CD recommendations

At the time of writing this (early 2000), my music collection includes 820 CDs, and it is growing steadily. About 95% of it is "classical", in the broad sense. I try to choose well, but you probably know this case: Some CDs are quickly forgotten, and collect dust, while others get played over and over again. And some of the latter are so good that when you push them into the player, you can't do anything else but sit down and listen. This page is about some recordings in my collection that reach this level of quality. I recommend buying each and every of these CDs. I will not put any inferior recording here!

Regarding the technical recording quality, if there is anything wrong, I will mention it. If no comment is made about sound quality, rest assured that it is fine.

No attempt was made to sort this list into any specific order. Here you will find baroque, romantic, opera, gypsy and other kinds of music, all mixed. Maybe in this way I manage to have you looking through the entire list, instead of going only to one kind of music!

The list will grow in the future, so check back from time to time.

Johannes Brahms: Ein deutsches Requiem

Ilona Tokody, soprano
István Gáti, baritone
The Slovak Philharmonic Chorus and Orchestra
János Ferencsik

Hungaroton HCD12475-76   (Two CDs)

This famous work by the German composer belongs in any collection, so it was one of the first CDs I bought. I went to the store, and asked for this work. They had eight different recordings of it. How to decide?
I asked to listen into each of the eight versions. There were performances by famous choirs, famous soloists, famous directors. Those were mostly "perfect" renderings, one just like the other. And then I tried this one. It was different. Extremely slow, expressive, full of nuances. Beautiful voices. The calmness this work requires so much. Strength, lots of it, where needed. Sweetness too, by the heap.

And then I reached part 3, "Herr, lehre doch mich", sung by István Gáti. This decided the issue. What a voice! How suited to this work! What dramatism! The singers on all other seven recordings seemed so poor in comparison, despite being more famous! I bought this one, and it captivates me again and again.

While most versions of this work come on a single CD, this one comes on two. The second CD is filled up with Two Motets, Opus 74 (by Brahms too), but which I like much less. However, the price for the 2 CD set was about the same than that of the single-CD versions.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Requiem

Anonymous treble and alto soloist from the Wiener Sängerknaben
Kurt Equiluz, tenor
Gerhard Eder, bass
Wiener Sängerknaben
Chorus and Orchestra of the Hofmusikkapelle Wien
Members of the Men's Chorus and Orchestra of the Wiener Staatsoper
Hans Gillesberger

RCA GD86535

Sorry for putting two Requiems at the start of this page, it happened just by chance! But this work also deserves a place in every collection, and specially if you can locate this exact version! Because it is marvelous, dating from the good old times when the Vienna Choir Boys still had good quality to offer. The soloists sing cleanly and precisely, full of expression, the boy's voices float and stand in the air, making any recording that uses women soloist with heavy vibrato sound brutal in comparison! The combination of voices in the choir lends itself to that nice marriage of sensitivity and power. When I found this recording, I gave away another one I had. I have not missed the other one.

This CD also contains Mozart's short, simple, but carefully crafted "Ave, verum corpus" as a separating piece, and then ends with Joseph Haydn's brilliant and festive "Te Deum in C", where the Chorus Viennensis joins the boys in an exuberant performance.

Antonin Dvorák: Stabat Mater

Ana Pusar Jeric, soprano
Eva Novsak Houska, mezzosoprano
Jurij Rega, tenor
Franjo Petrusanec, bass
Mixed Choir Obala Koper, Consortium Musicum
Chamber Choir of Radio-Television Ljubljana
Radio Symphony Orchestra Ljubljana
Marko Munih

PMG CD 160 104

Dvorák's music comes in waves for me. Sometimes I can survive for months without it, then again I grow addict to it. But this recording caused the greatest wave of Dvorák addiction to me; for several months, I barely listened to anything else! Sure, I put other CDs into the player, as background music, but then I returned to this one for serious listening. I took over a year to digest it. This is such an intensively beautiful music, yet full of sorrow, hope...

If you have never heard the names of the performers, don't let it fool you. This is an excellent performance! Take my word for it!

This CD is inexpensive, and plays for more than 79 minutes. You will hardly ever get more good music for that price!  :-)

Saverio Mercadante: Flute Concertos

Jean-Pierre Rampal, flute
Concerto in D major and E-major: English Chamber Orchestra
Concerto in E minor: I Solisti Veneti
Claudio Scimone

Erato ECD 55012

My sister is a flutist, so the first knowledge I had of Mercadante was by way of my sister rehearsing the E minor concerto when she was 17 and I was 14. I was struck by the highly ornamented beauty of the composition. The melody followed me into my dreams. It never again left me.

This CD features a 1980 recording of the D major and E major concertos, which are light, airy, sounding almost Baroque in places despite being in fact Romantic works. One cannot avoid being reminded of Paganini's works for the violin. And after these two concertos comes the famous E minor one, in a recording that must be the best in existence of this work: The famous 1973 session by Jean-Pierre Rampal with the Solisti Veneti. I cannot imagine a more inspired performance, or a better collaboration between the soloist and the orchestra. The notes form a wild dance, sometimes just hinting at a note, and it forms, and it is good, and it sounds so very human. This is flute virtuosity at its best!

While the recording quality of the first two concertos is at the usual no-objection level, the third concerto is a historic recording having uneven frequency response and a higher noise level. Apparently it was done with a small tape recorder, and used on this CD release simply because of its stunning performance quality. Anyway the technical quality is quite acceptable, and the roomy acoustics add to the listening pleasure.

Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphony No. 9 in D minor

June Anderson, soprano
Sarah Walker, mezzosoprano
Klaus König, tenor
Jan-Hendrik Rootering, bass
Bavarian Radio Choir
Members of the Berlin Radio Choir
Children's Choir of the Dresden Philharmony
Symphony Orchestra of the Bavarian Radio
Members of the Staatskapelle Dresden, Orchestra of the Kirow Theater Leningrad, London Symphony Orchestra, New York Philharmonic, Orchestre de Paris
Leonard Bernstein

Deutsche Grammophon 429 861-2

It was Christmas 1989. Our family had come together from all those different places where we live. My sister came up with the news about a live TV broadcast of a concert in Berlin. It was to be a special concert, a celebration to the opening of the infamous Berlin wall, which had cut the great city in two parts for several decades. Despite not being TV-addict, we switched on the receiver, the entire family gathered around it,  and  soon we were captivated by the performance. Leonard Bernstein was conducting a large ensemble, playing Beethoven's 9th in a most spirited way. We listened to the music, soaking it up. It was a great performance. The purely instrumental parts went through, interestingly played, not a moment of dullness. The music built up, slowly preparing way for the fourth movement, the choral one. The tension kept building up. It was almost an electric feeling.

Rootering opened the singing, with that work's invitation to sing nicer sounds. And then it came: A thundering "Freiheit!" (freedom) instead of the accustomed "Freude!" (joy). I was first to notice it. Perplexed, I said "Hey, that guy sung 'Freiheit'!" My father replied that I was crazy. We listened closer. "Freiheit", again! Freedom, beautiful spark of God! What a way of modifying Schiller's poem!! How well it suited Beethoven's music, Bernstein's conducting style, Berlin in 1989! We could barely believe it, until the apotheosic end of the symphony came, and the thundering, overwhelming applause made clear that we were not alone with our feelings!

The CD contains the live recording of this concert. Including a small sample of the applause.

Hector Berlioz: Te Deum

Francisco Araiza, tenor
London Symphony Chorus
London Philharmonic Choir
Wooburn Singers
St. Alban School Choir
Haberdashers' Aske's School Choir
The Southend Boys' Choir
Desborough School Choir
The Choir of Forest School, Winnersh
The Choirboys of High Wycombe Parish Church
Richard Hickox, choir director
Martin Haselböck, organ
European Community Youth Orchestra
Claudio Abbado

Deutsche Grammophon 410 696-2

How many choirs are there in London, or in England? Sure, a lot. So they took a considerable number of them, squeezed them into the St. Albans Cathedral, added a marvelous orchestra, and performed Berlioz'  Te Deum in a way that can hardly be improved upon! The highly differentiated choirs give a lot of color to the performance, and their spatial distance makes you feel immersed. It's sheer incredible what crescendos can be made with such masses on the stage, and... how well it is all controlled! In many instances the music rises from a few barely audible voices in pianissimo, to more voices, more, and more, adding another choir, and another one, and several more, and then rising to an incredible fortissimo, and when you think there cannot be more, you are wrong, because right now the organ sets in and the choirs rise to meet it! The enthusiastic playing of the orchestra, the brilliant singing of the many choirs, the big sound of the organ, and not least Berlioz' genius and Abbado's gift, all meet to make a memorable event.

