sun 26/05/2024

Classical CDs Weekly: Josquin, Calidore String Quartet, Ronn McFarlane | reviews, news & interviews

Classical CDs Weekly: Josquin, Calidore String Quartet, Ronn McFarlane

Classical CDs Weekly: Josquin, Calidore String Quartet, Ronn McFarlane

Renaissance choral music and dramatic string quartets, plus a solo disc from a master lutenist

Irish stew and haggis from lutenist Ronn McFarlandJames Carr


Tallis Scholars JosquinJosquin: Missa Gaudeamus, Missa L’ami Baudichon The Tallis Scholars/Peter Phillips (Gimell)

That music composed in the 14th and 15th centuries can be enjoyed and performed today is mind-boggling. As is looking at one of Josquin des Préz’s manuscripts, close enough to conventional modern notation for even a hick like me to get an inkling of what the music might sound like. This latest Tallis Scholars release features two contrasting Masses, the mature Missa Gaudemas’s intensity set against the earlier, breezier Missa L’ami Baudichon. Peter Phillips has his three tenors sing the plainchant Gaudeamus omnes before the corresponding mass begins, allowing us to hear how the chant’s opening notes infuse much of what follows. It's like seeing a simple line drawing transformed into a Renaissance painting. The singing is technically assured and full of warmth; these performers know their stuff and want to share it with us. Listen carefully to the closing “Agnus” and hear how cleverly Josquin uses fragments of the melody (which is printed in Gimell’s booklet). Delicious.

The Missa l’ami Baudichon is lighter in tone, much of it based on the melody of a simple French folk tune. Phillips refers the original’s “vulgar reference”, which you can read for yourself in the second line of the song, printed in full under the plainchant. Hmm. It didn't put Josquin off, and this mass is delightful. Moments like the brief final section of the Kyrie have a delicious swing. And Phillips rightly highlights the closing part of the Credo, tenors blasting out an improbably sustained high G as the other parts swirl around them. Impeccably recorded, with full texts and translations too.  

Calidore QuartetResilience – Music by Golijov, Janáček, Mendelssohn and Prokofiev Calidore String Quartet (Signum)

Resilience could be filed alongside guitarist Sean Shibe’s last disc, both self-avowed artistic responses to recent global events. Here we get string quartets from “composers who endeavoured to create great art despite tremendous internal or external conflict.” The extent to which a composer’s personal circumstances affect how we listen to their music is a can of worms I won't open here; suffice to say that this quartet, formed in Los Angeles in 2010, deliver thrilling performances of four works which deserve to be far better known. Weightiest is Mendelssohn’s astonishing final quartet, an electrifying, visceral outburst of grief prompted by the sudden death of his sister Fanny. The mercurial energy which infuses pieces like the Octet is still present, though the mood is far darker, the quartet's scherzo terrifying in places. Mendelssohn’s slow movement offers some respite, though the work ends bleakly. Wisely, it's placed last on this disc – you wouldn't want to follow it with anything but silence. Janáček’s Quartet No 1 carries a similar emotional charge, and it's remarkable how vocal the Calidore players sound, the abrupt mood swings and changes of colour deftly handled. Those ponticello whisperings near the start of the second movement should give listeners the heebie jeebies.

Prokofiev's Quartet No 2 was written in the early 1940s, after its composer had been relocated from Moscow to the Kabardino-Balkar Republic, 900 miles south. Influenced by indigenous folk music it still sounds very much like vintage Prokofiev. Lyricism and spikiness are nicely balanced here, the dash to the finish thrillingly assertive. There's also Osvaldo Golijov’s Tenebrae from 2000, a 15-minute piece with a dark centre framed by music of winning serenity. Superb, rhythmically alert playing, the players’ collective virtuosity always at the service of the music.

Celtic LuteRonn McFarlane: The Celtic Lute (Sono Luminus)

Robert Aubry Davis's entertaining booklet note has some interesting things to say about what we define as Celtic, and this lovely collection narrows its focus down to music from Scotland and Ireland. There's a history of shared heritage between the two countries, but Davis stresses that the two musics aren’t “a single common recipe using slightly different ingredients… Irish stew is not haggis.” If pushed, one might suggest that Scottish folk music is characterised by its use of the pentatonic scale and a rhythmic snap derived from Scots Gaelic speech patterns. Much Scottish lute music has been preserved in manuscripts dating back to the 17th century. Which isn't the case with Irish repertoire, and it's fascinating to learn that we've a Cork-born Chicago police captain to thank for preserving much of it: one Francis O’Neill began publishing folk and dance tunes in the early 20th century.

Lutenist Ronn McFarlane has been performing this repertoire since the 1980s. He gives us 26 short numbers here, in performances notable for their purity and restraint. There’s plenty of sparkle to the faster pieces (sample “Cliffs of Moher”) and grave beauty to the sparer ones: “The Seas are Deep” is a joy. Some of the song titles are worth the album price alone (“Hey My Nanny & Guzzle Together” a particular favourite), though information on specific tracks isn't provided. I'm not complaining. Sono Luminus's engineering is unobtrusively impressive.


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