Friday, 8 May 2015

CD Reviews - May 2015

The Choir of Magdalen College, Oxford, conducted by Daniel Hyde, have begun a recording relationship with the label Opus Arte, and two of their discs, of vastly different repertoire, are reviewed here.  Dieterich Buxtehude (c.1637-1707) was probably born in Helsingborg, then part of Denmark but now in Sweden, but later settled in Lübeck, Germany. He worked as an organist, but was widely respected as a composer, and was visited by Handel and Telemann, as well as J S Bach, who walked 200 miles from Armstadt to hear him play.  His Membra Jesu nostri is is a set of seven cantatas, each a meditation on a different part of Christ’s body on the cross. The cantatas all begin with a short instrumental sonata, and then Buxtehude bookends one or more solo arias setting parts of the Salva mundi text with repeated choral settings of various biblical texts.  Throughout, Buxtehude uses exquisite word painting to bring out the text. The arias, some solo and some for a trio of voices, all follow a similar pattern, with three sections set for different voices, over a repeated accompaniment, separated by an instrumental ritornello.  In this way, Buxtehude maintains a potentially constraining repeated format, whilst ensuring variety and scope for expressive exploration of the poetic text.  In this recording, most of the solo soprano arias are sung by several treble voices, and the other solo parts are taken by John Mark Ainsley (tenor), Robin Blaze (countertenor) and Giles Underwood (bass).  The piece would have been originally sung using boys voices, but I have to say I am more used to hearing it (and prefer it) with female voices.  Here, the choir sound best in the full choral sections, producing a strong blended sound.  But the individual or pared down treble voices sound too undernourished for me, with occasionally rather fragile tuning too. This creates an uneven balance with the excellent male soloists, particularly in the sequences of verse arias.  The small viol consort, Phantasm, are excellent throughout, perfectly underpinning the singing as well as providing contrast in the sonatas that begin each section.

Matthew Martin (b.1976) won a British Composer Award for his anthem ‘In the year that King Uzziah died’, which is recorded on this disc, along with a selection of his choral compositions, many of these world premiere recordings.  Most of the music was written between 2011 and 2014, mostly commissions from cathedral and college choirs and festivals.  The style is clearly rooted in the Anglican cathedral tradition, and the choir here are thus in very comfortable territory.   As a result, this was a much more successful recording for me than their Buxtehude. Organist Stephen Farr gives able support throughout. The ‘Magnificat’ and ‘Nunc Dimittis’ written for The Choir of St John’s College, Cambridge are dramatic settings, with striking bitonal harmonies between choir and organ.  In contrast, the brief, a capella ‘Justorum animae’, written to commemorate the death of a friend is simple yet touching, and the ethereal lines weaving between organ, choir and solo treble in ‘Dormi, Jesu!’, also written to mark the death of another friend, are equally affecting.  This may not be music to listen to a whole album of in one go, but as a record of this talented composer’s output the performances here are exemplary, and there are a number of works here that could and should be successfully performed in concert settings.

Hugo Stähle (1826-1848) died tragically young from meningitis, aged just twenty-one.  Consequently, despite apparently showing considerable talent and promise, there is little of his music published. His Piano Quartet, Op.1 remains, as do a symphony, one opera and some song cycles and piano pieces. He was a pupil of Louis Spohr, and friends with the composer Gade and the Schumanns. His music in this piano quartet has a definite Schubertian feel – there is nothing that one might call exceptional, but the lyrical and understated slow movement definitely has something original to say, and the finale has real energy in its playful rhythms.  The Mozart Klavierquartett are strong advocates for this undiscovered gem in their spirited performance here (a rereleased recording from 1988).  I was less convinced by their performance of Antonín Dvořák’s (1841-1904) Piano Quartet No. 1, Op. 23. The Czech inflections need much more bite, and the theme and variations that form the slow movement need greater passion.  Having said that, they steer a secure path through the range of musical ideas that Dvořák crammed into the finale, and bring the piece to a rousing conclusion. Overall, the Stähle is the work here that makes this recording a worthwhile purchase – for the Dvořák alone, there are many more worthy rivals out there.

(Edited versions of some of these reviews first appeared in GScene, May 2015)

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