Christmas Music (Part 4): ORA Singers: “The Mystery of Christmas”

ORA Singers: The Mystery of Christmas
Music of Allain, Anonymous, Byrd, Hall, Hyde, Lauridsen, Macmillan,
McDowall, Peacock, Rowarth, Rutter, Samitz, Sixten, Tallis, Williams, and Weir.
CD Harmonia Mundi HMM 905303
Downloads (24-bit/96kHz stereo AIFF, ALAC, FLAC, and WAV) available from HDTracks.
Streaming available from Tidal.

Recorded at St. Augustine’s Church, Kilburn, London, January 23-28 and August 7-12, 2017. Nicholas Parker (all tracks except track 5) and Tim Handley (track 5 only), producers; Mike Hatch, engineer. Support for the arts from the Pureland Foundation. Total time 76’37.

My previous Christmas-music recommendations can be found here: Part 1; Part 2; and Part 3.

Here’s a fantastic new recording from a group new to me, Suzi Digby’s ORA Singers. They are as good as any handpicked professional choral ensemble out there. (I have heard most of the top ones live.) This collection showcases ORA’s “Unique Selling Proposition,” which is to prove that today, we are in a Golden Age not only of choral singing, but also of composing works for vocal ensembles. (Funny; I have long said the exact same thing about the art of the string quartet. We live in a golden age of the string quartet—both for playing and for new works.)

Therefore, ORA’s (for lack of a better phrase) business plan is to commission 100 new works for chorus over the course of ten years. (They are well on their way to achieving that goal, having commissioned 40 works in three years.) To make it even more interesting, Ms. Digby’s approach is to ask today’s composers to create works that are personal reflections upon the choral glories of the past, especially the masterworks of the Renaissance. Ambitious, yes. But several of the new works on this disc should find their ways into the standard repertory fairly quickly.

As a producer of classical recordings, one of my favorite Shibboleths (or, rubrics or axioms) long has been that, once your CD has started playing in the CD player of the reviewer, radio programmer, or record-store buyer, you have only ten seconds to make the sale. Furthermore, I believe that you make the sale only by giving the listener that “You are in good hands with Allstate” feeling. If the listener gets the feeling that your performance is for you a nerve-racking tightrope walk, no sale. (Obviously, there are exceptions to my little rule. Not much at all happens in the first ten seconds of Mahler’s Symphony 1; at least, not much by which you can distinguish a great performance from one that is merely unobjectionable.) In the case of the ORA Singers’ The Mystery of Christmas, convincing me took only the first four to eight seconds of the first track.

More information, a  performance video, and sound bytes from The Mystery of Christmas after the jump. Continue Reading →

Stile Antico: De Victoria, Tenebrae Responsories for Holy Week

Stile Antico:
Tomás Luis de Victoria, Tenebrae Responsories for Holy Week
CD Harmonia Mundi HMM 902272
Downloads (24-bit/88kHz AIFF, ALAC, FLAC, and WAV stereo) available from HDTracks.
Streaming available from Tidal and Apple Music.

Recorded at All Hallows’ Church, Gospel Oak (North London) England, February 13-17, 2017. Robina G. Young, producer; Brad Michel, engineer.

The British early-music group that calls itself “Stile Antico” once again proves that they are, without doubt, one of the most impressive vocal ensembles before the public today. I Imagine that their group name just might be a bit of an insider’s joke—stile antico is a musical term used (from the early 1600s on) to characterize the continued creation of new but historically-conscious “old style” music.

The composers of stile antico music declined to embrace the emerging Baroque stylistic trends of increasingly elaborate ornamentation and more complex (and freer) counterpoint. Stile antico composers regarded the works of older composers (especially Palestrina) as ideals that could not be surpassed—a position that was still being put forward (believe it or not) even as late as the 1870s (at least in the realm of sacred music)… .

