the style of performance of that time is known. But performing Merula as if it was 20th-century music is something quite different. Instruments like saxophone and marimba, as they are used by the Lautten Compagney to perform some pieces by Merula, are very different from anything he knew. And improvisation in 20th-century style is different from what was practiced in Merula's time.

Of course the members of the Lautten Compagney know this very well, as they are seasoned interpreters of early music. Then why do they do things like this? If they really believe in the quality of Merula's music, then why do they think it is necessary to jazz it up? I am ready to accept that they really believe this is a way to show that Merula's music isn't just old stuff, but still very much alive. But in my view they have murdered Tarquinio Merula instead.

(*) "Timeless: Tarquinio Merula - Philip Glass" - Lautten Compagney/Wolfgang Katschner (deutsche harmonia mundi 88697526982)

Friday, June 11, 2010

Unhistorical performance practices

One of the returning subjects of this weblog is the way the historical performance practice is compromised by artists in the early music scene. A recent example is a Naxos-recording of harpsichord works by the French composer Claude-Bénigne Balbastre (1727-1799), in which the American harpsichordist Elizabeth Farr plays a harpsichord with a 16' stop.

Balbastre's keyboard works have been recorded before, but this disc is welcome as Elizabeth Farr has made an ample choice from his output which is enough to fill two discs. If I am not mistaken Balbastre's music doesn't meet universal approval. He is often associated with the decline of the French harpsichord school which had its origins in the 17th century. It cannot be denied that sometimes he goes for superficial effects at the cost of depth. The reports of Balbastre's own playing as an organist don't help to improve his reputation. The English music writer Charles Burney heard him play in 1770, and reported: "He performed in all styles in accompanying the choir. When the Magnificat was sung, he played likewise between each verse several minuets, fugues, imitations, and every species of music, even to hunting pieces and jigs, without surprising or offending the congregation, as far as I was able to discover."

According to Charles Burney Balbastre had a Ruckers harpsichord which was "more delicate than powerful". Elizabeth Farr plays a copy of a Ruckers harpsichord, but here the tone is just the opposite. The main reason is that the builder, Keith Hill, has added a 16' stop. In the booklet he argues: "Certain composers of harpsichord music wrote pieces that beg to be played on harpsichords sporting a 16' stop. (...) Claude Balbastre also happens to be just such a composer". I have heard other recordings with music by Balbastre, and I have never had the idea that something was missing without a 16' stop.

Hill admits that this view is not supported by the facts as "no French harpsichords with 16' stops remain from his time". But "I wanted to hear what the acoustic effect would be if a Ruckers type of harpsichord were extended in size by adding a 16' stop, with its own soundboard in the manner of the Hass family of harpsichord makers". This combination of Flemish-French (Ruckers) and German (Hass) elements results in an instrument which is the product of fantasy, can't be considered a 'copy' and therefore has nothing to do with historical performance practice.

In fact, the use of the 16' stop is not just without any historical foundation, but - in contrast to Keith Hill's views - it doesn't do Balbastre's music any good. Sure, some pieces are definitely written for the gallery. But there is no reason to even reinforce the effects Balbastre had in mind. It is precisely the task of the historical performance practice to perform any composer's music with the means he had at his disposal. This is the only way to do his music justice and to communicate its features to a modern audience.

It is not the first time Elizabeth Farr uses the wrong instrument in a recording. Some years ago she recorded the complete harpsichord oeuvre of Jean-Henry d'Anglebert. Here she plays two instruments, a harpsichord and a lute-harpsichord. As I have argued in my review there is no real historical foundation for the use of this kind of instrument in French music.

In both cases I find Elizabeth Farr's choice of instrument ill-judged, not only from a historical perspective but also from a strictly musical angle. The use of these instruments - and in the case of the Ruckers-copy even the very building of the instrument - compromise the principles of the historical performance practice. Here the personal preferences of the harpsichord maker and the interpreter override historical evidence. But that is exactly what the pioneers of the historical performance practice wanted to get rid of, is it not?

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Recordings and other events

In every issue the German magazine Toccata/Alte Musik Aktuell has a survey with news from the recording studios. This seems to me of interest to lovers of early music, so I am going to forward the most interesting things here on a regular basis. I also add some information about upcoming events, like festivals.

Let us start in the renaissance. The repertoire from Spain is quite popular, but it is mostly Tomás Luis de Victoria whom is given attention. And even from his oeuvre only a handful of pieces are regularly performed. The German label Archiv has started an interesting project, containing the release of a series of 10 discs with about 90 compositions by Victoria. They are performed by the Ensemble Plus Ultra, directed by Michael Noone. Also participating are His Majestys Sagbutts and Cornetts, the ensemble Schola Antiqua and the organist Andrés Cea Galan. Still, I can't help feeling a little sceptical about the interpretation. Some years ago I heard Plus Ultra in the early music festival in Utrecht, performing music by Cristóbal de Morales, and that was a bit disappointing. But we may at least expect to hear some hardly-known or even unknown pieces.
The Tallis Scholars also recorded Spanish music. The 30-year existence of their label Gimell was celebrated with a recording of Lamentations by Victoria and Padilla. I haven't heard it yet, but everyone knows what the performances of this ensemble are like: technically perfect, but hardly historically informed.

One of the main compositions of the early baroque is Monteverdi's Vespro della Beata Vergine. There was a time music like this was performed with boys' voices, but today that is the exception rather than the rule. So it is noticeable that the Knabenchor Hannover is going to perform this work later this month, with Concerto Palatino and Musica Alta Ripa. The solo parts are sung by adult soloists, though: the members of the German vocal ensemble Himlische Cantorey, with which the choir regularly cooperates. The performance will be recorded by the North-German radio (NDR). Hopefully this performance is going to be released on disc.

In recent years the operas of Francesco Cavalli are enjoying great popularity. A rare opera is Artemisia, which was rediscovered in the 1960's. Claudio Cavina, with his ensemble La Venexiana, is going to give a scenic performance this summer. I noted a performance in the festival KunstFestSpiele Herrenhausen in Hanover. I assume it will performed elsewhere as well.
More interesting opera news also comes from Germany: during the Musikfestpiele Potsdam-Sanssouci an opera by Carl Heinrich Graun is performed: Montezuma, which was composed in 1755. It is a scenic performance, directed by Geoffrey Layton; the Kammerakademie Potsdam will be conducted by Sergio Azzolini. In the cast are Florin Cezar Ouatu in the title role, Mireille Delunsch, Raquel Andueza, Makoto Sakurada, Mark Chambers, Gerald Thompson and the male soprano Paolo Lopez.
Also at this festival a scenic performance of Gluck's serenade Le Cinesi. It is a co-production of the ensemble L'Arte del Mondo and the China National Peking Opera Company. There will be intermezzi "in the style of the Peking Opera of the 18th century". I'm not sure what to make of this as a mixture of 'east' and 'west' in early music seldom works.

