I’ve always thought that there are two basic ways of interpreting early music. One takes a scholarly imperative as sacrosanct, banning vibrato while often upping the tempo, inflecting the line, brightening textures and adopting whichever ornaments are deemed appropriate for the period. The other way is more emotionally direct, where musicians play or sing their hearts out, oblivious to the fads and fashions of ‘period style’, except in cases where the music benefits by employing them. Such was the preference of Michel Corboz, a baker’s son brought up in a Catholic family in the Swiss canton of Fribourg who was lost to us last year at the age of 87. The 74-cd set Michael Corboz: The Complete Erato Recordings – Baroque and Renaissance Eras, 9029621746, c£165.00 might seem like a costly enterprise but if you’re as yet unfamiliar with its contents then it’s cheap at the price, please believe me. In short, Corboz and his collaborators find a magical method of edging from one musical episode to the next with a sense of wonder, often a hushed sigh that recalls such Old-World conductors as Furtwängler, Jochum and Walter. To hear playing and singing of this quality and expressive power in Beethoven Brahms, Bruckner or Mahler is one thing, but in Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s 17th century Mass for All Soul’s Day ‘Messe pour les trépassés’ (performed complete), something else entirely. The ‘Kyrie’ opens with a solemn orchestral prelude, which then switches unexpectedly to quiet voices that suggest the veiled intensity of top-flight chamber musicians before the female chorus lets out a voluminous cry that if it weren’t so beautiful would be shocking. A powerfully angular ‘Dies irae’ follows, which soon starts to dance, the soloists led by the delightfully fresh-voiced Jennifer Smith, a frequent presence throughout the set.
Among the many Vivaldi inclusions is the Magnificat RV 610 in a 1975 recording, one of the many new re-masterings included (all are superbly realised by the way), the music the ideal corrective for those who accuse Vivaldi of stylistic sameness. Just try ‘Et misericordia’, a heart-stopping meditation that modulates with profound meaning, the performance dark-hued, the chorus deeply reverential though the closing chord lets the light in and the ‘Fecit potentiam’ sequence that follows allows for dramatic contrasts in tone and tempo.
Monteverdi is very generously represented with two versions of the ‘Vespro della Beata Vergine’, the earlier of the two – and a welcome first cd release – featuring the highly distinctive tenors Eric Tappy and, most famously, Hugues Cuénod, the later set, a more engaging performance overall, again featuring Jennifer Smith. The other Monteverdi inclusions, not least ‘The Most Beautiful Madrigals’ and six volumes of ‘Selva Morale’ are, in both musical and performance terms, quite simply glorious, the sort of music that were you to have it playing when non-musical guests visit would have them stop, listen (even if only for a brief moment) and enquire as to what they were hearing. Mozart’s fleshed out version of Handel’s ‘Messiah’ would no sooner replace the original than would Mendelssohn’s take on Bach’s ‘St Matthew Passion’ would, but it’s interesting to hear and the performance is full of vitality. Of the Bach Passions themselves Corboz is marginally more compelling in the ‘St.John’ – where his sense of theatre holds sway – than in the ‘St.Matthew’, though Kurt Equiluz is a supremely convincing Evangelist in both. There are three versions of the B minor Mass, all of them crowned by performances of the ‘Sanctus’ that sound is if the choruses can hardly contain their sense of zeal. Furthermore, Corboz makes sure that the music’s all-important descending bass-line is properly audible. There are pleasing first CD releases of ‘Le Chanson et La Danse’ (‘Paris vers 1540’) and a rather more modern, sometimes traditional programme ‘La Chanson de Lausanne’.
So what else is on offer? J.C. and more J. S. Bach, Bassano, Bellavere, Carissimi (especially memorable), Cavalli (‘Ercole amate’ with Felicity Palmer and Yvonne Minton), D’Incerto, De Lalande, Donato, Andrea and Giovanni Gabrieli, Goudimel, Guami, Ingegneri, Marcello, Merulo Da Correggio, Padovano, Parabosco, Purcell (‘Dido and Aeneas’ with Teresa Berganza), Alessandro Scarlatti, Vecchi, and Veggio. The way Corboz has his voices and instruments blend, his method of shaping phrases and varying dynamics all bear the mark of a true artist. He understood what the term ‘right style’ meant yet you’re never aware that ‘style’ itself is his objective, more the significance of the musical message, setting it in an ideal sound frame. Here I must pay tribute to his producer Michel Garcin, one of the last Century’s finest in my view, someone who, alongside some expert balance engineers, had the ability to combine pinpoint stereophonic clarity with overall warmth. And in case you’re wondering about Corboz’s Erato recordings of later repertoire (and there’s plenty of it), fear not, they should be with us before too long.