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Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas – Work No. 79 in our collection

Henry Purcell (10.09.1659 – 21.11.1695) is considered to be England’s greatest composer of the Baroque era; no later native-born English composer approached his fame until the early part of the twentieth century. Purcell showed an incredible ability to combine powerful English counterpoint with expressive, flexible, and dramatic word settings.

With considerable gifts as a composer, Purcell wrote extensively for the stage, particularly in a hybrid musico-dramatic form of the time, for the church and for popular entertainment. In short he was a master of both English word-setting and contemporary compositional techniques for instruments and voices. To later ages Purcell was best known as a songwriter because so many of his songs were printed in his lifetime and were reprinted again and again after his death. Although Purcell was employed for over half his life as an organist of the Chapel Royal and at Westminster Abbey, he wrote relatively little for the instrument.

Purcell wrote only one full opera, a short work supposedly designed for a girls’ school. The tragic story of Dido and Aeneas, with a libretto by Nahum Tate, has a perfection of its own. Dido’s final lament, before she kills herself, follows the model for such compositions established by Monteverdi eighty years before. Dido and Aeneas remains to this day the most popular of Purcell’s works and is a must for inclusion in any broad ranging classical music collection.

Our preferred version of this masterpiece is a 1992 recording by the Academy of Ancient Music (with Chorus) directed by Christopher Hogwood whose sympathetic vision of Purcell’s delightful opera is unmatched. The recording also benefits from a fine array of soloists: Catherine Bott as Dido truly enhances this finely nuanced account, Emma Kirkby’s Belinda is equally fine and John Mark Ainsley, as Aeneas, tackles a role that is difficult to get right with consummate skill.

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Premiere recording of Liszt’s unfinished opera Sardanapalo

Liszt: Sardanapalo

Joyce El-Khoury (Mirra), Airam Hernández (King), Oleksandr Pushniak (Beleso), Weimar Staatskapelle, Kirill Karabits (conductor)

Present day listeners do not think of Liszt as an operatic composer but during the 1840s, before drafting any of his symphonic poems, his strategic ambition was precisely to become a composer of opera! However only an an unsuccessful juvenile work (Don Sanche) survives – all of his other planned operas of the 1840s and 1850s remained the embryos of ambition. What we have on this release is Sardanapalo: the only mature opera for which Liszt left any significant music. He had composed almost the entire first act before abandoning it thereafter.

The score that Liszt left in manuscript is not performable. It was written in a hybrid piano-vocal score, often in shorthand and in some places a great many details are missing but the vocal parts are fully notated and are continuous. Fortunately this was sufficient for a skilled musicologist and cultural historian to put together a score fit performance. Thus this single act was heard for the first time ever last Summer, in Weimar, thanks to the painstaking reconstruction carried out by the Cambridge-based David Trippett.

Thanks to his painstaking efforts, we are able to sit at home and hear this operatic act much as Liszt might have envisioned it. We are presented with a fascinating mixture of the Italianate and Germanic. There are some lengthy stretches of bel canto melody interspersed with darker outbursts within the work. Listening to the piece one senses that Liszt is indebted to the world of Bellini and Donizetti whilst there are fascinating glimpses of the sound world of Wagnerian opera.

The choral singing is strong throughout and the soloists perform magnificently; coping well with Liszt’s taxing demands on them (which shows his inexperience in writing for the operatic voice). The orchestral players, under Kirill Karabits, are on top of their game and give us a weighty performance with piercing brass and thrusting strings that have been captured in top quality sound by the Audite team.

This release, which also includes the symphonic poem Mazeppa, is an important addition to the range of works by Liszt that have appeared on record. However it has far more than mere curiosity value: Trippett’s reconstruction sounds authentic and whilst listening one can imagine that it was completed by Liszt! Thus we have a fascinating reconstruction and performance that I can recommend to all listeners who are willing to branch out from the ordinary. I can see myself returning to this recording more than once – well done to all involved in this enterprising project.

