Thursday, 24 April 2008
Performer: Musica Antiqua Koln
Director: Reinhard Goebel
Length: 4 hours 16 minutes (4 CDs)
Here we are with the last Telemann recording on the list, which for a guy who composed so much isn't really a lot. But to be honest, I think it is quite enough, Telemann has a problem, he is not immediately recognisable as himself, his style is not marked enough to make you immediately think "Ah! Telemann!", you have to know the specific piece to identify it.
The same is not true of the great late baroque composers, Handel, Bach and Vivaldi are all immediately recognisable, Telemann seems to use a bit of everything ending up sounding like 'generic baroque'. This is not to say, however, that Tafelmusik is a bad collection of music, in fact it is pretty good, it is especially good in the sense that there is a lot of variety here.
Each of the three productions which constitute Tafelmusik are composed of a suite-like overture, followed by a quartet followed by a concert, a trio, a solo and finally a conclusion harking back to the overture. This allows Telemann to experiment with a lot of different instrumentation, and the listener not to be bored, because there is something different around the corner. But unfortunately, even if it is quite pretty music, with a very varied style, it does not seem to have enough character to make an indelible impression on the listener. Telemann was doing it for the cash, and you can kind of tell.
Tafelmusik (German: literally, "table-music") is a term denoting music from the 16th and 17th centuries which was used as background music for feasts, banquets and other outdoor events. Often the term was also used as a title for collections of music, some of which was intended to be so used.
Some of the most significant composers of Tafelmusik included Johann Schein, whose Banchetto musicale of 1617 acquired considerable fame, and Michael Praetorius, who wrote about the phenomenon of Tafelmusik in his Syntagma musicum of 1619. Music from Schein's collection is still performed by early music ensembles with some regularity.
The Tafelmusik or Musique de Table by the Baroque composer George Philipp Telemann is perhaps his most celebrated collection of music. Composed in 1733, Telemann's Tafelmusik has been compared as a collection to the renowned Brandenburg Concertos of Johann Sebastian Bach in clearly demonstrating the composer’s supreme skill in handling a diversity of musical genres and a variety of instruments.
Concert in F Major, 1st movement from Second Production, followed by Conclusion in B flat Major - Furioso from the Third Production:
Sunday, 20 April 2008
Title: Paris Quartets 1-12
Performers: Barthold, Sigiswald and Wieland Kuijken and Gustav Leonhardt
Length: 3 hours 14 minutes (3 CDs)
Telemann is one of those people for whom the expression 'Even a stopped clock is right twice a day' was invented. This man produced so much music, at such a fast rate that it was invariably not amazing.
However, that same fact led to the production of some winners, and this is one of those. These quartets are delightful pieces, and the instrument that really stands out is the flute, with a particularly virtuosistic role in the whole thing. The Viola da Gamba and Harpsichord work mainly as continuo but have their own moments to shine.
What is most interesting about Telemann here in terms of style is the fact that this is not a recognisably German composer in these pieces, there are elements of Italian, even Polish music as well as the obvious French, they are called Paris Quartets after all and most of the track titles are in French. Sprightly music in a great recording by a very good ensemble.
A little known fact about Telemann is his proclivity for pillowbiting. This is supported by the following excerpt from a memoir of Count Erdmoir II in whom the composer had found a steady patron. “He went through pillows like they were sunflower seeds. Just chew ‘em up and spit ‘em right out. Sometimes ten at a time. In fact, that’s how the German textile industry really came into its own. Making pillows for Telemann.”
I shit you not. It seems someone might have vandalised Telemann's entry.
Chaconne from the 12th, they added a lute making it a quintet, oh well:
Thursday, 17 April 2008
Title: French Suites
Performer: Davitt Moroney
Length: 2 hours 20 minutes
Another set of Harpsichord suites by Bach, basically if you liked the English Suites you will probably like these equally. They are pretty much a continuation of the same kind of music through all of it, although I might marginally prefer the French Suites.
This recording is an interesting one in that it contains BWV 818a and 819a which are frequently found in the same publications as the French Suites proper, and they fit nicely in the set, and even if less well-known are equally as good.
As I have already said repeatedly, I am ready for the invention of the Piano, Bach hasn't really challenged my indifference for the Harpsichord in the same way Rameau did, for example, so it still leaves me pretty cold.
The French Suites, BWV 812-817, refer to six suites written by Johann Sebastian Bach for the clavier (harpsichord or clavichord). They were later given the name 'French' (first recorded usage by Friedrich Wilhelm Marpurg in 1762) as a contrast to the English Suites (whose title is likewise a later appellation). The name was popularised by Bach's biographer Johann Nikolaus Forkel, who, in 1802, claimed they were written in the French style. This claim, however, is inaccurate: like Bach's other suites, they follow a largely Italian convention. Two additional suites, one in A minor (BWV 818), the other in E-flat Major (BWV 819), are linked to the familiar six in some manuscripts.