It's hard to press such an amount of dynamics into a recording, even if it is a CD. It is done well here, using only as much compression as unavoidable, but in the process an excessive harshness in the high range became apparent. I set my equalizer to -2dB at 4kHz, and -3dB from 8kHz up, which brings the sound closer to the truth. Without an equalizer, a slight reduction on the treble control will do the job.

Joseph Haydn: Die Jahreszeiten (The Seasons)

Edith Mathis, soprano
Siegfried Jerusalem, tenor
Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, baritone
Chorus and Academy of St. Martin-in-the-fields
Neville Marriner

Philips 411 428-2  (Two CDs)

Among Haydn's oratorios, The Creation is probably the most famous. But I like The Seasons infinitely better! The old Haydn wrote it after The Creation, as one of his last works. Despite being sick, or perhaps just for that reason, he managed to write a work overflowing with joyful freshness.

The great trio of soloists performs with its accustomed quality. As always, Fischer-Dieskau makes up for what he may be lacking in voice power by means of an impeccable singing technique and marvelous interpretative skills. Marriner's Academy also plays with its accustomed lightness, beauty, and precision. This is a pleasing recording that can be enjoyed again and again.

Carl Maria von Weber: Der Freischütz

Gundula Janowitz, Edith Mathis, Renate Hoff, Renate Krahmer, sopranos
Ingeborg Springer, mezzosoprano
Brigitte Pfretzschner, contralto
Peter Schreier, tenor
Bernd Weikl, Günther Leib, baritones
Siegfried Vogel, Theo Adam, Franz Crass, basses
Leipzig Radio Chorus
Staatskapelle Dresden
Carlos Kleiber

Deutsche Grammophon 415 432-2  (Two CDs)

Let me make this short: This is the best recording ever of this great Romantic opera. It won pretty much every award there is, and deserves each and every of them. A cast of rare quality, a marvelous performance, incredible recording!  The dialogues are all there, which is specially attractive for those who can understand German. The sound reflects where the action is taking place, for example during the trip into the Wolf's glen the sound becomes echoey, and when the devil laughs, it can send cold shudders down even the spines of nonbelievers! The fear of dark forests, as  something unknown and dangerous, so characteristic in German Romanticism, is fabulously captured here.
The brasses are another highlight of this performance. I have never heard the well-known hunter's choir of this opera with a better accompaniment! This performance excels in all aspects!

Giacomo Puccini: Turandot

Eva Marton, Katia Ricciarelli, sopranos
Waldemar Kmentt, José Carreras, Helmut Wildhaber, Heinz Zednik, tenors
Robert Kerns, Kurt Rydl, baritones
John-Paul Bogart, bass
Wiener Sängerknaben
Choir and Orchestra of the Wiener Staatsoper
Lorin Maazel

CBS M2K 39160  (Two CDs)

Puccini worked at this very modern opera during the last few years of his life, but he was not to finish it. A botched treatment for his throat cancer put an end to his life in 1924. After some quarrels between the dead composer's family, and the great conductor Toscanini, the composer Franco Alfano finished the work. It was first performed in 1926, despite Toscanini's disliking Alfano's ending.

This is very intense music. At no point does the tension subside. Orientalism is present throughout, in the harmonies, in some instruments, and of course in the action.

What I like so much about this specific recording, so much indeed that I cannot shake loose from it, is Katia Ricciarelli's interpretation of the slave Liù. I fell in love with her voice! Liù's death aria is so expressive, so well done, that I just have to revive her and hear it over and over!

This is a live recording, and sounds completely unprocessed. The naked, true sound is there, just as it was heard during the performance. Including spontaneous applause, specially after some hair-raising arias by Ricciarelli!

Richard Wagner: Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg

Christa Ludwig
Catarina Ligendza
Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau
Plácido Domingo
Peter Lagger
Peter Maus
Roberto Bañuelas
Roland Hermann
Gerd Feldhoff
Loren Driscoll
Karl-Ernst Mercker
Martin Vantin
Klaus Lang
Ivan Sardi
Miomir Nikolic
Horst Laubenthal
Victor von Halem
Choir and Orchestra of the Deutsche Oper, Berlin
Eugen Jochum

Deutsche Grammophon 415 278-2  (Four CDs)

This comic opera may be the least typical of the many operas written by Wagner; but it's the one I like most! Great music, big choirs, very well defined characters, based on music history (the German Master Singers of old times) and lots of wit!

When I found this recording, I almost passed it by. After all, what can you expect from Plácido Domingo singing Wagner...? Then I thought, Eugen Jochum would not have let him sing side-by-side with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, if Domingo weren't up to the task! So I bought the CD set, and I'm so glad I did! Domingo sings the young knight von Stolzing exceedingly well! Needless to say, Fischer-Dieskau is a marvelous Hans Sachs, the famous cobbler/master singer. Hermann made me roll away in laughter with his witful interpretation of the town clerk Beckmesser! The wit goes so far as to let Miomir Nikolic sing the coppersmith...! How appropriate! :-) The choir of the apprentices also is exceedingly good, imitating the crackling voices of the 14 year old aspiring cobblers.

There are so many funny scenes in this opera! Those who just listen to the music, however great it is, are loosing at least one half! Those who can understand German will get the most fun from this recording, but to all others I suggest to buy it anyway, and listen through it while reading the translation in the accompanying libretto, which manages to capture a considerable part of the fun.

Ludwig van Beethoven: The five Piano Concertos

Claudio Arrau, piano
Staatskapelle Dresden
Sir Colin Davis

Philips 422 066-2, 432 040-2, 416 215-2   (Three CDs, I believe they are also available as boxed set)

This is solid music! I resort to these recordings after I have been disgusted by some badly written music. In these concertos everything is well done! They rise the spirits, fix whatever may be wrong in the world.... you get the idea!

The great Chilean pianist Arrau had a style of blending into the orchestra, putting himself at the service of the music, that makes it infinitely pleasurable to listen to his art. Combine this with the impeccable orchestra, the first class conductor, a recording venue with collaborating acoustics (the Lukas Church in Dresden), and Philips' well known clean and natural recording style,  and the stage is set for a memorable production!

 Giovanni Gabrieli: "The Glory of Venice"

                        Quem vidistis pastores?
                        O Jesu mi dulcissime
                        Jubilate Deo
                        In ecclesiis
                        Timor et tremor
                        O magnum mysterium
and some more...

Thomas Elias, treble
Charles Brett, counter tenor
William Kendall, Peter Hall, tenors
Ian Caddy, bass
Richard Farnes, Stephen Layton, organ
Choir of King's College
Philip Jones Brass Ensemble
Stephen Cleobury

Argo 417 468-2

This CD bears its title rightfully. This is glorious music! A fine sample of Venetian high Renaissance! Large solemn brass choirs alternate with singing, the full choir with the favoriti choir, choirs from front and from back, from left and from right, deep basses give the fundament, agile trebles fly over it, and the organ helps binding it all together. Sweetness and power, solemnity and festiveness, and great harmony at all times!

The motet "In Ecclesiis" is the best piece. Opened by the solo treble with organ accompaniment, it soon develops into a three-choir structure of immense beauty!  This is Venice!

 Johannes Brahms: Piano Concertos No.1 and 2

Claudio Arrau, piano
Concertgebouw Orchestra, Amsterdam
Bernard Haitink

Philips 420 702-2, 420 885-2  (Two CDs)

Here is another of those great performances by the late Claudio Arrau. Recorded in 1969, it shows Arrau at the height of his career. His virtuoso playing is always present, while never getting between you and the music. He was a pianist who put his art at the service of music, instead of just using music to shine himself. The collaboration between the orchestra, the conductor and the soloist is excellent, and despite its age, the ADD recording is of high quality.

Gustav Mahler: Das klagende Lied

Susan Dunn, soprano
Brigitte Fassbänder, mezzosoprano
Markus Baur, boy alto
Werner Hollweg, tenor
Andreas Schmidt, bass
Choir of the Städtischer Musikverein Düsseldorf
Radio Symphony Orchestra, Berlin
Riccardo Chailly

London 425 719-2

Mahler's intensely dramatic and deeply beautiful music has appealed to me ever since I "discovered" it. But no other work of Mahler, not even his giant symphonies, results as touching to me as "Das klagende Lied", this fairy tale of love, death, and tragic justice. Mahler wrote it in his late teens, writing also his own text for it. He wrote an early masterwork that would have been remarkable for any musician, at any age!  He was still a student, yet had already developed his own, so characteristic style of composing and instrumenting, that makes Mahler's works immediately recognizable.

