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Bach: Mass in B minor
Bach: Mass in B minor
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Arcangelo Re-injects Greatness Into Bach's Great Mass, November 11, 2014
This review is from: Bach: Mass in B minor (Audio CD)
Who needs another Mass in B minor? After all, a recording of BWV 232 is almost a required piece of repertoire for any major conductor and ensemble, be it on modern or historically informed instruments. Indeed, many of these conductors and ensembles have recorded BWV 232 on numerous occasions. Some are terrific, some not so much. Nonetheless, remembering all the recordings can seem as daunting as counting the hair on one's head.

Every once in a while, however, a recording comes out that is truly special. Recordings that come to mind include the dramatic Minkowski release, and the wonderfully intimate set by Dunedin Consort. Those by Herreweghe and Gardiner have also stood the test of time and remain on the "desert island' lists of many listeners. Perhaps none of these is as consistently satisfying than this one conducted by Jonathan Green and newcomers to Arcangelo.

And what a stellar introduction. Those unfamiliar with Arcangelo will notice the smoothness and technical skill of Collegium Vocale Gent, and the vigor and dramatic flair of the Freiburg Barockorchester with the RIAS Kammerchor. Arcangelo's BWV 232 is a study in effective contrasts: following the brooding Kyrie, Cohen leads an exuberant Gloria that will make your speakers dance. Here is where Cohen succeeds: his tempi are far more moderate than Minkowski's and other historically informed conductors. In resisting the urge to race to the finish line, Arcangelo's playing is articulate. The vocal lines are audible. Bach's counterpoint is fully appreciated. Even with several favorites, including Minkowski or even Junghanel, the trend towards "prestissimo" choral numbers might border on vulgar to some listeners.

The four-to-a-part choir sounds full, and employs one-to-a-part in the Confiteor, a smart touch harkening back to the "stile antico" of this number. I am thankful that Cohen resists the urge to plow through the last movement of the Gloria, as so many conductors lately tend to do. The listener truly gets a sense of the structure of this number, unfolding layer by layer in a fugue of celebratory complexity. Arcangelo is pure clarity.

The Laudamus Te is virtuosically sung by Ida Falk Winland. Though some might wish for a little less vibrato for this period piece, the strength and warmth of her voice makes for a pleasurable listening experience of this famous aria. Tim Mead is an exceptionally strong countertenor, while Samuel Boden and Lydia Teuscher execute their duet and arias well. Thankfully, there is no showboating from the soloists as artists sometimes do on studio recordings -- while the ensemble is enthusiastic, it is never vulgar. One gets the sense of unity between soloist, choir, and ensemble.

While unrushed and moderate overall, Cohen employs some unique touches. In Domine Deus duet, for example, Cohen exploits the textural abilities of a double manual harpsichord, using the lute stop to add a subtle yet sweet support for the ensemble of transverse flutes and tenor/soprano duet.

The proliferation of B-minor Mass records might make new recordings seem unnecessary. This one should not go unnoticed, however. Highly recommended.


And The War Came
And The War Came
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10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Solid, Breakout Folk Revival Album, October 7, 2014
This review is from: And The War Came (Audio CD)
The latest effort by Alejandro Rose-Garcia, AKA Shakey Graves, is a solid example of a folk revival, produced by the estimable Dualtone Music Group, which also produces for rising greats such as The Lumineers, Noah Gunderson, and Shovels & Rope. While not exactly a debut album, "And The War Came" is where we first see Shakey Graves confidently securing a place for himself in the genre among his Dualtone peers.

Folk music's appeal to musicians is its deceptive simplicity -- the musicians must be able to do something amazing with the economy of means. A look at successful artist in the genre is revealing; Veterans Nickel Creek mastered this with minimal forces by displaying classical virtuosity. The Lumineers achieved this by skillfully composed melodies. Otherwise, it is easy for folk to fall into monotony with an acoustic instrumentation that doesn't develop, rote chord progressions that become repetitive, perhaps melodies that are stagnant and anemic. What is great for this relative newcomer, Shakey Graves, is that the songwriting never falls into that minimalist trap. He is only 25, yet his music is stylistically mature, surefooted, and instantly recognizable. What is his magic ingredient? After many listens, it seems to be his astute syncopations and prominent percussion, which lend to a dance-like atmosphere that persists, even in the quietest, most intimate tracks.

The melodies show a modern tinge here and there, but they still hold faithful to folk roots. We begin with "Only Son", a largely quiet and intimate piece, which rewards the listener with the way the instrumentation develops. He introduces the dance-like syncopation in layers, and the track culminates in a Lumineers-like chorus that brings to mind a folksy communal aspect to the music.