The group Stile Antico’s “Unique Selling Proposition” is that they work without a conductor or music director, in this regard being more like a chamber-music instrumental ensemble than an orchestra. While this might seem a very daunting prospect, I think that with so much of the repertory being four-part scores (two high voices and two low voices), hashing things out should be no more difficult than, say, when a string quartet’s members decide among themselves how a movement (such as the slow movement of Beethoven’s op. 127) should be played. (Irony alert.)

I was rather agog at Stile Antico’s 2006 début SACD Music for Compline when I wrote about it for Stereophile magazine, and they have continued at that high level for more than 10 years. Their articulation, phrasing, and ensemble work are among the best; but what really sets them apart is the lush richness of their vocal sound. Arkivmusic.com has Stile Antico’s Music for Compline on offer at $9.99, which I gather is a 10th-anniversary non-SACD CD reissue. That one’s a no-brainer. Just buy it. The o.o.p. SACD version is available from third-party sellers on Amazon, at prices ranging from market-correct to delusional. (But I did tell Stereophile‘s readers to just buy that, more than 10 years ago.)

After the jump: a making-of video of Stile Antico’s Tenebrae Responsories, some background and commentary, and a few sound bytes. Continue Reading →

Schola Sanctæ Sunnivæ: Chant from the Fingergull Manuscript

Schola Sanctæ Sunnivæ:
FINGERGULL – In festo susceptionis sanguinis Domini

SACD/CD 2L-114-SACD
Downloads (MP3 stereo; CDQ FLAC stereo; high-resolution stereo including
MQA, DXD PCM, and DSD; and 5.1 surround-sound) available from www.2L.no
Streaming available from Tidal and Spotify.

Recorded at Ringsaker Church, Norway, May 2014. Prof. Eugeen Liven d’Abelardo, producer and musical advisor; Beatrice Johannessen, recording engineer; Morten Lindberg, mastering engineer.

Christianity was the original “New Age” movement. Because of that, perhaps the easiest way for most listeners to take in this extraordinary recording of an a-cappella female vocal ensemble chanting music from a 13th-century parchment manuscript might be to think of it as “New Age Music,” and then just leave it at that.

I hereby give you permission to ignore the specific historical context of this music, and to concentrate on letting the enveloping and consoling, nearly weightless clarity of the unison female voices wash over you.

I would expect that within minutes, you might begin to feel yourself transported—if not to a higher realm, then at least to a safe and quiet place… perhaps to a medieval church rather like the one where this remarkable recording was made.

For many years, I would say about such a recording, “Just buy it.” And for many listeners, that still makes the most sense, in that this release is a compatible hybrid multichannel SACD, and furthermore, there are high-resolution downloads available for purchase. But I recognize that many music lovers now rely upon a streaming service as their major source of new music, so I am glad to report that this recording can be heard via on-demand streaming from Tidal and also Spotify.

Session photo, sound samples, and more, after the jump link. Continue Reading →

Adam Schoenberg: “Finding Rothko” and other orchestral works

Adam Schoenberg: Finding Rothko, American Symphony, and Picture Studies.
Kansas City Symphony, Michael Stern, conductor.
Reference Recordings RR-139 Hybrid+MCH SACD and Downloads

David Frost, producer; Keith O. Johnson, engineer and mastering engineer.

My recent entry on the Morton Feldman musical work inspired by Houston’s Rothko Chapel noted that Rothko’s huge canvasses displayed there had also inspired Peter Gabriel’s song “Fourteen Paintings.” Four different Mark Rothko paintings that span the years 1949 to 1959 more recently inspired American composer Adam Schoenberg (b.1980) to write Finding Rothko, an orchestral work in four movements identified by the colors Orange, Yellow, Red, and Wine. Finding Rothko is concise, tonal, melodic, and accessible, with brilliant orchestration.

The obvious parallel is to Arthur Bliss’ A Colour Symphony of 1922 (which perhaps was an un-acknowledged inspiration). A Colour Symphony‘s movements are also named after colors; in Bliss’ case, the heraldic colors Purple, Red, Blue, and Green.

