Monday, 16 November 2015

CD Reviews - November 2015

The Tallis Scholars, directed by Peter Phillips, have followed up their acclaimed 2013 release of music by John Taverner (c1490-1545) with a recording of his massive Missa Corona Spinea. Taverner was a huge influence on English composers who followed, including Tallis and Byrd, yet remarkably little is known about his life, and details about his compositions and musical appointments really only account for less than ten years of his life from 1524 to about 1530.  Yet eight masses and a number of motets and antiphons remain, and the importance of this composer in the development of English music cannot be overstated. His command of texture and form, combined with the ability to create a sense of serenity and clarity in his melodic lines is amply demonstrated in the Missa Corona Spinea.  Unlike in his other great work Missa Gloria tibi Trinitas, where the virtuosity required across the six parts is more or less equal, in the Missa Corona Spinea, it is the trebles (the top soprano line) who are the stars. Right from the opening bars they are soaring on top B flats, and stay up there pretty much throughout. Not only that, but there are two significant ‘gimell’ sections – this is where one part splits into two separate lines. So here, the two trebles (Janet Coxwell and Amy Haworth on amazing form) have incredibly intricate solo lines which weave in and out of each other, underpinned by a bass line. For the second gimell, Taverner complicates matters even more by splitting the mean voice (the next voice down) too, making this a double gimell.  The resulting virtuosic intricacy is amazing, and as ever, The Tallis Scholars relish this challenge, with the trebles in particular producing effortless, crystal clear lines above the rich sonorities of the lower voices.  Taverner further accentuates the soaring top line by scoring two bass parts at the bottom, adding to the richness of the fuller choral sections.  It is not known exactly what occasion Taverner composed this amazing work for, but there is speculation that none other than Cardinal Wolsey may have commissioned it, with Henry VIII possibly present at the first performance.  The scale of this single work, at nearly 48 minutes long, is immense, but it rewards concentrated listening. You can’t help being transported by those ringing top notes and the intensity of Taverner’s complex writing. The Tallis Scholars complete the disc with Taverner’s two settings of the Easter responsary Dum transisset Sabbatum. The first of these is better known, but it is great to hear them side-by-side. Despite using the same tenor chant line, they demonstrate the composer’s skill at producing strikingly different settings within the same construct.  The text describes the women arriving at Jesus’ tomb on Easter Sunday morning, and Taverner creates a sense of awe and wonder in both settings. A worthy end to another top-notch recording from The Tallis Scholars.

Cellist Pieter Wispelwey has been joined by pianist Paolo Giacometti for the first disc in a projected six disc cycle in which he plans to record all of Schubert and Brahms’ chamber duos – predominantly composed for other instruments than the cello. Why, you might ask? Well, as he argues, some works, such as Brahms’ Clarinet Sonatas, are regularly performed on other instruments – Brahms himself published versions of these for viola. And the famed ‘Arpeggione’ Sonata, usually performed on the cello, was, as discussed with Tasmin Little’s recent Schubert disc, composed for a now defunct guitar/cello hybrid. So why now explore these works with the different sonorities of the cello? Well on the basis of this opening disc, I would tentatively agree – although I think this works better with some works than others. The Fantasie that opens the disc, a late work composed by Schubert for violin and piano, combines virtuosity with some incredibly touching moments. The cello is not quite lithe enough for the most virtuosic moments here, and Wispelwey’s tone in the higher registers is more brittle than a violin produces. However, Wispelwey and Giacometti have great fun with the piece, and they bring a fresh angle to the work as a result.  The second of the aforementioned Clarinet Sonatas by Brahms fares better, with the instrument’s natural lyricism suiting Brahms’ beautifully smooth lines well – although again here when taken to the higher reaches of the instrument, the tone becomes a little dry.  The early Schubert Sonata works well, and Wispelwey and Giacometti bring out its light, engaging spirit well. Wispelwey separates the three duos with two movements from Solo Cello Suites by Max Reger (1873-1916) – highly Romantic works, despite their obvious nod to Bach, and convincingly performed here.

(These reviews first appeared in GScene, November 2015)

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