One standout track is "Dearly Departed", a duet featuring Esme Patterson. This is perhaps the track that will appeal to the widest audiences. Here, the percussion is the most prominent. It is an example of good songwriting: all musicians are doing something meaningful and integral. Percussion isn't merely an afterthought, not just a "skeleton" for the song. The charming dialogue with Patterson is witty. While it doesn't have the harmonic inventiveness of Hearst and Trent of Shovels & Rope, it is nonetheless a very effective track worth several replays.

"If Not For You" is another standout, and is a personal favorite of the whole album. The percussion syncopation sounds R&B inspired, but overall the song is a piece of modern folk. This is a 'musician's' song: it begins by giving Rose-Garcia the opportunity to showcase his ability as an instrumentalist. The solo is not at the end, but at the beginning -- an extended and impressive cadenza that has an introspective and improvisatory quality. It is a striking solo for electric guitar that is reminiscent of mid-nineties Seattle grunge. It is a masterful example of genre blending.

The more extroverted songs still have an intimate, personal touch. "Call It Heaven", "Pansy Waltz", and "Hard Wired" fall into this category. The rhythms are lithe, yet chord progressions and the vocal color make for a set of songs that are nonetheless inward and thoughtful, in contrast to the uptempo.

Once in a while, the listener can hear evidence of Rose-Garcia's time as part of the folk scene in Los Angeles. Hear, for example, "Family and Genus" which blends Rose-Garcia's folksy melodies with an instrumentation that evokes California rock -- think Lumineers meets Young the Giant.

If you have not heard much from this artist, think of his vocal sound as a bit similar to Wesley Schultz of the Lumineers. The gravely rasp is there, yet judiciously used. He's a baritone counterpart to Schultz's tenor, yet capable of singing those high notes with confidence.

This record affords Shakey Graves the opportunity to go far because of its appealing songwriting. Not once, however, does this record sound "overproduced". It is still intimate, honest, rough-around-the-edges folk from Dualtone. I'm eager to hear more from this artist and would recommend it to anyone.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Dec 19, 2014 7:51 AM PST


Die Vier Letzten Dinge
Die Vier Letzten Dinge
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5.0 out of 5 stars A Rare Look at a Forgotten Viennese Master, September 24, 2014
This review is from: Die Vier Letzten Dinge (Audio CD)
When Haydn was approached to set Die vier letzen Dinge (The Four Last Things) to music, he turned it down. His advanced age and waning health prevented him from taking on the commission, though the oratorio would have effectively formed a thematic trilogy with Haydn's other works, Die Schoepfung (The Creation), and Die Jahreszeiten (The Seasons). Haydn had probably never spent so much time on a single work than with Die Schoepfung, and surviving accounts tell us that work sometimes took a toll on the composer's health.

So the oratorio was reworked by librettist Sonnleithner (the same librettist of Beethoven's Fidelio), and a royal commission of the oratorio was given to Joseph Leopold Eybler, a distant cousin of Haydn's and Haydn's protogee. But posterity best remembers Eybler as Mozart's friend who was Constanze Mozart's first choice to finish her husband's Requiem. Eybler was unable to finish, and it is this reputation that has survived today -- an unfortunate outcome. (Serendipitously, toward the end of Eybler's life, he suffered a stroke conducting Mozart's Requiem, leaving him incapacitated.) However, those willing to inquire into Eybler's work will be rewarded to find he was undoubtedly brilliant in his own right. Eybler was esteemed by Mozart as a top pupil, and he entrusted Eybler with the rehearsals and a few early performances of Cosi fan tutte. Albrechtsberger, who instructed and influenced many of the great composers of classical Vienna regarded Eybler as "the greatest" composer in Vienna, second only to Mozart. Surviving accounts tell us that even Beethoven also held Eybler in high regard. But he remains today usually a passing name in the liner notes of Mozart's Requiem, and as for his music, only his spectacular offertory "Omnes Saba venient" is somewhat regularly performed, though limited to liturgical services in north-central Europe. Other recordings include a not-so-great one of his own Requiem, dazzling renditions of his string quartets and quintets, his brilliant Christmas Oratorio, a symphony, and a clarinet concerto almost as dazzling as Mozart's.

Hermann Max's recording here is look at why Eybler should not be forgotten, and perhaps why he should be remembered as one of the "Viennese Greats" along with Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven. Some will always compare this oratorio to Haydn's less favorably, but Eybler's work is mature, late-classical stuff. His counterpoint is impeccable, orchestration is wisely chosen. His melodies and modulations are instantly identifiable (the way one might listen to a Mozart piece for the first time and say, "THIS is Mozart," the same can be done with Eybler). Taken together with the other available recordings of his work, it is a wonder why he was largely dropped from the repertoire.

