Posts by Osbert Parsley

    From the short samples at CD Baby, quite nice and expertly played. However, be warned, CD Baby has decided recently not to sell CD quality FLAC downloads any more. What you get when you download from CD Baby now is a tinny and quickly aurally wearying MP3. This certainly does not do justice to an organ!

    What is immediately apparent is that we are going to be in for a treat of the highest virtuosic order. It will certainly be the fastest recording of all - 5 minutes faster than Holliger's second recording and a whopping 13 minutes quicker in total playing time compared to the 1704 disk released last year!

    Sorry, but for me, on modern instruments Zelenka, like Telemann, sounds bland and uninteresting, no matter how virtuosically played. So much of the music depends on texture and balance between the instruments. When period instruments are used and the performers are good, then it is superb music of the highest quality and excitement.


    Sorry not to reply before this, but I did not return to the forum since posting that link.

    I think the answer is that the norm in eighteenth-century Germany was that choirs tended to be very small. This raises the whole controversy over Joshua Rifkin's theory (with which I agree) that Bach's choir (and by extension those of his contemporaries) usually consisted of just the soloists - perhaps with one or two extra voices per part being added very occasionally. This makes sense if you consider how very clearly soloistic the German cantatas of even the generation just before him are, even in their choruses (Buxtehude for example).
    I am not sure, but I think Zelenka wrote this work for two choirs, one of which had the weight of the solo work placed on it and the other one sometimes used to double the first choir and sometimes used to sing its own independent choral "part". If so, it would seem that he envisaged (or perhaps was directed to write for) two choirs consisting of single voices only for each part.
    There are members of this forum who will be able to answer this question with much greater knowledge and authority than me.

    I have always wondered how large Zelenka's choir in Dresden was for his Masses especially, since he retired (or died?) before the huge Frauenkirch was completed and, as I understand it, the Court's Catholic church in Dresden until then was quite small. Perhaps we should start considering Zelenka Mass performances with only the soloists singing the choruses or maybe with the soloists and only one extra singer on each part.

    Perhaps this could rival the superb version by the Chandos Baroque and Chance/Ainsley/George, which has always held sway for me.

    I don't wish to start a willy-willy of argument, but I have always been puzzled by the adulation Carolyn Sampson has received for her eighteenth-century baroque recordings. Her voice is often described as pure and sweet, but I can only hear a sourness, exacerbated by a sagging quality from her too heavy vibrato, and I find her performances generally (not always) not very intelligent. I am bracing myself for the response!
    I do rather like the new Lamentations recording, by the way! Guillon and Johannsen are excellent, but Kral is on an altogether higher plane again.


    I think it would be better to treat a recording as a recording, no matter in what format it is provided, and thus there should be a single list rather than making "das Publicum" have to scour two or more lists to find recordings. (Note that most downloads are still also issued as physical discs, though there are a few little labels popping up with download-only catalogues.)

    That raises another issue: would it be useful to include in the recordings database links to various on-line performances, such as Youtube video posts of concerts and TV broadcasts and audio broadcasts and podcasts? I think that with a bit of careful planning this could be achievable without complicating the list too much. The biggest issue may be the impermanence of such links, however, and thus the amount of additional administrative work keeping the list up to date.

    "That is the principal problem with singers like Miss Hellerova and Miss Cukrova" - I think it's mostly your problem :)

    You're right, I should have made explicit that it is "my problem" with those singers, although at least one other forum member, Honey B, seems to agree.

    Vibrato becomes heavy when it reaches the level of being both persistent and strongly audible. Of course there is even heavier vibrato than Miss Hellerova's, sometimes even in so-called historically informed performances. That said, I think I would still marginally prefer to hear Barbara Hendricks sing Zelenka than Miss Hellerova!

    However, as I took some pains to explain in my last post, vibrato is only one element of the many elements of the post-1800 (or so) singing style I regard as (a) inappropriate for early 18th century singing and (b) inconsistent with the playing style of period instrument Baroque ensembles. I have heard some modern-style sopranos singing baroque music with almost no vibrato and the sound and expression is still all wrong.

    I should have asked earlier, but is my impression correct that you positively dislike Hana Blazikova's singing or the singing style of Blazikova and similar singers (such as, for example, Dorothee Mields, Suzie Leblanc)?

    Mozart, to take one example, also criticised a singer for having a constant heavy vibrato (sorry, I cannot find the reference at the monent). Leopold Mozart also criticised musicians who use a constant vibrato. There is considerable evidence from 17th and 18th century sources (including, I am told, Leopold Mozart's violin treatise) that vibrato, like the crescendo, was an ornament, to be used from time to time but not constantly "gracing" the voice (as with, for example, Miss Hellerova or Miss Cukrova).