More ponderings and generous sound samples after the jump. Continue Reading →

Brahms: The Four Symphonies; Boston Symphony Orchestra, Andris Nelsons

 

Brahms: The Four Symphonies
Boston Symphony Orchestra, Andris Nelsons
3-CD set and Downloads from BSO Classics
(Downloads are: 320 Kbs mp3; 24/96 AIFF; and 24/96 and 24/192 FLAC.)

Shawn Murphy, Producer and Engineer; Nick Squire, Recording Engineer; Robert Wolff, Editing Engineer; Tim Martyn, Editing Engineer and Mastering Engineer; Joel Watts and John Morin, Assistant Engineers; Brian Losch and Silas Brown, Production Assistants.

This review will be brief—but imperative. The official (so to speak) start of Andris Nelsons’ tenure as Music Director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra was a performance of the Overture to Richard Wagner’s Tannhäuser. The first CD I reviewed on this blog included that live recording, made the evening of September 27, 2014. (The other work on that CD is Sibelius’ second symphony, recorded later in Nelsons’ first season.) Furthermore, I named my blog after a Tannhäuser reference in the movie Blade Runner. So, all the breadcrumbs have been in plain sight; you should not be surprised that I am predisposed to be well-disposed to any and all new recordings from Andris Nelsons.

And it is not just this particular Humble Ink-Stained Wretch of the Fourth Estate who thinks the world of young Maestro Nelsons, either. Two CDs from Nelsons’ and the BSO’s ongoing Shostakovich series have won back-to-back Grammy awards in the category of Best Orchestral Performance. The BSO’s new 3-CD Brahms set is of that caliber.

By all means, you should click on the jump link for more detail, sound bytes, and some measure of justification. But the bottom line is: If the symphonies of Brahms are important to you, you should buy these CDs (or downloads), immediately. Taking into account interpretation, playing, and recorded sound, this set shoots right up into the top tier of recommendations in this music. Continue Reading →

Camilla Tilling: “loves me… loves me not…” (Gluck and Mozart opera arias)

Camilla Tilling: “loves me… loves me not…”
Opera arias by Gluck and Mozart.
Musica Saeculorum,
Philipp von Steinaecker, conductor
SACD BIS-2234

Camilla Tilling grew up on a farm in a rural part of Sweden. Her parents sang in the local church choir. Hearing her parents sing with the choir when she was about six years of age, she later recalled thinking, “Well, this isn’t difficult. I could do the same.” There you go!

I have to confess that Ms. Tilling had not been on my radar screen before I saw a listing for her new SACD from BIS. But one can infer from the stratospheric level of her appearances over the past few years that she has a marvelous voice. From her management’s website: “Fresh from performances of Mendelssohn’s Elijah with the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig and Thomas Hengelbrock, Tilling has a busy concert diary ahead including returns to Teatro alla Scala for Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis under Bernard Haitink, the Berliner Philharmoniker for Mahler’s Symphony No.4 under Sir Simon Rattle, and the New York Philharmonic for Beethoven’s Symphony No.9 under Alan Gilbert.” Also: Brahms’ German Requiem with Andris Nelsons (Boston Symphony), Christoph von Dohnányi (New York Philharmonic), and Bernard Haitink (Tonhalle-Orchester Zürich); Bach’s Matthew Passion with Sir Simon Rattle (Berlin Philharmonic); and Bach’s B-minor Mass with Philippe Jordan (Vienna Philharmonic). Whew!

More, and sound samples, after the jump. Continue Reading →

Wise Men From the East, Bearing Gifts! (Part 1)

web-grabLetterpress art print © and courtesy of Zeichen Press.

The Gospel narrative doesn’t say that the number of wise men (or astrologers) from the East was three; that’s just an inference based upon the report that the Magis (however many of them there were) brought three gifts of gold, Frankincense, and myrrh.

Be that as it may, what has come down is a piously embellished story of three wise men, complete with names and capsule biographies.

So, to start my suggestions for Christmas (or other seasonal) gift-giving, here are three gifts: two boxed sets and one single recording, all of especial musical and sonic merit.