In the pipeline are two opera recordings under the direction of Diego Fasolis, with Max Emanuel Cencic and the orchestra I Barocchisti: Vivaldi's Farnace and an opera by the Neapolitan composer Leonardo Vinci, both to be released by Virgin Classics.

Recently I have written an enthusiastic review of a disc with Polish music by the ensemble alla polacca. It contained mostly pieces never recorded before. Considering the quality of that disc I am looking forward to its next release, which was recorded last December. It contains "music at the court of Hanover", with music by Handel and Steffani but also first recordings of pieces by Nicolaus Adam Strungk (1640-1700), Antonio Sartorio (1630-1680) and Vincenzo de Grandis II (1631-1708). That definitely looks very interesting.

The exploration of the vocal oeuvre of Georg Philipp Telemann goes on. Last March Hermann Max, with his ensembles Rheinische Kantorei and Das Kleine Konzert, gave the first modern performance of his St Luke Passion of 1748. It will be released shortly by CPO.

As I am a great lover of the music of Haydn it was nice to see last year that the recording industry has paid much attention to his oeuvre. But it seems one needs a Haydn year to see lesser-known compositions being released. I'm afraid that in the time to come we return to common practice, meaning that only the well-known repertoire will be recorded. We just have seen a new release of the London symphonies, conducted by Marc Minkowski - as if there aren't enough recordings of these symphonies available - and now the first volume of a new recording by Ton Koopman has been released. This is especially regrettable as their are still so many Haydn symphonies which are never performed and recorded.
It is simply a disgrace that still no complete recording of Haydn's symphonies on period instruments is available.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

BBC Proms 2010 - a miserable showing

Last week the BBC published its programme for the Prom Season 2010. Of course I have looked what they had on offer in the realm of early music.

Let's see.
The ensemble Stile Antico brings motets on texts from the Song of Songs.
A concert by Le Poème Harmonique is entitled 'Venice - from the streets to the palaces'.
Musica ad Rhenum plays a programme of chamber music by members of the Bach family.
John Eliot Gardiner conducts the English Baroque Soloists in Bach's Brandenburg Concertos.
He also performs Monteverdi's Vespro della Beata Vergine.
From the Early Opera Company we get Pergolesi's Stabat mater.
And lastly, the Ensemble Matheus, directed by Jean-Christophe Spinosi, brings arias and instrumental pieces by Handel and Vivaldi.
And that's all, folks!

There are 76 Prom concerts, and just one contains early music, Monteverdi's Vespers. In addition there are matinees and chamber music concerts - the latter mostly in form of lunchtime concerts. The other six concerts are all part of these two categories. Let's assume that there are about 100 events in total. If just seven of them are devoted to early music, that is a pretty miserable showing.

On top of that, the programming is anything but imaginative. Bach's Brandenburg Concertos, Monteverdi's Vespers and Pergolesi's Stabat mater - as if we haven't heard them many times. Equally predictable is the choice of performers, with really no new names. Nothing against Gardiner, Musica ad Rhenum or Le Poème Harmonique, but aren't there any other interesting performers and ensembles around?

There was a time when the BBC was famous for its programmes with early music on Radio 3. It was the time when I could hardly receive the channel, as I had only access to the medium wave broadcasts. The reception was miserable, and in the summer months - when I had most time to listen - the medium wave was poisoned by that dreadful cricket.

But I was able to pick up an interesting programme now and then. And I regularly listened to the inimitable David Munrow who often had interesting stuff to tell. What has happened since? Now that I have the possibility to listen to Radio 3 in digital quality there is very little which arouses my interest. Now and then there is a belch of recordings with early music, but mostly with mainstream baroque and classical repertoire.

There is the Early Music show. But if it contains recordings of a live event, we only get extracts. If a concert is good enough to be broadcast, why cut it up to pieces?

Very long ago Radio 3 presented unknown pieces by the Italian composer Legrenzi or the German Thomas Selle. Much of what was presented at that time may be much better known today. Even so, there is still much to discover, but we won't hear it on Radio 3. Because of that I listen less frequently to Radio 3 than in those days of medium wave reception.

Not that it is really better elsewhere. In my Dutch weblog I have written about the recent changes in the broadcasting schedule of classical Radio 4 in the Netherlands. It seems early music has almost been banned from the channel. The German channel WDR 3 has always had a great reputation in early music, and regularly produced CD recordings of early music. But some years ago the early music department was disbanded, and it is only now and then that concerts with early music are broadcast. WDR even got rid of its own period instrument orchestra, the Cappella Coloniensis.

Maybe it is time lovers of early music make themselves heard. A little pressure on the various classical channels would not be amiss. After all, early music is an important part of the international music scene. It seems only some managers of classical channels haven't noticed. Time to wake them up.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

East is East and West is West

Among performers of early music of Western Europe there seems to be a growing interest in the musical traditions from the regions around the Mediterranean. In particular interpreters of medieval and early renaissance music try to discover how the musical traditions of Christians, Muslims and Jews have influenced each other. Much attention is paid to the musical culture in Spain at the time the Cantigas de Santa Maria were created. It is probably the emergence of a 'multicultural' society in Western Europe which has led to this interest in the musical traditions of the East.

I would like to pay attention to three recent recordings which shed light on music of the East or confront music from the various traditions around the Mediterranean.

The first is a disc of the ensemble VocaMe (1), which is devoted to the work of Kassia, a female Byzantine-Greek composer who lived from 810 to around 867. She was born in a wealthy family and received an excellent education. She became the abbess of a monastery, wrote a number of poems and composed liturgical music, sometimes on her own texts. The similarities with Hildegard of Bingen are striking. More than 50 compositions are attributed to her, although the authenticity of about half of them is questionable. VocaMe has selected 18 pieces, all on a Greek text. They are syllabic and monophonic, but in this recording most of them are accompanied with a bourdon, either sung or played on an instrument. The result is a fascinating disc of music from a largely unknown tradition. It is Christian music, but with an unmistakeable eastern flavour.

Secondly I would like to mention a disc by the ensemble Doulce Mémoire (2), entitled 'Laudes'. The subject of the recording is the repertoire of the confraternities - often called laudesi -, associations with a spiritual and charitable purpose. In the meetings of these fraternities hymns were sung, especially in praise of the Virgin Mary. In his liner notes the ensemble's director Denis Raisin Dadre writes that during his research into the music of these confraternities "I became aware of the astonishing kinship of organisation and rituals between Muslim orders and Christian confraternities. My meeting with the Iranian singer Taghi Akhbari confirmed these intuitions." This led to a recording in which the laude as sung by the confraternities are confronted with comparable repertoire of Muslim religious orders. The laude are performed by the ensemble Doulce Mémoire, whereas Taghi Akhbari and Nader Aghakhani play and sing the music from the Muslim religious orders. Fortunately any attempt to mix the two traditions - either in the interpretations or in the musicians participating in the performances - has been avoided. That makes this disc an example of a confrontation of East and West which really makes sense.