Think of this oratorio as bridging the gap between Mozart and Beethoven, even at times looking forward to the lyricism of Schubert. Elisabeth Scholl's powerful soprano leads arias of a Beethovenian character. Markus Schaefer takes on one of the oratorios standout numbers: "O seht ihr sie, die Auferwachten." In this tenor aria with chorus, Eybler evokes an orchestration that Haydn used in the first aria in the celebratory Die Schoepfung. But in the present oratorio, Eybler paints a far different picture: a post-apocalyptic scene where the dead rise from the grave. Eybler's skillful modulations between minor and major keys, the attractive call-and-response between tenor and chorus, and artful use of harmonic instability lend substance to the opinion that Mozart and Albrechtsberger were right: Eybler was a master of the Viennese classical period.

Peter Kooij leads accompanied recitatives that are very much in the style of Haydn's. Kooij convincingly narrates, and Die Kleine Konzert brilliantly illustrates with sound, the apocalyptic scene: bodies rising from their sarcophagi, the blasts of the last trumpets.

The quality of the music cannot be overstated: there are tender, comforting moments -- the trio of soloists in "Jehova, sieh in deiner Milde" is supported by pizzicato strings and a group of obligatto cellos in an attractive, anthemic number that is hymn-like. Eybler uses a wind ensemble in their lower registers to introduce the hymn "Jehova, groß ist deine Macht". Male soloists sing the first verse, and the full chorus then takes over in this utterly memorable, almost communal number.

The subject matter is heavy stuff: the matter of Christian eschatology, a stark contrast to The Seasons and The Creation. There is plenty of dark orchestration, use of minor keys, and ominous brass. But the piece ends on a note of hope. The final chorus is clearly late-classical, a look forward to Beethoven. One would suspect that Eybler had a profound influence on composers of late-classical Vienna.

Those willing to delve into Eybler's works will be rewarded with Die vier letzen Dinge with Hermann Max. Hopefully more interest in Eybler's output spreads -- a recording of his opera Die Zauberschwert, perhaps? Or even some his (very Schubertian) masses? I would wholeheartedly recommend this issue to anyone interested in discovering this forgotten Viennese master.


Haydn: Die Jahreszeiten
Haydn: Die Jahreszeiten
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Herreweghe's Elegant Exploration of Haydn's Oratorios, September 24, 2014
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Herreweghe begins his exploration of Haydn's vocal works with this recording of the late oratorio, Die Jahreszeiten, or The Seasons. He leads the Orchestre des Champs-Elysees and Collegium Vocale Gent in an elegant, consistent, yet powerful recording.

Herreweghe is a specialist in the works of the Renaissance and Baroque, which is evidenced by the clean, fluid lines from both vocals and instrumentalists. Indeed, one common criticism of his interpretations of later eras (particularly of his recordings from the 80s and early 90s) is that the fluidity of his forces may sound anemic or hollow. That is not the case here. In recent years, Herreweghe has become more daring, allowing his forces more freedom to exude drama. Dynamics are more pronounced, but not vulgar (compare, for example, his first and second recordings of Bach's Magnificat, or his three recordings of the St. Matthew Passion.) During an interview, Herreweghe described Haydn's oratorios as "elegant" and "intelligent" music. This recording shows that he means it. With his forthcoming release of the Die Schöpfung, I don't doubt that his recordings will be a staple of any lover of Haydn's oratorios.

So much the better for a work like Haydn's The Seasons, which features vivid tone painting: rumbling spring storms, drifting snows, muddy streams, rollicking drinking songs, and spirited farmers' hymns of joy. Rene Jacobs was a great fit for recording this oratorio, as his talent for bringing out the drama in these works is already renowned; his recording has already received accolades and is probably held to be the best to many listeners. Herreweghe has always been more subtle, and in comparison to Jacobs, his Seasons is a bit more restrained -- not for lack of drama, there's plenty of that. The contrast with Jacobs is that Herreweghe's is more refined, less rough around the edges. The timpani beats, are still forceful. The chorus's drinking song is still soaring. The call of the hunters' horns is still clear and majestic. The dynamics are striking enough that one may be surprised that they are elicited from Herreweghe's baton. Is it better than Jacobs'? Maybe. There are excellent things to recommend about both, such that I will return to both frequently: Jacobs' theatricality, but Herreweghe's warmth, for example.

Christina Landshamer is a powerful, warm-tone soprano. Florian Boesch's baritone and Max Schmitt's tenor ably sing their fabulous accompanied recitatives with vigor, colorfully pairing with the orchestra to provide the listener with an exciting illustration of mankind's interaction with the seasons.