Details and sound samples after the jump! Continue Reading →

Trondheim Soloists: Vaughan Williams, Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis, etc.

2l125-400ph

Trondheim Solistene: Reflections
(Music of Britten, Vaughan Williams, and Stravinsky)
SACD/CD +Blu-ray 2-disc set, 2L 125
CDQ; high-resolution stereo including MQA and DSD; and surround-sound downloads available from www.2L.no
Streaming available from various services linked to here.

Recorded June and August 2015, Selbu Church, Norway. Recording producer and balance engineer Morten Lindberg; recording technician Beatrice Johannessen.

Certain pieces of music just catch the ear. Some of those pieces even enter into the collective repository of culture—they become part of the sonic landscape (or the musical memories) of nearly everybody’s life.

A prime candidate for the title of “The Most Well-Known Piece of ‘Classical’ Music That Was Not Composed by Vivaldi, Beethoven, or Gershwin” is Samuel Barber’s Adagio, in its string-orchestra version. Barber’s Adagio for Strings combines striving with yearning (and grief with resignation) in a completely arresting and inescapably memorable way.

Most music lovers don’t realize that the version they know so well is a transcription—that the “Adagio” of movie and pop-culture renown started out life as the slow movement of Barber’s Op. 11 string quartet.

The point of this blog entry then, is to tell as many people as possible that if you love Barber’s Adagio, you will love Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis. The Tallis Fantasia has the same sweeping grandeur and emotional intensity as Barber’s Adagio, but I think it is even more rewarding to engage with over repeated hearings.

More background, a making-of video, and sound bytes, after the jump. Continue Reading →

Parker Quartet: Felix Mendelssohn, Opus 44 String Quartets 1 & 3

ni6327-cover-400-pic-highThe Parker String Quartet: Felix Mendelssohn, Opus 44 String Quartets 1 & 3
CD Nimbus NI6327
(No high-resolution download available at present, apparently.)

Except for his few “Greatest Hits” (those being the “Wedding March” from A Midsummer Night’s Dream; the Violin Concerto; and the Italian Symphony), I think that Felix Mendelssohn is an often-overlooked or often-underrated composer. Further, given the rarely-equaled felicity (I should be re-programmed) of his solo-piano music, perhaps then it is not surprising that Mendelssohn’s string quartets remain, for many music lovers, undiscovered gems.

The Boston-based Parker Quartet has a name that is new to me, but, it should not have been. Their recording of Ligeti’s first and second quartets received the 2011 Grammy award for Best Chamber Music Performance, and they are the Blodgett Artists in Residence of Harvard University’s Department Of Music. UK’s legendary Nimbus imprint has just released the Parker Quartet’s CD of two of Mendelssohn’s Op. 44 quartets, the first and third. What lovely music making! (I also love that the cover image is of four of Charles and Ray Eames’ fiberglass “scoop” chairs, which are icons of Mid-Century Modern design.)

More, and sound samples, after the jump.

Continue Reading →

Q&A with Sergey Schepkin

Schepkin small

 

Sergey Schepkin’s Steinway & Sons recording of Bach’s Six Partitas impressed me so much that I asked him to answer a few questions. Run-on questions, in fact. He coped rather well!

It seems I am not the only person who was impressed; Schepkin’s Steinway Partitas has broken into the Top 100 in one category on Amazon’s sales charts.

Here goes!

Q1: One thing that caught my eye was that your web site’s press-blurb list contained a rave from The Listener magazine about your Partitas recording on the Ongaku label, 20 or so years ago. Listener was founded and edited by Art Dudley. Art’s magazine was acquired, but then the new owners folded it. Art then moved over the Stereophile, and so was my colleague until recently.

Therefore, one thing that audiophile readers with long memories will want to know about (and I see that the Ongaku Partita recording is still available from your website) is (apart from the fact that Steinway and Sons’ CD label is an enviable place to be) is (a) why you decided to re-record your Bach repertory…

More run-on questions—and even some answers(!)—after the jump. Klicken Sie hier, bitte. Continue Reading →