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Choral Music Media Review Print

My Soul Sees and Hears by Houston Baroque

February 2, 2017 - Greenville, NC:

My Soul Sees and Hears! Music of Buxtehude and Handel. Buxtehude: Toccata in G, BuxWV 164; Handel: Meine Seele hört im Sehen, HWV 207; Buxtehude: Partita Auf meinen lieben Gott, BuxWV 179; Handel: Süßer Blumen Ambraflocken, HWV204; Buxtehude: Canzona in G, BuxWV 171; Handel: Violin Sonata in D, HWV 371; Buxtehude: Singet dem Herrn, BuxWV 98; Buxtehude: Chorale Prelude Nun bitten wir den Heiligen Geist, BuxWV 208; Handel: Das zitternde Glänzen der spielenden Wellen, HWV203; Buxtehude: Chorale Prelude Puer Natus in Bethlehem, BuxWV 217; Handel: Süße Stille, sanfte Quelle, HWV 205; Buxtehude: Chorale Prelude Gott, der Vater wohn uns bei, BuxWV 190; Handel: In den angenehmen Büschen, HWV 209; Buxtehude: Ciacona in E minor, BuxWV 160. Houston Baroque, Patrick Parker, organ and harpsichord, Megan Stapleton, soprano, Julia Fox, soprano. Raven OAR-988 or Amazon. © 2017, Total playing time: 72m: 35s.

This CD of delicious Baroque music is an excellent introduction, a juicy best-foot-forward offering from the three-year-old group Houston Baroque, the inspiration of artistic director and native Tar Heel Patrick Parker. Every piece is a superb little gem, even if the choice of music is not as obvious to this reviewer as it seems to be to the writer of the program notes. There are other CDs with one cohesive work that compel one to sit down with the score and pay the strictest attention. This CD is scrumptious Baroque easy listening. But a totally focused hearing reveals the very high level of music making these players bring to their music.

Parker was born and grew up in Four Oaks, a true Tar Heel. His first music instruction was piano with his father, then with Kristen King, then Raleigh Conservatory of Music. He earned degrees from UNC Greensboro and Cleveland Institute of Music. He is now pursuing a doctorate in organ performance from the University of Houston.

The ensemble also includes violinists Alan Austin and Nadia Lesinska, sopranos Julia Fox and Megan Stapleton, gambist Jordan Witherspoon, and Bruce Brogdon on archlute. The recordings were made in the excellent acoustics of First Evangelical Lutheran Church in Houston, using the organ by Martin Pasi and a Flemish virginal from the Zuckermann shop.

After Handel settled in England, he found a collection of poems and produced what is now usually known as the Nine German Arias. Five of these are on this CD. Also by Handel is HWV 371, from Walsh's publication Twelve Sonatas, suggested to be published shotgun style as suitable for the "German flute, hautboy, and violin" to appeal to as many purchasers as possible. There is also a devotional cantata for soprano and instruments by Buxtehude. The CD program notes suggest that the intention is to focus "on the personal, devotional nature of the Lutheran faith." The organizational structure is not at once obvious. The performers are definitely up to performing all of the sonatas and all of the arias and all of Buxtehude's organ work as well. It is to be hoped that this is a sampler foretelling the issue of all this music by these performers; they're that good.

Buxtehude's principal instrument in the Marienkirche in Lübeck is documented to have been poorly maintained; much of Buxtehude's music suggests that he viewed it more as a gigantic, spectacular color machine than as an instrument for rigid polyphony. The Pasi instrument used for this recording is a fine, medium-size church instrument, but without the spectacle of the monster in Lübeck. Parker's playing is precise and clean. His sense of phrasing and tempo is delightful. He makes a clear case that he should undertake a recording of all of Buxtehude, but perhaps on a bigger, more theatrical organ in seventeenth-century style.

A handsome 12-page booklet is rich with photographs, performer biographies, and program notes. The list of tracks is printed on a separate inlay card in the CD case. The sound quality is superb on both the instrumental tracks and the solo organ tracks, but the sound of the room is very different between organ and instruments, even though all the music was recorded in the same building.

The music, taken as a whole, is marvelous, but the strict alternation of a Buxtehude solo organ piece with a Handel instrument/vocal piece is a strange jumble. At first it might seem that the organ pieces are meant to be some kind of intonation, but the succeeding pieces are mostly in another key. Nothing clashes horribly, but there is no fluid transition. There are seven Buxtehude organ solos chosen seemingly at random. They are all finely played, but they relate neither to each other nor to the Handel.

So it's a jumble. But it's a magnificent jumble. Sopranos Fox and Stapleton, with voices of different timbre, have splendid intonation, excellent articulation, acceptable pronunciation, and lyric style. Violinist Lesinska plays the Handel sonata like a dream, along with Parker's stylish accompaniment on the virginal; the virginal has a much smoother tone than a harpsichord, and sounds charmingly domestic. Austin's playing in the Buxtehude cantata is clever and informed; Brogdon is facile on his instrument, as well.

This is a sparkling CD, one deserving of your purchase, one that it is hoped is only the first in a strong series.