    But, let us be clear: I am not advocating no vibrato at all (although I think there is an argument based on the musical writing style for absolutely minimal - or extremely rare and almost inaudible - vibrato for certain periods of music in certain places (e.g. Stradella and his mid-17th century Italian colleagues).

    The problem is that people use these clear early references to vibrato and its naturalness as an excuse for hiring singers with a post-18th century vocal technique. That technique includes pasting the voice over with a heavy, constant, unchanging vibrato. It is like the tremulant stop on an organ. We know it is there, but that does not mean we have to use it constantly. How we would laugh if someone played the organ with the tremulant stop pulled for the whole recital.

    However, vibrato is the easy thing to refer to. What I find sounds inappropriate in Baroque music of the Zelenka period is a type of vocal production that is heavy (especially at the top) and strident, even when no vibrato is present. In other words, using a style and technique of vocal production (which brings with it as a physical necessity a style of articulation and thus of expression) that is the product of the revolutionary change in musical aesthetics that started around 1790-1810 and would sound completely alien to Mozart and his contemporaries and all who preceded them. That is the principal problem with singers like Miss Hellerova and Miss Cukrova (who I note is a major participant in Musica Florea's upcoming Zelenka recording too).

    Also, as a matter of personal taste, I find Miss Hellerova's singing lacking in expression and emotional conviction by comparison with Miss Blazikova.

    By the way, if you regard the Mozart quotation as allowing a heavy, 19th century style vibrato, then he seems to be saying that the strings and winds should also adopt a heavy vibrato. If so, by that standard Collegium 1704 fell below the mark.

    Bach aesthetics is simply not applicable always and everywhere - if we say Scholl is perfect for Bach, it does not mean that he is perfect for baroque in general.

    Of course, as Jan should recall, a countertenor is never ideal for a Bach alto. Bach never used a countertenor in his cantatas, just as he also never used a castrato. He had male altos with unbroken voices, but boys matured considerably older in his day so they may well have been more skilled and mature than any boy alto who can be found today. (I would love to be contradicted about this last bit!)

    Therefore, Scholl is not perfect for Bach; but his power and superlative technique (at least until recently) make him a good compromise for our age when boys mature at a considerably younger age than in early 18th century Germany.

    Dresden used boy sopranos in sacred music when no castrati were available and female sopranos were never used in sacred music. Some boys sopranos were stars in their own right, such as Franz Benda. 18th century commentators did not mention any marked difference between a castrato and a good boy soprano in terms of vocal style. Modern adult female sopranos singing baroque should try to imitate a boy soprano to some extent.

    Theoreticians of an earlier age than Zelenka praised the cornetto for its vocal qualities. Those of a more modern age than those (i.e. from the late 17th century) praised the viola da gamba for its vocal qualities. They were surely not advocating that the cornetto and viola da gamba should be played with the heavy vibrato, approximate precision and awkward (for baroque music) articulation that modern opera house sopranos and altos such as Hellerova and Cukrova apply to Zelenka under the direction of Luks and Stryncl.

    Almost certainly, the typical tone colour of the early 18th century was far brighter than is now common. Brighter does not mean shriller or louder, despite the current fashion in modern France for loud shrill sopranos in Early Music. The vocal treatises of Tosi and Giambattista Mancini (both 18th century) both call for mouth positions that, by modern standards, are quite closed and would lead to a bright, even shallow, sound, an effect probably only heightened by their lack of emphasis on breathing and support. (Note that the practice of "covering" high notes does not seem to have started before the early 19th century.) Unsurprisngly, both Tosi and Mancini explicitly criticise any heavy production. Mancini also speaks of brightening and clarifying the tone ("chiarire"). No one would pretend that heavy vibrato and heavy tone clarify anything.

    Further, the continuous vibrato integral to modern vocal tone (thus to Hellerova and Cukrova) apparently had little place in baroque technique. Tosi warned against allowing sustained notes to be coloured by any "trembling" or "fluttering", which does not seem to mean he required there be absolutely no vibrato, but only that heavy fluttering or shaking of the modern opera singer type should be avoided (after all, you had to make your reputation by your ability to trill effectively in the 18th century and this meant you had to make a clear distinction between vibrato and the trill).

    The expressive potential of brightened tone and limited vibrato have been well demonstrated by the best Early Music singers such as Emma Kirkby (of the first generation) and Dorothee Mields and Hana Blazikova (of the latest generation).