Lastly, Alla Francesca (3) recorded a programme under the title 'Mediterranea'. "A panorama of the cultures to be found on the shores of the Mediterranean: troubadour songs, laude to the Virgin and estampies from the Trecento mingle with Sephardic lullabies and folksongs collected in Italy", according to the information on the backside. The ensemble makes use of the research into the traditional music and the performance techniques. It is a dangerous undertaking for classically-educated musicians to perform traditional music, but in my view the members of Alla Francesca are giving good performances here. They have not fallen into the trap of trying to sing deliberately unpolished or producing too exotic sounds. There are some influences of Eastern music but these are not exaggerated in a speculative way.

I cannot resist mentioning a disc which is an example of how not to confront East and West. The ensemble Celeste Sirene (4) has recorded a programme with music of the 17th century, including composers like Castaldi, Kapsberger and Marais, alongside traditional Persian music and improvisations in traditional Eastern style. Putting this kind of repertoire together on one disc doesn't make much sense anyway. What is worse: in the performance of some pieces from the West traditional Arabian instruments are used and Arabian-style ornamentation is applied. This kind of 'multicultural' performances lack any historical or stylistic plausibility.

(1) Kassia: Byzantine Hymns - VocaMe/Michael Popp (Christophorus CHR 77308)
(2) Laudes - Doulce Mémoire/Denis Raisin Dadre (ZigZag Territoires ZZT 090901)
(3) Mediterranea - Alla Francesca (ZigZag Territoires ZZT 090402)
(4) Gol o Bolbol: Early Music from Persia and Europe - Ensemble Celeste Sirene (Cavalli Records CCD 336)

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Composing is no contest

It seems there are some people who don't like the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. But I don't think anyone denies his greatness. He is generally considered one of the greatest composers in history. There are more who are almost unanimously admired, like Monteverdi, Mozart and Schubert. But others may have had an important place in history, they are nevertheless controversial as the quality of their compositions is concerned. One of them is George Frideric Handel.

Not a few musicians of fame never perform his music. Gustav Leonhardt, for instance, has stated several times that he is overrated and that his music is rather superficial. Early in his career he has recorded some of Handel's harpsichord suites, and he participated in a recording of Handel's wind sonatas by Frans Brüggen and Bruce Haynes. But otherwise he has stayed away from Handel.

Likewise Philippe Herreweghe, although having recorded many of the most important sacred works of the 17th and 18th centuries, has never conducted sacred music by Handel. I am not aware of any statements in regard to Handel from Herreweghe, but I can imagine him having the same views as Leonhardt.

Recently a Dutch newspaper published an interview with the renowned bass Peter Kooy, who often works with Philippe Herreweghe and Masaaki Suzuki. He is happy to be considered a baroque specialist, but still wants to avoid some baroque composers. He mentions particularly Handel, who may have written well for the voice, but whose music is often harmonically not interesting enough and is missing depth.
Everyone is entitled to his opinion, and if a singer doesn't like a composer he does well to stay away from his music. Performing music you don't believe in doesn't make sense and does the composer, the audience and the interpreter an ill service.

At the same time it is questionable whether it makes any sense to compare composers. One can debate ad nauseam whether Bach is a better composer than Handel or than Telemann, but in my view that is pretty useless. Composers certainly preferred a style of composing, but their oeuvre also reflects the circumstances in which they lived and worked. It may be fascinating to speculate what kind of music Telemann had written if he had been appointed Thomaskantor in Leipzig instead of Bach. But we will never know. And had Bach become a representative of the German Enlightenment if he had been Musikdirektor in Hamburg? It is anybody's guess.

Telemann was once considered a composer of rather lightweight music, mainly written for amateurs. That judgement was based on that part of his chamber music which was printed in the early days of the re-emerging interest in baroque music. In recent times other parts of his oeuvre have been explored and it has been recognized that there is more to him than was prevously thought.
We now know that he was able to write in the 'learned' style mostly associated with Bach, and that he had thorough knowledge of the German tradition of counterpoint and did indeed compose in that style. But he mostly did not, because he composed for audiences which didn't ask for such music. And as he embraced the ideals of the Enlightenment in regard to educating people with music he aimed at giving his clientele what it was asking for.

Likewise, Handel was writing music according to the needs and wishes of the circles he was part of. There is no reason to believe his skills as a composer were inferior to those of Johann Sebastian Bach. After all, every would-be composer - or any musician, for that matter - received a thorough musical education. But why would he write music nobody was interested in? It may be true that most of his music is harmonically less interesting than Bach's, that doesn't mean it is less expressive. There are mores ways to express affetti than harmony alone.

Peter Kooy doesn't like opera very much. That is fair enough; he is not the only one. And it is true that a singer who doesn't like opera has little business in Handel's music. Most of his oratorios may have biblical subjects, stylistically they are not that much different from his operas. And the chamber cantatas are a kind of pocket-size operas.
But that is no reason to dismiss Handel as a composer. In his operatic music, whether secular or sacred, he reaches great heights of expression. In particular many of his duets are hard to surpass in that respect.
And even outside the operatic works there are some treasures in Handel's oeuvre. As much as I personally prefer Bach over Handel, I definitely wouldn't like to miss Messiah or Israel in Egypt - two monuments of sacred vocal music -, or his organ concertos.

In my view any composer should be judged on his own merits. Composing is no contest. Comparing composers of different backgrounds and judging them out of their context is basically unhistorical. It doesn't do them any justice, not even the one who comes out on top.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Education projects

There is much talk about the ageing of the audiences of classical concerts. I can speak out of experience: at the concerts I am attending I see many grey and bald heads, and very few people who are not at least in middle age. As I only attend concerts with early music it is possible that the situation is better in other sections of the classical music scene. But from what I hear and read that is not really the case.

The cause of this situation may be partly financial: people under 40 probably have not enough spending power to attend concerts at a regular basis. But it is also a matter of not being acquainted with classical music. This is partly the result of the bad state of music education in schools in the Netherlands. And I wonder whether that is really different elsewhere.

Lamenting this state of affairs is one thing, trying to do something about it is quite different. Fortunately there are musicians who create and take opportunities to present themselves and the music they love to young people. Some years ago the Belgian violinist and conductor Sigiswald Kuijken performed all London symphonies by Haydn, and as part of that project he also talked about Haydn and his symphonies to young people. I heard some fragments of it on Belgian radio, and Kuijken was quite good in explaining what the music was all about.

The Holland Baroque Society also has developed some educational projects of its own. Its website says: "Children and young people in the Netherlands no longer come into contact with classical music in general, including Baroque music, as a matter of course. So Holland Baroque Society sees it as a duty to take it themselves to the schools, and in that way introduce students to the beauty of the Baroque. As with their concert series, HBS organises their educational work on a project-basis, which run parallel to the concerts. In this way they hope to impart their own enthusiasm for this music, and use their own inspiration to stimulate the children’s creativity."

