May 28, 2009


Jean-Féry Rebel: La Terpsicore; Les Caractères de la Danse; Caprice; Les Plaisirs champêtres; La Fantaisie; Les Élémens. Arion conducted by Daniel Cuiller. $16.99.

Ludovico Roncalli: Capricci Armonici—Sonatas Nos. 1-3, 5, 7-8. Richard Savino, baroque guitar. Dorian Sono Luminus. $16.99.

Adio Espaňa: Romances, Villancicos, & Improvisations from Spain circa 1500. The Baltimore Consort (Mary Anne Ballard, viols; Mark Cudek, guitars, viols and wind instruments; Larry Lipkis, viols and wind instruments; Mindy Rosenfeld, flutes and fifes and wind instruments; Ronn McFarlane, lute). Dorian Sono Luminus. $16.99.

Albinoni: Concerto for Recorder and Strings, op. 9, no. 2; Chen Yi: The Ancient Chinese Beauty; Mozart: Andante for Recorder and Strings, K. 315; Nino Rota: Concerto for Strings; Artem Vassiliev: Valere lubere (To say goodbye); Vivaldi: Concerto for Recorder and Strings, RV 443; Peter Heidrich: From “Happy Birthday Variations.” Michala Petri, recorder; Kremerata Baltica. OUR Recordings. $16.99.

     Some of the oldest instrumental music in the Western canon sounds fresh and thoroughly delightful in a handful of top-notch new recordings. The Canadian baroque orchestra Arion plays period instruments as if they are the most natural things in the world to handle, and Daniel Cuiller directs the ensemble with a gentle and knowing hand in six ballet suites by Jean-Féry Rebel (1666-1747). These range from his first, Caprice (1711), to his last and by far most famous, Les Élêmens (1737). Every dance form of the time is expertly handled by Rebel: gigue, menuet, courante, bourée, rigaudon and more. And the Arion players never lose sight of the fact that this is dance music and was collected into a series of movements to be danced by performers. The rhythms are clear, the pace modest or sprightly as appropriate, and the small complement of instruments (13 strings including theorbo, six winds, and harpsichord) is beautifully blended. Les Élêmens is a special joy in this recording: the famous opening movement, Le Chaos, which Rebel begins with a single chord containing all notes of the octave – that is, a tone cluster – really does sound as if order emerges from chaos, and the tone painting later in the work (slurred bass notes for Earth, flute cascades for Water, sustained piccolo notes that become trills for Air, and bravura violin passages for Fire) emerges with perfect clarity and a wonderful sense of drama.

     The guitar sonatas of Ludovico Roncalli (1654-1713) are slightly earlier than Rebel’s dance music, dating to 1692, and they too are dances – gathered into suites of a type familiar from Bach’s famous ones for solo instruments. Richard Savino plays six of these sonatas with understanding and a fine grasp of period style: No. 1 in G, No. 2 in E minor, No. 3 in B minor, No. 5 in A minor, No. 7 in D minor and No. 8 in C. Although this is Italian music, its textures are as French as those of Rebel, and the sonatas – some of the last works of their time for five-course baroque guitar – sound especially good on the instrument for which they were written (Savino play a copy by José Espejo of a Stradivarius original). These are not really neglected works – classical guitarists often perform them on modern instruments – but they sound altogether different and a great deal more intimate (especially those in minor keys) when played as Savino performs them.

     The music on the CD called Adio Espaňa is even older than that of Rebel and Roncalli, dating to the mid-16th century or even earlier. Once again, the value of using original instruments or replicas for this music becomes abundantly clear, as The Baltimore Consort’s viols, crumhorns, baroque recorders and flutes, and other period instruments bring out the nuances of these short pieces with beauty and style. The knowing contributions of Brazilian singer José Lemos add to the effective communication of the vocal selections, and this unfamiliar music – much of it anonymous, the balance by such composers as Pedro Guerrero, Juan del Encina and Diego Pisador – proves to be a heady combination of light dances, traditional romances, heroic ballads and even some fascinating improvisations.

     A new CD commemorating the 50th birthday of Michala Petri, released by the company founded in 2006 by Petri and her husband, Danish guitarist and lutenist Lars Hannibal, contains only a few older works: concertos by Albinoni and Vivaldi, both played stylishly by Petri with excellent backup from Kremerata Baltica. What is particularly interesting on this CD is to hear how the recorder, which largely fell out of favor as the transverse flute gained prominence after the baroque era, continued to hold its own in a limited way (as evidenced by the lovely Mozart Andante, K. 315) and then regained its niche as 20th-century composers began looking toward its special sound as a way to create new works that would go beyond those of the Romantic era. For Chen Yi (born 1953), this means using the recorder to recall ancient times; for Artem Vassiliev (born 1974), it means intermingling the wind instrument’s sounds with those of strings. Also on this CD are a well-constructed Concerto for Strings by Nino Rota, best known for the music he wrote for Fellini films; and excerpts from Happy Birthday Variations by Peter Heidrich (born 1935) – the only musical indication that this is a “tribute” CD rather than simply a collection of interesting and well-played music. In fact, unlike many other “tribute” recordings, this one truly showcases high-quality music-making, giving Petri a chance to display her considerable skill rather than simply be the celebrity in focus for the day. That makes this one “happy birthday” CD for which listeners will need no excuse to be happy.

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