Oratorios are probably the most difficult genre for a conductor: there is no staging, one must convey the message using only the voice and, in the case of Haydn's oratorios, the technique of the orchestra. Herreweghe has chosen a the right cast for the job, and as for the Collegium Vocale and Orchestre des Champs-Elysees, I have been a follower of theirs since the 1990s, and I can easily say that I have never heard them so spirited. Herreweghe has clearly proven that when it comes to the dramatic, he and his ensemble can deliver. Take for example, the finale to perhaps my favorite part of the oratorio, Der Herbst, or Autumn. The chorus sings its bacchic celebration of wine: the sound is massive, but the Collegium Vocale retains its characteristic clarity (a quality one might miss from Jacobs).

Highly recommended.


Swimmin' Time (Deluxe Edition) [+video]
Swimmin' Time (Deluxe Edition) [+video]
Price: $9.49

17 of 17 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Shovels & Rope Hit Artistic Maturity, August 25, 2014
There comes a point where great new artists hit maturity. They find their voices and establish a sound that is recognizable. Their first self-titled was a harmonic but largely serious affair, where they wrote and sang beautifully on albeit controversial subject matter, showcasing their country-esque storytelling ability. Their second album was deeply personal, but the pair also experimented with a fun, quirky style that makes them distinctive. We have come to know them as so versatile they could elicit tears ("This Means War") or uncontrollable grins (theme to Adult Swim's "Squidbillies") . Those lucky enough to see this charismatic pair perform live can see they are a two-person band. They are multi-instrumentalists who will exchange guitars or drumsticks between songs, or even play two instruments at a time. They apply the same ethic to their studio recordings. While this may lead one to expect a small-sound, their music packs a big punch. Their sounds have filled huge outdoor stadiums like Berkeley's Greek Theater, and the same effect is heard on this latest album. With Swimming Time, they join the record label Dualtone (under which The Lumineers are also signed), which is known for its respect of its artists' artistic independence, and for Shovels and Rope, their mastery shows fully here.

Swimming Time is a masterful combination of quirk and breathtaking beauty. As for vocals, they have always been consistent: Cary Ann Hearst is sometimes charming, sometimes soaring, along the lines of Dolly Parton; Michael Trent is powerful and barebones, and brings a substantial rock-infused element from his days as frontman to the band The Films. Together they have an instantly recognizable sound: harmonies here are impeccable and you can't have one singer without the other; melodies are interwoven giving each song a brilliant texture, a perfect marriage with folk, country, rock, and more.

The standout track is "After the Storm", which will probably be recognized as one of Shovels and Ropes' best tracks, and is a masterpiece of songwriting. At over 6 minutes, the track has pathos and complexity that speak heartfelt on hope and tragedy (Hearst introduced the song at live shows before Swimming Time was released, and she noted that it was written to commemorate a real-life event - the tornadoes of Oklahoma City). The chorus is a substantial one that meanders between major and minor key, and features harmonized vocals that steadily rise, giving the chorus a building, tense crescendo that finally ends in the major key, a symbol of hope. The sound is reminiscent of "All Those Words" from Trent's solo album, which the pair performed as a Duo later on. Hearst and Trent took the best of that live performance of "All Those Words" and reworked them into an anthem for optimism. Had Shovels and Rope only ever released this one song, it alone would make the pair worthy of longstanding recognition.

While their debut album was a darker affair, "After the Storm" and the lilting "Save the World" outline Hearst and Trent's vision of redemption.

Tracks such as "Bridge on Fire" firmly establish Shovels and Rope within a tradition of folk/country artists while also representing how the genre has evolved. The harmonies at the words "I want you to know what you're walking away from" and the subsequent chord progressions are nothing short of a masterclass of songwriting. "Evil" is very much in the style of the pair's blues-inspired tracks like "Tickin' Bomb".

They effectively use new rhythms, such as in the title track, which features vocals in the chorus that almost remind the listener of a hip-hop inspired syncopation. There is an air of genre blending which makes the album eclectic enough to reach wide audiences but faithful enough to maintain it's folk-country roots.

Shovels and Rope also inject some humor into the album, such as the endearing "Mary Ann and One Eyed Dan", but nonetheless balancing it tastefully with the serious -- their lyric writing is exemplary. There are of course, rollicking fun tracks such as "Fish Assassin", which is reminiscent of "Kemba's Got the Cabbage Moth Blues". This album shows the pair at their most versatile.

They end the record with "Thresher", another substantial track which, at almost 7 minutes long, draws you in with its cinematic storytelling and emotional vocals. Hearst and Trent's lyric writing brilliantly evokes the imagery of shipwreck: "pirouette into the arms of the ocean floor". In their previous album "O' Be Joyful" they closed the album with a similarly paced track, also in triple meter - like a funeral dirge. It is a wholly satisfying way to end this emotional roller coaster of an album, bringing the whole thing to reflective and quiet resolution.

Highly reccomended.


