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Highly Reviewed Recordings

January 23 - February 5, 2013

BEETHOVEN, L. van: Symphonies Nos. 5 and 7 (Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique, Gardiner)
(Soli Deo Gloria: SDG717)

BEETHOVEN, L. van: Symphonies Nos. 5 and 7 (Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique, Gardiner) Gramophone Choice, January 2013 Issue


So palpable is the excitement of these live performances that it almost comes as a shock that the applause has been excised.  I was out of my seat at the end of the Seventh and I can only assume that a patch was made of the final pages, because no audience could conceivably have contained itself.  From the very start, the cut-to-the-bone immediacy of the sound puts you up close and personal to the performance, lending a granite strength to the crunch of those chords and the rosiny resilience of those striding string scales….

These are the kind of performances that remind us of what a revolution of reassessment that period-instrument bands provoked.  The shock of newness in Beethoven prevails.

– Edward Seckerson, Gramophone

WHITBOURN, J.: Living Voices / Son of God Mass / Requiem canticorum (Powell, Cowan, Westminster Williamson Voices, Jordan)
(Naxos: 8.572737)

WHITBOURN, J.: Living Voices / Son of God Mass / Requiem canticorum (Powell, Cowan, Westminster Williamson Voices, Jordan)

There’s neither a shortage of works nor lack of variety of new choral music these days. But much of it—especially what tends to be offered by several of the bigger-name commissioned composers—at best exhibits a technical sophistication and/or conceptual scope beyond the performing abilities of even some of the better choirs,  and demanding the fiercest devotion by even experienced listeners just to get through it, and at worst, it’s pretentious, gimmicky, and predictable, born of laziness and complete lack of original ideas. The music of British composer James Whitbourn is none of these things; instead, here is music that accomplished choirs can sing, that you don’t have to be an avant-gardeist listener to pretend to enjoy, and thus, in the grand scheme of choral music, gives singers something to anticipate and savor, and listeners much to celebrate.

The saxophone, as an addition to a sacred choral work, can be an enhancement, a complementary voice, or a major distraction. We’ve heard this sort of thing before, sort of, with the Hilliard Ensemble and Jan Garbarek, in very successful, experimental recording projects for ECM such as Officium and Mnemosyne. But those efforts centered largely on existing early music works and improvised saxophone solos. Whitbourn’s Son of God Mass, the major piece on this program, is a relatively new work (2001) composed for choir, soprano saxophone, and organ. And it’s a gem, a masterpiece, a work that compels you to listen in a new way, to appreciate the saxophone sound as an integral part of the work’s structure and expressive frame. In Whitbourn’s creative hands, and in Jeremy Powell’s sensitive, sensuous realizations, it is a most compelling, wordless soloist, sometimes pleading, prayerful, contemplative, mysterious, moody,  sometimes soaring, exuberant. Each movement is exceptionally well conceived to suit the mood and meaning of the texts; the final Amen is a marvelous, climactic utterance.

The chorus, one of the leading ensembles at Westminster Choir College, has premiered several Whitbourn pieces, including another major work on this recording, the Requiem canticorum (2010), and not surprisingly, there’s nothing to fault here. The music thrives on the warm, resonant timbre of these 40 well-trained voices  and benefits from ensemble balances carefully tuned to texture and to the acoustic of the Princeton University Chapel.

While Whitbourn shows no lack of originality or facility in effectively integrating voices and saxophone in the Mass and Requiem, at times, especially in the Mass, you can’t help but be reminded of Arvo Pärt’s similar explorations and evocations using choir and solo instruments; in another context, the beautiful anthem give us the wings of faith (another world-premiere recording) exhibits a certain Rutter-esque attire–definitely not a bad thing, unless you hate getting a tune stuck in your head for days!

The rest of the works on the program, all of which are premiere recordings, vary from significant and absorbing (Winter’s Wait; A brief story of Peter Abelard) to suitably functional (A Prayer from South Africa; All shall be Amen and Alleluia). All are well worth hearing—and repeating. Highly recommended.

– David Vernier,

Choral Concert: Diabolus in Musica - LA RUE, P. de / OBRECHT, J. / LUPI, J. (Plorer, gemir, crier… Hommage a la "voix d'or" de Johannes Ockeghem)
(aeon: AECD1226)

Choral Concert: Diabolus in Musica - LA RUE, P. de / OBRECHT, J. / LUPI, J. (Plorer, gemir, crier… Hommage a la Gramophone Choice, January 2013 Issue


In a recent online round-up, I remarked that Obrecht’s discography is more remarkable for quantity than consistency, especially in the domain of the Mass.  All the more reason to welcome this new issue from the French ensemble Diabolus in Musica.  This performance is so well-judged that it positively invites repeated listening.  The Credo, which has two voices in the top range instead of one, is particularly impressive. Obrecht’s ear for beguilingly full sonority is underpinned by a masterly command of musical architecture, which depends for its full effect on a fine judgement of tempo.  Happily, Antoine Guerber’s ensemble convincingly accounts for both.  Moreover, its sound is quite distinctive; grainy, but not obtrusively so. 

– Fabrice Fitch, Gramophone

BACH, J.S.: Sonatas for Violin and Harpsichord, BWV 1014-1019 (Banchini, Botticher)
(Zig-Zag Territoires: ZZT302)

BACH, J.S.: Sonatas for Violin and Harpsichord, BWV 1014-1019 (Banchini, Botticher)

What distinguishes these revolutionary sonatas for violin and harpsichord from those composed previously by others rests with Bach’s liberation of the keyboard from its traditional role as a continuo instrument. Given this independence, both instruments share equal, though at times fairly disparate musical roles here; and the most successful interpretations all but depend on how well the performers negotiate a balance between the two. In this recent complete set of the six sonatas violinist Chiara Banchini and harpsichordist Jorg-Andreas Botticher deliver performances that not only exemplify this complementary spirit but also manage to take some welcome risks, making this one of the more exciting cycles currently available.

Their performances of the final Allegro of the First sonata BWV 1014, second-movement Allegro of the Second sonata BWV 1015, and final Allegro of the Third sonata BWV 1016 are inordinately fast and absolutely breathtaking. However, their remarkably relaxed, delicate handling of the third-movement Adagio of the Fourth sonata BWV 1017 and the fourth-movement Adagio of the Sixth sonata BWV 1019 provides ample contrast—the two movements rarely sound this eloquent and graceful in the hands of others.

It should also be noted that Botticher performs on a German disposition 16’ harpsichord (Kramer after Zell), a larger instrument than usually heard in recordings of these works, yet the kind that Bach was known to have employed throughout his life. This clearly proves to be a sonic advantage that not only allows both instruments equal clarity and presence (Koopman in my reference recording understood this as well when he chose a substantial Ruckers model for his cycle), but more importantly heightens the spirit of instrumental independence Bach originally sought to achieve here. All in all, an excellent new period-instrument cycle worthy of serious consideration.

– John Greene,

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