They organise so-called 'Kids Only concerts'. They are presented "exclusively for those students that have taken part in the educational project, and the form and length of the concert is tailored to the age of the audience. The concert’s program revisits the material previously handled by the musicians during the lessons."

They give an example of a visit to a school where members of the orchestra gave presentations to every class with classical music in general, and music of the baroque in particular. This is an excellent example of an attempt to introduce young people to classical music.

Another ensemble has developed activities in this field. Recently a disc with German sacred music by the Swiss ensemble Gli Angeli Genève, directed by Stephan MacLeod, was released (Sony). The booklet tells us that "[as] part of its educational activities, Gli Angeli Geneve enabled secondary school students to spend an entire semester, under a pilot project, helping to organise and make all the arrangements for one of its concerts." This included scheduling, preparing contracts and organising concert tickets. "In a more musicological vein, they were introduced to musical analysis and the history of the cantata, they wrote a large portion of the notes that follow, originally for the programme to the Gli Angeli concert which took place in January 2009".

This way the ensemble extended its activities with primary-school children to older pupils. "[They] met the members of Gli Angeli Genève, in class or at rehearsal, and learned what professional life for them actually implies."

These are some examples of activities I know of which show professional musicians taking responsibility for promoting classical, and in particular early music. It would be great if others would copy their examples. Hopefully this kind of activities will result in more young people attending classical concerts in the future.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

A creative approach

Creativity is an important quality of any musician, and in particular of interpreters of early music. Not everything the composer had in mind is to be found in the score. Not everything can be written down, and not everything needed to be written down in the composer's time. Apart from the fact that often interpreters and composers were identical there were practices and aesthetic ideals which were generally shared. It is the challenge to modern interpreters to find them and incorporate them in their performances.

If a reviewer writes that a performance is characterised by a 'creative approach' to the repertoire that is generally meant as a compliment. For me it means that an interpreter is emphasizing elements which are in the score but are often overlooked or not fully explored. An example are the many recordings of baroque instrumental music by Nikolaus Harnoncourt with his Concentus musicus Wien. Also interesting in this respect are the interpretations of Jed Wentz and his ensemble Musica ad Rhenum, in particular in regard to tempo and rubato.

Another example of a 'creative approach' is the performance of music in another scoring than one is used to. For instance, recently the French harpsichordist Noelle Spieth has recorded the Pièces de clavecin en concert by Jean-Philippe Rameau on harpsichord, without additional instruments. This option is specifically mentioned by Rameau, but as far as I know they have never been recorded this way. And in the liner notes of her recording other examples of French music are given which according to the composer can be performed in an alternative scoring. So musicians who put that into practice should gain applause.

But not every creative approach is applaudable. Recently I listened to a new recording of some of Vivaldi's sonatas for cello and bc. There is no lack of recordings of this repertoire, but when they are played by the Belgian cellist Roel Dieltiens that is something to look forward to. He belongs to the world's elite of the baroque cello as a number of fine recordings testify. He also has his own ensemble, Explorations, with which he explores often unknown territory. But the Vivaldi recording was a severe disappointment. In my review I have labelled it a 'stinker'. I hardly ever use that word as I have much respect for musicians and am convinced they give of their best in their performances. But what Dieltiens and his colleagues are delivering is inacceptable.

Not everyone thinks that way. In the April issue of Gramophone the disc is one of the 'Editor's Choices', and in his review Duncan Druce praises the recording as "a creative approach (...) that will make you listen afresh". He notices the "large, continually varied continuo group". There is nothing new about that: it is the fashion of the day, as I have written in my previous entry in this weblog. Whereas Duncan Druce obviously judges this practice positively I find it extremely annoying and completely uncalled for. What Duncan Druce calls "accompaniments that are often profusely elaborated" I'd rather tag as "exaggerated". In his view the "improvised interpolations" are part of a creative approach which is "throwing new light on the music". Which new light, I wonder. Are these performances bringing us closer to the music as Vivaldi might have wanted it to be played? Is there any historical foundation for this kind of improvisations, including an "organ toccata" which is as long as two movements? And what about the inclusion of a song between two movements? Did Vivaldi really expected his performers to burst out in a song?

Anyone is entitled to his opinion. And I know very well that Duncan Druce is a professional musician and reviewer and knows the early music scene from within. But even so, what worries me is that the 'creative approach' is applauded as if this is a quality in itself, independent of the music's historical context. It is revealing that in the whole review there is no consideration of what the historical sources might have to say. It seems unlikely that they indicate that there should be no singing between two movements of a cello sonata by Vivaldi. But I would be very surprised if there would be any historical evidence giving at least some plausibility to Roel Dieltiens' approach.

Yes, creativity is an important quality for any performer of early music. But might we expect at least a 'historically informed creativity', please?

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Fashionable performance practice

Is the interpretation of early music affected by fashion? Over the years many things have changed. There was a time when interpreters tried to follow what they understood to be the rules of performance practice of the past as accurately as possible. They tried to avoid everything which couldn't be justified on the basis of historical sources. This was partly motivated by an aversion against traditionalist performers taking control over the music.

Today performers take much more freedom. They realise that historical sources don't tell everything, that they are not always unambiguous, and that various sources sometimes contradict each other. There is also more awareness that composers - who were mostly also the performers of their own music - didn't always play their music the same way. This explains the existence of various versions of the same work. And this has led to a more balanced approach towards something like an Urtext which often not only offers just one of a number of options, but also isn't anymore than a rudimentary indication of what the real performance must have been like in the hands of the original interpreter.

This development can only be welcomed. It has everything to do with a better understanding of the aesthetics of the time. The more a performer knows about that the more he is able to find his own way in the interpretation of early music, without crossing the border of what is historically and stylistically justifiable. An important development is the growing interest in the art of improvisation. This was a necessary skill of performers in ages past, and not just of organists. Of course, there is a strong element of improvisation in the addition of ornaments which has been practiced from an early stage in the history of historical performance practice. But today interpreters go a step further, for instance by adding a short improvisatory prelude to a keyboard suite.

From history we can learn that freedom is often misused. That is also the case here. I can't help feeling that some interpreters aren't that much interested in what historical sources have to tell. That is based on my own experience of listening to recordings and live performances. I have seen singers entering the early music scene which had never been accepted about 15 years or so ago. Studies of performance practice in the 17th and 18th centuries don't leave much doubt about the fact that vibrato was only used as an ornament. Today there are many singers in the early music scene which don't care about that, and singers who oblige to what was common practice in the baroque era are more the exception than the rule. Rhythmic freedom in the performance of recitatives is often ignored and a truly speechlike performance isn't something which goes without saying anymore.

