Music Reviews

Stepping off the Merry-go-round

Last year I praised the album of works by “Herbert Howells” performed by Gloriae Dei Cantores which I find myself returning to quite often. This time I’d like to spotlight another set by this wonderful ensemble: “The Chants of the Holy Spirit”. The set opens and concludes with the sound of the bells at the gorgeous Church of the Transfiguration in Orleans, Massachusetts, where this recording was made. Many “chant” albums have gained public attention over the years, but this one is the most beautiful I’ve ever heard. Some recordings sound a bit too “rustic”, others are too operatic. But this one seems absolutely “right” to me. Even if you’re not a fan of Gregorian Chant, I think you will find this set uplifting and relaxing at the same time. And listening with headphones is even more transporting. Particularly in troubling times, there is a welcome peacefulness in these recordings.

This next discovery, “America Again,” is from pianist Lara Downes. It’s also a wonderful way to step off the merry-go-round for a while. I listened before reading the booklet notes, and I was struck by the “in the room” quality of the recording, and the sensitive, expressive playing.   There are 19 pieces from 18 different composers, ranging from Morton Gould, Leonard Bernstein, and Scott Joplin, to Harold Arlen, Duke Ellington, and George Gershwin. I was particularly struck by Downe’s arrangement of the traditional “Shenandoah.” Taken as a whole, this is the perfect album for listening on a rainy Sunday afternoon. The music is uniquely American without overdoing it. And with this recording, you will swear she really is right there in the room playing for you.

I am a huge fan of Jan Willem de Vriend’s Beethoven symphonies– now all available from Challenge on this site. I recommended some of these last year, but now that I have heard them all, I rank them right up there with my favorite complete sets, including Monteux with the LSO and VPO, and Jochum with the Concertgebouw! And the recording quality is certainly superior. Everybody has favorites in Beethoven, and while I don’t believe in a right or wrong choice– there is only what moves the individual listener. I very much like the “attitude” that de Vriend brings to these. They remind me of the Monteux in showing the avant garde side of Beethoven, but they also have some of the “dancing” qualities of Jochum’s Concertegebouw recordings. Highly recommended!

With that in mind, it should come as no surprise that I enjoyed Beethoven’s Piano Concertos 4 and 5 with soloist Hannes Minnaar and Jan Willem de Vriend conducting the Netherlands Symphony Orchestra. While these are perhaps not as “monumental” as some performances, I do enjoy the lyrical approach that seems to be prevalent here. Again, the Chalenge engineers have done an excellent job of capturing the performance.

Cover Photo by Eepeng Cheong on Unsplash

Written by

Bill Dodd

Bill is Senior Music Reviewer at NativeDSD. He lives in the Portland, Oregon area. He is an avid photographer too! Along with his early interest in broadcasting and high fidelity audio, he was exposed to classical music in small doses from age 5, was given piano lessons from age 9— Starting with Bach and including Gershwin. Successful morning personality in San Francisco at age 22. (true). Sang in choirs in high school and college. Although the broadcasting experience was all in popular music, his personal listening has been mostly classical his whole life—along with others including Benny Goodman, Miles Davis, Dave Brubeck, Joni Mitchell, The Who, and Led Zeppelin.


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