It has been half a century since Das Alte Werk released their first recordings. Ever since their inaugural release of Gregorian Chant and music by Machaut back in 1958, they have become internationally renowned for their historically-informed recordings.
With major figures from the Early Music movement such as Nikolaus Harnoncourt and Frans Bruggen signed up, the label inevitably lead the way with pioneering period instrument releases offering new and thoroughly researched performances. To celebrate their anniversary, they have reissued a selection of their finest recordings from the last fifty years throughout 2008. Here are the latest three releases in this series.
This Monteverdi Vespers is a live recording in Graz in 1986, under the baton of early music giant, Nikolaus Harnoncourt. Although this release joins the countless other Monteverdi Vespers currently available, it is easy to understand why Das Alte Werk have brought it back to the catalogue, not least because of the composition's seminal importance in music history. Although the quality of the recording is not absolutely crisp throughout, it captures the vitality of the performance and the rich, full sound of the choral force. This is evident even from the Introductio, 'Deus in Adiutorium', where the initial plainchant intonation is followed by an explosion of voluptuous vocals. The instrumental interludes that break up the homophonic vocal statements in this opening act as a sparkling contrast and the distinct timbre of the period instruments is clearly audible.
Although Monteverdi, as a violinist himself, is well-known for his bias towards a string-rich orchestral scoring, he still offers prominence in this work to the wind instruments who slip through the texture into the limelight with great effect at certain points in this recording. The pure tone of the recorders in particular offers a great contrast and sits high about the general pitch of the instrumentation, soaring overhead. The best examples of this are in the concerto Duo Seraphim and in the interludes of the hymn 'Ave Maris Stella'.
Spirited singing from the boys of the Tolzer Knabenchor features especially in the Responsorim: 'Sonata Sopra "Sancta Maria"'. The tuning of their unison singing is largely without fault, and their inflections of emphasis add variety to what is a fairly repetitive vocal line.
The orchestral support, especially of the soloists, is sensitive and tight, most especially in Psalm 112 'Laudate pueri Dominum'. The soloists themselves give a solid performance, especially the lower voices (baritone Thomas Hampson and bass Arthur Korn). The one exception is a moment of dubious tuning by Hampson and Korn during Psalm 121: 'Laetatus Sum'. The interchange of complex interwoven polyphony between the lower parts in this psalm did also feel a little muddy, but otherwise, they contribute much musical vitality in solo passages, with a good variety of the expected Renaissance ornamentation.
The next recording is a selection of cantatas by the lesser-known Luigi Rossi. The title of the CD, Le Canterine Romane is also the name of a trio of women, highly revered in Rossi's time. The three sopranos were made up of a mother (particularly famous, nicknamed 'La Sirena de Posilipo') and her two daughters. Their reputation spread far beyond their home region of Rome, and they became the second most important female trio of their time in Italy. When Rossi settled in Rome, he felt compelled to compose for the women.
Rossi, who was primarily known for his operatic work, was a pioneer in creating the cantata as it appears in this collection. Previously, the term had only been loosely applied to various arias and strophic songs. Rossi helped to define the form as songs accompanied by continuo with lyrical or dramatic texts, including aspects of recitative and aria.
Rossi's passion for opera certainly shines through in the style of these cantatas, especially in the extensively recitative style of tracks like 'Noi siam tre donzellette semplicette', which I must confess becomes a little laborious after some time. His aria-style writing, however, cannot be faulted. The recording's opening cantata 'Disperate Speranze' is like a gently flowing river of honey to the ears, spiced up with a generous sprinkle of delightfully scrunchy suspensions. His clever use of hemiolas also provides a lilting sense of movement to secure the listener's interest. 'Occhi Belli', too, offers a beautifully mellifluous interchange of melodic sighs between the two soprano lines.
These cantatas were recorded in Berlin, back in 1992, featuring the golden voices of sopranos Barbara Borden, Suzie le Blanc and Emily Van Evera. The tone and blend of these three is remarkable, and melds wonderfully together to make a clear, yet smooth tone that suits this Italian music perfectly. With wonderfully vivacious and rhythmic accompaniment from Tragicomedia added into the mix too, this is indeed a recording worthy of its re-release.
The third recording is another staple work from the early music repertoire – J.S. Bach's Christmas Oratorio, once again directed by Nikolaus Harnoncourt with his ensemble at the time, Concentus musicus Wien. The quality of the recording itself doesn't seem as high as the other two, but a good balance between soloists, choir and orchestra is maintained throughout. A sedate feeling pervades the recording as a whole. Even from the opening chorus, a very steady pace is set.
In the beautiful choral 'Nun seid ihr wohl gerochen', the accompaniment from Concentus musicus Wien sparkles and shimmers against the steady, slow-moving choral line. The tricky trumpet line (certainly on period instrumentation) that features in this movement is an absolute highlight of the whole recording, full of attack on the charismatic octave leaps. Other highlights include alto Paul Esswood's aria 'Bereite dich, Zion', in which he offers a wonderfully rich and full tone and exact mirroring of the melodic line with the accompanying strings.
Despite the sedate and slightly sombre pace that features at the start of this recording, many aspects of the performance provide the needed energy to instil the required festive cheer needed for this piece. This reissue, like its counterparts in the celebratory Das Alte Werk series, should prove a valuable addition to every music enthusiast's collection.