This Engelbert Humperdinck is not the performer of "After the Lovin'" but the composer of the popular late-19th-century opera Hansel and Gretel. And this album is proof that even without dramatic settings and librettos he deserves close attention. The title is somewhat misleading: In addition to three string quartets, there are two piano quintets and a "notturno" for violin and string quartet. But each embodies with charm, elegance, and enthusiasm the Romantic conviction that the heart has reasons of which reason remains all but invincibly ignorant.
To the extent that they capture music's evolution between the Renaissance and Baroque periods, the sonatas of Dario Castello and Giovanni Battista Fontana provide a valuable historical service. It's illuminating to know, for instance, what kind of music people living during Shakespeare's time and possibly dying (like Fontana) from the plague were listening to. More illuminating is how fresh these sonatas for violin, harpsichord, and dulcian sound today-especially as brought to life by instrumentalists as sensitive to the music's sharply delineated vitality as Holloway, Mortensen, and Gower.
It's to the credit of the Hilliard Ensemble's Gordon Jones that nowhere in his liner notes does he mention the crimes for which Carlo Gesualdo, the 16th-century composer of these 21 secular madrigals, is notorious. (Suffice it to say, O.J. Simpson has nothing on him.) Taking Gesualdo's dark side into consideration could reduce his compositions to the sum of what armchair psychologists can read into them. He deserves better. Even in the original Italian (English translations are provided), their emotional intensity stands-and frightens-on its own.
Listeners attracted but unmoved by the New Age airiness of contemporary "Celtic" music will savor the earthiness of these 20 artifacts, most of which antedate the Industrial Revolution. "Much of the repertoire of Scottish tunes," writes John Purser in the notes, "is suggestive, and the polished veneer of the 18th century was just that-a veneer." Purser's insight doesn't much apply to the 12 instrumental performances. But the eight featuring the tenor Robert Getchell confirm that the Scots knew a thing or two about being "blithe and free."
"We've ghettoized serious music and separated it from popular music," observed the American composer William Bolcom in 2005, one year before winning two classical Grammy Awards for his eclectic settings of William Blake poems, Songs of Innocence and of Experience. "Just think if we could all get rid of these categories!" Such thoughts had apparently preoccupied him for some time, certainly at least since 1979. That year he began composing his "gospel preludes," unusual arrangements of 12 Christian hymns that the organist Gregory Hand has recently recorded afresh.
There is certainly nothing "ghettoized" about Complete Gospel Preludes (Naxos). Although the familiar melodies with which Bolcom was working ("Just As I Am," "Sweet Hour of Prayer") emerge clearly enough, the clusters of dissonance that they emerge through are often initially disconcerting. Those clusters do not, however, feel iconoclastic. Rather, they feel like the wind, earthquake, and fire to which God subjected Elijah before speaking to him in a still, small voice.