Our latest classical playlist includes new releases from The English Concert & Choir, Xavier de Maistre, Les Arts Florissants, William Christie and Lise DavidsenTags: Music,
Welcome to November’s Classical Choices! With December fast approaching, I’ve selected two festive recordings for our latest playlist – John Nelson’s magnificent new Handel’s Messiah recording and Lise Davidsen’s Christmas from Norway – plus a delicious Versaille-themed offering from harpist Xavier de Maistre with William Christie and Les Arts Florissants. First up though, is our archive choice: two Ligeti Études from pianist Yuja Wang’s debut recital at Verbier Festival in 2008, which saw her explode on to the classical world’s radar aged just 21. I’ve chosen Fanfares from Book 1, and Der Zauberlehrling from Book 2 for you to enjoy.
The English Concert & Choir, John Wilson
Before even the first bar of this new Handel Messiah is complete, it’s clear that John Nelson and The English Concert’s programme provides something different to what we’ve come to expect from upbeat period-instrument readings of this famous work, which are usually defined by their crisp timbres and super-fast tempos.
Nelson’s opening Sinfony leans headlong into its Grave marking: the orchestra grows into its curtain-raising chord with a sombre legato swell and retains a mysterious shadowy drama throughout the ensuing Allegro moderato, with a reading that is at least 30 seconds longer than the average period band’s.
A meticulous degree of appraising thought has gone into this performance, captured in St Michael’s Cathedral in Coventry. Nelson’s version reflects the succession of revisions that Handel made to his score between 1740 and 1751. These include adding a new alto setting of “But who may abide” (created in 1750 for the castrato Guadagni) to Part 1. It presents the full-length version of Part 1’s Pifa – a pastoral sinfonia, reminiscent of an Italian folk carol, which sets the scene for the angels’ appearance – rather than a later shortened one, and a collection of eight bonus tracks present alternate versions of now-familiar arias such as “How beautiful are the feet”.
The actual music-making is an unadulterated pleasure. Each member of its dream cast of soloists – soprano Lucy Crow, countertenor Alex Potter, tenor Michael Spyres and bass Matthew Brook – appears thoroughly immersed in the text and its meaning, and singing at the top of their game. The same goes the English Concert Choir. All this is set to beautifully shaped, glowing, elegant and eloquent instrumental support.
The physical box set includes a bonus DVD of the performance, so if – like me – you’re someone who still buys CDs in addition to streaming, this is unquestionably a worthy addition to your shelf, regardless of whether you already own a Messiah. I’ve given you the opening through to the end of “O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion” for our playlist.
La Harpe Reine: Music at the Court of Marie-Antoinette
Xavier de Maistre, Les Arts Florissants, William Christie
When Marie Antoinette arrived in Paris from Vienna in 1770, the city was already a harp mecca, boasting around 200 harp shops in comparison to today’s two. She promptly took up harp lessons and accompanied herself singing in chamber concerts, and her court at Versailles went on to draw harp virtuosos and composers from across Europe.
French harpist Xavier de Maistre chose to celebrate this 18th century Versailles-fuelled harp craze in a collaboration with France’s current-day period-performance royalty, William Christie and his Les Arts Florissants. The group teamed up in 2016 to revive a pair of harp concertos from the period, performing them in York, Vienna and Versailles itself. In a career first, de Maistre performed on a newly restored instrument from the period – a challenge which required adapting to a lower string tension, slightly narrower spacings and a more fragile action.
This new album presents live recordings from the Versaille instalment of the aforementioned tour. First up is the Harp Concerto No 5 by Bohemian harp virtuoso Jan Křtitel Krumholtz, who served as harpist to the Esterházy court orchestra directed by Haydn in the mid-1770s before moving to Paris in 1777. His contributions towards harp performance and repertoire include inventing the pedal glissando and being the first to use both harmonics. This particular concerto premiered on Christmas Day 1778 in Paris’s Concert Spirituel, and its virtuosities provide a wonderful canvass upon which to appreciate the gossamer-weight sparkle of de Maistre’s instrument, and the deft precision with which he handles it over all the rapid passagework. The central set of variations is especially wonderful for the diaphanous softness brought to the harp’s pianissimo rapid passagework, and for the seductive attentions of the pair of violins that rise up to engage it in conversation.
The programme’s second concerto is one of the first harp works to be composed by a non-harpist, the Concerto No 1 by Marie-Antoine’s pianoforte teacher, Johann David Hermann. (Head to the concluding Rondo for a glowing example of the pianistic quality to Hermann’s harp writing, performed with gorgeous naturalness by de Maistre.)
Between the two concertos, the musicians of Les Arts Florissants take centre stage for a crisply buoyant reading of the fourth of Haydn’s “Paris” symphonies. (Nicknamed “La Reine”, it was reported to have been Marie-Antoinette’s favourite of the set.) And finally, in honour of Gluck having spent some time in Paris as a music teacher to the queen, de Maistre has recorded a final solo treat in the form of his own transcription of Gluck’s Dance of the Blessed Spirits – an exquisitely delicate performance, coloured by the gentlest hint of rubato. I’ve given you the Krumholtz and the Gluck.
Christmas from Norway
Lise Davidsen, Norwegian Radio Orchestra, Christian Eggen
The back catalogue of Christmas albums from opera singers can generally be divided into the good, the bad and the ugly. However with Lise Davidsen’s Christmas from Norway, it seems we now need to add a further category: heavenly.
Christmas repertoire runs deep in Davidsen’s musical DNA, meaning that far into her 20s, even as her international career took off, she would still return each year to sing O Holy Night in Arnadal Church, near where she grew up. It’s this piece that opens and concludes her Christmas from Norway programme. The album begins with Davidsen singing the song in Norwegian to richly rounded accompaniment from the Norwegian Radio Orchestra under Christian Eggen and closes with the same arrangement sung in English.
Between this sits a selection of traditional Norwegian music and wider Christmas favourites, much of it drawing on the Decca back catalogue. It takes inspiration from Christmassy recordings from the likes of Birgit Nielsson, Kirsten Flagstad and Kiri Te Kanawa, and revives arrangements originally penned for Luciano Paravotti, Leontyne Price and Renée Fleming.
Highlights include a combination of folk-tune simplicity and a cappella writing in Christian Eggen’s arrangement of Deilig er Jorden (Wonderful is the Earth), where we are able to enjoy Davidsen’s mellow lower-register warmth stripped of all extraneous trimmings, accompanied by the beautiful silvery tones of the Norwegian Opera Children’s Choir. Mitt hjerte alltid vanker (My heart always lingers) is another Norwegian treat, with folk instrument colour adding additional atmospheric to its modal mystery. Reger’s lilting Mariä Wiegenlied is a dream for the technical command that allows Davidsen to float up to and tenderly stroke its pianissimo top note on ‘Schlaf’. The First Nowell, meanwhile, is a joy to behold for the utter love with which the orchestra circles, dialogues with and supports Davidsen’s lines, while making the most of its own countermelodies and interesting textures.
I’ve given you The First Nowell for November’s playlist, along with Mitt hjerte alltid vanker and the English-language O Holy Night.