Strange Desire
Strange Desire
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10 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Bleachers Pay Homage to Past Influences While Sounding Modern & Original, July 15, 2014
This review is from: Strange Desire (Audio CD)
Jack Antonoff, formerly of Steel Train and currently the guitarist of Fun, heads this new band, Bleachers. Their anticipated debut album, Strange Desire, is nothing short of great. This is hands-down the album of summer 2014, due to its anthemic choruses reminiscent of Fun. A fine example is the catchy melodies to "You're Still a Mystery" [Track 9], containing the lyrics comprising the album title.

Perhaps the defining feature of this album is Antonoff's ability to harken back to the synth-pop of the 1980s while retaining a totally modern sound. This element is evident from the very first seconds of the album. "Wild Heart" [Track 1] has all the makings of a memorable 80s power ballad: graceful melodies underlined and punctuated by synthesized instruments playing in dramatic semiquavers, propelling forward the action of the song, but with more modern -- almost hip-hop inspired -- syncopation in the percussion. The track closes by repeating the title lyrics "Wild Heart" in its 1-7-1 theme over the semi-quavered synth-percussion until fade-out, a nod to Cyndi Lauper who closed her power ballad "Time After Time" in a similar method about three decades ago. Antonoff applies Lauper's technique effectively to close a slightly more up-tempo song. This track is the best example in Strange Desire of Antonoff's skill at paying homage to his musical influences while mixing in his own modern creativity -- for example, the dramatic interspersed downbeats of the bass -- to give his listeners something original.

Even the ballad "Reckless Love" [Track 6] is harmonically related to A-Ha's "Take on Me". Following the chord progression of the older song, Antonoff constructs a gorgeous ballad that unfolds at a more measured pace.

Antonoff's skill at putting his album in the context of the history of popular music. Antonoff uses his baritone to compliment the songs in a manner that might remind the listener of Jim Kerr of Simple Minds ("Don't You Forget About Me," featured in the soundtrack to The Breakfast Club.) Lyrically, Strange Desire is strong. There are effective references to well-established masterpieces of songwriting, for example, to Queen's "Killer Queen" (incidentally, the sound of Antonoff's other band, Fun, is frequently compared to Queen for their frontman Nate Ruess' vocal range and use of harmony.) The inclusion of Yoko Ono in the reprise of the first song "Wild Heart" [Track 10] is an odd but somehow effective choice that makes for an atmospheric and introspective penultimate track that brings the album around full-circle conceptually.

Perhaps the most effective track is "Who I Want You to Love" [Track 11] which closes the album. Here Antonoff breaks from the 1980s tinged pop-rock, in favor of a late 60s to early 70s inspired piece. The song also seems strongly influenced by "Stars" the closing track to Fun's album Some Nights: It is in two discernible parts: the first being the main section, which breaks suddenly for a second section -- a slow extended instrumental cadenza allowing for solo flourishes and improvisation. In Some Nights, it's an improvisation by Nate Ruess, some creative electronic melismas, and the violin section; in Strange Desire, it's Antonoff's improvisation on guitar with a lingering piano solo, in a mellow, moderate tempo similar to "Stars". The synthesizers take a backseat, secondary role to a more acoustic sound. The second part's bass-line is played by a classically inspired string section in lower registers (cellos and double basses, probably), a definite stylistic nod to the string section in the closing section of Fun's "Stars". Antonoff in this one track contextualizes Strange Desire among a larger framework of established popular music, including the imminently classic-status songs of Fun.

There is something retrospective that pervades the whole album, but it is still undeniably fresh-sounding at the same time. The melodies are all attractive, and it is difficult to find a clear favorite. This is an exceedingly strong debut from Bleachers, which is strongly recommended. This album should leave the listener wanting to hear more from this new band. (And do keep an eye out for Fun's new album "Harsh Lights" due out soon.)
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jul 24, 2014 12:51 AM PDT


Utah
Utah

6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars This is the Band to Watch Out For, April 30, 2014
This review is from: Utah (MP3 Music)
It was extremely difficult to listen to this album from beginning to end. It took me more than one day to finally get through it.

This is not a bad thing. Rather, this is attributable to a few standout tracks that warrant repeated listens. Jamestown Revival's expert songwriting features simple yet unique melodies coupled with pervasive yet perfect harmonies that hint at possible-classic status for this debut album, Utah.

Though Jonathan Clay has been in the music business for a while, Jamestown Revival, which he formed with a childhood friend, is newer endeavor. Their timing couldn't be more right, as contemporary folk music is being vindicated in full force these days.

As for their sound, it is consistent and balanced. Think of the powerful, straightforward vocals of Wesley Schultz of The Lumineers but with a higher timbre. Jamestown Revival's harmonies can rival that of Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent of Shovels and Rope. As for the songwriting, the catchiness of the melodies is attributable to the economy of means and simplicity that makes The Lumineers' music so instantly recognizable and memorable, but interesting modulations of keys here and there.