The extremely contrasting voices in this performance make it specially interesting. The intense dramatic soprano, the large choir, the disturbingly pure yet expressive boy voice singing the bone flute's song, take you away into this dream world of queens, minstrels and love flowers. After the dramatic end, you have to shake loose and say three times: "Hey, it's just a tale, only a tale, nothing more than a tale!"

It sounds like much more. Perhaps like the truth of life crashing into a sensitive teenager's feelings?

Iohn Dowland: Lachrimae, or Seaven Teares

Hespèrion XX
Jordi Savall

Astree E 8701

Renaissance instruments (or their players!) are often blamed with being eternally out of tune. While in the case of lesser performers this may be true, the Hespèrion XX seems to be destined to dispel this myth. The tune is perfect, incredibly perfect! Have you ever heard an entire viol consort doing a "messa di voce", maintaining that perfect tune throughout? Doing it many times? Playing a work like Dowland's Lachrimae, with soft attacks, strong expression, long crescendos, very long extensions, always in perfect tune, on period instruments? This recording features just that!

Dowland must have seen himself in tragic light: In addition to the "tears", each followed by a Galiard, the famous "Semper Dowland semper Dolens" is included.

Let this calm, elegant and beautiful music transport you 400 years back!

Georg Friedrich Händel: Israel in Egypt

Nancy Argenta, Emily van Evera, sopranos
Timothy Wilson, alto
Anthony Rolfe-Johnson, tenor
David Thomas, Jeremy White, bass
Taverner Choir and Players
Andrew Parrott

EMI CDS 7 54018 2   (Two CDs)

At least from the choral point of view, this is my favorite among all of Händel's oratorios. Yes, including the much more famous Messiah. The two choir groups dominate this work, are present almost at all times.

The performance is good, in the best English Händel tradition.

Johann Sebastian Bach: The Sacred Cantatas  (complete recording!)

Walter Gampert, Peter Hinterreiter, Peter Jelosits, Seppi Kronwitter, Wilhelm Wiedl, Jörg Erler, Markus Klein, Detlef Bratschke, Claus Lengert, Stefan Frangoulis, Markus Huber, Sebastian Hennig, Alan Bergius, Roger Cericius, Ansgar Pfeiffer, Christoph Wegmann, Tobias Eiwanger, Helmut Wittek, Matthias Echternach, Stefan Gienger, Jan Patrick O'Farrell, Alexander Raymann, Michael Emmermann, Hans Stricker, and several anonymous, trebles

Marianne Kweksilber, Barbara Bonney, sopranos

Raphael Harten, Thomas Schilling, Stefan Rampf, Panito Iconomou, Christian Immler, and several anonymous, boy altos

Paul Esswood, Rene Jacobs, countertenors

Kurt Equiluz, Marius van Altena, John Elwes, tenors

Max van Egmond, Walker Wyatt, Siegmund Nimsgern, Ruud van der Meer, Hanns-Friedrich Kunz, Michael Schopper, Lieuwe Visser, Philippe Huttenlocher, Siegfried Lorenz, Robert Holl, Thomas Thomaschke, Walter Heldwein, Albert Hartinger, Thomas Hampson, Harry van der Kamp, basses

Wiener Sängerknaben (Hans Gillesberger)
Chorus Viennensis (Hans Gillesberger)
King's College Choir, Cambridge (David Willcocks)
Tölzer Knabenchor (Gerhardt Schmidt-Gaden)
Knabenchor Hannover (Heinz Hennig)
Collegium Vocale, Gent (Philippe Herreweghe)

Concentus Musicus Wien (Nikolaus Harnoncourt)
Leonhardt-Consort (Gustav Leonhardt)

Teldec 4509-91765-2   (Sixty CDs!!!)

The great Bach brought the style of the German Church Cantata to its highest elaboration, and he wrote several hundred of them. A considerable number got lost during the time when Bach was unrightfully forgotten, but the approximately two hundred surviving cantatas were recorded in their entirety and finally put on 60 CDs. The giant project took about twenty years to be completed, and may well be the greatest achievement in the history of music recording. (Yes, I know of the Complete Mozart Edition. But that was mainly a compilation of existing recordings, with relatively few new performances, while this Bach recording is an all new, homogeneous performance of the highest quality!)

This is not just "any" performance: Harnoncourt and Leonhardt are specialists in period practice, and the whole point of this work was providing a performance of Bach's cantatas that is as much in agreement as possible with the performance practices that were usual in Bach's time. The old master asked for many and varied instruments, some of which are not usually available in our time. Instruments had to be crafted, playing techniques had to be re-developed.

Bach wrote these works for Church choirs, specially for the Thomanerchor in Leipzig. These choirs were composed by boys in the treble and alto voices, and young men in the tenor and bass. More often than not, the soloists came from within the choir. The present recording follows history, which means that almost all soprano solos, and a considerable part of the alto solos, are sung by boy soloists, with the remaining alto solos being done by countertenors. The combination of these voices with the colorful sound of the period instruments and the light, spirited playing lets the old great Master Bach shine in a truly modern way: Modern because at last we have found back to the roots!

There are so many good things to point out that I don't know where to start! Let me just say that the treble Peter Jelosits (who later became a professional tenor) does a fabulous job; let me mention too the boy alto Panito Iconomou, who delivers a stunning quality too. It may be unfair to mention just these two, as the others are too so very good! Just the mention of names like Sebastian Hennig and Helmut Wittek will tell those of you who know about it, what I mean.

Kurt Equiluz is an almost ideal Bach soloist. My only criticism is, however, the very fact that he sings nearly all tenor solos on these CDs. In this aspect I dream about some solos done by Peter Schreier, but unfortunately he did not take part in this recording. We can't get everything, I guess!

The entire set of recordings is a work of art in itself. The two masters knew how to bring so much variation, so much color into it, that it never gets boring!  I supposed I would take a long time to listen through all 60 CDs, and get bored in the process. Not so! I listened to them at a stretch, from first to last, over more than a week, without anything in between, and did not get bored! Despite the standard design for most of Bach's cantatas, Harnoncourt and Leonhardt managed to keep it interesting and appealing at all times!

After Bach's death, and the world forgetting him for about a century, Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy is credited with rediscovering the old master, and performing his works again. Much later, in the 1930's, Rudolf  Mauersberger seems to have been the first to return to Bach's original style, performing some of his works using a boy choir and boy soloists (Dresdner Kreuzchor). Harnoncourt and Leonhardt followed on this voyage towards the real Bach, and gave the world this complete recording, with original voices and instruments!

Many of you would probably not spend the money required to buy 60 CDs of Bach cantatas, and rather buy a lot of different music. But to those of you who like Bach, who like original performance practices, who like high quality vocal music performed by the highest quality boy choirs, there is just one thing to say: Go for it!

Buxheimer Orgelbuch

Ton Koopman, at the organ of the Metz Cathedral

Astree E 7743

Welcome to the late Middle Ages! On this CD Ton Koopmann treats us to a selection of works from the famous "Buxheim Organ Book", composed by various well-known musicians of the 15th century and compiled by Carthusian monks in Swabia. The sound is utterly archaic to modern ears, due to the tonalities employed, which are based on medieval Church modes rather than our accustomed mayor and minor scales. The A-G-F-G-A series that runs through the entire recording and dominates many pieces is almost addictive!

The organ employed for this performance was built in 1537, so it isn't that much newer than this music!

Johann Strauss: Waltzes and Polkas

Wiener Sängerknaben
Helmut Froschauer, Franz Farnberger, piano
Hans Gillesberger

RCA 09026-61235-2

What comes to mind when thinking about music in Vienna?  Well, Strauss' waltzes, and the Vienna Choir Boys, is probably what most people would think first. So, it's obvious to resort to this choir singing the texted versions of the waltzes, as a "souvenir" of Vienna...

Normally I would not put such a commercial thing into this list of best recordings, but the fact is that this CD contains true marvels of boy choir music!  It's hard to find any other recording where a boy choir shows as much wit, enjoyment, sheer pleasure, as here!  On some of the polkas, that have comical texts appealing to children like few other lyrics do, the listener is tempted to fear that the singers will suddenly burst out in laughter! But it doesn't happen: They keep singing, and very well! This recording was done in 1977, when this choir had not yet started its long descend on the quality scale.

The technical sound quality is poorer than what we usually expect nowadays, but still acceptable.

Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy: Hear my Prayer

Gregorio Allegri: Miserere

    - Bernard Rose: Feast Song for St Cecilia
    - Johannes Brahms: Ye are now sorrowful
    - Jonathan Harvey: Come, Holy Ghost
    - John Taverner: I will lift up mine eyes
    - Michael Wise: The ways of Zion do mourn
    - Sir Charles Stanford: Magnificat
    - Benjamin Britten: Festival Te Deum

Jeremy Budd, Nicholas Thompson, trebles
Simon Hill, Wilfrid Swansborough, countertenors
Alan Green, Andrew Burden, tenors
Timothy Jones, Nigel Beavan, Charles Gibbs, basses
Choir of St Paul's Cathedral
Andrew Lucas, organ
John Scott

Hyperion CDA 66439

This recording is basically a showcase for Jeremy Budd's fine voice, but it's also a lot more than that. I have seen even rather insensitive people break into tears, and unable to speak, when faced to it. This voice, this choir, this music!

It starts with the famous piece by Mendelssohn. "Hear my prayer" is obviously designed for bringing emotions out, and has thus been turned into a show piece for singers, and specially for trebles. It has been trampled, abused, worn out... but anyway, this version is worthwhile!

The Rose piece that follows is quite modern in its harmony, and thus appeals less to me. Then follows the piece from Brahms' German Requiem. And then, the famous "Miserere", composed by Gregorio Allegri, a singer and composer with the Sistine Chapel Choir. This Miserere has been adorned with myths, shrouded in secret,  clouded in mist, but the undeniable fact remains that despite its simple structure, it is among the most beautiful music ever composed. And the performance recorded on this CD is the best I have heard! Budd's voice flies through the cathedral, the powerful choir contrasts with the favoriti in a marvelous way, and the great St. Paul's Cathedral sings with the people! Indeed the famed and feared acoustics of this building adds greatly to the quality of this CD.

Most of the remaining pieces are rather modern, and somehow inappropriate after that wonderful Miserere. However, even the Miserere alone would more than justify buying this CD!

A problem must be mentioned: A lot of London's traffic can be heard in the background. It's almost all on frequencies below that of the human voice, so it can be cut out with an equalizer without loosing much music. But it would have been nice if they had been able to divert the traffic for this recording!!!

Heinrich Schütz: Little Sacred Concertos (complete recording)

Helmut Wittek, Christian Fliegner, Stefan Gienger, Stefan Beckerbauer, Markus Durst, trebles
Philip Cieslewicz, treble/mezzosoprano
Stefan Zwanzger, boy mezzosoprano
Bernhardt Schmidt, Clemens Alcantara, Christian Günther, Markus Baur, Jan Albers, boy altos
Andreas Schulist, Wilhelm Gries, Alan Paddle, Markus Schäfer, Carsten Müller, tenors
Matthias Ettmayer, Christian Immler, Ulrich Wand, Albert Hartinger, basses

Brigitte Haas, Ulli Engel, Andreas Ludescher, violin
Lucia Sulz, viola
Michael Hell,Max Engel, Johannes Fink, Hendrike ter Brukke, Christoph Engel,Joerg Zwicker, cello
Roman Summereder, Gordon Murray,Christian Brembek, organ

Gerhardt Schmidt-Gaden

Capriccio 10293, 10388, 10418   (Three CDs)

Heinrich Schütz wrote the Little Sacred Concertos during the Thirty Years' War. He had very little means at his disposal during that time, so he set these works for just one to five singers plus basso continuo.

But while these vocal concertos are "little" in number of performers, they are giant in expressiveness and musical quality! Schütz manages to put close intimacy, big crescendos and everything in between into these works, using just five singers and basso continuo players.

The Little Sacred Concertos were printed in two books. Each of them contains works arranged in order of ascending complexity: They start out with single-part settings and build up to five-part ones. While the first book contains only German texts, the second one mixes German with Latin. Schütz put a lot of effort into composing his music onto the words, keeping them clearly understandable, and he did so for both languages. He went so far as to provide different settings for one concerto that has both German and Latin text. Both versions are featured on this recording.

These CDs contain the works in the same order arranged by the composer, with the only exception of the Latin version of "Ave Maria, gratia plena", which is added to end of the third CD. This is not a bad move, as the very special voice featured in that piece is a suiting end for this marvelous recording!

These CDs feature a stunning display of incredible boy's voices. Not only the trebles with their almost impossibly intense rendering of dramatic parts, but also the boy altos who beautifully sing down into a range that nobody would dare to expect from them, except for their director Schmidt-Gaden. The Tölzer Knabenchor is probably the source of the world's best boy soloists, but what you can hear on this recording is exceptional even by that standard!

Forget about boy's voices necessarily being "white" voices. These boys are absolute professionals, masters of their singing, highly gifted and intensively trained. They use vibrato where appropriate, give every word its proper expression, all with a remarkably clean intonation. I consider this performance as a reference of what can be done.

The pronunciation is clean, crisp and precise, without getting anywhere near the excessive harshness that was so common in Germany in past years and spoiled so many otherwise good performances.

Whilst the adult singers do a good job too, it is clear that the absolute stars in this recording are the boys. In the concertos that have both high and low parts, the men's voices merge quite well with the boys', probably in good part due to the fact that many of them are former choir members. The concertos that are scored for men alone tend to sound dark and calm. But this is a necessary respite before the next treble part again takes your breath away!

The basso continuo is played on organ and cello only, during most of the concertos. Only a few of them add violin and viola. Low key principles applied to music! The instruments support the singers and fill in the harmony, while they never get a predominant role. The playing is well done, perfectly fitting the spirit of this music.

These tree CDs are a must for anyone who likes Schütz, anyone who likes boy's voices, and of course anyone who wants to know what's possible to achieve by taking gifted boys and training them soundly.

Gerhard Schmidt-Gaden and his singers deserve the highest praise for this achievement!

Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber: Missa Salisburgensis a 53 voci

                                                          Hymnus "Plaudite tympana"

Anonymous treble and alto soloists from the choirs
James Griffett, James Lewington, Heinrich Weber, Erwin Abel, tenors
Brian Etheridge, David Thomas, Heinz Haggenmöller, Eberhard Wiederhut, basses

Escolanía de Montserrat (Ireneu Segarra)
Tölzer Knabenchor (Gerhard Schmidt-Gaden)
Collegium Aureum (Franzjosef Maier)
Ireneu Segarra

Deutsche Harmonia Mundi (BMG Classics) 77050-2-RC

The Missa Salisburgensis is a unique work. Composed for no less than 53 voices, arranged in seven "choirs", including two organs, and making extensive use of Gabrieli-style brass choirs, it is a massive marvel of festive music! Traditionally it used to be attributed to Orazio Benevoli, but newer research seems to negate this. In the CD's booklet Ernst Hintermaier mentions Andreas Hofer and Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber as more likely authors, while later research tends to confirm the latter as the real creator of this work.

Whoever wrote this Mass created a piece of music that has no parallel, as there are the typical elements of Venetian Renaissance, together with basso continuo that places this music clearly in the Baroque, but with giant dimensions only comparable to those used two centuries later by Berlioz!

This mass is mostly choral, the soloist parts are short and embedded in the general musical weaving. Together with the hymnus it forms a well joined unity, and obviously it was the composer's intention to join the two works as they were united in a single score.

What happens if two of the world's best boy choirs join to perform such special music? A very interesting performance results! The question-answer, call-and-echo play between the two choirs is a delight, and while the two choirs blend quite well, it is possible to recognize clearly the different styles they have. It should be mentioned that the directors of these two choirs are both among the best specialists in children's voices and training techniques. Here you can actually hear their methods! The bright sound of the choirs is reinforced by the strong brasses, and while some slight imprecision in timing can be heard, they are to be expected in music like this and don't disturb at all, they just add to the exuberant festiveness of the music!

The soloists give everything they can, remaining audible even in this massive amount of instrumental and vocal forces. Sometimes fears may arise that a soloist might burst, but don't worry, it doesn't happen! Among the instruments, what stands out most are the brass choirs, reminders of Venetian grandness but more powerful and exuberant than in the works of Gabrieli!

The basso continuo just helps out to sustain the huge musical building, it is not nearly as predominant as in later Baroque works.

On this CD you can hear both the musicians and the Church where it was recorded. The room acoustics are strongly included on the recording, the miking is rather distant, so the general impression is to sit among the public, not on the stage. The soloists sometimes tend to sound a little too distant, but this is hard to avoid when recording a setup of such huge proportions, unless unnatural techniques like individual miking are used. The positions of the different choirs can be very clearly heard, either they were placed far apart or some nearer miking with channel separation was used to reinforce stereo effect.

