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CD Review: Baroque Recorder Ride

Recorder player Olwen Foulkes, center, with colleagues Tabea Debus and Nathaniel Mander.


Directed By Handel: Music from Handel’s London Theatre Orchestra
Olwen Foulkes, recorder, with Nathaniel Mander (harpsichord), Carina Drury (cello), Toby Carr (theorbo) and Tabea Debus (bass recorder)
Barn Cottage Records BCR019

By Andrew J. Sammut

All of the composers on this disc were part of Handel’s career in London, either playing in his opera orchestra or popular with audiences and amateur musicians. That broad connection results in an imaginative program including elegant dances by Corelli, Handel’s well-known lyrical grandeur, brief works from the rarely-heard Roman virtuoso-composer Castrucci, expansive theme and variations, folksy English airs, and more. Recorder player Olwen Foulkes has assembled a real Baroque grab bag packed with plenty of technical and expressive possibilities. Listeners might not even notice that, apart from two pieces, none of the music on this disc was actually intended for her instrument.

Foulkes’ liner notes explain that transcriptions for recorder were incredibly popular in London and in turn inspired her material on this album. The upper register writing in Corelli’s Sonata in C for violin (Op. 5, No. 10) now chimes as well as soars in Foulkes’ arrangement and playing. The Sarabande becomes a softly exhaling, hypnotic 18th-century gymnopédie. Sammartini composed his Sonata in G Minor (Op. 13, No. 5) to be played on transverse flute, violin or oboe, apparently never envisioning a recorder. Yet the melancholy first movement sounds perfectly natural in Foulkes’ hands. Her phrasing also gives the knotty arpeggios of the Presto a more incisive feel.

The sustained notes in Castrucci’s Sonata in A for violin (Op. 1, No. 6) were intended to show off string sound, but here they refract the range of colors in Foulkes’ tone. Recorders are synonymous with high pitches, so it is also refreshing to hear such a rich, fulsome middle register in Foulkes’ arrangement of the Ciaccona from Castrucci’s Op. 2. Foulkes’ transcription of a harpsichord air by Handel’s amanuensis John Christopher Smith (Op. 1, No. 6, which itself originally borrowed from Handel’s recorder works) starts out peaceful, at times even gloomy, then gradually splinters into runs and Foulkes building in intensity as well as dynamics before a finger-busting final variation.

Foulkes also switches up the continuo instrumentation on each work and sometimes between movements to add even further variety to this recital. Cellist Carina Drury and harpsichordist Nathaniel Mander display a real give and take in the Corelli sonata, slightly varying their balance and leaning into Corelli’s Gavotte for a thoroughly dancing account. It’s just Mander with Foulkes for Handel’s Sonata in F (Op. 1, No. 11), and they achieve a transparent, light mix that sacrifices none of Handel’s theatricality. Toby Carr’s lone theorbo accompanies Foulkes on the Castrucci, giving it a pastoral feel and allowing some playful exchanges between lead and accompaniment. Tabea Debus’ bass recorder is a downright ingenious touch on the Sammartini piece, at times sounding like organ stops grafted onto the harpsichord.

Olwen Foulkes

Handel’s only work for unaccompanied violin unfolds like an extended recorder cadenza to introduce Foulkes’ suite arrangement of arias from Handel’s Il Pastor Fido. With cello and theorbo alongside Foulkes, “Non vo’mai seguitar” gets a little 18th-century swing. The Sonata in F for cello by Geminiani (H. 107) and John Blow’s “Morlake” ground bass variations for harpsichord spotlight Drury and Mander, adding even more surprises to this program.

Close, crisp acoustics and engineering at St. Michael’s Church in London capture Foulkes’ every breath, which some listeners may find distracting. This writer found it made the effort and thought involved in this enterprise all the more palpable. In just over an hour, Foulkes and her colleagues take both the late Baroque and the recorder repertoire on quite a ride. The anonymously composed “Divisions On A Ground” for recorder ends the disc in a calmer, reflective mood, though not without a few shredding moments.

Andrew J. Sammut has written about early music and jazz for Early Music America, The Boston Musical Intelligencer, All About Jazz and his own blog. He lives in Cambridge, MA.

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CD Review: Three Lutes Played With Love

A drawing of Adam Falkenhagen

A drawing of Adam Falkenhagen, a 17th-century German lutenist and composer.


Tre liuti
Mark Rimple, lute

By Karen Cook

The “tre liuti” referred to in the title of Mark Rimple’s latest recording are the three lutes on which he performs on this album: a six-course lute, a ten-course lute, and a fourteen-course archlute. Taking each up in largely chronological order, Rimple showcases over two centuries of works for the Renaissance and Baroque lute. The 16th through early-18th centuries were the heyday for printed intabulations of works for a lute in G tuning (the same tuning as a tenor viol, hence its moniker vieil ton), at least in Italy; by the late 17th century, France and parts north began to shift to a D minor tuning, but Italy continued with the vieil ton until the end of the lute’s popularity. Rimple therefore focuses entirely on Italian repertoire, tracing music written for this tuning from 1507 to 1718.

All of the most popular Italian genres find a home on this recording: a few early intabulations of works by Ockeghem (Ma boucherit) and Josquin (Fortuna d’un gran tempo); a number of instrumental dances; virtuosic, free-form ricercares, fantasias, toccatas, and preludes; and later multi-movement sonatas (by Michelangnolo Galilei and Giovanni Zamboni Romano). As the album progresses, the works grow more fully textured, deeper, and more resonant with every new instrument, until the bass notes of the concluding Ceccona positively glow. Despite the changing tastes in genre and instrumentation over the centuries depicted here, Rimple points out that the vieil ton and the twinned proclivities toward detailed ornamentation and graceful melody remained a constant presence in the Italian lute repertoire. And so they are on this album; despite the vast difference in time period between the first Recercare by Francesco Spinacino (c.1507) to the aforementioned Ceccona by Romano, dating from the early 18th century, the works clearly share in a common Italian tradition that fuses the 26 works on the album together.

Mark Rimple

The works also clearly share Rimple’s extraordinarily sensitive playing. His careful attention to each work’s design allows for a rhetorical pause or delay here, a burst of energy there, a lovingly turned ornament elsewhere. In a manner of speaking, he makes these pieces transparent; one can easily hear the main melodic thrust of each selection despite the complexity of the diminutions or variations layered upon it. These pieces breathe.

Listen, for example, to the short but gorgeous Tastar de’ corde by Joan Ambrosio Dalza (fl. 1508), with its alternations between strummed and broken chords, its cadential pauses, its gorgeous shift to a delicately soft dynamic. Or, perhaps, to Francesco Canova da Milano’s Fantasy No. 33, with its slow layering of quick runs, building from low to high, sustaining the long melodic line. But it would be possible to wax poetic about each selection, in some fashion. It is a well designed and beautifully executed album that showcases the longevity and ingenuity of lute composition in early modern Italy, and a marvelous modern approach to its performance.

Karen Cook specializes in the music, theory, and notation of the late medieval and early Renaissance periods. She is assistant professor of music at the University of Hartford in Connecticut.

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CD REVIEW: Vivaldi Recorder Concertos

Vincent Lauzer plays many Vivaldi recorder concertos on his new disc with Arion Baroque Orchestra.


Vivaldi: Concertos Pour Flûte à Bec
Vincent Lauzer, recorder; Arion Baroque Orchestra; Alexander Weimann, conductor
ATMA Classique ACD2 2760

By Andrew J. Sammut

Discs like this one give the lie to the idea that Vivaldi rewrote the same concerto several hundred times (or whatever Stravinsky supposedly said about him). The rich low strings opening up RV 312R’s central movement, the harmonic zig-zags of RV 441’s finale, the downright jarring dissonances of RV 442’s otherwise placid Largo, or the melody skipping over a glassy lake of strings in RV 443’s second movement are far from cookie-cutter devices. Vivaldi’s highly-structured, often virtuosic, and incredibly expansive catalog of works may sometimes blur together, but recorder player Vincent Lauzer and Canada’s Arion Baroque Orchestra illuminate its formal as well as its expressive variety.

Violist Jacques-André Houle’s liner notes explain that Vivaldi composed some of the most difficult works for the recorder of the Baroque era. Lauzer meets these demands with precision and polish throughout the recital, but it is obvious that he reads, hears, and feels through the racing arpeggios and stacked sequences into something deeply personal. From the first track on, he makes a real event out of Vivaldi’s ornate passages with subtle changes of articulation and rhythmic drive. The closing Allegro of RV 445 is a prime example of Lauzer handling even the most labyrinthine lines with care and attention to detail. His metronomic precision actually turns the rapid-fire chirps of RV 312 R’s finale into a riveting account rather than a mechanical exercise.

Lauzer’s tone on alto, soprano, and sopranino recorders is centered, full-bodied, and often beautifully vibrato-less. The contrast between Lauzer’s big, round sound and Arion’s drier strings on the opening Allegro Ma Non Tanto of RV 441 adds further textural as well as narrative interest. RV 441 turns into a miniature scena, recalling the composer’s lengthy theatrical catalog: Opening with divided strings wavering over and under the lead, Lauzer begins his solo in introverted fashion before dramatically opening up into sustained notes and descending runs. The subsequent slow movement finds him working with shadings of tone and dynamics. The final movement pits the orchestra and the soloist against one another in a heated dialog.

Arion Baroque Orchestra

Arion also gets to really lock in with Lauzer in RV 312 R, as well as the duel in RV 441. The well-known La Notte concerto (originally composed for transverse flute) finds soloist and orchestra conjuring up some dreamy, haunted evening with creeping rhythms, muted strings, and staccato outbursts. Arion’s halting gestures and extreme dynamics sometimes come close to exaggeration, yet it is hard to fault these musicians’ obvious passion. The “Sonno” (Slumber) section also features some particularly evocative sustained chords. Most of the time, Arion is accompanying Lauzer rather than competing with him, and while the group never draws undue attention to its part, there is impressive musicianship at work underneath the soloist. Vivaldi would drop the continuo and use upper strings as the sole accompaniment on countless slow movements; Arion’s graceful strings chanting behind the soloist illustrate the sheer simplicity and power of this effect.

Vivaldi was often writing his concertos for the orphans of the Ospedale della Pietà in Venice, for human beings he knew and with whom he no doubt developed personal relationships. The idea of a human printing press churning out repetitive works is not just unhistorical but misses the charm and invention of Vivaldi’s music. Lauzer and Arion provide strong advocacy for the Red Priest in their program selection and especially through these performances.

Andrew J. Sammut has written about early music and traditional jazz for Early Music America, The Boston Musical Intelligencer, All About Jazz, and his own blog. He lives in Cambridge, MA.

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CD REVIEW: Hallelujah For Handel Arias

Robert Crowe in concert at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam with Concerto d’Amsterdam and Elizabeth Wallfisch.


Handel: The Complete Amen, Alleluia Arias
Robert Crowe, soprano, and Il Furioso
Toccata Classics TOCC0337

By Andrew J. Sammut

CD REVIEW — Nearly half of this disc is made up of Handel’s settings of the words “Amen” and/or “Hallelujah,” likely intended for performance in private homes and deliberately light on lyrical content. Yet Handel makes these spiritual declarations by turns reflective (HWV 271), resigned (HWV 274), joyous but refined (HWV 276), virtuosic (HWV 277), and, of course, triumphant (HWV 275). The album also includes three vocal works from the Harmonia Sacra, a collection of sacred solo songs published in various editions during the late 17th century and also aimed at home use: William Croft’s bright, heavily ornamented hymn to music, an anonymous composer’s graphic vision of Christ’s crucifixion, and John Church’s emotionally ranging “A Divine Hymn,” which soprano Robert Crowe calls “a truly under-appreciated masterpiece.”

This music was intended for “amateur” musicians, meaning “non-professional” rather than “unskilled, dilettante” and certainly not “student,” according to Crowe. These works are technically involved and expressive, and the musicians approach them with obvious knowledge and affection. Crowe explained over email that “the limited word choice [in the Amen and Hallelujah arias] and those two words both containing relatively broad, powerful meanings meant that the affect had to be gleaned not from text but from the music written to undergird it.” Crowe’s musical instincts are spot-on throughout as he explores each work’s unique character. He tosses off some impressive sudden register shifts, including an unexpected dip into chest voice following chiming, upper-register melismas at the end of Croft’s “A Hymn On Divine Music.” Even during the most ornate line of the three Harmonia Sacra pieces, Crowe demonstrates fine diction and consistency of tone.

Robert Crowe

The American-Canadian ensemble Il Furioso partners Crowe with chamber organ and one or two theorbos on each track. The liner notes explain the historical precedent for the double theorbos, but the warm, undulating wash underneath and around Crowe justifies itself on purely sonic terms. The first, unornamented performance of HWV 270 (as opposed to the ornamented version closing the disc) is a great example of the simple but powerful effect of one theorbo doubling the organ’s bass line while another plucks the harmonies. HWV 269 is a superb example of the whole ensemble — singer and instrumentalists — breathing together and feeling the pulse as one. Theorbo sonatas by the obscure Ferraranese composer and theorbo virtuoso Giovanni Pittoni spotlight Il Furioso co-directors Victor Coehlo and David Dolata. Charming excerpts composed by Handel for mechanical musical clock showcase organist Juvenal Correa-Salas.

This reviewer had difficulty with the recording’s audio engineering, such as rumbling on Crowe’s highest notes and some muddiness in the instruments’ lower ranges (even after trying the disc on three sound systems). Those strictly technological issues aside, the origins of these works in private musicking, the spare accompaniment, and the musicians’ sensitive interplay make this a thoroughly intimate affair.

Andrew J. Sammut has written about European classical music as well as American classical music for All About Jazz, The Boston Musical Intelligencer, Early Music America, the IAJRC Journal and his own blog.

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