, March 2005
"One of the important features of "The Naxos Wonder", besides their successful way of making important music available at very affordable prices, is their achievements in the field of education. The present offering is a brilliant example: two CDs with more than 2½ hours of music and a very substantial booklet (approx 140 pages) costing fractionally more than half the price of a full price disc from one of the "big" companies. In the book we get a very well written 85 page essay by Clive Unger-Hamilton who manages to squeeze in an enormous amount of information and after reading it even the novice will have good knowledge of the music of the baroque era. Moreover there is a very interesting timeline, covering music, history, arts and architecture and literature and so placing musical achievements in relief to the cultural world at large. Did you for instance know that in 1632, when Monteverdi wrote his Scherzi musicali, King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden (and his troops) won victories for the Protestant powers at Lützen (that he also was killed at that battle goes unnoticed however), and that Van Dyck was appointed portrait painter to Charles I of England? And that a lot of cultural celebrities were born that year: Lully, Vermeer, Sir Christopher Wren, Locke and Spinoza. There is also a list of suggestions for further listening, referring of course to the very comprehensive Naxos catalogue. Add to this an alphabetical list of baroque composers, a map of Europe with important music centres and composers associated with these centres and a very useful glossary. All together this is extremely well done. There are of course references in the text to the tracks on the discs, often pointing to certain characteristics to listen for. It could have been even more pedagogical to have an even deeper analysis, along the lines that the now defunct Classic CD magazine used to have for their covermount discs (... listen to the trumpets introducing the counter theme at 2:12 ...) but that would have meant another 30 pages in the already thick book.
When it comes to the music, also compiled by Clive Unger-Hamilton, it has been well chosen to represent the many different facets of the era. Some of it is of course well known but he has avoided some of the pieces that are to be found on nearly all compilations of baroque music. This means that there is no Toccata and fugue in D minor, there is no Four Seasons and there is no Hallelujah Chorus, pieces which almost everybody already has. Most of the tracks are fairly short but there are also some of considerable length, Allegri’s Miserere for instance, with a celestial uncredited boy treble soloist (it is a boy, isn’t it?) Over all the quality of the singing and playing is high and there is no need to go into details, although I am very happy to find my long-standing favourite soprano, Ingrid Kertesi, featuring in two items. There is no discernible consistency in the choice of baroque performance praxis, which means that harpsichord pieces are sometimes played on the authentic instrument but sometimes on modern grands. We also hear the chorus from St Matthew-Passion performed by the large Hungarian Festival Chorus and full-size symphony orchestra while For unto us a child is born from Messiah is presented by The Scholars Baroque Ensemble with only eight voices. But this also serves as a reminder that there is seldom only one way of performing baroque music.
Apart from the educational aspect the discs work very well on their own, just for an evening with mixed baroque music or, why not, for a musical quiz with some friends.
You have done it again, Naxos!"