Aria from Suite number 2:
Tuesday, 15 April 2008
Title: John Gay's The Beggar's Opera
Performers: Jeremy Barlow, Sarah Walker, Bob Hoskins etc.
Director: Jeremy Barlow
Length: 2 hours 30 minutes
Well this is pretty funny in the context of the Handel's operas we've been having lately. John Gay's "opera" is a direct response to Handel's opera seria. This piece eschews recitative and works basically as a play with some singing in it, which makes it kind of hard to actually consider it an opera.
This piece works much better seen than played on CD, about 70% of it is talking, this gives the sense of a musical play more so than an opera, still it is pretty interesting.
That said it will not be a CD I'll be putting on again, I would actually be more likely to see it again than play it. It just doesn't work as an exclusively aural piece, this is a play. But if you are a fan of Handel's operas it is an essential and very funny farce. It is of course also a social farce and not just a musical one, the themes of opera seria are transposed to the lowest criminals, prostitutes and beggars.
The Beggar's Opera is ballad opera, a satiric play using some of the conventions of opera, but without the recitative. It is one of the watershed plays in Augustan drama. The lyrics of the airs in the play are set to popular broadsheet ballads, opera arias, church hymns and folk tunes of the time. The original run of The Beggar's Opera, of 62 successive performances, was the longest run in the theatre up to that time.
Sunday, 13 April 2008
Title: Coronation Anthems
Performers: Choir of King's College Cambridge, The Academy of Ancient Music.
Director: Stephen Cleobury
Length: 36 minutes
Solely for the first track this recording is worth listening to. Zadok the Priest has of course been raped by modernity, being modified to be the Champions League theme (thankfully modified enough that it doesn't affect the original), and in Britain it is also the music for the adverts for P&O cruises.
Other than that, however it is one of the most spectacular openings of any music, the slow build-up of strings, followed by a little harmonic side-step, and then by the powerful opening chorus just makes for really exciting music.
The rest of the anthems are equally good, representing different aspects of the whole ceremony of the coronation, however, none of them beats Zadok, for cheer pomp and circumstance. And for that reason it has played in every British coronation since it was composed.
Zadok the Priest is written for SS-AA-T-BB chorus and orchestra (two oboes, two bassoons, three trumpets, timpani, strings, continuo). The music builds up tension in its orchestral introduction, by layering semiquavers and quavers together, and then—when the choir comes in—a sense of drama by having the choir sing in the longer notes of crotchets and minims.
The middle section "And all the people rejoic'd, and said" is an imitatory dance in 3/4 time, mainly with the choir singing chordally and a dotted rhythm in the strings.
The final section "God save the King, etc" is a return to common time (4/4), with the "God Save the King" section heard chordally, interspersed with the Amens incorporating long semiquaver runs which are taken in turn through the six voice parts (SAATBB) with the other parts singing quaver chords accompanying it. The chorus ends with a largo Baroque cadence on "Alleluia".
Zadok the Priest, by Robert King and the King's Consort:
Saturday, 12 April 2008
Performers: Munich Bach Choir and Orchestra
Director: Karl Richter
Length: 4 hours
This is the longest of the two amazing Passions by Bach, and it is also the one I was most familiar with. It is a pretty long affair, but also a particularly enjoyable one, even the recitatives are somewhat more enjoyable than the ones in St. John's, as they are constantly interrupted by choruses.
And the choir work is one of the most amazing things here, Bach really exceeds himself here, but then the arias are equally perfect, and particularly in the second part of the Passion (in the third CD) there are a couple of truly spectacularly beautiful arias. Still, in every one of the three CDs there is something you kind of can't live without, from the opening of the Passion to the exquisite arias.
A truly spectacular piece of work which is made justice by the now quite old Karl Richter interpretation, all the epic power of the thing is preserved here, Matthew's Passion has all the power compared to the more transcendent St. John's. Great.
Two distinctive aspects of Bach's setting spring from his other church endeavors. One is the double-choir format, which stems from his own double-choir motets and the many such motets from other composers with which he routinely started Sunday services. The other is the extensive use of chorales, which appear in standard four-part settings, as interpolations in arias, and as a cantus firmus in large polyphonic movements, notably “O Mensch, bewein dein’ Sünde groß,” the conclusion of the first half—a movement this work has in common with his St John Passion—and the opening coro, Kommt, ihr Töchter, helft mir Klagen, in which the soprano in ripieno crowns a colossal buildup of polyphonic and harmonic tension, singing a verse of the chorale O Lamm Gottes, unschuldig.
