Award-Winning reviews

What a sham title!  These are NOT reviews which won awards, but reviews of discs which won awards at the Gramophone Awards yesterday.  These are my published throughts when the discs first came out.

William Byrd – Infelix Ego : The CArdinall’s Musick/Andrew Carwood : Hyperion CDA67779

When Andrew Carwood writes in the introduction to this disc that Elizabethan England produced “an amazing array of artistic talent”, he might just as easily have been referring to our own age.  Certainly some of England’s finest current vocal talent is lined up here, and as a display of the very best Britain (we have to acknowledge that there is at least one Welsh voice present) can produce doing what they do best of all, this disc is a great showcase.  It is also very much the crowning glory of The Cardinall’s Musick’s survey of Byrd’s Latin Church Music, a series which began on ASV back in 1997 where it ran for nine discs before, in 2006, heading off to Hyperion for three more.  All 12 discs have offered up reference-standard performances of Byrd’s music, and here, with the final disc in the series, we have truly exceptional performances of some of his most popular motets.

That said, these performances do not recreate in any way the music of Byrd as the Elizabethans would have heard it.  There may be textural authenticity here and the interpretations may have been governed by deep scholarly investigation into the performance practices of Byrd’s time, but what we have is not so much performances which attempt to recreate the sound world of Byrd’s day as to bring to our ears the same measure of integrity and faithfulness to the original conception as facsimile versions of first editions do to our eyes.  This is Byrd uncluttered by the failings and idiosyncrasies of musical attitudes in the ensuing four centuries and restored to a kind of glory the composer, in his wildest dreams, could never have imagined.  That Byrd’s music not only survives such microscopic attention to detail and nuance, but positively flourishes under it, speaks volumes not only of its original quality but of the artistic integrity of The Cardinall’s Musick.

 Superbly poised entries, fluid textures, immaculately turned phrases and beautifully moulded cadence points all give this a strange combination of delicacy and sturdiness – an old master reprinted on vinyl, if you like – which is ultimately deeply satisfying both to the ear and the intellect.  These are thoroughly assured performances which leave no room for technical or musical doubt.  The contrasting dynamics at the start of Domine, salve nos dignus are so precisely measured and carefully conveyed in this performance that one suspects hours of painstaking preparation and discussion have gone into this one musical moment. As much care and preparation has also gone into the tiny 45-second Deo gratias as to the weighty Infelix ego, precisely 17 times its length (a work Carwood describes as “the crowning glory of Byrd’s achievement”), while Haec Dies, possibly Byrd’s most frequently-performed piece of sacred music, bounces along as happily as ever, but with glorious crystalline transparency of texture.  There is an almost languid quality about this performance of Cunctis diebus, an object lesson in unaccompanied part-singing, each voice perfectly in its place, the blend delightful to the ear, the lines warmly embracing each other and the overall architecture lovingly moulded by Andrew Carwood’s subtle and distinguished direction. These are very much yardstick performances, offering a hitherto unattainable ideal which reveals the true glory of Byrd’s creation.

 Coupled with a warm and fulsome recording and the tremendously lucid notes which characterise everything Carwood handles on disc, this disc in its own right stands as one of the most satisfying recordings of Elizabethan church music to have emerged in recent years.”

 Comparing two Verdi Requiems, including Chorus and Orchestra of the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia / Antonio Pappano : EMI 698936-2

 “Pappano’s is one of those once-in-a-blue-moon recordings which takes a familiar old friend and infuses it with so much life and colour that it forces you to hear it anew.  It’s as if an old master has suddenly turned up with its colours vividly refreshed and its detail etched with renewed clarity;  we’ve seen it a thousand times but now realise we’ve never really looked at it before.  Of course there is the obvious fact that these are home-grown Italian opera forces performing a work which is an essential part of their heritage.  But, more than that, the passion, the emotional impact and the sheer electricity of the whole thing creates an impact which is as powerful as it is inspiring.  Wrapped up in an exemplary recording from EMI, there really isn’t much to find fault with here.  Simply put, you won’t find a better Verdi Requiem than this and, personal preferences for famous recordings from the past aside, this would seem to be the recording par excellence in a field which already boasts some classic recordings among a truly stellar line-up of great singers, orchestras and conductors.

