Recording reviews

Recent reviews of AAM recordings can be found here. For more reviews, visit individual recordings in Recordings.

Thursday 06 October 2016

Dario Castello — Sonate Concertate in Stil Moderno, Libro Primo

"Who was Dario Castello? Some say he died of a plague that devastated Venice in 1630, others that he survived until well into the 1650s. One source lists him as born in 1610 and dead by 1620, which would make miraculous the two hefty volumes of sonatas he published – by the age of 10. Whatever we don’t know about Castello, Richard Egarr and instrumentalists from the Academy of Ancient Music show him to be a flagrant pusher of baroque boundaries, his music frenetic and uncompromising but sumptuous. He was a wind player and it shows in the tactile chamber writing: these are works that sound fun to play. Egarr is on harpsichord and chamber organ and his sense of drama is never shy; I was probably most seduced by sonatas 7-11, featuring the dulcian, an early version of the bassoon played here with great finesse and flourish by Benny Aghassi."


Tuesday 04 August 2015

JS Bach — St Matthew Passion (1727)

"For something in an actual original-instrument vein, a new recorded St Matthew Passion from the Academy of Ancient Music conducted by Richard Egarr, also using the original 1727 edition, is unusually dark, dusty, compelling and disturbing, flowing along as if a larger force were behind the message that the music was delivering in such an awesome, unforgettable way."


Friday 29 May 2015

"Housed in an attractive fold-out package, this album is quite simply top-notch. Playing on period instruments, the orchestra (founded in 1973 by the late Christopher Hogwood) is conducive to the ambience essential to such works. And then there's the excellence of the singers – they are all superb with perhaps special mention made of James Gilchrist who dominates the piece and negotiates the fiendishly difficult tessitura of the Evangelist with inordinate ease. The principal ladies, Elizabeth Watts and Sarah Connolly are also in fine fettle, the latter almost stealing the show with a sublime rendition of 'Erbarme dich mein Gott' . . ." ★ ★ ★ ★ ★


Tuesday 19 May 2015

"What essentially transpires is the billowing theatricality of a 17th century oratorio, encouraged by the use of Bach's initial and rather more austere version of 1727, a text still to be given its final polish and yet exploited fully by Richard Egarr to encourage his singers to 'enact' emotions freely from within the heart of the imagery . . .

"If some of the numbers alight a touch breathlessly on a conceit of disquieting urgency, then the considered placement of the narrative falls to the unassuming and unforced Evangelist of James Gilchrist; his is a supremely courageous and intelligent reading whose interaction with the human volatility of Matthew Rose's Jesus is profoundly affecting . . .

"The outstanding Elizabeth Watts and Sarah Connolly have their bigger moments (the latter's 'Erbarme dich' is simply unmissable) but this ['So ist mein Jesus nun gefangen'] is a Gordian knot as yet untied for mankind and its effect is as breathtaking as Fritz Lehmann's revelatory reading . . . Bach's later appoggiaturas may not have been a good idea on this evidence . . .

"Egarr's compellingly original vision of this greatest of all musical tombeaus, with its fresh anticipation founded on collective adrenaline and uniformly outstanding lyrical Bach-singing . . . is a triumph."


Friday 08 May 2015

"Richard Egarr has boldly chosen to record Bach's first, 1727, version of the Passion, far less familiar than the 1736 revision – and not, he asserts, "work in progress. It is different." The differences alone would make it a "must hear" recording, even if it were less admirably performed . . . Singing and playing are highly polished and assured throughout, with James Gilchrist superb as the Evangelist." ★ ★ ★ ★


Saturday 18 April 2015

"The Academy of Ancient Music’s new recording of Bach’s St Matthew Passion, out in the nick of time for Easter, is no less worthy of a listen in the wake of the real-time festivities. Richard Egarr directs a performing version that adheres to Bach’s 1727 original, which unfortunately excludes the poignant choral climax to Part 1, “O Mensch, bewein”. But with James Gilchrist’s effortlessly emotive Evangelist, a strong deck of chorus and soloists that includes Matthew Rose as Jesus and the warm-voiced Sarah Connolly in the eternally beautiful “Erbarme dich”, and the sleek, eloquent playing of the period-instrument band, Egarr’s swift but touching interpretation is a seasonal delight." ★ ★ ★ ★


Sunday 12 April 2015

"For many serious music-lovers, listening to the St Matthew Passion at Easter is as vital as hearing Handel’s Messiah at Christmas.

"There were two packed performances in London last weekend, at the Royal Festival Hall and at the Barbican, the latter featuring the Academy of Ancient Music under Richard Egarr, whose new own-label recording really hits the spot for me. This is also an opportunity to wave the flag, because every one of a distinguished roster of soloists is British, led by James Gilchrist’s eloquent Evangelist.

"Matthew Rose is an imposing Jesus, and the arias at the heart of the work, which offer a deeply moving commentary on the Gospel, are exceptionally well sung by soprano Elizabeth Watts, alto Sarah Connolly, tenor Thomas Hobbs and bass Christopher Maltman. Egarr, both as harpsichordist and conductor, is the presiding genius here, presenting Bach’s original thoughts, as given in Leipzig on Good Friday 1727, rather than the 1736 revision normally performed. The 1736 version is more imposing, but the 1727 score has a touching simplicity. Its smaller scale brings spiritual benefits, for instance in the final bass aria, about Simon of Cyrene carrying the cross. Here Christopher Maltman is accompanied by a gentle lute rather than, as in the 1736 edition, a gruff viola da gamba.

"These three CDs, at about £30, aren’t cheap, but that shouldn’t put you off an acquisition that will offer memorable listening for many Easters to come." ★ ★ ★ ★ ★


Sunday 05 April 2015

"This is a far more vital and dramatic account of Bach's 'Great Passion' than the penitential one Egarr conducted a few years ago at Glyndebourne. Using his own period-instrument orchestra and chorus (of 20), it is a fine mainstream reading that makes no pious claims to 'authenticity'. Even though none of the soloists is a native German-speaker, their diction is clear, and, in the cases of James Gilchrist's Evangelist and Sarah Connolly's mezzo-soprano, the handling of the text is both viscerally emotional and eloquent. Properly, the sequence of Peter's denial and the succeeding aria, 'Erbarme Dich', with its consoling violin obbligato, becomes the spiritual and dramatic crux of the Passion story in these outstanding singers' hands. Elizabeth Watts's gleaming soprano, Thomas Hobbs clear tenor and Christopher Maltman's bass shine, too, and Matthew Rose's Jesus sounds earthier than usual." Album of the week


Sunday 05 April 2015

"Like the operas of Mozart, the plays of Shakespeare or Handel's Messiah, Bach's St Matthew Passion is on one hand so perfectly constructed that it is indestructible, and on the other, so flexible that it allows infinite interpretations. With two major recordings already this year, both using the first 1727 version, with its distinctive instrumentation, this masterpiece has an inexhaustible audience, too. James Gilchrist sings the Evangelist, with Matthew Rose, Elizabeth Watts, and Sarah Connolly among the other soloists in a closely recorded, intimate reading that at times feels like a whisper in the ear."
★ ★ ★ ★


Saturday 04 April 2015

"This handsomely presented recording has a particular claim on our attention. The St Matthew Passion that Bach first performed on Good Friday 1727 was different in a few major respects, and many small ones, from what we usually hear today. Richard Egarr and the Academy of Ancient Music perform this early version with a heightened expressiveness that turns every lingering suspension into a twinge of pain. The performance is expert, light on its feet, not dogmatic. James Gilchrist is the Evangelist, Matthew Rose sings Jesus, and there is a fine quartet of soloists." ★ ★ ★ ★


Saturday 04 April 2015

"Bach continued to revise the St Matthew Passion for a good 10 or 15 years after it was first performed at Leipzig on Good Friday 1727. This new recording by the Academy of Ancient Music and the Choir of the AAM, however, follows the original 1727 version ... In common with modern thinking Richard Egarr keeps the pacing keen: the chorales are much less ponderously hymn-like than they can sometimes be in performance ... Whereas the St John Passion embodies much more dramatic action than the St Matthew, the latter’s reflection, meditation and devotional calm is something that Egarr appreciates and conveys in this interpretation. Not that drama is neglected either: the confrontations between Jesus (Matthew Rose) and Peter (Richard Latham) and between Jesus and Pilate (Ashley Riches) are injected with conversational immediacy and with a sense of genuine human feeling ... With the mellowness of period instruments and with James Gilchrist giving his naturally inflected, eloquently floated interpretation of the Evangelist, this is a timely release for the Passiontide and Easter season, and a welcome one." ★ ★ ★ ★


Friday 03 April 2015

"Much of what can be said about the St Matthew Passion has, of course, already been said, and its sheer musical power speaks for itself. Still, the Academy of Ancient Music's new recording achieves the difficult task of bringing something new to the work ... [this is a] profoundly moving response to the age-old story of Easter."


Tuesday 17 February 2015

JS Bach — Orchestral Suites

"A conspicuous feature of this new recording of Bach's four orchestral suites, or 'ouvertures' as such suites in the Lullian tradition had become known in Germany, is one of graceful gesture. Richard Egarr, harpsichordist and director of the Academy of Ancient Music, has given careful thought to articulation and phrasing. These stylised movements which derive from French opera were not intended for dancing, yet Egarr's understanding of them makes us want to do just that. Menuets and Gavottes are poised and unhurried while the Overtures themselves, with their resplendent opening measures and lively fugal discourses, sparkle with amiability . . . This is an engaging release, in which currently fashionable sound-barrier-breaking tempos are mercifully absent. One or two little insecurities in the oboes did little to dampen my enthusiasm."
★ ★ ★ ★


Thursday 29 January 2015

"Exceptional ... What I like about Egarr is the was middle voices are liberated and integrated into the overall texture, while the fugal ouvertures breeze along without the dubious benefit of rocket fuel. Take the main body of the opening movement of the First Suite: busy, it's true, but light years removed from the more aggressive manner of some of its more recent rivals. The oboes, bassoons and strings intertwine easily, the sensation resembling animated conversation ... In the Third Suite, after a vigorous and rousing Ouvertures, the celebrated Air really sings, Egarr's tasteful continuo aiding the bass-line in pursuit of maximum expressive subtlety ... The Second and most intimate of the Suites benefits from superb playing, Rachel Brown never hogging the limelight, which is appropriate given that her wind-playing colleagues match her standards throughout ... All in all, a feast of meaningfully understated musicianship. I loved it." Editor's Choice


Monday 12 January 2015

"Acquire this disc, enjoy its captivating attractiveness, agree with the rather fast Bourrées ... There are other well-known dances to savour too. It's a must-have CD and you'll salivate as you listen to the wonderful musical effects." ★ ★ ★ ★ ★


Tuesday 06 January 2015

"There are several very good recordings of these pieces available, so competition is stiff — but Egarr and the AAM have found a thoroughly individual approach that is never quixotic and always inventive. This set is a joy from start to finish and it's an exhilarating new front-runner in a crowded field."


Saturday 27 December 2014

"The death of Christopher Hogwood was among the most notable losses in classical music during 2014. As founder of the Academy of Ancient Music, he was a leading pioneer of period instruments and it is good to see the AAM continuing to flourish under his successor, Richard Egarr, with this recording of Bach’s Orchestral Suites. By choosing to perform the Suites with just one instrument to each part, and at an unusually low pitch, Egarr is keeping alive the AAM’s reputation for fresh thinking. These are lively performances of individual piquancy and intimacy." ★ ★ ★ ★


Monday 08 December 2014

"There’s a poignancy in this latest Bach recording by the Academy of Ancient Music, given the recent death of its founding director Christopher Hogwood in September. And much of the spirit he gave it – clean rhythm, un-laboured tempi and crisp textures – feeds through these performances 
of the orchestral suites. There’s originality, too, in the use of one player per part, which not only opens up intimate perspectives on the music but allows the trumpets to shine through with unforced ease. Richard Egarr’s direction from the harpsichord is fresh and vital." ★ ★ ★ ★


Tuesday 02 December 2014

"Bach's much-loved set of four orchestral suites here become virtuoso chamber works in the extremely accomplished hands of the Academy of Ancient Music, with director Richard Egarr leading from the harpsichord. Egarr uses only one player per part, which provides great clarity and flexibility, and especially allows the trumpets to shine while keeping the sonic balance. He resists what he calls the mounting competition to play the suites faster and more metronomically, instead providing naturally brisk tempi that allow the players clear articulation and satisfying interchange. The dance rhythms are lively and beautifully sprung. Violinist Pavlo Beznosiuk makes the famous Air on a G String from Suite 3 gloriously intimate and moving. This joyous account has instantly become my favourite version of the suites, and would be a great place to start for anyone wanting to get to know Bach. With the death of the orchestra's founder and period-instrument pioneer Christopher Hogwood a few months ago it is marvellous to see this visionary band powering forward."


Monday 27 October 2014

"In this recording, the Academy of Ancient Music is scaled down to just one instrument per part, to create a sharp, sparkling and unencumbered reading. With the ensemble still mourning the death of Christopher Hogwood, there could be no better tribute to their founder than this excellent new recording under the baton of his successor, Richard Egarr. Egarr's approach allows each instrument to be heard and shine through, and for the brilliance of Bach's writing to be exposed and enjoyed afresh."


Monday 20 October 2014

"Here is some of the most familiar of all baroque music, recorded umpteen times, but this muscular, robust, fiery intuitive playing makes it sound totally fresh. Take the rendition of Air on the G string: the violin melody is plain-speaking and unfussy, Egarr's harpsichord accompaniment bluesy and the strings so gritty and real-sounding you could hold the sound in your hand."


"The news of the death of Christopher Hogwood comes just as the orchestra he founded, the Academy of Ancient Music, releases a fine new set of Bach’s Orchestral Suites with his successor, Richard Egarr, repeating the one-to-a-part approach he adopted for their Harmonia Mundi Brandenburg set. The sound is consequently less expansive than other recordings but the rewards are glorious, with Egarr at the harpsichord driving the delightfully clean and springy rhythms, every detail sharply defined, each separate timbre there for us to enjoy. This intimate chamber approach allows the trumpets in Suites Nos.3 and 4 to glow rather than blast, and the exceptional flute of Rachel Brown to shine in all its woody-toned charm in Suite No.2. Highly recommended."


JS Bach — St John Passion

"Egarr conducts with a sure dramatic sense, seldom ostentatiously but with hair-trigger responses, sudden transitions and telling hesitations. His deployment of the (small) chorus is masterful, especially in sudden outbursts or in the close-order interchanges between the crowd and Pilatus or other single voices. There’s forceful dramatic timing, for instance, in the dialogue between bass soloist and chorus in the aria urging Christians to Golgotha. Oratorio delivered at this pitch becomes a musical-dramatic unity that transcends ideological content or stylistic debates."


"The chuntering orchestral disquiet and smooth choral lines of Egarr's reading give it a sympathetic, aching kind of tragedy that contrasts with those readings that focus more on the sharp, stabbing agony of the cross - as if the emphasis is more on feeling the wider compassionate message of the Passion than on immediate reaction to the horror story of Christ's trial and suffering ... In short, this is a St John with a distinct character of its own."


"Following concert performances last year, the Academy of Ancient Music and a small choral ensemble singing four to a part have recorded the 1724 version of the St John Passion, which Bach would later revise and elaborate. As we now expect of period instrument performances, the tempi are mostly brisk, the instrumental playing clean and energetic but not forced. James Gilchrist as the Evangelist is an incisive and emotional storyteller, capitalising on the drama of the Easter story. Matthew Rose and Ashley Riches are well matched as Jesus and Pilatus, with Elizabeth Watts, Sarah Connolly, Andrew Kennedy and Christopher Purves completing a top lineup of soloists. If you want a scaled-down, intimate version of this work – the absence of a big choral sound will not suit all tastes – this is recommended."


Birth of the symphony: Handel to Haydn

"This enjoyable bird's-eye view of the symphony's mid-18th-century development confirms that the famous names are justly celebrated. Franz Xaver Richter's Grande Simphonie in C and Johann Stamitz's Sinfonia in D are striking in their Mannheim energy, but fade as soon as heard, whereas the Sinfonia from Handel's Saul and, still more, Haydn's F minor "La passione" (played here both crisply and expressively) do not. But the great discovery is Mozart's first symphony, K16, written in Chelsea in 1764, when he was eight years old — a work hinting at the inventiveness and playfulness, the richness of texture, that are to come."


"Crisp, spirited, full of imaginative detail with fizzing harpsichord contributions from the AAM's Music Director, Richard Egarr. Spanning Handel to Haydn, it traces the enthusiasm for a new form – the symphony – among 18th-century composers. I listened "blind". Each example sounded more engaging, more deeply expressive, than the last. Suddenly we seemed to have arrived. The work which spoke so clearly was Haydn's Symphony No 49 in F minor, "La passione". Since Haydn has always been considered the father of the symphony, the disc had done its job well."


"Another day, another orchestra own-label. But wait, because this is something special, a carefully planned programme going from the Sinfonia of Handel's Saul via Richter, Stamitz and Mozart's first symphony to reach Sturm und Drang Haydn; this is much more than an academic exercise. Egarr draws vibrant, vividly characterised performances from his players, and the recording is excellent: the ambitious roster of forthcoming releases, including the Bach Passions with stellar casts, should be worth waiting for. FIVE STARS."


Christopher Gibbons — Motets, anthems, fantasias and voluntaries

"Son of Orlando, Christopher Gibbons lived through Cromwell’s slapdown of church music, and posterity has ignored him. This Academy of Ancient Music selection of his anthems, organ voluntaries and string fantasias (none recorded before) is a personal crusade by Richard Egarr and shows what we’ve been missing: harmonic twists and word-painting almost as daring as Gesualdo’s; lilting refrains that suggest Monteverdi; quicksilver mood changes. The organ pieces, knotted with ornamentation, are perhaps the sort that appeal only to organists but the string music is deftly and expressively played." FOUR STARS


"These pieces have been extracted by Richard Egarr from libraries in Oxford and London, and none has been recorded before. Egarr describes him as the "missing link between the pre-Commonwealth world of Williams Lawes and the Restoration baroquerie of Henry Purcell", and the beautifully played and sung sequence he has devised for the Academy of Ancient Music and its Choir alternates anthems and motets with organ voluntaries (performed by Egarr) and fantasias for two violins, bass viol and organ. The instrumental pieces are wonderfully imaginative, but it's the choral works that stand out with their startling modulations and expressively charged vocal lines. The finest of them starts the disc: the eight-part Not Unto Us, with its building layers of counterpoint, seems to open out into a musical space so vast it's hard to believe the whole anthem lasts fewer than five minutes." FOUR STARS; CD OF THE WEEK


"Unlike his renowned father Orlando, Christopher Gibbons (1615-76) was until recently little more than a footnote in musical history — his output barely noticed, still less researched and performed. We owe Egarr our thanks for this sampler — a selection of gently expressive choral anthems, organ works and instrumental fantasias that establish him as a far-from-negligible precursor of Blow and Purcell." THREE STARS


"Newly recorded by Richard Egarr, his Verse Anthems are a bridge between those of his famous father, Orlando Gibbons, and his famous pupil, John Blow. AAM's vocal consort is distinctly hoary but the instrumental playing – of two Fantasy-suites for violins, bass viol and organ, and a flamboyant selection of Organ Voluntaries – is divine." FOUR STARS


Handel — Messiah (Hogwood)

25th greatest recording of all time - BBC Music Magazine

"Stodge no more. In Christopher Hogwood's hands, Messiah was no longer a ponderous and portentous work, but something tightly sprung and which demanded your attention. The period instrument specialist was spring-cleaning well-loved pieces even as his pioneering contemporary Roger Norrington had barely launched the London Classical Players."


Handel — Trio Sonatas Opp.2 & 5

“The interplay between the AAM is Baroque chamber-playing of the very highest order: sincerely conversational, emotive and finely nuanced. Egarr and Crouch are an outstanding continuo team, providing attentive yet uncluttered support to the two upper instruments. Brown and Beznosiuk play together with touching eloquence.”


“The subtleties and nuances of the playing, coupled with the sheer variety of Handel’s fertile imagination, never pales during over two hours of continuous listening. These are outstanding accounts with impeccable intonation and consistently warm tone at every dynamic level, and excellent balance across a wide stereo spectrum.”


Handel — Solo Sonatas Op.1

“A delightful double-disc set. Minus bowed bass, Egarr's harpsichord accompaniment is free and expressive. The soloists slide easily from austerity to opulence, and Brown's dewy-toned recorder is enchanting.”


“The soloists here are stylish and imaginative. Decorations are a delight in slow movements; the Adagio from No. 8 (oboe) is positively dripping with them. The playing is highly expressive; Rachel Brown opens the Largo of No. 9, the weightiest of all the sonatas, with heart-rending pathos. Fast movements are so technically secure that they retain a sense of spaciousness, though there are sparkling moments of virtuosity.”


Handel — Organ Concertos Op.7

“The ultimate raspberry to anyone who says baroque music is predictable. Soloist Richard Egarr gleefully bites into the gamiest and most raucous registrations, contrasting what sounds like a supernaturally possessed carousel organ with the Academy of Ancient Music's searing strings, plump bassoons and sensual oboes.”


“A pleasure throughout. None of the other recordings I have heard of these pieces are as creative as Egarr is with the instrument's registers. The echo effects and contrapuntal dialogues that abound in them rivet your ear with their character and wit. No listener who likes Baroque music is surprised when the Academy of Ancient Music plays well, but they really outdo themselves here.”


JS Bach — Brandenburg Concertos

“I'm here to tell you that the new Egarr-AAM Brandenburgs really blow. In a good way. They blow centuries of library dust off these pieces, and they blow fantastic horn and trumpet lines. Egarr & Co. are in it to win it. Whew. The first disc had hardly played 10 seconds when I was grabbing for the remote control to play again the most amazing horn parts I have ever heard—wild, outdoorsy, jazzy, almost bebop horn parts. As the six concertos unfolded, there was no sense of letdown, just continuing pleasant surprises.”


“This new recording, one-to-a-part, seems from a different world, not just in terms of improved technical command of period instruments — the excellent soloists here include violinists Pavlo Beznosiuk and Rodolfo Richter, flautist Rachel Brown and trumpeter David Blackadder — but also in terms of the interpretative imprint put on it by its director/harpsichordist, Richard Egarr.”