Another issue is the choice of instruments. I can't see any reason for using a lirone as a basso continuo instrument in a cantata by Handel. Some time ago I heard a disc in which Italian music was performed with an oboe, although the music was composed well before the instrument made its entrance in Italy. I can't see any justification for the use of a guitar in sacred music by Buxtehude and his circle. And what about the use of an organ in Handel operas? That is all highly debatable.
And the historical foundation for the use of a battery of basso continuo instruments in Biber's Mystery Sonatas is very thin. Let's not talk about the choice of fortepianos in keyboard music from the decades around 1800. That is a can of worms in itself.

There is much more which seems to be the fashion of the day, like the continuous change in the scoring of the basso continuo within a single work. Are interpreters afraid that audiences might getting bored if the basso continuo is played by cello and harpsichord for 10 minutes? What does that tell us about their capabilities as performers? And why is it impossible to play a slow movement with a harpsichord? Do we really need an organ or a lute for that?
Talking about the lute and other plucked instruments - do we need to hear them in the basso continuo all the time? Were they as often used in the 17th and 18th centuries as they are today? And were they used as percussion instruments as often as they are today? Is this practice an attempt to attract an audience which is used to listen to popular music?

From this kind of practices it is only a little step towards deliberately ignoring the wishes of the composer. A recent example is the recording of Telemann's Brockes-Passion by René Jacobs. Several arias and some recitatives have been cut "for reasons of dramatic coherence", as the booklet says. Why does Jacobs think he knows better than the composer? He is known for treating the score with considerable freedom. From what I understand from scholars who know more about these things than I do his decisions are more often than not based on personal preferences rather than historical evidence.
And some years ago I heard the recording of a live performance of an opera in which two scenes were swapped for dramatic reasons. Again, the director - Christophe Rousset in this case - apparently saw the need to improve the work of the composer. I am sure that if I would further think about this I would be able to come up with more examples of such behaviour.

And so, after a long walk, we are back to square one: interpreters taking control over the music. Who's the new Herbert von Karajan of baroque music?

Sunday, March 7, 2010

From the recording studios

Some music magazines regularly give information about what is going to be released in the near future. I always like to read stuff like that because it can whet your appetite for what is to come. But this kind of information also gives reason to be critical about the choice of repertoire.

There is much talk about the crisis of the recording industry. One of the causes of this crisis is that too much repertoire is recorded too often. This probably explains why there seems to be no crisis in the recording of early music. There is so much repertoire which has never been explored yet that there is no excuse for recording the same stuff time and again. And fortunately there are ensembles and musicians who are enterprising enough to go off the beaten track.

One of them is the German conductor Hermann Max. In recent years he has recorded a number of unknown German oratorios of the late 18th and early 19th century. Last year he brought a hitherto forgotten Passion: the Große Passion by Carl Heinrich Graun, a really great work which is an important addition to the repertoire for Passiontide. The Italian keyboard player Lorenzo Ghielmi has just recorded another excellent Passion, on a Latin text, by the Neapolitan composer Francesco Feo. Both recordings will be reviewed on musica Dei donum shortly.

Also interesting are two recent recordings of music for the theatre by Haydn which is a still underrated aspect of his oeuvre. Andreas Spering recorded the marionette Singspiel Die Feuersbrunst (CPO), whereas Michi Gaigg recorded a late version of his opera L'Isola disabitata with a German text which dates from shortly after 1800 (deutsche harmonia mundi). To the same category belong the opera Le disgrazie d'Amore by Antonio Cesti (Carlo Ipata; Hyperion) as well as two oratorios by the German composer and theorist Johann Mattheson: Der liebreiche und geduldige David, and Das größte Kind (Willens; CPO).

But the habit of recording the same stuff over and over again doesn't pass the early music scene completely. In recent years I have heard and reviewed a handful of new recordings of Bach's motets. Recently I received another three. The discography contains a whole list of recordings of these works, and one wonders whether all these new performances - which I haven't heard yet - are really worthwhile, let alone indispensable, additions to the catalogue.

And then there are the Brandenburg Concertos. Recently four new versions have been released, by Trevor Pinnock, Richard Egarr, John Eliot Gardiner and Masaaki Suzuki. Trevor Pinnock's explanation for recording them once again was simple: I liked to do it. That's understandable, but performers should also ask whether the music world really needs them. And this year Concerto Köln is going to record Bach's orchestral suites - don't we have enough of those?

There is some good news, though. In one of my previous contributions I wrote about the growing interest in the music of Christoph Graupner. As he died in 1760 it is Graupner year, so we may expect some new productions with music by this German master. Hermann Max - he again - recorded Christmas cantatas which will appear later this year on CPO. Interestingly he has recorded them with one singer per part, a practice he has so far ignored in his recordings of German baroque repertoire. I am curious to see whether this is an omen of a change of mind in regard to the vocal scoring of German music.

The Austrian violinist Gunar Letzbor is also an enterprising artist. With his ensemble Ars Antiqua Austria he has recorded 10 concertos in 5 parts by Charles Mouthon who seems to be the same whose name is usually spelled as 'Mouton' and who so far is only known as a composer of lute music. Upcoming is a recording by Letzbor of the six sonatas for violin solo by the German violin virtuoso Johann Paul von Westhoff (1656-1705). That is something to look forward to, and it is surprising that it has taken so long until these brilliant pieces were recorded.

This year interesting live events can be expected, which hopefully will be recorded at some stage. Examples are Grétry's opera Andromaque in Schwetzingen and Rossini's operas La Cenerentola (Concerto Köln; Paris) and La scala di seta (Michi Gaigg; Graz). Which record company is taking the risk?

Sunday, February 28, 2010

A Passion in English

Passiontide has come. That means that in many places Passions, and in particular the two Passions by Johann Sebastian Bach, are going to be performed. The recording industry doesn't let this time of the year pass by unnoticed either. One of the most recent releases is a recording of Bach's St Matthew Passion by the ensemble Ex Cathedra, directed by Jeffrey Skidmore (Orchid Classics).

This ensemble has made several fine recordings, but mostly of lesser-known repertoire. From that perspective a recording like this may come as a surprise. It is the recording of a live performance on Good Friday 2009. The peculiarity of this performance is that Bach's Passion is sung on an English text, in a new translation by Nicholas Fisher and John Russell. "Their aim was to use language close to that currently spoken", according to the liner notes. The Bach expert John Butt is very enthusiastic about the translation, something which I find incomprehensible.

I don't understand the reasoning behind such an undertaking. The booklet says that the translators believe a translation like theirs "would more effectively communicate the Passion narrative". It is worthwhile to translate the lyrics of the original as accurately as possible, in order to communicate the content to an audience which doesn't understand German. But in this case the translation is meant to be sung on Bach's music. And that causes all sorts of problems.

In many respects we notice here the same problems as in Ton Koopman's reconstruction of Bach's St Mark Passion. Here the problems are even greater because of the difference in language. In general the music and the English text just don't match. In some recitatives there are more notes than text, and parts of the text have to be repeated. Bach never does so in his recitatives. Often the problem is solved by melismas on syllables or words - again, something Bach hardly ever does in his recitatives. In other cases the problem is the opposite: there is too much text for the music, and that is 'solved' by splitting a note into two.