 The real measure of this recording comes with the very opening of the Dies irae.  Yes, we all know it’s coming, but the violence of the outburst, the sheer earth-shaking power of the drum beats and the astonishing virtuosity of the massed violins as they make their frenzied descent, not to mention the immaculately poised fanfare building up with almost painful inevitability to the great explosion of the Tuba mirum still take the breath away.  Here is an edge-of-the-seat drama which listeners have often tended to imagine rather than actually witness, and when it’s presented to you with such awesome power as this, the effect is unspeakably exciting.

 René Pape’s presentiment of the Day of Judgement (“Mors stupebit”) has a ghastliness and latent horror which sends shivers down the spine – and, again, heaps of praise must be laid on the engineers who have captured his whispered menace with such clarity – while Sonia Ganassi exudes almost Wagnerian majesty as she warns of the terrible book of deeds and of the inescapable punishment ahead.  The lyrical and endlessly mellifluous Anja Harteros exudes sympathy while an already outstanding quartet of soloists is greatly distinguished by tenor Rolando Villazón who evokes such a vivid sense of pathos and supplication in the “Ingemisco”   – surely one of the best performances of this notoriously demanding solo on record – that one can almost see him on stage kneeling alone in front of some cleverly lit icon.  It all has a powerful aura of the opera stage about it; and, indeed, that is only right, for what is Verdi’s Requiem if not an opera which transcends the conventions of staging.  It is often forgotten by those who criticism the work for breaking with the traditions of the Catholic Requiem Mass that Verdi himself was an agnostic and opposed to organised religion.

 Taken from three live performances given over four days in the Santa Cecilia Hall of Rome’s new Auditorium Parco della Musica, there is a tangible sense of the “live” occasion, not just in the coughing and shuffling of a native Italian audience, but in the strong sense of communication which affects everyone involved.  Certainly the chorus and orchestra seem to have raised their game for Antonio Pappano and there is some exceptional orchestral playing here. 

 It is unfortunate, to put it mildly, that Colin Davis and the LSO have brought their Verdi Requiem out in, as it were, the same breath, for it is impossible to listen to it without constantly seeking comparison with the Italian forces marshalled so thrillingly under Pappano.  And few of those comparisons are in their favour.  If the Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia were not on such cracking form, perhaps the LSO’s Dies irae might have more impact; but I’m not so sure.  This seems a little lacklustre and certainly the precision of the string playing leaves something to be desired.  But there I go again; would it seem so unsatisfactory if I had not listened to it immediately after a handful of play-throughs of the Pappano recording (and I confess to handful of back-to-back play-throughs, because with music-making of that quality, once is never enough)?  In places the LSO Chorus do seem to be straining at the leash and while the LSO Live engineers have given them a more forward placing that the EMI chaps have done for the Romans, there are moments when they seem over-stretched – the “Tuba mirum” being a case in point.  That said, on the whole the English choral singing has more polish and assurance about it – possibly were the Italians less recessed in the recording picture we might spot a few more faults in them – and if it doesn’t have the same Italianate passion about it, there will be those who prefer the more plain-speaking English style. 

 Davis’s team of soloists is uneven.  Karen Cargill is more than a match for Anja Harteros in the “Liber scriptus”, and, alongside a glorious Christine Brewer, their “Recordare” duet has real pathos; here is one number in which Davis’s forces outdo their Italian counterparts.  But I can’t warm to John Relyea who seems very uneasy in the “Confutatis” while elsewhere his delivery lacks authority, and Stuart Neill, for all the effort he puts into it, cannot begin to match the sheer panache of Villazón’s “Ingemisco”.

 There’s no doubt that Colin Davis has a very impassioned and committed view of this staple of the repertoire, and while at times his vision does not find an entirely sympathetic outlet in these forces, it has to be said that this is a most creditable Verdi Requiem. That said, those seeking a Verdi Requiem to end all Verdi Requiems will have found their utopia in Pappano, a recording which is very much in a league of its own.”


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