The Spin Doctor Europadisc's Weekly Column

Early Music Round-Up

  6th March 2024

6th March 2024

As you might have gathered from some of the releases that have featured in our recent reviews and columns, 2024 has got off to an exceptionally strong start for lovers of early music. Consort music by Matthew Locke, violin concertos by Vivaldi, opera and oratorio by Handel (Alcina and Theodora) have already given us many hours of listening pleasure. And, even restricting ourselves to Handel, the delights don’t stop there. Two recent releases on the Delphian label have been especially interesting: violinist Bojan Čičić has made a notable addition to his discography with a recording of the composer’s complete violin sonatas – works which deserve to be far better known. Čičić reveals unexpected depths in this music in exceptionally stylish performances, in partnership with harpsichordist Steven Devine (familiar from his fine solo recordings on Chandos and Resonus).

Also well worth investigating is ‘From Handel’s Home: The Keyboards of Handel Hendrix House’, on which Julian Perkins plays a variety of keyboards (including spinet and a bureau organ) at Handel’s former Brook Street residence in central London. Both Perkins’s playing and the variety of timbres are absolutely enthralling, and although music by Handel including several arrangements forms the centrepiece (not least the splendid C minor Suite for two keyboards, HWV 446, in which Perkins is joined by Carole Cerasi), music by other composers including Telemann, Domenico Scarlatti and Thomas Roseingrave adds further to the kaleidoscopic feel of the disc as a whole.

The little-known Roseingrave (1690–1766) takes centre stage on a two-disc set from Signum Classics, on which Bridget Cunningham (artistic director of London Early Opera) plays his eight Harpsichord Suites. The double-manual Ruckers-style harpsichord she uses – closely but not claustrophobically recorded – creates an atmosphere of domestic intimacy which fits this charming music like a glove.

On an altogether more ambitious canvas, we’ve continued to be amazed by the quality of performances of large-scale French Baroque music. For the Alpha label, the indefatigable Hervé Niquet and his Concert Spirituel have recorded Charpentier’s magnificent tragédie en musique, Medée (1693). This is the first absolutely complete recording of this masterpiece, which ends with the notorious mythological sorceress riding on a chariot pulled by dragons, and Niquet’s starry cast – headed by Véronique Gens and Cyrille Dubois – does it ample justice.

Further Gallic riches are to be found on the Chateau de Versailles Spectacles label. Christophe Rousset and his Talens Lyriques present a compelling new account of Lully’s Atys (1676) – a favourite of Louis XIV’s – with Reinoud Van Mechelen impressive in the title role and Marie Lys as the ill-fated nymph Sangaride. For sheer opulence, the concluding volume of Stéphane Fuget’s survey of Lully’s grands motets with Les Épopées is hard to beat. It includes the composer’s jaw-dropping setting of the Te Deum, replete with seven trumpets and a serpent, as well as his thrilling setting of Psalm 19 ‘Exaudiat te Dominus’.

Although Baroque music has dominated in the early music releases, music from earlier eras continues to astonish. A particularly enterprising series has just been launched on the Linn label by Philip Cave and Magnificat. Entitled ‘Orlandus Lassus: The Alchemist’, it aims to record a generous selection of – appropriately enough for this ensemble – Lassus’s hundred-odd settings of the Magnificat, with each setting preceded by the model on which it is based. The first two-disc set in the series concentrates on Magnificats based on madrigals, some by Lassus himself but most by other composers. These include works by Morales, de Rore, Striggio, Vecchi and Verdelot. The variety is dazzling, as is Lassus’s handling of different types of texture, from three- to six-part writing. The verses of each Magnificat alternate between plainchant and polyphony, but Cave’s sure hand on the tiller and his natural flair for sensitive phrasing ensure that the performances are consistently captivating, even if sitting down to listen to them in a single sitting is perhaps a daunting prospect: better to dip in and savour the delights of individual madrigals and their proliferation by Lassus.

Earlier still, a forthcoming release on Glossa of Antoine Brumel’s Missa ‘Et ecce terrae motus’ (the ‘Earthquake’ Mass) is sure to ruffle some feathers. It’s performed by one of our favourite early vocal groups, the iconoclastic Graindelavoix under Björn Schmelzer. Paired with new works by electric guitarist Manuel Mota, it will not please purists, but none of the releases from this group have been less than deeply thought-provoking, and this recording of an early Renaissance masterpiece will be no exception.

Back to the late Baroque period, and music by Georg Muffat (1690–1770), son of the better-known Gottlieb. His 1736 collection Componimenti musicali per il cembalo is a set of seven Suites for keyboard that deserves to be held in as high regard as Bach’s ‘French and ‘English’ Suites, and the keyboard suites of François Couperin. A dazzling new recording by Alexandra Nepomnyashchaya on Linn brings out all the music’s character and inventiveness, from the wackiness of the Fantaisie that opens Suite no.4 in B flat major to moments of tender intimacy, culminating in the spectacular nine-minute Chaconne that forms the final Suite. Perfectly recorded, with an instrument tuned to low pitch (a’ = 409hz), this is an absolutely stunning double-album that blew us away.

The music of Georg Philipp Telemann is endlessly fascinating, though too often its sheer copiousness works against its wider appreciation. A new disc from the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin should widen its appeal. It opens with a marvellous Overture-Suite in D major, whose instrumentation includes horns that create wonderfully earthy textures. The centrepiece here is the solo cantata Ino, depicting the desperate Theban princess of Greek mythology in the moments before committing suicide. Soprano Christina Landshamer gives a performance of deep feeling and commitment, and further items including a Divertimento and a Sinfonia melodica make this disc a must for Telemann aficionados as well as a varied entry-point for newcomers to his music.

This month sees no fewer than four Bach releases on the BIS label, three of them from the Suzukis of Bach Collegium Japan. Masaaki Suzuki continues his exploration of the composer’s organ works at the Christoph Treutmann organ in Grauhoff, coupling three large-scale Preludes and Fugues (including the glorious B minor, BWV 544) with the chorale preludes of the second half of the Orgelbüchlein. Switching to harpsichord, he also releases his own deeply-considered account of the Art of Fugue, with son Masato on the second harpsichord necessary for some of the more complex canons. And Masato appears as soloist in his own right in a new recording of Book 1 of the Well-Tempered Clavier. These recordings will tempt most serious Bachians, as will the release next month of the Bach Collegium Japan’s recordings of the composer’s complete vocal works. Comprising all the cantatas (sacred and secular) plus the two Passions, three oratorios, Masses and mass movements, motets and the Magnificat, it’s a weighty 78-disc set with full documentation: definitely one for the serious collector!

Our Top Picks:
Charpentier - Medée (Niquet) ALPHA1020
Lassus the Alchemist Vol.1 (Magnificat / Cave) CKD660
Telemann - Ino & Late Works (AAM Berlin) PTC5187072

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