Each track on this record is quality. It is a record where you will not find yourself skipping over certain tracks. There are, however, certain tracks that merit special mention. "California" will be a new favorite of many listeners, for its irresistible chorus that is worthy of the "Summer Anthem" monicker for 2014. "Revival" is a rollicking piece, a fun sing-along with somber, powerful, lyrics conveying longing and survival. As an avid concertgoer, I always yearn for an artist that sounds as energetic on a studio recording as they do live. If you find yourself in this same predicament, listen to this track; it's energetic, dynamic, and ends with a percussion flourish reminiscent of the band finishing up a live set.

Many critics of this revival of contemporary folk will lament those records of monotonous sounding acoustic bands (I do not share that sentiment, in large part), but Jamestown Revival has really given us a dynamic listening experience from the opening few seconds. Though many of the songs feature moderate-to-quick tempos in the major keys, there is a certain sadness to the music: the music is juxtaposed with lyrics of growing pains, loneliness, homesickness, and even some reflections of economic struggle that a younger generation of listeners will absolutely find relevant.

This record has all the makings of a classic. "Utah" is absolutely not to be missed. 5/5.


Rameau Le Grand Theatre De L'Amour
Rameau Le Grand Theatre De L'Amour
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Exciting Newcomer's Hommage for the Rameau Year, April 3, 2014
2014 is a Rameau year, as the musical world commemorates the 250th year since the composer's death. As we prepare for a few new Rameau recordings for this commemoration, this one deserves special praise.

This elegant survey of Rameau's operatic numbers is sensitively and dramatically graced by this young (20-something) newcomer, Sabine Devieilhe. Her lithe, smooth-as-silk coloratura is perfect for Rameau's lighter, amorous-themed ballet operas. Yet she is capable of singing alongside the best sopranos in the French Baroque repertoire: the likes of Veronique Gens, Agnes Mellon, Patricia Pettibon, etc. In this selection, Mlle. Devieilhe sometimes surpasses old favorites.

Her "Un horizon serein" from the fabulous yet neglected opera (and in my opinion, his best), Les Boreades, easily beats out Barbara Bonney's live rendition under William Christie. The opera as a whole defies Baroque convention, and features an emotional depth that would not be seen until the mature operas of Mozart a decades later. This aria captures all of that, and Sabine Devieilhe does it justice.

Castor et Pollux, probably considered by most to be Rameau's opus summa, features his most well-known aria, "Tristes apprêts." For me, Rameau is a composer who is hard to perform "correctly." His work is full of sublime simplicity that looks forward to the operatic reforms of Glück, and implemented by Salieri and Mozart. Yet, with this simplicity, there is a danger, manifested in many recordings, of Rameau's work sounding anemic and vapid. Once in a while, you hear a recording with performers who give these deceptively simple lines room to breathe while packing a dramatic punch. This is one of those recordings. For years, my favorite rendition of this aria was that of Agnes Mellon, under the leadership of William Christie on a classic full-release by Harmonia Mundi. So impactful was this piece that it was featured very prominently in a key scene Sophia Coppola's "Marie Antoinette." I daresay that the young Mlle. Devieilhe has set the new bar high. This "Tristes apprêts" is the gold standard. I hope that she will one day be featured as the prima donna in a full recording of this sublime opera.

Once in a while, Mlle. Devieilhe takes a break and lets the orchestra take over. I am not familiar with the group, Les Ambassadeurs, nor am I familiar with their conductor, Alexis Kossenko. I must say, that I have not been excited about a new orchestra since Les Arts Florissants under Christie, or more recently, Ensemble Pigmalyon under the charismatic Raphael Pichon. This group plays with vigor and precision, and I cannot wait to hear more from them (I do not see many recordings to their name.) They are more exciting the Les Arts Florissants, but not as brusque as Les Musiciens du Louvre. It's the perfect mix of drama and suavity. Their rendition of the popular Chaccone from Les Indes galantes makes me to eager to hear more of what they can do.

Devieilhe switches gears nicely from the dramatic to the lighthearted. Rameau's operas de ballet are often criticized for their vapid plots (and I admit that this is not a completely unfair evaluation). I often liken their plots to 18th century trash TV. But Devieilhe keeps things interesting. "Forêts plaisibles" sounds exotic, an early opera that is daringly set entirely in the mysterious New World of the Americas, as imagined (rightly or wrongly) by an aristocratic Old World of Europe. This number is punctuated by drums and dancelike rhythm. This version is enthusiastic, more so than the fairly simple reading that Les Arts Florrisants gave under Harmonia Mundi. With Devieilhe and Les Ambassadeurs, this number is pure fun and imagination.

