Friday, 18 January 2013

Harmonia Mundi’s Musique d’abord series - great performances of 20th Century masterworks from Isabelle Faust and exceptional singing from the Huelgas-Ensemble in Richafort’s Requiem

Harmonia Mundi has just released ten more recordings in their budget priced Musique d’abord series. These new releases cover a wide range of music including Beethoven, Britten, Rossini, Wolf, Schumann, Le Jeune and Strauss. The discs are attractively presented in a three-fold cardboard cover with the CD’s themselves made to look like mini vinyl LP’s all in black with a centre label

I have selected two of these recordings that show the breadth of music covered in this series.  On the first of these discs, Jean Richafort’s Requiem (in memoriam Josquin Despréz) is coupled with six of his motets all sung by Huelgas-Ensemble directed by Paul Van 

HMA 1951730
Little is known about the Flemish composer Jean Richafort (c.1480-c.1547). His name first appears in 1519 when a motet of his appears in a collection. He is believed to have been a pupil of Josquin Despréz. Between 1543 and 1547 he is known to have been choirmaster of the church of St Gilles, Bruges.

Right from the start of the Introite it is apparent that this Requiem is something special – both in terms of the music and the choir. There is a beautiful richness, with deep basses, pure trebles and a wonderfully homogenous sound throughout. The pacing of this music is ideal and in the following Kyrie there is a beautiful layering of voices. The Graduale develops from a single alto voice as the rest of the voices slowly join with the trebles more prominent. There is a lovely ebb and flow as the music rises and falls. The Offertorium opens with the upper voices and, even when the full choir joins, there is a greater forward momentum. And what a wonderful Sanctus, richly flowing with a lovely Benedictus. The gentle Agnus Dei, is perfectly sung with wonderful control and beautiful blending of voices. An affecting Communio ends this beautiful Requiem.

The opening motet, Laetamini in Domino, is an attractive work full of lovely touches and wonderfully performed. With Sufficiebat nobis paupertas returns the richness that was apparent in the Requiem with, again that beautiful richness and blending of voices. The Salve Regina is another richly varied work that shows off all the sections of the choir whilst the beautiful motet Ne vous chaille mon cueur weaves a lovely sound.  The motet Tru tru trut avant, which strikes a completely different note from the other motets on this disc, is a lively drinking song sung in canon with some terrific singing. Finally there is Il n’est si douce vie is a light textured motet for upper voices only.

If anyone was like me and missed this exceptional CD first time around then do not hesitate now. The singing on this disc is absolutely wonderful and I found myself returning to the Requiem over and over again.

The excellent recording was made in the in the large acoustic of Eglise Saint Sylvain a Saint-Sauvant, Saintonge, in 2000. There are useful notes by the choir’s director Paul Van Nevel but no texts. 
The other disc that I have selected is of works for violin and piano by Jánaček, Szymanowski and Lutosławski played by the wonderful Isabelle Faust (violin) and Ewa Kupiec (piano) .

HMA 1951793

Leoš Eugen Jánaček (1854-1928) wrote his Sonata for Violin and Piano in 1913, though he continued to revise it up until 1921. He actually wrote two previous violin sonatas in 1880, which have been lost. Being a late musical developer, the sonata falls into Jánaček’s middle period and has links to his opera Kátà Kabanová, written between 1919-1921.

The sonata has a striking opening, con moto, where Isabelle Faust and Ewa Kupiec launch straight into the music with a passion. A rhapsodic theme soon emerges but is interrupted by Jánaček’s usual hesitant and biting sounds, thrillingly and sensitively played by Faust and Kupiec.  The ballada opens with a rather French sound with some beautiful hushed moments played magically by Isabelle Faust.  The allegretto returns to sounds typical of Jánaček, short clipped phrases before a central melody, the opening theme returning at the end. The final movement is an adagio, though it has fierce interruptions with Isabelle Faust drawing some wonderful timbres from her violin, whilst giving a passionate melody in the more flowing passages. There is tremendous precision from Isabelle Faust and Ewa Kupiec.

With the works Mythes, Métopes and Songs of the Fairy Princess the Polish composer, Karol Szymanowski (1882-1937), reached his full maturity as a composer. Myths for violin and piano Op.30, was written in 1915 and the three pieces that form this work draw their inspiration from classical Greece.

La Fontaine d'Aréthuse is impressionistic, scented music, full of atmosphere where Ewa Kupiec provides a lovely rippling piano sound full of Debussian beauty, whilst Isabelle Faust gives a strong, authoritative reading, finely played with such control of the varying dynamics. This is superb artistry. The wistful Narcisse, entrancingly played, evokes the lake of the story, where Narcissus, son of Cephisus, lived only until he saw his reflection in a pool, dying of self-love and turned into a flower. Ravel occasionally seems to permeate the sound world. There is a fast flowing Dryades and Pan, played with sparkling style, that ends this work. The lovely, quiet, solo passage for violin that occurs part way through is superbly played by Faust.

The Partita for Violin and Piano by the Polish composer Witold Lutosławski (1913-1994), was written in 1984 during the composer’s period of late composition that also saw his Third and Fourth Symphonies (1983 and 1992) and his Piano Concerto (1987).

The opening allegro giusto is played with much swagger and style, particularly the sliding violin notes. There are some wonderful hushed moments and moments full of energy tremendously played by Isabelle Faust.  Ad libitum has an elusive section that opens this movement before a richer melody for violin enters. The largo is a darkly troubled movement requiring a high degree of insight and sensitivity, provided here in spadefuls. Even the little bird like calls on the violin don’t raise the atmosphere above unsettling. The movement rises to a passionate climax with the violin soaring over chords on the piano. What a tremendous partnership I thought when I heard this.  A short ad libitum with short tentative phrases for both violin and piano leads to a frantic presto with repeated phrases alternating between violin and piano, and a central slow section full of strange harmonics on the violin before a tumultuous coda that suddenly cuts the music off.

This is one of Lutosławski’s great late works, full of melody, spiky rhythms and magical sounds brilliantly played by both Isabelle Faust and Ewa Kupiec.

Lutosławski’s short piece for violin and piano, Subito, was written in 1991. Isabelle Faust fairly throws herself into the opening passages. A slightly mournful theme follows before the more caustic phrases alternate. This great little miniature is superbly played.

If you are looking for some great performances of these 20th Century masterworks then look no further. The playing here is tremendous and the recording, made in 2002 at the Teldex Studio in Berlin, is excellent.

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