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New Recordings: From the Age of Titian to Rameau

If this were a perfect world, we would get more recitals like soprano Patricia Petibon’s for Virgin Veritas. Focusing on tragédies en musique composed between 1686 and 1755, she and the amazing original-instrument forces supporting her give a colorful, highly dramatic account of the genre. In a sense, it is like hearing Callas sing Bellini for the first time, as Petibon brings a purity of line and emotional intensity that gives a good idea of why the form was all the rage (as we saw for ourselves when Mark Morris’s production of Rameau’s Platée came to Orange County last Fall). The playing is superb and the sound so lifelike that the demons (wind machines, I think, I hope) in one of the arias from Rameau’s Les Indes Galantes had me starting from my chair. Catherine Cessac’s liner notes, however, are a little too spaced-out to be of much use, nor is an explanation of why conductor Patrick Cohen has added an “Akenine” to his name supplied.

Denis Raisin Dadre’s liner notes for Doulce mémoire’s evocative new CD, however, are much better. “In every house you can hear the sound of an instrument or singing to accompaniment, everyone is either making music or hurrying to listen to music,” he quotes a 15th century traveler to Venice, then lays out an historical tapestry that ties the music to Titian’s life and work. And very appropriately so, for Titian not only moved in artistic circles, he often spent time in a musicians’ inner circle which included the printer Antonio Gardane who published the works of Arcadelt, Cipriano de Rore, and Willaert.

As can be imagined, the performances of this highly seductive music are suffused by the kind of suggestive nuance and manipulation of timbre that must have been employed when they were first sung and played nearly half a millennium ago. By the time the last quartet of songs is reached -- two saltarellos by Giovanni Antonio Casteliono, a canzon villanesche by Willaert, and Gastoldi’s infectious L’innamorato -- we are obviously in the presence of some very adult fun led by the ensemble’s ravishing soprano, Julie Hassler. The sound is beautifully, breathtakingly clear. (For a lark, there is a 23rd, unattributed cut from the group’s earlier recital, Viva Napoli that sounds like it belongs closer to The Godfather than to Titian.

You may not find as much hedonistic pleasure in Graham O’Reilly’s recording with the Ensemble William Byrd -- the music by Scarlatti (Francesco), Viadana and Leo is more dreary than even misereres ought to be -- but the lead-off is indispensable, what O’Reilly and editor Hugh Keyte claim is the first recording ever of the original version of Allegri’s famous Miserere (you know, the one with the ethereal high voices). “Prepared from a long over-looked and once-secret manuscript in the Vatican library,” this version is much less New Age and more straightforward, but no less enchanting, and definitely essential listening for Allegri connoisseurs. Three pages of notes are given over to an absorbing history of the Allegri, followed by four more pages devoted to the other music on the disc.

What a shift from this early choral music to Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s second studio recording of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. Unlike his first recording, which was austere and edgy in a way that dramatically unleashed the imagination of the early music movement, this new one is sweet and lyrical (aside from some heavy-handed contributions from the second bass, Olive Widmer) with a fluid lilt that is totally irresistible. I am not sure where in the panoply of recordings this new version belongs; it is miles from the grandiose, antediluvian interpretations of Mengelberg and Klemperer, yet it is also miles from Harnoncourt’s own earlier recording. There is probably some musicologist who, like a musical Stephen Hawking, is plotting the interpretive evolution of the St. Matthew on some cosmic scale. In any event, the beauty and conviction of what are likely to be Harnoncourt’s last thoughts on the matter is a revelation if not the revolution his first recording was. And accompanied by the complete autograph of the score on CD-ROM, and a beautiful book of text (Wolfgang Sandberger’s serviceable notes; too bad Harnoncourt was not persuaded to write notes of his own) and gorgeous illustrations, this sumptuous package would make a very nice reward for a life well spent or one to be embarked upon.

Speaking of cosmic Bach, in 21 pages accompanying ECM’s intriguing Bach concoction called Morimur, Herbert Glossner lays out as clearly as possible the usual (plausible) theories about the complexities of Bach’s music concerning numerology, inner (hidden voices) and such, then gives way to Helga Thoene who posits an actual application of the general theory, to the Partita BWV 1004 for Solo Violin. Concluding the CD, Christoph Poppen and the Hilliard Ensemble perform the famous Ciaccona (which Thoene says is an epitaph for Bach’s first wife) in a performance including the singing of hidden chorales. It makes perfect sense to me but it means that Bach must have been an awfully busy fellow, what with writing all that music, playing for services, teaching, and having more than twenty children. Seriously, folks, this is a wonderful concept CD; perhaps it will inspire our local classical radio stations to do more than just make mindless chatter as they spin their favorite Bach.

If you like this type of musical adventure, Jan Hanford reminds me that “this is not the first recording based on the theory: the 1998 Glossa release De Occulta Philosophia by lutenist Jose Miguel Moreno, soprano Emma Kirkby and countertenor Carlos Mena takes a different, but also lovely, approach.”

If you’d just like your Bach plain, at least in a philosophical sense, pick up Archguitar Baroque, a recent Dorian release on which Peter Blanchette and Peter Michelini play an assortment of mostly Bach arranged for two archguitars. It is relaxing, consoling and very, very beautiful. According to the liner note, it was Walter Stanul who responded to “talented young rock guitarist” Blanchette’s request for an instrument that would combine the feel of the guitar with the sound of the lute, adding a range of bass notes to widen the sound. The name itself is drawn from Thomas Mace’s Musick’s Monument of 1676. The recording is of audiophile quality.

Airs Baroques Français: Rameau, Lully, Charpentier, Grandval
Patricia Petibon, soprano; Les Folies Françoises / Patrick Cohën-Akenine
Virgin Veritas 45481

Archguitar Baroque: Bach, Handel, Scarlatti and Vivaldi
Peter Blanchette and Peter Michelini, archguitar duo
Dorian 93241

Bach Morimur Bach
The Hilliard Ensemble, Christoph Poppen (Baroque violin)
ECM 1765

Bach St. Matthew Passion
Prégardien, Goerne, Schäfer, Röschmann, Fink, Arnold Schoenberg Chor, Wiener Sängerknaben, Concentus Musicus Wien / Nikolaus Harnoncourt
Teldec 81036

Miserere: Allegri, Scarlatti, Leo
Ensemble William Byrd / Graham O’Reilly
Astrée 8846

Le siècle du Titien (Venise, 1490-1576)
Doulce mémoire / Denis Raisin Dadre
Astrée 8847

Laurence Vittes



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