The concept of the record is to take up selections of Rameau's works, present them individually in a historically accurate method, but line them up into a coherent production, as if it were one of Rameau's one act ballet operas. It gives the listener an idea of Rameau's compositional abilities -- the ability to portray a spectrum of mood and atmosphere, from comedy to terror, peace and storm -- the likes of which wouldn't not be seen until the dramas giocoso Mozart.

Rameau was not an establishment composer. His music breaks free of Baroque constructs of Handel's and Vivaldi's opera seria, or Lully's dotted-rhythmed lyric tragedies, but it is not quite classical either. We are still in the midst of a Rameau revival, and during this "Rameau year" of 2014, this set by Sabine Devieilhe is both a fabulous introduction to newcomers to Rameau, as well as a potential favorite who have loved Rameau's unique musical output for years.

Recommended, without any reservations.


Mozart: Requiem (Reconstruction of First Performance)
Mozart: Requiem (Reconstruction of First Performance)
Price: $8.99

32 of 37 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Academic yet Fresh, March 22, 2014
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The Süssmayer version of Mozart's incomplete Requiem has been recorded to death -- that much is undeniable. In the last few decades there has been a handful of other completions of the Requiem, some rather "safe" and minor (Beyer, Landon) and others rather drastic (Levin, Maunder, Druce -- all of which offer a version of the "Amen" fugue after the Lacrymosa). But it is the Süssmayer version that is the product of an individual that (arguably) conversed with Mozart firsthand regarding the master's intentions. Whether or not these intentions were competently carried out is a question for another day. Yet it is this version that is the most enduring.

Nonetheless, it rare to find a recording of this "original" completion that is wholly satisfying. Enter John Butt and the Dunedin Consort. These individuals have a knack for offering historically informed performances in their original context, and doing so with vitality. Theirs aren't wooden academic performances that sound as though they are layered under centuries of dust. When Joshua Rifkin introduced one-voice-per-part in Bach's choral works, John Butt became one of the conductors to breathe life into the practice with his brilliant St. Matthew Passion. John Butt continued Paul McCreesh's tradition of performing liturgical works in context (hear, for example, McCreesh's "Mass for Christmas Morning" and "Epiphany Mass") when he recorded the St. John Passion to include surrounding biblical readings for Good Friday and singing from a congregation. This may sound tedious if you are a more secular listener like I am, but I promise, in reality the effect is astonishing.

Butt and Dunedin continue the tradition here with Mozart's Requiem, a cornerstone in classical repertoire that is nonetheless fraught with difficulties: Which version is closest to Mozart's intentions? How was it first performed? John Butt, yet again, compiles the circumstantial evidence left over from the 1790s regarding the first public performances of Mozart's Requiem, to offer our modern ears what the first listeners heard. He attempts to answer interesting questions: How big was the choir? How big was the orchestra? How was it performed a mere days after Mozart's death when all Mozart had completed for the Dies Irae sequence were the vocals with barren instrumental lines? Süssmayr's version is not the best. That award probably goes to Levin or Maunder. But it is a valuable part of the Requiem's story, and Butt tries to tell that story in the most complete way possible.

In keeping with Duneding tradition, the chorus is extremely small and the soloists sing along during the choral "tutti", reflecting what was the likely constitution of the choir during the first performances. But in no way does the chorus sound anemic. Indeed, the group packs a lot of punch. Listen to the opening cries in the "Rex tremendae." The listen would be fooled into thinking he or she is listening to much larger choir. Much of this may have to do with the choice of an actual church as a recording venue. The reverberation not only allows for a breathtaking atmosphere during the choral numbers, but serves to augment the sound of the small choir. I have said before, mostly when reviewing one-voice-per-part recordings of Bach's cantatas and passions, that the small forces work best in larger, more reverberant venues. After all, they were composed to be performed in large stone structures with no sound systems... huge buildings that were constructed for ideal acoustics for either a preacher at a pulpit or the harmonies of a choir.

There is not one weak link among the soloists. The somber nature of the Requiem demands no showiness that is pervasive in, say, the Great C-Minor Mass (e.g. the extended soprano flourish in the Kyrie). Rather, the four soloists mostly sing as unit. Lunn, Hellier, Hobbs, and Brook execute this brilliantly.

One benefit to using smaller forces is balance. I cannot think of any recording of the Requiem where each line, both among the instruments and the chorus, was so crystal clear. In the Requiem, Mozart pays homage to his musical forbears Bach and Handel: this work includes some of Mozart' most sublime contrapuntal writing. John Butt's decision to use such small forces benefits the counterpoint by making each line so audible. As it should be, there is no minor part here -- each player is heard.