The surviving manuscripts consist of eight concertato scores, used for eight soloists who also served in the two choirs, a few extra "bit parts", and a part for the soprano in ripieno. Unlike Bach's Johannespassion, where parts are extant for ripieno doubling on the choruses, there is little evidence that additional singers beyond the soloists were used in the "choirs".
The ending, in a Karl Richter Version:
Wednesday, 9 April 2008
Title: Motets BWV 225-231
Performers: Monteverdi Choir, English Baroque Soloists
Director: John Eliot Gardiner
Length: 1 hour 40 minutes
Ahh, this is more like it. Bach brings us yet again his prowess in composing for choirs. This is a collection of all the known Motets and motet like movements by Bach, and it is a really beautiful collection.
Bach manages to be alternatively sorrowful, bombastic, joyful and very touching. What I admire most about these pieces, however, is the sense of controlled chaos which seems to be almost always present in the music, as the voices interweave always leading to an harmonious result but many times sounding like it is all going to implode.
The recording is fantastic, with only very limited use of instrumentation, except where it is really called for, this makes for a perfect album if you are interested in the choral work more than the instrumental work, as they don't intrude on each other. This is a huge leap forward since the last album of Motets we have had on this list. Onwards to more Bach.
Johann Sebastian Bach also wrote seven surviving works he called motets; Bach's motets were relatively long pieces in German on sacred themes for choir and basso continuo. Bach's motets are:
* BWV 225 Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied (1726)
* BWV 226 Der Geist hilft unser Schwachheit auf (1729)
* BWV 227 Jesu, meine Freude (?)
* BWV 228 Fürchte dich nicht (?)
* BWV 229 Komm, Jesu, komm! (1730 ?)
* BWV 230 Lobet den Herrn alle Heiden (?)
* BWV 231 Sei Lob und Preis mit Ehren (?)
There is also a piece of a cantata that is classified as a motet.
* BWV 118 O Jesu Christ, meins Lebens Licht (1736-1737?)
The beginning of Jesu, Meine Freude:
Tuesday, 8 April 2008
Title: Six Partitas
Performer: Gustav Leonhardt
Length: 1 hour 39 minutes
The harpsichord has always been a slightly boring instrument to me. Nothing like the organ, mind you, but still quite dull. The fact that these partitas did not bore me immensely is a good sign, but I am more than ready for the invention of the piano, thank you very much.
Although the partitas did not bore me, they were not particularly exciting as well. This is still not the Harpsichord album with a capacity to beat Rameau, I am terribly sorry.
I love Bach, I really do, but I like him best doing his orchestral and choral stuff, or even violin stuff, that is where he shines the most. This is not to say that his Harpsichord compositions are not of an extremely high calibre, they are. But if I had to put a Bach recording on, this would not be it.
The Partitas, BWV 825–830, are a set of six harpsichord suites written by Johann Sebastian Bach, published from 1726 to 1730 as Clavier-übung I, and the first of his works to be published. They were the last of his keyboard suites to be composed, the others being the 6 English Suites, BWV 806-811 and the 6 French Suites, BWV 812-817.
Allemande from the first partita on a vibraphone, fuck harpsichords:
Sunday, 6 April 2008
Title: Violin Sonatas
Performer: Andrew Manze, Richard Egarr, Jaap ter Linden
Length: 2 hours 20 minutes
These are some lovely pieces, but unfortunately not the most exciting music Bach ever composed. Well, they are quite exciting in terms of some of the innovations that are introduced here, but not as much as something to listen attentively to.
The interplay of the three instruments, Violin, Harpsichord, and Viola da Gamba are the most interesting and innovative thing about the pieces, but the whole thing is very subdued, very gentle, even in the more animated movement. I am not certain if this is the fault of the performers or the composition.
The playing is amazing throughout, however, even the little play of having the famous toccata and fugue in d minor attributed to Bach opening the second CD, transcribed for solo violin works quite well. Very gentle music, but a bit over-sentimental and not particularly exciting.
Johann Sebastian Bach's contributions to music, or, to borrow a term popularised by his student Lorenz Christoph Mizler, his "musical science", are frequently bracketed with those by William Shakespeare in English literature and Isaac Newton in physics. Scientist and author Lewis Thomas once suggested how the people of Earth should communicate with the universe: "I would vote for Bach, all of Bach, streamed out into space, over and over again. We would be bragging of course, but it is surely excusable to put the best possible face on at the beginning of such an acquaintance. We can tell the harder truths later."
