There don’t seem to be quite as many new instrumental albums for the holidays as usual, but there are a couple of really good ones. The first is on the Naxos label and features the English brass ensemble, Septura. The album’s title is Christmas with Septura, and it contains a generous 22 tracks. Septura has a rich and robust sound and is made up of seven musicians – 3 trumpets, 2 trombones, bass trombone, and tuba. Notably no French horns. Much of the music is arranged from Handel’s Messiah and Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, but there
are some familiar carols as well – “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming,” and “Silent Night” among them. The mix between slower, sonorous tunes and fleet, virtuoso ones seems ideal and the recorded sound is just right to give one detail with an abundance of warmth.
The second CD comes from the ATMA Classique label and features the Canadian chamber orchestra, Les Violons du Roy conducted by Bernard Labadie in a program called Simphonies des Noel. It is actually a re-release of Labadie’s first album for ATMA Classique. Les Violons du Roy is based in Quebec City and specializes in correctly informed performances of music from the Baroque Era.
The musicians give spirited dance-like readings of the two “Christmas Concertos” by Giuseppe Torelli and Arcangelo Corelli which relate more closely to the story of shepherds keeping watch than do other performances. Trraveling from Italy to France, Labadie leads idiomatic and appealing performances of Christmas music by Marc-Antoine Charpentier, stopping by Germany to play some fine Nativity music by Fux. The recording is superb – sounding exactly as a small orchestra of strings with two recorders added should sound. The tuttis are exceptionally clear. It’s really good to have this delightful one back!
When this recording was first offered for review by Naxos, I thought it was another small ensemble recording of J. S. Bach’s orchestral suites. Ah, but what a difference an initial makes. These are suites by J. B. Bach, Johann Bernhard Bach in full. On searching a bit further, one can find that J. B. was a second cousin of J. S. and thrived in Germany from 1676 to 1749. He was a highly regarded composer in his day. Most of his compositions have been lost, but the orchestral suites survive, in part because J. S. had them copied for his orchestra.
It is no wonder that the more famous Bach recognized his cousin’s talent. Sounding more akin to Telemann than any of the Bachs, these are vivacious works with good imagination, excellent melodies, and masterful orcehestration. The lively performances on a new Ricercar recording by the chamber ensemble L’Acheron, led by bassist Francois Joubert-Caillet make a good case for this music. The joyous performances are never less than appealing; I especially enjoyed the continuo swap-offs among harpsichord, guitar, and arhlute. The recrded sound is clean andcloseup, revealing every detail.
Archiv Productions was founded in Germany in 1945 as a subsidiary label of Deutsche Grammophon. It’s purpose was to record older music in performances authentic to the periods covered. DG has already issued a box of CDs that was an overview of Archiv’s entire history. Now they have a new box which focuses in on the label’s stereo analogue recordings, made between 1959 and 1981. I think they’ve done a splendid job at hitting all the highlights. Karl Richter’s Bach recordings are represented by one of the cantatas and the Magnificat. Richter recorded around 75 of the cantatas and his approach was admired for its vigor, precision, and strength. August Wenzinger recorded Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks using a large wind band without strings, the way Handel originally wrote it for the first performance. Trevor Pinnock’s recording of the Bach Orchestral Suites, one of the first of many that Pinnock made for Archiv is here, as is Telemann’s Der Getreue Music-Meister.
Remarkable recordings by Charles Mackerrs, Simon Preston, and Helmut Walcha are all here along with many surprises, all pleasant ones. Archiv producers not only took great care with the arts and repertory for the label but also with the recorded sound. Every CD in this magnificent set is state-of-the-art for its day and most still hold that title up to present time. Each disc is in a cardboard sleeve that duplicates, on a smaller scale, the original vinyl album art work. You can see that in the beginning, it was the cream colored, plain sleeves that were all alike except of the artists and compositions. The label later went to silver with color inserts alternating with full color bordered in silver. They are all beautifully reproduced for this set. There’s an informative booklet delineating the entire series, complete with period photographs of the artists.
There’s not a clunker in this elegant set; it should be a much demanded gift item for the holiday season coming up in six months. But it is so appealing that if you bought it now, you’d probably want to keep it yourself.
Now that we’re well into the era of correct performance of Baroque music, it seems that there’s a new recording of Handel’s Messiah every year that vies for top position. And there have been some very good ones, led by Paul McCreesh, Anders Orhwall, William Christie, and Rene Jacobs, not to mention earlier pioneering efforts by Sir Charles Mackerras (a personal favorite), Richard Bonynge, Christopher Hogwood, and Sir Colin Davis. But this year’s live performance by Peter Dijkstra, the Chorus of the Bavarian Radio, and the B’Rock Belgian Baroque Orchestra Ghent goes right to top to ring the silver bell. Ding dong, five golden stars.
The soloists are all splendid – Julia Doyle, soprano; Lawrence Zazzo, counter tenor; Steve Davislim, tenor; and Neal Davies, bass. It’s the strongest roster, and certainly the most even, of any Messiah recording. The chorus is as good as you could hope to hear this side of heaven, and the instrumentalists do a lot more than “just accompany.” Tying everything together is conductor Dijkstra, who makes this the most convincing Messiah ever. Each soloist, every chorus member, every instrumental player seems aware of the words in such a way that the drama of the story of Christ is conveyed as scarcely before. Mackerras made an effort in this direction but his chorus was simply not as good as this one. Every single word is important to Dijkstra and his forces and though one is always aware of the genius of Handel, one also realizes that writer-editor Charles Jennnens, choosing words largely from the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer, also played a big part in the oratorio’s success.
The recorded sound, though taken at a live performance, is as ideal as the performance itself. Everything is clean and clear and has good presence and ideal balance. One presumes that there must have been thunderous applause at the end of this event, but it has been edited out from the recording where it might prove an intrusion on repeated hearing. And it’s for sure that this magnificent effort will receive many repeated hearings here. Messiah is often thought of as a Christmas work, but it is much an Easter and a universal one. If you get any money for Christmas, buy this recording and it will reward you ten fold.
Poldark is a remake of an earlier BBC series, and both are based on a series of novels by Winston Graham. Ross Poldark fights in the American Revolution, body on the English side but heart on the American, and gets severely wounded and left for dead. Two years later, very much alive but with a scar to prove his nearness to the grave, he returns home to Cornwall to find that his father has died, his inheritance is next to nothing, and his girl, thinking him dead, is about to marry another man. He sets out to reinvent himself and once again become a recognized leader in his community.
The actor playing Poldark must hold the screen whenever he appears and smouldering Irish actor Aidan Turner fills the bill, reminding us that in spite of the popularity of Magic Mike, hirsute men can still reign as sex symbols. Like the old Bond saying, women will want to be with Poldark, men will want to be him. Turner’s Poldark has swagger and then some. The other characters are ideally cast and the magnificent, craggy Cornwall coast also plays a great part in the visual impact that this series has. The photography is stunning and the period details feel entirely real; the costumes look lived in. PBS is airing the show on Masterpiece at 9 p. m. on Sundays. One episode has gone down – use “on demand” for that and set your DVR for the rest.