The effect of the repetition of "bin ich's" by the various voices, representing the disciples (no 9) is strongly reduced in the translation: "Lord, is it me?" The power of the closing word "schlug" in the chorus "Weissage uns, Christe, wer ist's, der dich schlug" is taken away as in the translation the last note has to be split on the words "struck you" (no 36).

There are also a number of passages where images in the original text have disappeared. The accompanied recitative 'Du lieber Heiland du' (no 5) has been translated in such a way that the picture of the believer dropping a tear on Jesus' head has disappeared and with it the connection to the woman pouring ointment on Jesus' head.

Bach's text also contains connections which are not specified and left to the 'informed believer'. An example is the picture of the dove in the accompanied recitative 'Am Abend da es kühle war' (no 64), where Bach just suggests a connection to the dove returning to Noah after the Flood. The translators felt the need to spell it out: "At evening homeward turned the dove. Her olive-leaf showed floods receding". In the closing chorus 'Wir setzen uns mit Tränen nieder' the translation says: "At your grave, O Jesu blest, may we in our sad dejection find the hope of resurrection". But the St Matthew Passion doesn't refer to the resurrection, at least not in the free poetic texts. And that is not without a reason.

There is more, like the fact that some accompanied recitatives don't rhyme, that the translation is inconsistent in using "me" and "us" in these recitatives and that the translation of a number of chorales moves too far away from the original. I could go on, but I'll save that for my forthcoming review on Musicweb International and on musica Dei donum. I'll also explain there why the performance - apart from the issue of the language - is pretty dreadful.

Sure, in many ways the translators have done a fine job and there are several passages where they have translated the original quite well. But this translation is meant to be sung on Bach's music, and there it fails to convince.

As a matter of fact Bach's St Matthew Passion is every inch German, and the English translation violates the very character of Bach's music. The two languages are pretty much each other's opposites. This recording show once again: English is English and German is German and never the twain shall meet.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Sweelinck and the Genevan Psalter

The Reformation of the 16th century wasn't only a theological, but also a liturgical revolution. As an Antwerp refugee in the 16th century wrote from Calvinist Strasbourg: "Here, everyone sings, all sing together, men as well as women, and everyone has a book in hand". Despite the differences between the German reformer Martin Luther and his French counterpart Jean Calvin they had two things in common in regard to liturgy. They wanted the whole congregation to sing rather than a selective number of professional musicians, and they wanted the congregation to sing in the vernacular.

This was a clean break with a tradition of many centuries in which chants in Latin were sung by professional singers - only men - and the congregation kept silent. The result was a large number of hymns and metrical psalms which were written and composed by poets and composers of fame. Strangely enough the German hymns are much better known than the metrical psalms which were collected in the Genevan Psalter, printed in 1562.

But music lovers know more melodies from the Genevan Psalter than they may realise. The French metrical psalms were translated into German by Ambrosius Lobwasser, and several melodies have become famous, largely due to the fact that they have been used by composers like Bach. Freu dich sehr, o meine Seele is the Genevan melody of Psalm 42. The probably most famous of them all is O Mensch, bewein dein Sünde groß, which is Psalm 68 in the Genevan Psalter. This collection also contains some hymns, one of which is a metrical version of the Ten Commandments. Its melody has been used for the German hymn Wenn wir in höchsten Nöten sein, best known from Bach's organ chorale Vor deinen Thron tret' ich hiermit.

In addition the melodies of various Psalms have been derived from gregorian chant. Psalm 141, for instance, is based on the early-medieval hymn Conditor alme siderum. And one of the best-known sequences of the old church, Victimae paschali laudes, returns in the Genevan melody of Psalm 80.

The close connection between the Genevan Psalter and the German hymns on the one hand and the gregorian chant on the other hand indicates that those who state that the melodies of the Genevan Psalter are easy stuff and of little musical value just don't know what they are talking about.

If it was, why would a composer of the class of Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck make the effort to set all of them polyphonically? And he was just one who used the melodies of the Genevan Psalter for his compositions. French composers of fame of the late 16th century also wrote music on these melodies, among them Paschal de l'Estocart and Clément Janequin. There is really no reason why the repertoire which is based upon the Genevan Psalter, should be ignored. But that is the reality nevertheless. Very few recordings have been devoted to this repertoire. Even Sweelinck's settings are not very well represented on disc.

That is going to change. The Gesualdo Consort Amsterdam, directed by Harry van der Kamp, is devoting itself to a project of recording the complete vocal works of Sweelinck, called the Sweelinck Monument. The secular music has been recorded and recently the first volume of the Psalms has been released. For the time being these recordings are only available on the Dutch market, but they will appear on the international market at a later time.

This project cannot be valued enough. The quality of the music is first-rate, and historically Sweelinck's Psalm settings are important as they are the last specimens of the Franco-Flemish school which dominated European sacred music for such a long time. The madrigalisms which Sweelinck uses to depict elements in the text, reflect the influence of the Italian music of around 1600. As one may expect from the Gesualdo Consort Amsterdam, the performances are of the highest standard, with observation of what we know about the performance practice in Sweelinck's days, for instance in regard to temperament. As we know who the first singers of these Psalms were there can be no doubt that they were performed with one voice per part, and that is how the ensemble performs them. In the interest of those who are not familiar with the Genevan Psalter every setting by Sweelinck is preceded by the original melody.

This project testifies that the Genevan Psalter is musically valuable and should be given more attention to. I have grown up with these Psalms and still sing them every week in church. But it is worrying, and - listening to the settings by Sweelinck and others - simply incomprehensible that more than a few people are willing to exchange them for that dreadful revivalist stuff. Maybe the Sweelinck project will give them food for thought.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

The Leiden Choirbooks

The Dutch city of Leiden has a unique treasure which is preserved in the medieval Pieterskerk (St Peter's Church). It is a set of books called the 'Leiden Choirbooks'. These contain music to be sung during the many daily liturgical events. Originally there were eight books, but two have been lost. The remaining six books are building Europe's largest collection of liturgical music linked together.

So far this collection has been ignored almost completely, even though some of the main composers of the renaissance are represented, like Jacobus Clemens non Papa, Thomas Crequillon and Josquin Desprez, and also a composer like Jean Richafort who today isn't very well known, but whose music was widely disseminated throughout the 16th century. The choirbooks also contain a number of pieces which are not known from any other source, by Gombert and Mouton but also by little-known masters.

The Leiden Choirbooks are the subject of a voluminous project of the Dutch Egidius Kwartet, a vocal quartet which sings repertoire from all periods in music history, but especially from the renaissance. This project includes the publication of a modern edition, a series of concerts and a recording of a large selection from the choirbooks. The quartet will be extended by additional singers for the concerts and recordings.