BWV 1016, 3rd movement:
Friday, 4 April 2008
Title: Le Quattro Stagioni
Performer: Concerto Italiano
Director: Rinaldo Alessandrini
Length: 44 minutes
We all knew this day had to come sooner of later... one of the most popular and overused pieces of music ever, the Four Seasons by Vivaldi... and here they are. Thankfully you lose the most famous of them right after the first movement and you move on to the rest of the set.
This is an amazing piece of composing, it is actually Programme Music at its best, each of the concertos is accompanied by a sonnet, probably written by Vivaldi himself which describe the feelings evoked by each movement, and it does a pretty job at it.
The recording is amazing, trying to breathe fresh live into an overused piece of music, and manages that very successfully. It is a particularly aggressive recording, the storm in summer almost kills you with the violence of it, and the quiet movements are quiet to the point of hard to hear at times, demanding your constant attention, and this only creates a sharper and more interesting contrast, making you listen to this with fresh ears. If you have only one recording of the Four Seasons, get this one, you'll get plenty of the other ones on commercials and films.
The concertos were first published in 1725 as part of a set of twelve, Vivaldi's Op. 8, entitled Il cimento dell'armonia e dell'inventione (The Contest of Harmony and Invention). The first four concertos were designated Le quattro stagioni, each being named after a season. Each one is in three movements, with a slow movement between two faster ones. At the time of writing the Four Seasons, the modern solo form of the concerto had not yet been defined (typically a solo instrument and accompanying orchestra). Vivaldi's original arrangement for solo violin with string quartet and basso continuo helped to define the form. In modern times, others have made transcriptions and arrangements to be performed on different instrumentation.
Summer movements 2 and 3 by Concerto Italiano:
Thursday, 3 April 2008
Performers: Simone Kermes, Marijana Mijanovic, Il Complesso Barroco
Director: Alan Curtis
Length: 3 hours 20 minutes
After the truly great Handel Opera that was Giulio Cesare, Rodelinda pales in comparison. It is firstly a much slower paced opera, while Cesare alternated sad arias with vengeance or bright arias, this is mostly composed of mopy arias.
The music is still very good, but it leads to a certain amount of boredom, there is only about 1 minute of chorus at the very end, and the palatial conflict theme is at times too convoluted to keep your attention.
On the other hand Handel has shortened the arias here, while making a bigger number of them, and this is as it should be, avoiding some of the fatigue of the 10 minute long arias in Cesare. But in the whole the Opera is slightly boring.
The music remains at a very high standard and this recording is a great one, the embellishments by the singers are perfect, so if you get any version get this one. I watched it on DVD in the William Christie directed version, but the singing, even with Andreas Scholl as Bertarido was not as interesting as in this recording.
It was first performed at the King’s Theatre in the Haymarket, London, on 13 February 1725. It was produced with the same singers as Tamerlano. There were 14 performances and it was repeated on 18 December 1725, and again on 4 May 1731. It was also performed in Hamburg. The first modern production was in Göttingen on 26 June 1920.
Dove Sei, Andreas Scholl in the Christie Production:
Tuesday, 1 April 2008
Title: Suites Anglaises
Performer: Christophe Rousset
Length: 2 hours 6 minutes.
This is out first of several solo harpsichord collections by JS Bach. They are, all of them very impressive technically and this is definitely no exception, but it also is not one of the best. These are of course the first set of Harpsichord suites composed by Bach.
The fact that they are not Bach's best harpsichord suites does not mean they are in any way bad, we are talking about a genius here, love him or hate him, this man was one of the greatest composers and innovators of all time. And it is in the lack of innovation, not the lack of quality, that he seems to lose points here.
Ok the Preludes are very interesting, being almost little concertos for the Harpsichord, but then the whole thing is mostly of French influence, and the ghost of Couperin flies all over it, particularly in the slower movements. So get it if you really love the harpsichord, if, like me, you think the harpsichord is a bit of an inferior version of a piano, you can leave them be... and cherish that Rameau.
The use of the term English to describe the Suites was a later addition. The name is thought to date back to a claim made by the nineteenth-century Bach biographer Johann Nikolaus Forkel that they were composed for an English nobleman, although no evidence has emerged to substantiate this claim. There are several striking characteristics about the English Suites. Bach includes a highly virtuosic prelude for each, in a departure from the prevailing tradition dictating a strict progression of the dance movements (Allemande, Courante, Sarabande and Gigue). By comparison, the later French Suites and Partitas are less strict in form. The Sarabande and Gigue movements in each of the English Suites is never separated by more than a single (twinned) Menuet or Menuet-like movement. Finally, the English Suites are predominantly in the minor key.
Some guy plays Bourre from suite number II... Rousset is slightly better: