Monday, 7 March 2011

This week in music reviews: Guillaume de Machaut, hangovers and cheating.

Ouch. Apologies from the outset: Harry Hangover is banging on the inside of my head with each keystroke as I type this. He’s a right bastard, is Harry. Trepanation is a distinct option right now. Have no sympathy, gentle reader: let’s just say that I earned it fairly and squarely.

It’d be lovely to impart some arcane recipe or procedure that blows away the cobwebs that seem to have been placed with such deliberate care and precision — but not my permission — in my mind the night after the evening before. Ouch. I have none, unfortunately, save what distraction several cups of black filter coffee and a few rousing episodes of 1970s Doctor Who can offer. Come to think of it, this is a typical routine of a perfectly sober Sunday morning too. Some routines are just so good.

So this week, finding concentration a daunting prospect, never mind anything as physically strenuous as blogging, I’m going to have to cheat. Normally this blog is freshly minted; words virginally assembled with by-now customary giddiness into combinations of high-falutin’ verbiage, phrasal archaism and a signature overuse of long dashes — all with one express purpose: to entertain. Well, hopefully. I write these things for no one and nowhere else if not for you and here. Or in other words, I haven’t got a clue what I’m going to write about until the moment I write it. But this week, in the finest tradition of Blue Peter, here’s some words I prepared earlier. Reviews I’ve written over the years, lovingly cut and pasted, with minimal effort on my part, for your reading pleasure. Ouch. This time, I have selected all my Classical and Early Music reviews. I’ll save the Rock/Pop album reviews for another time, another hangover.

Some of these reviews date back roughly to around 2001. They were all written for and are aimed at the average casual CD purchaser, so they are not overly detailed: I don’t assume someone shopping online would wish to wade through paragraphs of critical opinion. No negativity either, as I reviewed items that I liked. Too often have I read online reviews that are less about the product and more about someone’s petty desire to rant about the artist, in thoroughly unproductive, impotent manner. Ouch. It’s nicer to be happily enthusiastic about things, don’t you think?

Let’s start with two reviews of the same work by different performers: La Messe de Notre Dame, by Guillaume de Machaut (1300-1377). I once heard of a chap who has made it his lifelong mission to collect every recording made of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Mine is a more modest ambition, merely to acquire every recording of this landmark four-part choral work from the Middle Ages. I think I have somewhere upwards of sixteen albums on CD and two on vinyl — and every version is different. The vagaries of medieval musical notation leave Machaut’s Messe open to endless interpretations of performance. Not just the sung key and the tempo to be taken, but even whether certain notes are flat or sharp, major or minor. Some versions feature instruments, which is arguably inauthentic, but musically interesting. I even have a purely instrumental version performed by a freeform jazz combo and one arranged for string quartet.

Machaut was in interesting character. At the time of the Messe’s composition, he was the Abbot of Rheims cathedral and in earlier times had allegedly spied for the King of Bohemia. He proved shrewd and smart enough to gain the confidence of numerous other aristocratic patrons in his career. He also wrote poetry and managed to out-sit the Black Death over the course of his relatively long life. One of his other major works, Le Voir Dit, a passionate ‘love letter’ set to music, was addressed to a girl called Péronne whom at nineteen was some forty years his junior. There’s no evidence if the passion was requited, sadly. Guillaume got about!

Guillaume de Machaut: Messe de Notre Dame (Ensemble Organum, dir. Marcel Peres. Harmonia Mundi HMC-901590 )
Unique among interpretations
Purists may throw their hand up at Peres’s apparently free hand in the phrasing and tempo of Machaut’s — and arguably the Medieval world’s — most famous work, but the gentle pace and Arab-styled melismas on the choral sections make for compelling listening. By dint of the age of the piece, there could never be a version of the Messe de Notre Dame one could describe as ‘definitive’ and this one squats like a toad of a distinctly different colour among the dozen or so recordings available, but it is beautifully performed — and recorded — by the Ensemble Organum. Recommended simply as an example of just how unusual and sumptuous medieval polyphony can be.