Over the next six years every year a series with concerts will take place with music from one of the six books. Simultaneously a larger selection from that book will be recorded on two discs, to be released on Et'cetera. So at the end of the project a large part of the choirbooks will be available on 12 discs in total.

In addition the ensemble makes itself available for presentations, workshops etc which should make this important source of liturgical music from the renaissance more widely known.

A special site is devoted to this important project. The index contains two videos, one with fragments from a rehearsal of the ensemble, and one in which its artistic director, Peter de Groot, tells about the choirbooks and the project (Dutch with English subtitles). If you click on 'The Leiden Choir Books The Project' at the top of the page you will be lead to more pages with information in English.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The Graupner Renaissance

It seems we are in the middle of a real Graupner renaissance. For many years hardly any attention was paid to his music. It was in the 1980s that Helmut Müller-Brühl recorded some works by Graupner with his Capella Clementina. And over the years some more recordings have been released. But he never was a name which regularly appeared in the programmes of chamber music ensembles or baroque orchestras. In recent years his music is put on the map, though, in particular by the German musicologist and keyboard player Siegbert Rampe, who recorded some instrumental music with his ensemble Nova Stravaganza. His colleague Hermann Max has performed some sacred music. And the activities of the Canadian harpsichordist Geneviève Soly have to be mentioned with honour.

Last Tuesday I attended a concert of the Holland Baroque Society and the German recorder player Dorothee Oberlinger. On the programme was music by Telemann and Graupner. This combination makes sense as they were lifelong friends and many of Telemann's orchestral overtures are preserved thanks to copies made at the court in Darmstadt where Graupner was working the most part of his life. Telemann's music is part of the standard repertoire of baroque orchestras nowadays, but even in his oeuvre uncommon pieces can be discovered. But the focus was on Graupner, as he is the great unknown to most people. On my site you will find a review of that concert.

It isn't easy to get a grip on his music. Even after repeated listening to a piece from his pen it is hardly possible to whistle or sing some motifs as one so easy does with music by Telemann or Bach. This is due to the fact that Graupner has a particular musical language which isn't comparable to that of any other composer. And his music also has a kind of mosaic character, consisting of a sequence of short motifs in apparently random order.

One of the works by Graupner which was played during the concert was the Overture for recorder, strings and bc in F. This has also been recorded by Dorothee Oberlinger and her Ensemble 1700, conducted by Reinhard Goebel. A review of this disc will be published on my site in due course. There you will also find some other recent discs with music by Graupner, and if I am not mistaken this is only the beginning of what can be called a Graupner renaissance.

His music deserves it and there is every reason to look forward to more unknown treasures from his large oeuvre.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

It is very likely everyone who loves early music has at least some discs in his collection with Italian madrigals. It is a quite popular genre among vocal ensembles which specialize in early music, and this kind of repertoire is also regularly performed on the concert platform. But only a small proportion of what has been written is performed and/or recorded.

The repertoire is huge. In the decades around 1600 large numbers of madrigals were written. I remember Anthony Rooley, about 20 years ago, saying that he could easily record one collection of first-rate Italian madrigals every week for the rest of his life. The fact that many composers of madrigals are forgotten is due to the fact that they have drowned in the sea of what was written in that time.

Recently a website has been launched which is completely devoted to the Italian madrigal, The author, Martin Morell, has announced his website in the Usenet newsgroup It seems first and foremost meant for (amateur) singers who would like to perform madrigals. There is a lot of information about the Italian madrigal, and if one registers it is possible to download scores, midi-files as well as texts and translations, free of charge.
But regular listeners to Italian madrigals could find this site also very useful. Apart from information about the genre there is some specific background information about Il Pastor Fido by Battista Guarini, which was used by so many composers as a source for madrigals. Also useful is a synopsis of the plot of this 'pastoral tragicomedy'.

I am not in the position to assess the reliability of the information which is given on this site, so I leave that to the experts. But from the personal information of the author one may gather that he has spent considerable time in Italy to study the sources.
I recommend anyone with a special interest in Italian madrigals to have a look at this site. I am sure the author will appreciate any useful and constructive comment.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

The Voice of Furio Zanasi

During more than 40 years of listening to early music it has often struck me how little influence the quality of the human voice has on the quality of a performance. I have heard voices which appealed to me because of their sheer beauty, but then the interpretation of the music left me completely cold or was even outright annoying. No, I'm not going to name names.

The opposite also happens. I have heard voices which I am not inclined to call "beautiful", but because the singer is using his material so intelligently and so much submits himself to what the composer requires from the interpreter I can only bow and admire what he is doing.

I just happened to meet such a singer - on disc, that is. The Italian baritone Furio Zanasi is a well-known singer who has worked with many conductors, not just from the early music scene, but also from the world of 19th-century music. But his main interest seems to be early music, and in particular Italian repertoire. Recently he has recorded a disc, called 'La voce di Orfeo', with the ensemble La Chimera, directed by Eduardo Egüez (Naïve). A comprehensive review is going to appear on MusicWeb International and later on my own site in due course, but I would like to point out how great that disc is.

The programme revolves around Francesco Rasi, one of the most celebrated singers from the the time of Monteverdi, who participated in almost every opera performance in the first decades of the 17th century, including Monteverdi's Orfeo. The main thing his contemporary Giulio Caccini asked from a singer was what he called recitar cantando, a speechlike way of singing. If one wants to know what exactly this is, listen to this disc. Zanasi just comes up with really brilliant performances of pieces by Monteverdi, Caccini, d'India and Rasi himself. It is so great to hear a singer who is able to apply the right ornaments, who can sing a trillo properly and who understands that the messa di voce was an important tool of early 17th-century singers.

This year is just one month old, but I know for sure that this disc is going to be one of my records of the year.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Kopatchinskaja's Beethoven

Where does music stop being "early music"? There was a time when early music was music written before the era we call "baroque". But in time the term "early music" was more and more associated with historical performance practice. And as a result magazines and sites devoted to early music contain reviews of discs with 19th- and even 20th-century music, performed on period instruments.

As a reviewer of MusicWeb International I am given the opportunity to choose the discs I want to review. And I never choose recordings of music composed later than around 1800. If I would choose later music it certainly won't be Beethoven. I have some problems with his music: I listen to it now and then, but if I look on my shelves for music to listen to, I hardly ever take Beethoven.
But in my capacity as a reviewer for the German magazine Toccata/Alte Musik Aktuell I receive discs which the editors have selected. So I can't prevent getting some 19th century music to review. This explains how a new recording of Beethoven's Violin Concerto op. 61 landed on my desk.

I was wondering whether we really needed another recording of a solo concerto which has been recorded numerous times. Only a small number of these recordings are on period instruments but some of them are very good, like those by Thomas Zehetmair with Frans Brüggen and Viktoria Mullova with John Eliot Gardiner, and therefore hardly need competition. But I was wrong: Patricia Kopatchinskaja and Philippe Herreweghe have something to offer which is different from what we already had.
I had never heard of Ms Kopatchinskaja, but I understand she is mostly performing contemporary music. This explains one aspect of her recording - more about that later.