In any case, the acoustics of the room make that the general sound predominates over detail, and the ambiance sounds huge, just like this music is. Unfortunately something went seriously wrong with the frequency response. There is a strong resonance in the 100 Hz area, and the high notes from the presence range upwards are overemphasized too, while the midrange is almost buried under the overloaded extremes. This CD needs an equalizer, or at least a good bass/treble tone control, to bend the frequency response back into a usable shape. It needs almost 10 dB of total correction, raising the mids from 500 to 2000 Hz and attenuating from 200 Hz downwards and 4 kHz upwards. If this correction is done, the result is perfectly enjoyable. For those having a 10-band equalizer, here are the settings that provide the best correction:

Frequency    dB
31 Hz          0
63 Hz          -5
125 Hz        -4
250 Hz        0
500 Hz        +3
1 kHz          +4
2 kHz          +3
4 kHz          -1
8 kHz          -2
16 kHz        -5

Despite the frequency response problem, this CD is definitely worth buying. It's very uncommon to find such great music of such a special kind, performed by two excellent and clearly differentiated choirs!

Gypsy violins

Sándor Déki Lakatos and his Gypsy Band

Harmonia Mundi France HMP 3903027

Dear reader, have you ever heard a virtuoso violin player? If you haven't heard Lakatos, then you don't know what a violin can do!

This CD starts off with the famous "lark", where the violin imitates the bird, running over almost inaudibly high trills and plays. Then it gets back into the sound of the 1930's, with beautifully played Csárdás', Romances, Ballads, Jumpings, interspersed with works by Kreisler, Chopin, Massenet and others, and of course with several works by Lakatos himself! He is accompanied by the true sound of the traditional Gypsy instruments. This is music from the heart!

Tomás Luis de Victoria: Missa pro Defunctis

Escolanía & Capella de Música Montserrat
Ars Musicae de Barcelona
Ireneu Segarra

Deutsche Harmonia Mundi  05472 77423 2

In my collection there are a considerable number of Victoria recordings by several English choirs. I used to be quite happy with them - until I found this recording of Victoria's Requiem. It was a shock. An eye opener. This is the real Victoria!!! Very slow, quiet and intense, every harmony stands there to be heard! No stridence, no hastening towards the end, but instead profoundly touching, deeply felt music! This is the Golden Century of Spain, at its best!

There is also a filler on this CD, another work by Victoria, performed by Pro Cantione Antiqua, London. Forget it. It should better have been left out. But do get this CD, for the Requiem alone!

Johann Sebastian Bach: Organ Concertos I-V, BWV 592-596

Johannes-Ernst Köhler, at the Silbermann organ of the Catholic Court Church, Dresden

Berlin Classics 0090472BC

Bach wrote these great organ concertos after original works by Johann Ernst von Sachsen-Weimar, and Antonio Vivaldi. They are virtuous, luminous music, not disguising, but completing and invigorating the original works!

Gottlieb Silbermann was the most famous organ builder in Baroque Germany. Bach wrote much of his organ music specifically for Silbermann organs. And the organ recorded on this CD was Silbermann's largest one! It was built around 1714. During the second world war it was disassembled, removed from the Cathedral, and stored in a bunker outside the city. Thanks to this effort this marvelous instrument was saved, when in the night of february 13th, 1945, allied bombers demolished the city, destroying an unimaginable amount of cultural treasures and killing tens of thousands of its people. After the war the Church was rebuilt, and the organ reinstalled in its old glory, one of the few to survive.

May this recording be regarded as a resounding invitation to never again let such a war happen.

Heinrich Schütz: Polychoral Concertos

- Sumite psalmum
- Magnificat
- Surexit pastor bonus
- Psalmus 24
- Der Gott Abraham
- Da pacem, Domine

Capella Fidicinia, Hans Grüss (period instruments)
Hans Otto, organ and harpsichord
Walter Heinz Bernstein, organ
Dresdner Kreuzchor (choir and soloists)
Rudolf Mauersberger

Berlin Classics 0091872BC

Schütz used to publish his sacred music, carefully sorted, in larger compilations like the Psalms of David, the Little Sacred Concertos, the Choral Music of 1648, his Opus Ultimum, and several more. However, a few pieces remained, which did not find their way into these larger cycles. Some of these are to be heard on this CD. They were composed for specific festive occasions and are among Schütz' finest works! Scored for two, three or even four choirs, they offer deeply layered polyphony, Venetian-style contrasts between the favoriti and the main choirs, echo-play, question-answer structures, in short, all those things I love so much in this kind of music!

The Dresdner Kreuzchor is one of the oldest musical institutions worldwide, having its roots about 800 years ago! During its long life, it had many famous directors, and Heinrich Schütz was connected to several of them. He wrote many works for this specific choir, and the performance style has been passed from one director to the next until our days, so this is the most genuine way possible to hear the real Schütz!  Being a massive Church Choir, with about 80 boys and 40 men in the concert choir, it does have the necessary forces to split up and perform 4-choir works like some on this CD!

Rudolf Mauersberger devoted most of his life to the Dresdner Kreuzchor. He took up the position of choir director in 1930, and soon made the choir world-famous through many revolutionary performances of works by Bach and Schütz. He managed to get the choir unharmed through the Nazi regime, only to see everything destroyed and many of his singers killed, when the city was bombed and destroyed to an almost unimaginable extent, in 1945. Not willing to give up, he rebuilt the choir, basically starting anew, and started a long series of experiments on choir sound. He was a defender of "strong" singing, sometimes almost making his boys shout, in the pursuit of a bright, metallic sound. Some years later he moderated this style, keeping some of the good aspects while getting rid of those that produced excessively harsh results. The present recording represents the summit of this development. Recorded in 1970, just a few months before Mauersberger's death, it captures the Kreuzchor at the best quality it ever had. Powerful and controlled, bright and expressive, it offers a unique sound that still is considered the trademark of this choir, despite the fact that in later years, after the demise of Mauersberger, the choir's sound changed far away.

Christmas carols

Wiener Sängerknaben
Hans Gillesberger

Teldec 2292-44574-2

There is hardly a family in Austria and Germany that does not own at least one recording of Christmas carols by the Vienna Choir Boys. In fact, most people associate boy choirs with Christmas, as a matter of fact. So, if you want to follow this tradition, this may be the CD to buy. It's the best of the 20 or so I have tried. Recorded in the 1960s, it features the choir in the good old time, and is full of splendid solos, presenting some voices that simply are not found today. While most of the 13 tracks are the usual Austrian/German carols, there is a cantata among them that is among the greatest boy solo recordings I have ever heard: "Lauft ihr Hirten, allzugleich", by Joseph Haydn. Imagine a treble voice with deep chest sound, singing perfectly tuned coloraturas on happy melodies, in the middle of an acoustically lively venue. Or rather, go and buy this CD, even if it is for the Haydn cantata alone! It's more than good enough musically, to forgive the slightly less than optimum sound quality.

Jacques Offenbach: Les Contes de Hoffmann

Plácido Domingo
Edita Gruberova
Claudia Eder
Andreas Schmidt
Gabriel Bacquier
James Morris
Justino Diaz
Robert Gambill
Paul Crook
Michel Sénéchal
Christa Ludwig
Robin Leggate
Gérard Friedmann
Urban Malmberg
Richard van Allan
Kurt Rydl
Harald Stamm
Paul Mahé

Choirs of Radio France
Orchestre National de France
Seiji Ozawa

Deutsche Grammophon 427 682-2   (Two CDs)

Here is a solid performance of Offenbach's great fantasy opera. It has everything it needs. Domingo's singing of Hoffmann is excellent, and the melody is sticky!  I can't shake it off until days after listening to this, every time!

Georg Friedrich Händel: Acis and Galatea

Jill Gomez
Robert Tear
Philip Langridge
Benjamin Luxon

Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields
Neville Marriner

Decca 452 973-2   (Two CDs in a single-size case)

This recording of Händels lovely pastoral opera has been highly recommended by many sources, and I can't do anything else but agree. Marriner's light and precise style suits this work very well, and the soloists are first class too. It's profoundly enjoyable!

The second CD also features some other works by Händel, Arne, Boyce and Hook.

Claudio Monteverdi: Vespro della Beata Vergine

Marcus Schäfer, Hans Possehn, trebles
Paul Esswood, Kevin Smith, countertenors
Ian Partridge, John Elwes, tenors
David Thomas, Christopher Keyte, basses

Hamburger Bläserkreis für alte Musik (period instruments)
Regensburger Domspatzen
Hanns-Martin Schneidt

Polydor, Archiv Produktion  447 719-2   (Two CDs)

What a surprising, rich, varied, revolutionary music!!!  Just to wet your appetite: There are solos, duos, trios, sextets, pieces for 6-part choir, 7-part choir, 8-part choir, 10-part choir, favoriti alone, large choir alone, favoriti and large choir together, with brasses, strings, lute, organ, you name it! In this work Monteverdi broke free from the old, ruled and limited style he had composed in before, and created a work that embraced the great Venetian Renaissance style!

