Greene: Overtures (CD review)

Garry Clarke, Baroque Band. Cedille Records CDR 90000 152.

Maurice Greene. Maurice who? Maurice Greene. Oh.

Some of you may recognize the name of the English composer and organist Dr. Maurice Greene (1696-1755). I did not. I had to dig into the disc's booklet notes to find out more about him. Turns out, according to conductor Garry Clarke who wrote the notes, "he was one of the most important figures in English musical history in the 18th century. Yet he is little known today and his instrumental pieces are rarely performed." Indeed, I can attest to that.

Greene became organist at the Chapel Royal in 1727 and Professor of Music at Cambridge University in 1730. Then, in 1735 the Crown appointed him Master of the King's Musick. So, yes, he was an important guy back when.

Mostly, Greene composed choral music, verse anthems, oratorios, operas, and some keyboard music. Here, we get some of instrumental music, his Six Overtures in Seven Parts, written originally in 1745 in an arrangement "for harpsichord or spinet" and first published in 1750. Clarke tells us that they display a quintessential Englishness while recognizing the 'new' Italian style being imported" at the time. He further tells us "the overtures are charming and delightful, with whistleable melodies, easy harmony, and inventive counterpoint. They conjure up the charm of the English countryside and the frivolity of the English 18th century."

Certainly, Maestro Clarke and his ensemble, the Baroque Band, which he founded in 2007, do their best to conjure up delights. And they do so in a most elegant fashion. This is no Raggedy-Annie period orchestra but a rich, polished, finely tuned group of performers. In fact, if anything, they may appear too polished compared to some of the historically informed groups we've gotten used to over the last half century or so. Still, they are a joy to hear, and they do bring the music to life with liveliness and gusto.

The overtures, of course, are not really "overtures" as we think of them today; that is, they are not introductions to something else, as in opera overtures. Instead, these are Baroque overtures: miniature suites alternating fast and slow movements (in this case, three or four movements each). However, one could view the little opening movements as opera overtures in themselves, and they contain a good deal of buoyant charm.

Garry Clarke
Probably the most important aspect of Clarke's performances with Baroque Band, besides the enthusiastically elegant playing I alluded to earlier, is their ability to keep one listening. OK, much of this latter quality we have to attribute to the composer and his music, but you also know that Baroque music can sometimes become a bit wearying if there's too much of it repeated at the same time. I mean, no one is sure about just how the composer intended people to listen to his overtures: all at once or one or two at a time. I worried that I might find listening to all six at the same time something of a chore, my not being a dedicated Baroque fan. Nevertheless, every overture is significantly different from the others, some sounding like Bach, some like Handel or Vivaldi, but mostly sounding like Greene. So listening to them all at once (with only a brief break toward the middle for a quick snack) proved more fun, at least the way Clarke and company present them, than I anticipated.

In addition to the overtures, there are five more, very brief items: Pieces in C minor, A minor, and G minor from Lessons for the Harpsichord, and overtures to Phoebe and St. Cecilia. They are all lovely in their own way, with my own delight going out for the harpsichord.

Producer Jim Ginsburg and ace engineer Bill Maylone recorded the overtures in 2010-2014 at Nichols Hall at the Music Institute of Chicago, Evanston, Illinois; at College Church, Wheaton, Illinois; and at Fay and Daniel Levin Performance Studio at 98.7 WFMT, Chicago, Illinois. To my ears, the sound is a trifle bright in the upper midrange, but it's extremely clear and well detailed. And for all I know, this slight forwardness may be exactly what the ensemble sounded like in the particular recording venues represented. In any case, played back at a realistic level, there is a wide stereo spread to the sound, good depth and dimensionality, a quick transient response, and pretty good frequency extension. A modest hall resonance adds a further degree of realism to the presentation.

JJP

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:


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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

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It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa