Caldara, Legrenzi, Leo, Lotti & D Scarlatti
Choral works by Caldara, Leo, Legrenzi, Lotti & D Scarlatti
Les Arts Florissants/Paul Agnew
Catalogue Number:
Virgin 070 9072
BBC Music Magazine

Paul Agnew here makes a stunningly successful recording debut as conductor. Renowned as a tenor, Agnew is perhaps best known for his solo performances in French Baroque masterpieces directed by William Christie, although his repertory stretches from Purcell to Beamish. A searing yet intellectual performer, Agnew has grown naturally into his role of associate conductor of Les Arts Florissants, and this disc’s unusual blend of authority and intimacy sets Agnew apart from Christie.

Sensitivity to text and to a score’s drama – Agnew’s longstanding strengths as a singer – nourishes his supple direction, and help him deftly exploit the theatrical practices implicit in this sacred music. Startling contrasts, melting sensuality, continuo ‘commentary’ and, above all, speech-like melodies leap to our attention. Agnew is equally adept at laying bare these works’ intricate counterpoint, involving up to 16 independent lines, and the multiple archaisms that mark this music’s solemnity. Through their collective grasp of secular and sacred idioms, Agnew and Les Arts Florissants gorgeously illuminate this repertory, mixing flamboyance, warmth and piety in perfect measure.

Spine-tingling climaxes abound, particularly in Caldara’s 16-voice Crucifixus, which I consider the recording’s jewel. Cascading imitation dissolves into a downward spiral of chromatic modulations, ending in silence – only after which despair does the final cadence restore the home key. Dazzling musicianship is everywhere evident in this work, from transparent ensemble in Caldara’s dense polyphony to the tenderness of the concluding chord’s delivery.

Equally impressive is the singers’ ability to deliver massive homophony as authoritatively as a delicate solo: the climaxes in Scarlatti’s Stabat Mater require towering fortissimos, while Legrenzi’s Quam amarum est Maria explores Mary’s fragility through two delicately entwined solo voices.

The thought invested in this programme invites admiration. Not only are the individual works exquisite, but they guide us delicately from lamentation to revelation. Although recorded live in concert (in Ambronay Abbey, France) , the disc’s close miking and discreet engineering further enhance the intimacy with which an entire emotional terrain is traversed.

Several of these works have already attracted fine recordings but this performance’s bravura makes it a benchmark, and flags the advent of an exciting new recording career. Berta Joncus

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