These CDs feature the complete Vesper, including both versions of the Magnificat. In addition, as a good measure for comparison, another work is included: The old-style mass "In illo tempore". It's almost unbelievable that these two so different works come from the same composer! Now if you take some of Monteverdi's well-known madrigali, you have still another style... This man was truly multifaceted!

A word for those who don't understand German: The name of the choir, "Regensburger Domspatzen", means "The Sparrows of Regensburg Cathedral". It's one of the finest Church Choirs in Germany. Their performances under Schneidt are fabulous!  And the instrumental ensemble's name means roughly "Society of wind instrumentalists for antique music, Hamburg".

Heinrich Schütz: Psalms of David  (complete recording)

Regensburger Domspatzen (choir and soloists)
Hamburger Bläserkreis für alte Musik, Ulsamer Collegium (period instruments)
Hanns-Martin Schneidt

Polydor, Archiv Produktion 453 179-2   (Two CDs.)
A single CD featuring just the last 10 of these 26 motets is available under 437 078-2

Here we have another piece of Venetian-style polychoral music, performed by the Domspatzen under Schneidt. Not written in Venice, but in Germany, by the young Schütz, after returning from taking lessons with Gabrieli and soaking up Monteverdi's work. And I must say, the teachers were good, the student was brilliant! This is the best piece of Venetian-style music I know of, and the most brilliant music among all of Schütz' extensive work! Young Heinrich outdid his teachers!

Heinrich Schütz had been forced by his father to study law, and so he did, until finally breaking free and running away to Venice, on a scholarship from a Gentleman who had already supported Schütz as a 12 year old treble singer. I'm sure, if the old daddy Schütz had been able to foresee what his son would produce in music, he wouldn't even have dreamed about making him waste several years studying law!

The Psalms of David are Schütz's first sacred composition. They are firmly routed in Gabrieli's style of Venetian multichoral music, but sung in German. The use of two to four choir groups, and double instrumental groups, allows an intricate musical weaving, ranging from single voices to massive multivoice constructions.

Unfortunately I don't have enough command of the English language to be able to justly describe the quality of this performance. Just let me say that this choir is a superbly trained array of outstanding individual voices. The pleasure of listening to this recording is as much in the quality of the individual voices, which can be recognized at all times, as in the massive yet brilliant sound obtained during the multivoice sections. Track 11 on the second CD is a high point of this. The choir does not hold back!

The pronunciation is a bit marked on the "s" and "t" sounds, as is typical with German records of this time. It may be a good idea to turn the high frequency response a little bit down.

The soloist parts in this work are short, and being sung by members of the choir, blend in perfectly into the dominance of the tutti. Even while they are short, they allow even better appreciation of the quality of the voices, which include some boy altos of quite uncommon quality.

The authentic instruments used in this performance provide a warm, natural sound, which grows into a very intense complement to the choir on peak passages. About 30 players make it clear that this music is intended to be heard! But still the choir is the center of the action at all times.

The acoustics are roomy, open and warm, with some great reverberance that is so important to this style of music. Microphone placement obviously was done to maximize the ambiance of the cathedral. The locations of the different voices can be heard clearly, producing a vivid effect during the many "question-answer" parts in these multichoir motets.

This recording has become one of the absolute favorites in my CD collection. If you like the music of Gabrieli and Schütz, you will become addicted to these CDs, just like I did!  And if you don't know Schütz' music, THIS is the recording to try first! After this one, I'm sure you will buy all the others!

Dear friend, you have reached the end of my recommended CDs list. I could make it much longer, and indeed it's hard to leave out so many other good CDs in my collection. But I promised to list only those that are absolutely exceptional.

Remember that this list is based on my personal taste, and you may or may not agree with it, but within the limits set by this taste of mine, the listed CDs are indeed the best ones among about 800, which in turn were bought only after careful individual selection.


More than three years have passed since I wrote the above. I still love all of those recordings. But I have been buying more CDs, adding about another 300 to the collection, and among them are several which absolutely deserve a place on this page. So, let's continue!

Hans Pfitzner: Palestrina

Peter Schreier
Siegfried Lorenz
Ekkehard Wlaschiha
Fritz Hübner
Carola Nossek
Rosemarie Lang
Hermann Christian Polster
Hans-Joachim Ketelsen
Reiner Süß
Henno Garduhn
Heinz Reeh
Günther Leib
Günther Kurt
Joachim Arndt
Bernd Zettisch
Peter Bindszuz
Horst Gebhardt
Gerd Wolf
Fritz Heidan
Walter Naveau
Roman Trekel
Elvira Dreßen
Olaf Bär
Peter Menzel
Dario Süß
Andreas Schmidt
Brigitte Eisenfeld
Margot Stejskal
Adelheid Vogel
Uta Priew

Helmut Oertel, organ

Choir of the Deutsche Staatsoper, Berlin
Staatskapelle Berlin
Otmar Suitner

Berlin Classics 0310 001    (Three CDs)

Hans Pfitzner was not only a composer, but also a really caustic author of musical books. He took pleasure in destroying the ideas of his time's avantgardists, but unlike others who only could attack, he was very able to write really great music to make his point about how it should be done! He wrote music with the same commitment he criticised others. And among all of his works, "Palestrina" might be the best.

The sheer amount of singers may already give you an idea of the this opera's magnitude. It is a monumental pseudo-historical setting of the well-known, even if untrue, musical legend about Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina saving figural music by writing the "Missa Papae Marcelli", when the Council of Trent was considering to definitively outlaw it. Pfitzner's opera, completed in 1917, is a tremendously dramatic work, elaborating on the style of German Romantic Opera already brought to bloom by Wagner. A central Leitmotiv threads throughout the entire opera, secondary ones intertwine, but a bit different from Wagner's heroic stagings, "Palestrina" is more loaded with human drama - the feeling of insufficiency, sheer desperation of Palestrina, faced to the enormously difficult and all-important task, dominates the work. This is Schopenhauer's philosophy, set in music!

There is a scene in this opera, which is certainly among the most intense ever set in music: It's when Palestrina, feeling old and weak at the end of a great musical epoch that cannot be saved, consumed by desperation as he can't find the proper music to do his enormous duty justice,  is visited by the ghosts of the nine Great Masters from the time before his own: Josquin, Enrico Tedesco, Ockeghem and all the others. Wondering if he has joined them in the other world, he is soon corrected by them: The old dead masters don't want their works burned by the Church! Palestrina is the only one who can help them! His duty in this world is not yet complete! He must write that Mass! The Old Masters encourage, inspire, and force him to do it. This scene might be the very best I have ever heard Peter Schreier in. He is absolutely stunning in his interpretation of Palestrina!

This is no background music... You have to sit down for three hours, grab the libretto and follow the text. English translations are included, but of course it's best to know German...

Anyone who enjoys operas by Wagner will intensely love this one. Everything with this opera is intense!

Heinrich Schütz: Sacred Choral Music of 1648

Sebastian Hennig, treble
Betty Vandenberghe, contralto
Charles Brett, Hendrik Jacobs, Timothy Penrose, counter-tenors
Thomas Seedorf, Wilfried Jochens, tenors

Hannover Boys' Choir
Ein Instrumental-Ensemble
Heinz Hennig

deutsche harmonia mundi, Editio Classica,  GD 77171 (two CDs)

If you have read this page from the start, by now you will be aware that Schütz has a central place in my musical taste. And here we have another of his masterworks, a set of 29 motets composed at (or for...?) the end of the 30-year-war, that had caused so much misery to Europe. For the first time in decades, Schütz could hope to get enough musicians together for a performance of "big" music. This recording does exactly that, using a relatively large force of instruments and voices. Despite this fact, the performance is not heavy, instead it's more floating, dreamy, much more poetic than others I have heard.

When you start listening to this recording, you won't have to wait long for the first treat. The very first motet opens with a treble solo, so sublimely sung by Sebastian Hennig, that you will never regret buying this set!

If you really want to become a Schütz specialist, you should also buy another version of this work: That by the Tölzer Knabenchor under Gerhard Schmidt-Gaden, Capriccio 10 858/59. That one is diametrally opposed: Small, intimate, strict pacing, against the large, open, floating and poetic sound of Hennig's version. Schmidt-Gaden's recording is considered the more originalistic one by some scholars, but this is one of the rare cases when I prefer an alternative version over that of Schmidt-Gaden! I find Hennig's version musically much more satisfying.

