Such is the quality of nearly every single release from the French Naïve label that one wonders how they manage it. The quantity of recordings emanating from the studios is almost more than one can keep up with, and much of it is of interesting and ambitious repertoire. The presentation quality is always great, often with attractive cardboard sleeves (and in an exquisitely-printed book form in the case of the Bach B minor Mass), and the photography and artwork are always eye-catching and individual.
Period performance practice is usually an aspect of the recordings, the majority of which are of music from the classical and baroque eras, and the emphasis is on performers who are experts in their repertoire rather than starry names, and although it's inevitable that some releases will stand out above the others, there's an air about the label that indicates that time and effort have been poured in on every level.
The disc which appeals to me most from this batch, and to which I have returned the most times, is a recital of Handel duets featuring Sandrine Piau and Sara Mingardo. These are two truly special artists who are underrated, in my opinion, but it has to be admitted that they each have a distinctive timbre that can work for or against them depending on the colleagues with whom they perform. It's a delight to discover, then, that they blend together perfectly, and as they both admit in the interview in the liner booklet, they share an instinctive vocal and musical affinity with one another. Six duets and a number of arias and overtures are presented on the set, from operas both widely familiar (Tamerlano, Orlando) and less well known (Poro, Ottone, Flavio, Alessandro). 72 minutes of intoxicating music are accompanied by Concerto Italiano under Rinaldo Alessandrini, ideal collaborators for Piau and Mingardo. This is definitely a disc to seek out.
Piau is also featured in a new recital disc on the label, entitled Between Heaven and Earth. Exploring the philosophical and religious aspects of Handel's output, it brings us a range of familiar and unfamiliar arias from both the operas and the oratorios. Although in places the coloratura is very slightly pinched - for instance, in the opening track ('Disserratevi, o porte d'Averno') - the voice is in glorious voice, indeed as heavenly as the compositions themselves. Piau's English diction is careful rather than idiomatic, which troubles me a little in a well-known excerpt like 'Rejoice greatly' from Messiah, but on the whole this is a beautiful set of performances, enhanced by the Accademia Bizantina under Stefano Montanari (who leads from the violin).
Superb, too, is the return of Jordi Savall's recording of Vivaldi's Farnace to the catalogue. Originally released on his lavel Alia Vox, it's now been reissued by Naive under the auspices of the Vivaldi Edition. It's a vibrant and wonderful recording that fully deserves its place alongside the other operas in the Edition (which hopes to release all Vivaldi's stage works). A stirling cast boasts Furio Zanasi in the title role and the ever-marvellous Sara Mingardo as his wife. The original 2002 recording included interpolations by the Spanish composer Francesco Corselli which were found in the performing edition used in Madrid in 1739, but because of the Vivaldi Edition's guidelines these have been removed for the re-release. Whether or not this actually allows 'a faithful representation of the 1731 manuscript as conceived in Vivaldi's hand' remains to be seen, but the recording remains a winner in terms of musicality and beauty.
From the same period, and by similarly specialist forces, comes Bach's B Minor Mass. The composer's final masterpiece is always an event, and this studio recording has a wonderful atmosphere, no doubt inspired by the setting of the San Domingos de Bonaval Church in Santiago de Compostela, Spain. Marc Minkowski presides over a performance of integrity and insight, the most striking aspect of which is the decision to dispense with a full choir and instead have ten high-quality soloists singing all the choral movements (two per part) as well as the solos. This allows an expressivity not always achieved by larger forces, and the thinness of texture gives the impression of a hushed ambience which truly suits the spirituality of the piece; those expecting to be overwhelmed with power might find something wanting though, I guess. Les Musiciens du Louvre accompany with their customary outstanding musicianship, and the beautiful packaging is complemented by a fascinating and candid interview with Minkowski.
Rameau's little-known transcription of music from his opera-ballet Les Indes Galantes forms the basis of a disc from harpsichordist Christophe Rousset, while harpist Sandrine Chatron recreates the atmosphere of the French court in a disc called 'Le Salone de Musique de Marie-Antoinette'. The latter covers music by Gluck, Mozart, Paisiello and others, all of it played on a period instrument (sometimes accompanying another instrumentalist or a vocalist). I enjoyed both of these discs enormously, and they are superbly performed, if probably limited in appeal to those with a special love of chamber music of the eighteenth century.
I was disappointed, by comparison, by John Nelson's recording of late Mozart symphonies with the Ensemble orchestral de Paris. The catalogue is already brimming with accounts of Symphonies Nos. 39, 40 and 41, so new additions really need to justify themselves and for me this one doesn't. The performances are more than competent, but with Mackerras and Gardiner cornering the period-instrument market and Karl Böhm still insightful from the modern-instrument perspective, there's no pressing reason to buy this set. Similarly, Dietrich Henschel presents a better-than-average Schubert's Schwanengesang but doesn't say anything strikingly new about it; his fans will be pleased with the results, but, given the quality of the pieces involved, both of these discs seem rather bland to me.
A disc devoted to composer-pianist Fazil Say is an acquired taste, I think, and not something that particularly appeals to me. The substantial work here is a live recording of the world premiere of his 2008 violin concerto entitled 1001 Nights in the Harem. Say mixes traditional Classical forms with the Turkish music of his background, and I'm afraid I find it a little clichéd: the fast movements sound like gypsy music and the slower ones descend into hackneyed harmonic progressions and effects. I didn't much care for the fantasia on Mozart's famous 'rondo' alla turca or for the variations on Gershwin's 'Summertime' (oddly enough, the two tracks are reversed on the disc from the order indicated on the CD cover), both of which seemed laboured improvisations (something hardly lacking in the case of the Gershwin, which has received numerous jazz improvisations), but Say has a loyal following and I don't begin to begrudge it. It's a sign of the diversity of Naïve's output that there's room for Say's work alongside a period-instrument B Minor Mass. Long may their success continue.
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