    Another noteworthy aspect of Baroque vocal style is the distribution of weight, and indeed registers, within the voice. Jan is misinformed about castrati singing without transitions between registers. Tosi and Mancini both state that the castrato singer, the epitome of 18th century vocal style, normally sang in chest voice up to about c” or d” and then mixed into head voice for the last five or six tones of his compass. Modern female singers will probably not wish to follow this procedure, even in castrato repertoire; but the description suggests that the weight of an early 18th century singer’s voice lay in the lower range; the top of the voice was comparatively light, although certainly not weak or lacking penetration. Thus, the voice should lighten as it ascends rather than grow louder and shriller as the pitch raises as is commonly heard from modern opera singers (whether in 19th century and later repertory or in baroque repertory). The difference between this technique and the more modern approach means that those used to the modern approach can find the climactic high notes sound thin and unconvincing. But in a period-instrument or historically informed performance that is no reason for ignoring the principle and singers should avoid the temptation to apply vocal weight to the higher notes and change the nature of their musical line.

    And finally, as Honey B pointed out, is it too much to want there to be stylistic consistency between the voices and the instruments in a period-instrument performance of baroque music? Otherwise, you might as well not bother with the period instruments.

    [quote='SineNomine','']Zelenka never used countertenor (nor Handel or all Italien composers). Of course he commonly used castrato-singers ...

    Jan, I think you misunderstood what I was saying about female altos in my post. Perhaps my syntax was not wholly clear. By saying "inappropriate female altos", I was not saying that it is inappropriate to use a female alto, but was saying that Luks' choice of female alto voices in recent years has veered towards alto singers of an inappropriate style.

    As for that style, it is surely misconceived to refer to singers of the style of Blazikova as having "thin and dietary voices" (I know you were referring to the usual sound of modern countertenors, but Honey B's original lament was that Blazikova was replaced by the far inferior Hellerova). If the period instrument orchestra is playing with particular historically informed phrasing, dynamics, articulation and reduced vibrato (as Collegium 1704 was doing), we should expect the singers to match that style with their voices, rather than simply paying lip service to reducing vibrato a tiny bit and otherwise sound wholly "modern opera house". It is rather tedious that whenever this issue is raised, the straw man of interpretative poverty is the only answer. Pure and yet colourfully shaded (not thin and dietary) voices singing with precision such as Blazikova's does not mean ice-cold singing with a lack of love and devotion in expression as King Max suggests.

    Having watched the Youtube clip, I have to agree with Honey B. The soprano is not fantastic. Far from it. In fact, she is a rather ordinary modern opera singer (heavy vocal technique and rather persistent vibrato as a fundamental element of her voice) of no great artistic insight. Similarly with Luks' alto, who is much worse. By comparison with Ensemble Inegal's recording, Luks' choice of soprano and alto is an evident flaw in the performance. The soprano to some extent and the alto to a great extent are just rather vocally inappropriate and far less expressive than more stylistically attuned singers usually are in this repertoire. The choice of inappropriate sopranos and female altos has been a growing problem with Luks' otherwise exemplary performances over recent years. It is an increasing problem too, if one considers his 2012/2013 programme.

    I agree about the Sonnentheil and DNEO recording. Sometimes its playing is infectiously lively, but too often there is a hint of sluggishness and opportunities for interesting details of phrasing and shaping are missed.

    It is hard to better the Dombrecht / Il Fondamento recording. The Freiburgers' version of ZWV 188 on EMI is my favourite version of that piece however.

    I have to disagree about the Missa Dei Filii concert by the Freiburgers, mainly on account of their soprano (a little bit heavy and a little too - even if not wholly - operatic in the 19th century sense). The performance as a whole was splendid, however. Such energy and agility! It was marred by a lot of peaking through the microphones when I listened on-line (or is that just my system doing that?).

    What does the Forum think of a solo recital disc by the Czech bass, Tomas Kral, with any of Ensemble Inegal, Musica Florea, Collegium 1704, Collegium Marianum or Capella Regia?

    A programme of Zelenka, Bach (BWV 82?) and one or two Italians (Caldara?) of the same period would be nice. Or even a collection of arias, sacred and secular, by Zelenka and his colleagues in Dresden, including Heinichen, Ristori and Hasse.

    What a nice level-headed response to this debate. However, one should not assume that the musicians of Ensemble Inegal, including Adam Viktora, have no other jobs than the ensemble and therefore need a break from the kind of music in which the ensemble specialises. They feature in a large array of different ensembles and, if I'm not mistaken, there is a fair sprinkling of modern instrument groups among those.

    Maybe I should start a separate thread for the Tomas Kral solo CD idea and see what support it garners.