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Celebrating the label’s 16th birthday, Naïve have reissued 16 discs from their catalogue described as ‘benchmarks that have stood the test of time’. It is a release that also serves as an introduction to those coming to the world of classical music, the detailed notes accompanying each disc relating a journey through the history of European music. We begin in the tenth century, when formal music was largely restricted to devotional purposes. The late soprano Montserrat Figueras devised El Cant de la Sibilla based on chants still performed in Spanish churches; recorded 25 years ago, her distinctive voice was at its finest and possessed the ideal quality for those long meandering melodies. Her ‘backing group’, La Capella Reial de Catalunya, conducted by Jordi Savall, produced for her the most gorgeous sounds (NC 40020).

By the 17th century, Italian choral music had become highly embellished; Gregorio Allegri’s Miserere, the solitary work on which his reputation now resides, is here performed in two very differing versions. Intonation of the ensemble, A Sei Voci, is not without question, but the inclusion of the composer’s little-known Missa Vidi turbam magnam and three motets adds much to the disc’s desirability (NC 40032).

Coming forward another 100 years, three discs of works by J. S. Bach clearly define the new order of music classified as instrumental, choral and solo. In four of his Brandenburg Concertos – numbers 1, 3, 4 and 5 – we have the period instruments of Concerto Italiano and Rinaldo Alessandrini: with clarity of texture, even in the most contrapuntal moments, pungency and verve when required, and tasteful ornamentation as appropriate, these performances are certainly unsurpassed on disc (NC 40030). Neat accounts of three Cantatas BWV 49, 115 and, 180, featuring Barbara Schlick and Andreas Scholl as soloists, are safe recommendations (NC 40031), and I can equally commend Pierre Hantaï’s harpsichord if you’re looking for a sprightly view of the Goldberg Variations (NC 40029).

Meanwhile, on the Mediterranean, Vivaldi had introduced works of outrageous virtuosity, although Fabio Biondi and Europa Galante give an immaculately played but rather routine account of The Four Seasons (NC 40018). I found little to enjoy in often rushed performances of the Gloria and Dixit Dominus, with soprano Gemma Bertagnolli often sounding rather stretched (NC 40017). At the other extreme, I could enthuse at great length over the extraordinary beauty of the countertenor voice of Philippe Jaroussky in the composer’s Nisi Dominus and Crucifixus (NC 40019).

Handel was holding London audiences in thrall with his operas, and here we come to the great jewel of the issue, with a most remarkable disc of the composer’s soprano arias performed with spectacular agility and characterisation by Sandrine Piau and Les Talens Lyriques (NC 40026). At much the same time, Pergolesi was composing his Stabat mater that here enjoys a performance from Rinaldo Alessandrini and Concerto Italiano that I would, in every way, describe as perfect (NC 40024).

At this point we leave the realms of early and baroque music, the series continuing with Marc Minkowski’s idiosyncratic view of Haydn’s three ‘London’ Symphonies, played on period instruments (NC 40025), and my top recommendation of Mozart’s Clarinet quintet from Wolfgang Meyer and Quatuor Mosaïques (NC 40023).

I could well do without a pallid version of Brahms’s Ein deutsches Requiem in the version for piano duet accompaniment, sung by Accentus and played by Brigitte Engerer and Boris Berezovsky (NC 40028); Schubert’s Arpeggione Sonata comes in a workaday reading from Anne Gastinel and Clair Désert in a reverberant acoustic (NC 40021); Grigory Sokolov’s powerful and highly perceptive account of Chopin’s 24 preludes is a legend in its own lifetime (NC 40027); and this journey ends with a vivid picture of Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht from the Arditti String Quartet in a disc lasting just 28 minutes (NC 40022).

Sound quality is constantly good, but the lack of words in the programme notes with the vocal discs is regrettable.

David Denton Read the full review on Agora Classica

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Early Music Today, 2014 - ©Rhinegold Publishing