Henry Purcell: The Complete Anthems and Services

Jerome Finnis, Nicholas Witcomb, Philip Hallchurch, Daniel Lochmann, Timothy Bowes, Mark Kennedy, Eamon O'Dwyer, James Goodman, Connor Burrowes, David Nickless, Aaron Webber, trebles
Susan Gritton, Lynne Dawson, sopranos
James Bowman, Nigel Short, counter-tenors
Rogers Covey-Crump, Charles Daniels, Mark Padmore, Mark Milhofer, Paul Agnew, tenors
Michael George, Colin Campbell, Robert Evans, Stephen Varcoe, basses

Choir of New College, Oxford
Choir of the King's Consort
The King's Consort
Robert King

Hyperion CDA 66585, 66609 66623, 66644, 66656, 66663, 66677, 66686, 66693, 66707, 66716     (eleven CDs)

Between 1991 and 1994 Robert King undertook the demanding but enjoyable work of recording all of Henry Purcell's Church music in original style. King of course used his King's Consort throughout, in some cases playing instruments made specially for this recording (like some reverse trumpets for the "Funeral Music"!). He started recording with the Choir of New College, Oxford, trained by Edward Higginbottom, but soon into the work he decided to go for the best there was: He went on a kind of kidnapping tour around England, and borrowed the best trebles from each of several choirs, namely the Westminster Cathedral Choir, Choir of New College, Oxford, Choir of Salisbury Cathedral, St. Paul's Cathedral Choir, Winchester Cathedral Choir, Guildford Cathedral Choir, the Choir of St. Alban's Cathedral, and The Winchester Quiristers. With this Super-choir (King's own and true words!) the work went on at the very best possible quality level!

Not only the choir as a whole is superb. The soloists are among the finest I have heard: The trebles, who are truly outstanding, do most of the high solos. The works that require a female soprano are sung by Susan Gritton. She sings very well, blending finely into the choir sound when so required, and adding that intensity that sometimes is above the reach of boys. She provides the low key highlight element. Among the other soloists we find many of England's finest.

There are about a hundred anthems, songs and other works on these CDs. I won't provide a detailed review of all of them here! But since I have written a review of this set previously for a group of specialists in the treble voice, I will draw on that:

On volume 3, track 2 we have "The Lord is King", sung by Nicholas Witcomb and Daniel Lochmann. I can't help but imagine those voices as physical things flying in patterns just below the dome of a cathedral! They playfully follow each other, play "catch me, if you can", rise and climb, effortlessly! Florid, ornamented music, joyfully sung!

Volume 4, track 6: Nicholas Witcomb sings "The earth trembled". This boy has a mature voice in full bloom, and employs a hint of belcanto technique that makes his music gorgeous!

Volume 5 opens with "O lord, rebuke me not", sung by Philip Hallchurch and Mark Kennedy. It's the kind of performance that makes us drop whatever we may have been doing, and listen in awe. If you want to find similiar quality somewhere else, better turn directly to the Tölzer recording of Schütz' Little Sacred Concertos. While the style is different, no doubt, the quality of these English soloists is no less than that of our much cherished Fliegner and Wittek!

Let's go to track 3 on the same volume. Nicholas Witcomb sings "How long, great God". Those of you who know and like Aled Jones' voice will find here a similiar one! Need I say more?

Volume 6, track 5: Nicholas Witcomb again, in "Thou wakeful shepherd". How can I keep from praising Nicholas' singing? Even if his voice was getting just a tad shaky in this recording, maybe his last one...

Volume 10, track 10: Mark Kennedy at last is given an entire piece for himself (well, almost, he still has to give a short section to newcomer David Nickless!). It was high time! His voice was shining through already for some time in previous recordings! In this piece, "The Lord is King", Mark exhibits a very ripe voice, astoundingly well controlled, that soars up and steps down over a wide range with great agility while maintaining uniform tone. Here is head resonance taken a wide way! He must have been wandering along the edge. It reminds me of Iwan Davies on "The Better Land"!

On the last volume, track 9 features the lighter voice of Eamonn O'Dwyer in "Now that the sun hath veiled his light".

Enough said about the trebles... Now let's go to a short excursion into the other extreme of the voice range: It is well known that Purcell wrote many pieces specifically for John Gostling, a very good bass singer of Purcell's time. On this recording, Michael George sings these pieces so well that I'm tempted to crown him "Gostling the 2nd"!

Another item that must be specially mentioned is the "Music for the Funeral of Queen Mary" on volume 7. King attempts a painstaking reconstruction of how the music may have sounded in the actual performance at the royal funeral. It is quite impressive!

The accompanying booklets contain comments written by Robert King for every individual piece. In reading them, it becomes clear that King has remained a choir boy at heart, and his understanding for this art may well make him the best director for Purcell's music in original style!  In any case, I have heard no better.

This entire set of 11 CDs belongs in the collection of anyone interested in English Church Music, boy choirs, etc. Purcell's music is simply too good to leave any single piece out! Specially in this marvelous performance.

Concertante Baroque Music for Oboe  (Bach, Vivaldi, Telemann, Pisendel, Hertel)

Andreas Lorenz, Oboe and Oboe d'amore
Ludwig Güttler, trumpet

Virtuosi Saxoniae
Ludwig Güttler

Berlin Classics 0011512BC

When I visited the city of Dresden in 1999, the main point in my schedule was attending several concerts. But not all went well - I failed to get a ticket for the Opera, which was booked out months in advance, suddenly leaving me with an unfilled evening. What to do? The cultural programme mentioned a Baroque concert by a (to me at least, at that time) obscure ensemble named "Virtuosi Saxoniae". I had nothing to loose, so I decided to go. The concert was in the "Frauenkirche - Unterkirche". I had to ask the locals, learning that this was the catacomb-like basement of the big Church of Our Lady, destroyed in 1945, and at the time of this concert under reconstruction. The entrance was over wooden planks leading over the construction site, and the funds raised went into the reconstruction.

Once seated between the meter-thick stone columns, I noticed a guy tuning the cembalo. I listened up: That was meantone temperament, or perhaps Valotti, certainly not the plain equidistant tuning which is the only I ever get to hear live when back home! This was promising!

And when the concert started, I learned how Baroque music can be played! This was something I had never heard, but only read about: They bound the movements together, graced, filled in what the score didn't state... it was a real feast of music! They didn't just play notes, they made music! Probably the opera I missed was good too, but I think I didn't loose with the swap!

Back home, I checked on the web if any recordings by the Virtuosi Saxoniae were available, and found a fair number. I ordered several. Among them, this is the one I like best. While it cannot be as virtuosic and alive as when the musicians are standing there in front of a room full of people, it is certainly a very enjoyable CD!

Johann Heinrich Schmelzer: Violin sonatas

Andrew Manze, violin
Nigel North, theorbo
John Toll, harpsichord and organ

Let me introduce Andrew Manze to my gentle readers. He is one of the most outstanding virtuoso Baroque violinists of our time. Almost sugary sweet in some passages, suddenly he turns into an unleashed demon! He accepts no conventions, at least no binding ones, and makes Baroque music as he thinks it should be made: Free, temperamental, wild yet elegant, perfectly tuned, with a touch of light! He's the only one I have heard playing Tartini's "Trillo del Diavolo" - unaccompanied! By the way, that's another of his CDs I must recommend...

This CD features 6 sonatas from Sonatae unarum fidium, the Cuckoo Sonata, and the funnily programmatic sonata "The Victory of the Christians over the Turks". It rightfully won the 1995 Gramophone award, but is only one of a fair number of CDs by Manze. Almost all of them are worth having!

Sébastien de Brossard: Petit Motets

Cyrille Dubois, treble
Hervé Lamy, tenor
Alain Buet, baritone
Juan-Sebastián Lima, theorbo
Jean-Marie Quint, baroque violoncello
Robert Weddle, organ

Small Choir of the Maitrise de Caen
Robert Weddle

assai 207582

This is French Baroque at its very finest. This CD won the 1999 award to the best recording of French Baroque. Its strength rests not on a single aspect, but on the happy combination only of excellent elements. The 14 year old treble has an extremely beautiful, light voice, a musicality beyond reproach, and a singing technique that's perfect for this music. The baritone with his warm voice matches the treble's interpretative skills, and the tenor adds a stirring element. Combine that with a sensitively played basso continuo, and it's no wonder that this recording won the prize, and a place in my list of The Best of the Best!

The CD opens with "O Jesu! quam dulce nomen tuum", for solo treble and basso continuo, a motet of haunting beauty. Then comes "O plenum irarum dies", for baritone and basso continuo. Beautiful, serene and heartfelt music. Then the treble and baritone join in "Beata immaculati", followed by "Silentium dormi", sung by the tenor. The CD is rightfully closed by the treble, supported by the small choir, in a setting of the "Miserere mei" that leaves one in wonder about how so much emotional power can be expressed in music made with such small means.

