Sound Recordings

Béla Bartók
44 Duos for 2 Violins
Duo Landon
MSR Classics MS 1401

When I was a freshman in college, I read Agatha Fassett’s Béla Bartók: The American Years, and found it both fascinating and heartbreaking. I had known that much of Bartók‘s music was derived from or inspired by the folk music of his native Hungary and that he felt a deep and powerful attachment to his home country, but I’d had no idea how miserable he was living in New York during his final years (he apparently absolutely hated the urban environment) and how alienated he felt from his home during that time. The years he spent in America were musically productive, but personally very difficult. Listening to this wonderful disc brought back memories of reading that book. During the decade before he emigrated, he had spent a lot of time with his friend and colleague Zoltán Kodály roaming the Hungarian countryside, collecting and transcribing folk melodies, and those provide the musical material for the 44 brief violin duos presented here by Duo Landon (violinists Hlíf Sigurjónsdóttir and Hjörleifer Valsson). The purpose of these compositions is partly pedagogical and partly evangelical: Bartók wanted to provide a set of technical etudes for young violinists, but he also wanted to inculcate in them a love for the astringently beautiful melodies of his homeland. Duo Landon make the (modest) technical demands of these pieces seem inconsequential, and the melodies come alive under their fingers; many of the pieces dance thrillingly, while others keen with longing and others seem to scold or laugh. There are lots of drones and vinegary open harmonies, and moments of delicate loveliness as well. This is an unusually impressive recording. Grade: A

Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck
The Complete Psalms
Gesualdo Consort Amsterdam / Harry van der Kamp
Glossa GCD 922407

Anyone who loves the music of the Flemish polyphonic masters will feel a little visceral thrill at the series title Het Sweelinck Monument. A monument indeed, this three-volume series consists of three boxed sets: one containing Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck‘s complete secular chansons, another his complete Cantiones Sacrae, and this one, a twelve-disc set containing all of his psalm settings. In each case, the Gesualdo Consort Amsterdam first sings the simple melody as found in the Genevan Psalter; this was the sourcebook upon which Sweelinck drew for his basic material. Then the ensemble sings Sweelinck’s motet-style polyphonic setting. The relentlessness of this arrangement and the length of the program make listening through the entire box something of a challenge, but few would want to approach it in that way in any case; instead, the wise listener will take it in one disc at a time, relishing the gorgeous part-writing and the expressive text settings. The Gesualdo Consort’s one-voice-per-part texture can get a bit wearing over time, but it does expose the musical structure nicely, and the ensemble’s sound is colorful rather than smoothly blended. Recommended to devoted fans of the composer and his period, and to all libraries. Grade: A-

Mauro Giuliani; Ferdinando Carulli; Anton Diabelli
Duos and Serenades
Ensemble Consolazione
Ars Produktion ARS 38 515

Ensemble Consolazione is a duo consisting of guitarist Jan Tulacek and flutist Karel Valter, and on this utterly gorgeous disc they perform duos, serenades, and grandi duetti concertanti by Mauro Giuliani, Ferdinando Carulli, and Anton Diabelli. Two things are particularly interesting about this recording: first the pieces themselves, which are lovely exampels of the early Romantic period at its best. All the structure and rigor of classicism are still apparent in these pieces, but the emotional effusiveness of the Romantic aesthetic and an emerging structural adventurousness are coming into view as well. And although the flute carries the main melodic burden and occupies the more prominent register, it’s the guitar writing that is the more interesting on most of these pieces–at the turn of the 19th century the guitar was a tremendously popular instrument in Italy, and the three composers represented here were all guitarists. The second interesting thing about this recording is the instruments used. Tulacek (who is also himself a builder and restorer of guitars) plays a Rudert guitar from 1814 which has been “entirely preserved in its original state”–remarkable in itself, and noteworthy also because the guitar has such a lovely tone. Valter’s flute is a modern copy of an eight-keyed flute from the late 1700s. I happen to play a similar one and can attest to the difficulty of coaxing an attractive tone from the higher registers; Valter’s ability to do so is highly impressive, and his playing is exceptionally good. This recording is a pure delight all around. Grade: A+

Nicholas Ludford; Richard Pygott
Missa Regnum mundi; Salve regina (Music from the Peterhouse Partbooks, Vol. 2)
Blue Heron Choir / Scott Metcalfe
Blue Heron BHCD 1003

The Boston area has been a hotbed of world-class early music ensembles ever since the founding of the Boston Camerate in the 1950s. More recently, the Blue Heron Choir (under the directorship of Scott Metcalfe) has emerged as one of the most impressive vocal ensembles in the area, and perhaps on the entire east coast. Possessed of a tone that is transcendently rich and sweet, the group not only brings devotional luster and gentle intensity to everything they sing, but has also been unwilling to simply fall back on the standard Renaissance repertoire. This disc is the second in a projected five-disc series that will bring to light music that has been effectively lost for centuries–liturgical works from the Peterhouse Partbooks, collections put together in the mid-1500s for Canterbury Cathedral and partially destroyed during the upheavals of the English Reformation. The music has been reconstructed by scholar and composer Nick Sandon (who wrote his 1983 dissertation on the partbooks in 1983), and is in the final stages of publishing the reconstructed versions. Fascinating as the history is, it would matter little if the music were less gorgeous–but as it turns out, this is music of rare beauty, and as always, the Blue Heron Choir does it full justice. Very highly recommended. Grade: A+

– Rick Anderson

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