Just like in the chorus, the small orchestra certainly does not sound small. The trumpets and timpani still sound grand, and punctuate fiery strings in unison in the "Confutatis." The trombones still blast through the "Kyrie" fugue, as if to invoke a fanfare of an impending last judgment. There are no quick, fussy tempi here that one may be used to hearing from historically informed performances. As always, John Butt takes his time with yet another beloved work. Under John Butt's baton, we get the classic works we love, but in a context that deepens our understanding of these works, and without shocking our ears.

As an added bonus, Mozart's very early liturgical work "Misericordias Domini" K 222 is included. It is a work with possible connections to Mozart's last years, and foreshadows the Requiem with its key and character. There is also a reconstruction of what the first performance of the Introit and Kyrie would have sounded like a mere days after Mozart's death. It is helpful to remember that the Introit was the only number that was completed by Mozart in full. Only the vocal lines of the Kyrie were drawn out, while instruments were hastily added colla parte only after his death and in preparation for a memorial service a mere days later. Only the vocal parts of the sequence and offertory were drawn up, along with the bass/cello line. There were a few instrumental cues... fleeting ideas... here and there. The Amen fugue themes were sketched out, but Süssmayer, either through negligence or lack of contrapuntal ability, discarded them. The Süssmayer version that we hear as the main feature of this present record was not heard until a few years after Mozart's death.

In all, if your take on the Requiem is "heard one, heard them all," the Dunedin Consort should change your mind.
Highly recommended.


Bach: St. John Passion
Bach: St. John Passion
Price: $17.98

8 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Fresh Look at an Old Classic, March 18, 2014
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This review is from: Bach: St. John Passion (MP3 Music)
What is there to be excited about with yet another recording of the St. John Passion? It is a beloved masterpiece, yet common to most listeners of Baroque and Classical repertoire. Yet another recording seems very little to be excited about.

This release by Richard Egarr and the Academy of Ancient Music, however, has much to offer, as is evident from the very first seconds of the recording. Egarr has rethought many of the tempi. To some it may take a little getting used to. To my ears, however, his choices seemed more "right" that what one traditionally hears.

The opening chorus is noticeably faster than what one might hear, even for a period instrument ensemble. But the speed at which this monumental chorus is taken sets forth a narrative of drama. "Herr, unser Herrscher", which usually takes 8, 9, or even 10 minutes to play all the way through, clocks in at just over 7 minutes under Egarr's baton. For some reason, it does not seem rushed. It is probably because the Academy of Ancient Music sounds particularly "full" and strong, and it plays the opening number with pulsating vitality. One may be used to hearing renditions by the likes of Herreweghe, in which the chorus creeps along as if to say, "I'd like to get on with this story, but it is much too depressing and I am far too tired." A great many conductors direct this opening chorus as if to say, "here's a splendid opening number, but I'll conduct it as if you all know it already, which you probably do." Egarr, however, directs the chorus as a plaintive, yet fervent cry to the heavens during a season of tragedy. It is enough to fill a secular, irreligious individual like myself with wonder for the subject matter. I have always felt there was something "missing" from almost every other recording of this chorus. Perhaps the right mix of speed and strength was that missing element.

Take, as another example, the tenor aria "Ach, mein Sinn." If you are one of the many listeners who decry the period practice of speeding things up, here, Egarr slows things down. Again, it is unusual, but it sounds more right. We are accustomed to hearing it performed as a short, quick, almost hyperactive aria for tenor that is over in a brief spurt of 2 minutes. But Egarr seemed to acknowledge that this is commentary of Peter's betrayal of Jesus. It's counterpart in Bach's other surviving passion, the St. Matthew, is the famous lament for alto, "Erbarme dich." "Ach, mein Sinn" should take its time. It should be a time of pause and reflection. Egarr has incorporated this effectively.

The choral forces are strong, as usual for AAM. Egarr, who employs a very "reconstructive" view of Bach performance, utilizes a scaled down choir in which the soloists also participate. If the premise of one/two-voice-per-part turns you off, rest assured that the chorus is a full-sounding one with a few singers per part (the St. John Passion is only one of a handful of Bach's choral pieces that we know for sure was performed with multiple singers per part--at least two each).

James Gilchrist is a straightforward yet sensitive Evangelist, similar to the approach taken by John Butt's Evangelist in his exceptional recording with the Dunedin Consort. Neither Gilchrist nor Matthew Rose (Jesus), nor any other soloist, lingers too long in the secco recitatives -- thankfully -- as it seems many forget that this is not an opera, but a sacred oratorio. They retain, however, a dramatic element while eschewing the showiness of other recordings. This creates a unified sound with the somber chorales that interspersed throughout.

I admit that the St. John Passion has never been one of my favorite Bach works (I am partial to the unprecedented and unparalleled St. Matthew Passion). But Egarr's interpretation sounds unified and assured -- an urgent narrative in which Egarr has many new things to say.


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