This is one of those CDs that require a while of respectful, complete silence, after they finish. Any other music seems out of place, until one has had time to work down and digest what one has heard. The programme is so well rounded off that nothing remains to be said. I tend to listen to it in late evening, as the golden crowning of a day.

Claudio Monteverdi / Hans Werner Henze: Il Ritorno d'Ulisse in patria

Thomas Allen
Kathleen Kuhlmann
Ann Murray
Vinson Cole
James King
Robert Tear
Manfred Schenk
Alejandro Ramirez
Harald Stamm
Josef Protschka
Douglas Ahlstedt
Daphne Evangelatos
Curtis Rayam
Martha Szirmay
Kurt Rydl
Janice Hall
Allan Bergius

Tölz boys' choir
Ensemble Spinario
Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra
Jeffrey Tate

Orfeo C 528 003 D   (three CDs)

If you have already read my article about period performance practices, you may remember my vision of white-maned Händel magically drafted into the modern world, sitting at the Roland keyboard, in front of a 1000-voiced choir and a Berlioz-style orchestra, letting his Messiah thunder out over London. Well, here we have something in that line! It is not Händel but Monteverdi, not the Messiah but the Ulisse, and Roland keyboards are not used but almost everything else is!

What we get on this CD set is Henze's free reconstruction of Monteverdi's opera, which has come over into our times only as a very incomplete torso. Henze's reconstruction turns away from the more common practice of completing such a work in the style of its time. Instead, it takes a pretty revolutionary approach by using a full set of modern instruments, yet managing to preserve the characteristic harmonic structures of early Baroque in a setting of modern, broad and big sonority!

It is interesting to compare this very early opera to those of Romanticism. Actually, once the Baroque sound gives way to modern instruments, there isn't very much separating Monteverdi from Wagner! The Leitmotiv system, and the style of letting soloists carry the work, with very few choral interventions, is shared by the two masters despite the several centuries that separate them on the time line!

The first performance of this reconstruction, during the Salzburg Festival of 1985, was a resounding success. Fortunately this history-making first performance was recorded, and after spending too many years in the archives, was finally released on CD within the  series documenting the unrepeatable best performances of the Salzburg Festival.

There is an almost electrifying, magical tension in this performance. The singing is tremendously dramatic, aided by the sound effects and probably by an impressive staging which can of course only be guessed in the recording. Spontaneous applause shows how captivated the public was. I would have loved to attend this live. That having been impossible, I had to settle for the CDs, which I have played a few dozen times by now. I cannot grow tired of this!

Missa Mystica: Sacred Hymns and Chants from the Russian tradition

Uncredited treble, bass and deep bass soloists
Moscow Boys' Choir
Moscow Men's Choir
Monks from the Danilov Monastery
Moscow Cathedral Choir
Victor Popov

Koch Schwann 3-6573-2

Russian Church music is famous for its use of extremely deep basses, often called octavists since their range extends down to a full octave below that of common basses. This CD features them better than most, but rather than being just a documentation of octavists, it has many more elements of attraction.

Popov has not just recorded this programme, but also toured with it. It's a collection of works by composers like Archangelski, Tchesnokov, Gontcharov and Bortnyansky, arranged so as to represent the ecclesiastical year as a reflection of the human life cycle. It starts with a simple "Our Father", presented by three solo trebles in the three languages used through the history of the Russian Church: Greek, Latin and Church Slavonic. The chant that follows, opened by some of the best octavists I have heard, gives a stunning contrast to the trebles, that never fails to impress listeners! When somebody asks me how many octaves the human voice can span, I love to show them just the first two tracks of this CD! Even if the trebles don't go to the top of their range, nor the octavists go to the bottom in this track, there is still enough span between them to impress anyone!

What follows is a wide range of choral music, with solo parts, sung by a big choir including men, women and boys, sometimes employed together, sometimes separately. There is so much good on this CD that it would be too long to comment on each piece. I will just pick some highlights:

Track 6 is Pavel Tchesnokov's "Let my prayer rise up", an incredibly effectful piece starting with solo treble and men's choir, later adding the full choir. This chant has appeared on many CDs, but the version on this one may be the best I have heard.

Track 14 is Gontcharov's "Before Thy Cross", for solo octavist and choir. This piece features the lowest note I have ever heard by a human voice: Just a bit sharp of the subterranean G, the one far below the usual bass range!  That's what some Russian trebles do when they get older! :-)

Track 16 is the extremely beautiful and expressive "Greater Doxology" by A. Nikolaev-Strumski, performed by a very warm bass voice with full choir backing.

Track 19 is again for deep bass, Tchesnokov's "Cast me not away in the time of my old age", and reaches the very bottom of the vocal range.

This CD was recorded in 2000, but even being so new, it suffers from a small technical problem: The extreme dynamics of the large choir at some places overshoot the range of the recording equipment, resulting in clipping. It happens only at a few places, but people with sensitive ears and good music equipment will notice it. Despite this flaw, Missa Mystica deserves a place in one's collection, for its superb combination of beautiful, intense, expressive music and superlative voices in a well rounded programme.

King of the Gypsy Violinists

Roby Lakatos, violin
Ernest Bangó, cimbalom and guitar
Kálmán Cséki, piano
Oszkár Németh, double bass
László Bóni, second violin

Deutsche Grammophon 457 879-2--18

Further up on this page I wrote marvels about Sándor Lakatos. Well, the Lakatos family has more top violinists: Roby is at the very least as good as his uncle Sándor! His is a different style, glamorous, unconventional, individual and absolutely enchanting!

What they play, you want to know? Well, Hungarian Dances by Brahms, of course - but also Charles Aznavour's famous La Bohème,  the Russian folk song Ochi Chornyje, Chatchaturjan's Saber Dance and John Williams' Schindler's List! Surprised...? Oh yes, traditional Gypsy pieces are included too, as well as original works by the performers, which play a little into Jazz...

If the programme surprises you, just wait until you hear these guys play! Sometimes one doesn't know if it's Bangó's cimbalom or Lakatos' incredible pizzicato, but for sure it's wild, virtuosic, and very elegant!

In addition to frequent listening when I'm alone, I have a very good special use for this CD: When I invite someone for dinner, the perfect complement to candle light, fine food and Chilean red wine is Lakatos' music! It doesn't even matter what musical taste the visitors have; interestingly this music appeals to all! It's immediate enough to captivate even musically uneducated people, while at the same time offering enough sheer quality to delight the most demanding conoisseurs!

Michael Praetorius: Christmette

Lutheran Mass for Christmas Morning, as it might have been celebrated around 1620

Boys' Choir and Congregational Choir of Roskilde Cathedral
Gabrieli Consort and Players
Paul McCreesh

Deutsche Grammophon 439 931-2

I wonder what kind of tool McCreesh used to conduct this performance? Was it a magic wand? No other of the 20+ CDs purchased lately has been able to produce such a riveting effect on me!

What McCreesh has done here is an imaginative reconstruction of a late Renaissance Mass, based mostly on collections by Praetorius (such as Polyhymnia caduceatrix et panegyrica, Musae Sioniae, Missodia Sionia, Urania, and the Puericinium), but also including some works of Samuel Scheidt, Johann Hermann Schein, and Lucas Osiander. And this compendium is performed with forces that combine the refined with the massive: The singers of the Gabrieli Consort include such "secret tip" names as Rodrigo del Pozo, while the choir forces range from a favoriti choir over a fine boychoir all the way to a massive choir built up by the already mentioned groups plus the congregational choir and several amateur choirs. All this is supported on period instruments, which include a chamber organ and the truly marvelous organ of Roskilde Cathedral, which is so authentic that it uses hand-blown bellows!

These ample forces are employed in a highly varied way. A solo treble (Anders Engberg-Pedersen) opens the performance with a faraway processional. Soon later, in the introit, the full choir sets the other end of the dynamics scale. In the gradual hymn each of its nine verses is performed with a different array: Baritone solo for the first, congregation and instruments with cathedral organ for the second, choirboys, strings and harpsichord for the third, and so on, until the last verse is performed with all hands, in twelve voices.

From the Puericinium, a collection of music for boy's voices, we get to hear the "Quem pastores laudavere", one of Praetorius' better known works, commonly referred to in Lutheran tradition as "the Quempas". Four trebles alternate with the full choir and ensemble in an enthusiastic rendering.

The magic keeps flowing for a full 79 minutes, until the apotheosic end, "In dulci jubilo", performed by five "choirs" which include everything from trebles to trumpets and drums.

So, that's it for now. I'm slowing down with my CD purchases, because 1200+ tends to be enough for picking the exact right music for every ocassion. But special things keep finding their way into my collection, so this list will keep growing!

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