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Allegri’s Miserere mei, Deus – Work No. 78 in our collection

Gregorio Allegri (c. 1582 – 1652) was a Roman Catholic priest and Italian composer of the Roman School. He was born and died in Rome. Allegri trained as a boy chorister and in 1604 entered the service of the church of S Luigi dei Francesi in Rome as a tenor. Allegri’s career developed at Fermo, where he served as singer and composer at the cathedral from 1607 to 1621. He was appointed maestro di cappella of the church of Santo Spirito in Sassia, Rome before becoming a member of Urban VIII’s papal choir. He wrote many cappella works, including two six- and two eight-part masses, two settings of the Lamentations of Jeremiah, and a fine Te Deum in a style suited to  the acoustics of the Sistine Chapel in line with the prevailing aesthetic of austere musical simplicity as expected by the papacy.

By far the best-known and regarded piece of music composed by Allegri is the Miserere mei, Deus, a sublime nine-voice setting of Psalm 51: Miserere mei, Deus, secundum magnam misercordiuam tuam (‘Have mercy upon me, O God, after Thy great goodness’). It is written for two choirs, the one of five and the other of four voices, and has obtained considerable celebrity. The Miserere is one of the most often-recorded examples of late Renaissance music, although it was actually written during the chronological confines of the Baroque era.

Allegri’s Miserere, with its mix of sonorous choral chant and delicately ornamented sections, remained an exclusive and carefully guarded part of papal worship until the English antiquarian Charles Burney published it in 1770. However there is a story (probably apocryphal) that tells us that Mozart, when he was a teenager, once heard Allegri’s Miserere mei, Deus being performed in the Sistine Chapel and the precocious young composer is said to have rushed home and written down the entire work from memory!

We have chosen to include in our collection a very fine performance of this work on an album by Tenebrae whose director, Nigel Short was a member of the King’s Singers for seven years. It comes as part of a potpourri of works, opening with John Tavener’s Song for Athene and includes the same composer’s The Lamb together with Britten’s Hymn to St Cecilia, Op. 27 and Lotti’s Crucifixus in 8 parts (that so often accompanies the Miserere on disc). Tenebrae’s 26-voice choir may contain some individual star names, but they blend excellently as a group to produce a refined choral sound, complemented by first-rate soloists.

In the Miserere the role of the two sopranos lies at the heart of a great performance and here Grace Davidson, ably supported by Julia Doyle, is at her finest. This is an outstanding release that should be considered by any serious collectors not only for the fine version of the Miserere mei, Deus but also for the  splendid blend of works that accompanies it on this release.

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A Berlioz release that is not to be missed

Berlioz: Harold en Italie & Les Nuits d’été

Tabea Zimmermann (viola), Stéphane Degout (baritone), Les Siècles, François-Xavier Roth (conductor)

Les Siècles are rapidly becoming period specialists par excellence. They possess one of the largest collections of historic instruments in the world and carefully choose instruments as close as possible to those that might have been used in the original performances of the works that they present. In 2010 François-Xavier Roth treated us to a revelatory performance of Berlioz’ Symphonie fantastique. More recently they have turned their hand to recording Debussy’s more ethereal writing with great success.

With this latest release they turn their attention back to Berlioz with accounts of Harold en Italie, Op. 16 and Les Nuits d’été, Op. 7 and one is struck immediately by the exceptional quality of the playing and the audio reproduction when compared to their earlier Berlioz release.

For Berlioz’ second symphonic utterance, with its pioneering use of the viola, Les Siècles are joined by the German violist Tabea Zimmermann. The use woodwind and brass instruments from the middle decades of the 19th century together with the gut strings enables the solo viola to soar above them with ease. However when required the orchestra play with ample power in this rewarding performance. However for me the real treasure on this issue is Berlioz’ song cycle with orchestra. In the Les Nuits d’été, Op. 7 the much smaller forces of Les Siècles are joined by the French baritone Stéphane Degout. This work was originally conceived for four different voice types, but nowadays tends to be sung by a soprano or mezzo. However Degout makes a resounding success of these songs. His delivery is warm, with excellent tone, and he combines well-nigh perfectly with the rich and radiant orchestral accompaniment.

If you enjoy the music of Berlioz then this is a disc which I urge you to explore without hesitation.

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