Guillaume de Machaut: Messe de Notre Dame/Le Voir Dit (Oxford Camerata, dir. Jeremy Summerly. Naxos  8.553833)
Masterful (and cheap!)
Jeremy Summerly’s Camerata give a sturdy, controlled, yet vigorous rendering of Machaut’s greatest achievement, the Messe de Notre Dame, possibly the most famous, certainly one of the most eminent pieces of the Medieval age. The rest of the tracks are not mere trifles simply to lard out the CD, though: the secular pieces from Le Voir Dit are not only splendid, but insightful too, revealing a great deal about the (not altogether pure!) mind of one of Medieval music’s most interesting figures, and treated with similar verve by Summerly and his accomplished colleagues. For scholars of music, enthusiasts of history or simply those who have an ear for something that is very beautiful please do buy this — there’s really no excuse at the budget price!

Next up, two reviews of Renaissance dance music. They’re linked by more than just the time they were composed. The musical director of the first, Philip Pickett, was a student of the second, David Munrow. Munrow was a whirlwind of creativity in the early/mid-70s in the world of Early Music, recording dozens of albums of music with his group, ranging from the 11th Century up to the Early Baroque. He was also a recorder player of singular genius and skill, plus a proponent of folk music, notably lending his talent to several recordings by Shirley Collins. Tragically, he also suffered from depression and committed suicide in 1976. His legacy lies mostly in his records, which are uniformly excellent in their intelligent arrangement, energetic execution and sheer excitement.

Tielman Susato: Danserye, 1551 (The New London Consort, dir. Philip Pickett. L’Oiseau-Lyre 436-131-2)
Perhaps the most dazzling early music CD ever
Philip Pickett first worked with that eminent force of early 70s Early Music revival, David Munrow — and the energy and panache that Munrow imbued his recordings has positively bled into Pickett’s astonishing releases. Beautifully recorded and exquisitely arranged, Pickett creates a thematic dance suite, bristling with buzzy, cheeky sounds of early wind instruments and ever-luscious string sections. Susato had a knack for collecting and composing feverishly catchy dance melodies that are at once stately, yet personable — and doesn’t Pickett and his group of musicians just capture it! Speaking as a layperson when discussing musical technique or merit, this is an enchanting CD, by turns grand, pompous, informal, scary, jolly and quite frankly nothing ever short of spellbinding. As far as Renaissance dance music discs go, between this CD and Munrow’s own CD of Renaissance dance music, there’s nothing to touch them. This music — simultaneously weird and yet comforting — really can change your life.

Michael Praetorius: Dances From Terpsichore (The Early Music Consort of London, dir. David Munrow. Virgin Veritas 7243-5-61289-2-7)
Happy, beautiful, intricate, frightening, sad, accomplished
Praetorius’s pieces from Terpsichore have some of the most well known 16th Century dances among their number. His prescribed instrumentation was left generally to the discretion and expediency of the performers, and this is where the tragically short-lived, gifted Munrow brings his taste and sensibility to bear on this music. Approaching this from a strictly non-technical, non-historical standpoint this album simply staggers me with its invention. Renaissance music seems to have a familiar-yet-alien quality, due in no small part to the bristling textural array of the instruments, and none more so on this recording: Munrow’s astonishing collective of musicians give virtuoso performances on reedy racketts, buzzing crumhorns and bright lutes, creating a lush and extremely special sound. Elsewhere, on Praetorius’s lesser-known choral pieces, Munrow brings out an energy and passion in the music without ever forsaking its devotional intent. Despite Praetorius’s carte blanche given to the arrangements, this recording can be regarded (along with Munrow’s recent successor Philip Pickett’s Terpsichore CD) as definitive.

Finally, three reviews of 20th Century composers. Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) needs practically no introduction and I suspect many people who believe not to possess any prior knowledge of his music will  prove to be familiar with at least one piece unawares. Philip Heseltine, under his nom-de-plume Peter Warlock (1894-1930), is not so well-known although he enjoys a certain amount of notoriety among the classical cognoscenti and one day I will be delighted to write up a blog entry on his spectacular, non-musical, exploits. Of Victor Hely-Hutchinson (1901-1947) I am afraid I know very little about beyond his marvellous Carol Symphony, although his quality is assured on the strength of this one piece: guaranteed to make tears fall, whether they be of warm nostalgic reminiscence or half-remembered childhood unease, from the eyes of anyone who watched the BBC’s adaptation of The Box Of Delights in the mid-Eighties.

The World of Britten (Decca compilation. B000027BWI)
Splendid introduction to Britten’s work
Nearly all the pieces contained on this disc feature Britten himself, either conducting or in some other performing/supervisory capacity. In addition, Decca producer John Culshaw’s far-sightedness in recording works in stereo back in the early 1950s means the label possesses a formidable array of gorgeously preserved and authoritative readings of Britten pieces, many of which have been cherry-picked to form this delightful entry into his world. Two popular orchestral pieces, The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra and Simple Symphony, are included in their entirety (in what can for once be described in that oft-misused term, as ‘definitive’ recordings) and there are good, representative excerpts from several Britten operas, folksong arrangements and — of course — choral pieces. If you are interested in a good, inexpensive and credible sample of Britten, then you need look no further than this.

Peter Warlock: Orchestral Works (cond. Ross Pople. Arte Nova 7-4321-37868-2)
Mr Heseltine’s Fancy
Anyone familiar with the name Warlock will be aware of the inevitable baggage that comes with it in conversation: the usual derogatory charges of his drunkenness, irresponsibility and the wrong kind of confrontationalism in his dealings with the musical establishment are frequently levelled. None of this of course is present on this beautiful CD that compiles a good portion of the scant amounts of purely orchestral music that Warlock wrote in his tragically short (but incandescent) life. Capriol, the best-known Warlock piece is played with gusto and panache by Pople and his orchestra — even if the tempi tend to waver here and there, the overall performances are crisply rendered and recorded still yet crispier. Martyn Hill, that supremely competent English tenor invests The Curlew (the most famous Warlock song piece, which rounds out this collection) with conviction and the orchestra play in suitably creepy fashion throughout. But for me, it’s the tiny dance pieces that make this CD special: Warlock has managed to capture the quality of Renaissance dance music with his own Edwardian warmth and efficiency and produces magical miniatures as he goes. Drunk, maybe. Iconoclastic, frequently — if he was any good! — but this contradiction between Warlock the man and Warlock the composer is half the fascination. This is a budget price CD, too — Warlock completists will find it agreeable, then, as well as initiates into his work who need to hear him at his best. Between this and EMI’s A Warlock Centenary CD, a good place to start.

Victor Hely-Hutchinson: A Carol Symphony and other Christmas Orchestral favourites (cond. Gavin Sutherland, City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra. Naxos 8.557099)
When Slade, Wizzard and Bing simply won't do anymore...
If you’re seeking a quieter, more restful and — dare I say — traditional form of Christmas Spirit than you’re getting from Slade, Wizzard and Phil Spector, then here’s something very beautiful: a collection of classical, orchestral pieces all themed around the Yuletide season.
Victor Hely-Hutchinson’s splendid Carol Symphony (the third movement of which achieved greater fame in the 1980s as the creepy-but-festive theme to the BBC series The Box Of Delights) appears here in one of perhaps only two recent (and available) recordings and is beautifully played/ recorded. This alone justifies Naxos’ bargain price!
But let’s not ignore the remaining tracks. Each one is a miniature gem that manages to capture something of a festive feel, whether it be the happy, cheeky crispness of Bryan Kelly’s Carol Improvisations and Philip Lane’s Wassail Dances (the modest Lane also writes the sleevenotes) or the solemn, gentle, melancholic flipside represented by a most alarmingly beautiful arrangement of Peter Warlock’s Bethlehem Down (originally for voices, here played by strings) or Patrick Standford’s jubilant Christmas Carol Symphony. Whatever it is about Christmas music that makes it ‘Christmassy’ is represented in spades on this unassumingly priced CD. A word of warning though: it makes for odd listening any time outside of the Festive Season – exercise caution playing it in June!

Normal blogging duty to be resumed soon. As Flanders & Swann once set to music — 'the public may leave at the end of each performance by all the exit doors'. Still ouch, you know.


Currently listening to:
Hat Trick: The Collection (Michael Flanders & Donald Swann, 2007)
Next… (The Sensational Alex Harvey Band, 1973)
The Impossible Dream (The Sensational Alex Harvey Band, 1974)
Indiscreet (Sparks, 1976)

Currently reading:
Apathy For The Devil: A 1970s Memoir (Nick Kent, 2010)

Currently watching:
The Doctor Who fest makes its way into the Eighties: Destiny Of The Daleks, City Of Death, The Creature From The Pit, The Horns Of Nimon, The Leisure Hive, Full Circle, State Of Decay, Logopolis, Castrovalva, Four To Doomsday, Kinda (BBC, variously between 1979 and 1982)

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