First: apart from the violin concerto we get the two Romances. Nothing special here as many recordings offer the same combination. What is special, though, is that Ms Kopatchinskaja and Herreweghe have also recorded the fragment of a violin concerto in C, catalogued as WoO 5. To my knowledge this is the first recording on period instruments.

But then the Violin Concerto. In the booklet Robin Stowell pays much attention to the first performer of this concerto which dates from 1806. Beethoven had dedicated his concerto to this violinist, Franz Clement (1780 - 1842). "Reviews suggest that his elegant and graceful performing style differed from that of many of his contemporaries, particularly other violinists in Beethoven's circle such as Rodolphe Kreutzer, Pierre Rode, George Polgreen Bridgetower, and Ignaz Schuppanzigh. As the correspondent of the Allgemeine musicalische Zeitung observed (1805), its hallmarks were 'not the marked, bold, powerful playing, the gripping, striking Adagio, the power of bow and tone which characterise the Rode-Viotti School'. By contrast, Clement's playing had 'an indescribable delicacy, neatness and elegance, as extremely delightful tenderness and cleanness'...". It is these characteristics Patricia Kopatchinskaja tries to emulate, and as far as I can tell she is doing so quite succesfully. Her playing is indeed very elegant, with a light touch, but without getting boring as one would perhaps fear.

That is all fine and well. But the cadenzas are damaging this performance.
The booklet tells: "Kopatchinskaja also contributes her own arrangements of Beethoven's original cadenzas for the piano version; these have inevitably required some 'overdubbing' in order to realise the piano part on the violin". I don't understand this. Kopatchinskaja is not the first to look to the piano version for the cadenzas, but why would a violinist want to use all the parts? The effect is that we get cadenzas here which are not idiomatic for the violin. It is as if Beethoven had asked the pianist to play just the violin part with one hand.
Is this historical performance practice? I don't think so. Interpreters are supposed to do only what is historically plausible. Manipulating a recording in the studio is not what I consider historically plausible. Not because in Beethoven's days recording a performance was impossible, but because the cadenzas Kopatchinskaja plays can never be played on the concert platform, neither in Beethoven's days nor in our's.

The cadenzas also contain passages which were certainly unthinkable in the composer's time. This is where Kopachinskaja's experience in contemporary music comes to the fore as some of the passages in the cadenzas sound very modern to my ears. Again, this is far away from anything that can be called 'historically plausible'.
There is nothing wrong with originality and creativity in the performance of music of the past. But these qualities should always be embedded in a performance which reflects the aesthetics of the composer and his time.

I'm afraid this recording is another example of representatives of the historical performance practice compromising the very foundations of its existence.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The dumbing down of a classical channel

A kind of uproar among lovers of classical music in the Netherlands has broken out. The reason is the rescheduling of the programmes of the classical channel of public radio, Radio 4. One aspect in particular has caused the anger of serious music listeners. The early morning show, with various classical music and news from the music scene, presented by someone who within the last years has developed into the most celebrated presenter of classical music, has been cancelled.

Instead we get a show with lighter classical pieces and political news, presented by someone who has made a career as a host of sports programmes. The debate in the forum of Radio 4 went out of hand, at least in the eyes of the editorial staff. Comments by listeners were considered inappropriate and insulting, and they pulled the plug.
This, of course, only stirred up the anger, as the staff was accused of arrogance and being unwilling to accept criticism.

The reasoning behind the rescheduling is the attempt to increase the audience, and in particular to attract young people. The early morning show was considered too difficult and the presenter too 'elitist'. As a columnist in a newspaper put it: his only fault is that he can pronounce the word 'counterpoint'.

The manager of the channel believes that people will be attracted to Radio 4 when they get the daily news in alternation with more 'easy-listening' classical music. No serious music lover believes this is going to happen. What causes most anger is the impression that the people who are in charge don't take classical music really seriously. Why, it is asked, should everything be simple and easy, and why should everything be adjusted to what young people are supposed to like?

The opponents consider the rescheduling as just another stage in the dumbing down of the classical channel. It is, as some say, dumb enough as it is.
O tempora, o mores, as the Romans said.

Monday, January 25, 2010


A considerable number of releases with classical music are reissues. Some of these have even be reissued before, for instance when the vinyl was replaced by the CD. But some recordings are reissued for the first time.
I like especially recordings from the late 1960s and the 1970s, during the early and still strongly experimental years of the historical performance practice. Many of them I have purchased during those years but as I ddn't have them on CD I haven't heard them for ages.

It is interesting to listen to them so many years later. I am always curious to know if I like them just as much as I liked them when I first heard them. Sometimes so many better performances have been released since that their value is only historical, documenting a stage in the development of the performance practice of early music. But in other cases they still make great listening.

The reissue of a recording of orchestral overtures by Telemann, with the Concentus musicus Wien under Nikolaus Harnoncourt, is a very good example. Some of these overtures are quite well-known and have been recorded more recently. Technically some of these recordings may be better in that the skills to handle the period instruments have greatly advanced. But at the same time I often observe a loss in the amount of expression as well as a habit of making compromises in the application of what is known about how music was performed in the baroque era.

The way Harnoncourt realises the effects Telemann has incorporated in his music is still unsurpassed. In comparison with his highly evocative and often even provoking interpretations more recent recordings are not seldom bland and superficial.
When I listen to a new recording of well-known repertoire, by Johann Sebastian Bach for instance, I regularly turn to older recordings, from the 1970s and 1980s. Quite often the older recordings are better as far as the interpretation is concerned. Take Bach's sonatas for keyboard and violin. In recent years I listened to a handful of new recordings, and in most cases I was severely disappointed about the way they were performed. Turning then to one of the very first recordings of these sonatas on period instruments, by Gustav Leonhardt and Sigiswald Kuijken, I concluded that their interpretations are unsurpassed since.

There is so much more knowledge about historical performance practices, and the mastery of period instruments has vastly improved. But that hasn't necessarily led to more convincing interpretations. If performances of more than 30 years ago are still top of the bill, that should give food for thought.

Friday, January 22, 2010

The Musical Clock

If you read this you have probably found my weblog through my website, musica Dei donum. That site is mainly devoted to reviews of CDs and live performances. I was planning to add news and views regularly, but as you follow the corresponding link on my site you will find only two articles from long ago. For some reason it didn't work that way. So I am reserving that part of my page for longer articles which may appear from time to time.
For shorter messages with news and comments a weblog seems more appropriate, and I hope to write messages on a regular basis - which explains the title.
The subjects can be everything regarding (classical) music, and in particular early music. I could also write about things which are more indirectly related to music.
Right now I don't exactly know what the range of subjects is going to be, but hopefully the messages will be of some interest to you.
Reactions are welcome, as long as they comply with the rules of decency.