CD and Other Review

Review: Mozart: Piano Concertos (Angela Hewitt)

Angela Hewitt has made a career as the other great Bach pianist from Toronto, though like her predecessor, Glenn Gould, she has recorded much more widely – from Couperin to Ravel. This is the third instalment in an ongoing cycle of Mozart’s Piano Concerti – this one devoted to two of his larger scale later works, No 22 with its varied instrumental accompaniment and the grand C Minor with its inventive clarinet obbligato. Hewitt has chosen live performances – though you’d never guess it, so quiet and unobtrusive is the audience. And while there is an occasional blurred or overplayed passage where the left hand dominates, the variety of colour is amazing. Her performances are informed as much by earlier piano practice as individual insight. She is joined by the National Arts Centre Orchestra who are equally vividly caught by the microphones, bringing out those inner incisive rhythms that we associate so strongly with Mozart. These are personal performances which admirably capture much of Hewitt’s live allure and we must remember that these concerti were ‘cutting edge’ when Mozart wrote them in the mid 1780s – so new in fact, that this was a mere decade after the introduction of the clarinet…

February 3, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: Martha Argerich & Friends (Live at the Lugano Festival 2013)

The range of pieces here is so wide that all I can do is comment on the individual works. But I must admit I like live performances, where we know that minimal ‘tarting up’ has taken place. Drawn from a concert given at the Lugano Festival in 2013, we begin with Beethoven’s First Piano Concerto. This delightful work proceeds with more punch than usual and Argerich is in fine form. The last movement, arguably the bounciest piece Beethoven ever wrote, is splendid. Argerich delivers the same incisive standard in the rarer Second Cello Sonata. The cellist, Gautier Capuçon, does not quite match the level of his accompanist. One would be hard pressed to recognise the usually flamboyant Respighi, the composer of the great Roman orchestral triptych, by his more sober and formal Violin Sonata. Workmanlike is the best word I can find for it; still it’s worth having, especially the lyrical final movement. Minor Liszt and less familiar Shostakovich follow, both initially hiding their identities, they give cellist Capuçon some fine opportunities to shine. The third disc is soley devoted to French music, beginning with the rapturous Ravel Violin Sonata. Wistful and elegant, it wends its way for 16 minutes across…

February 2, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: Mendelssohn: Symphonies, Hebrides Overture (CBSO/Gardner)

Basing a Mendelssohn cycle on his appearances in Birmingham with the local band is a rather jejune connection. Was there anywhere Mendelssohn didn’t go? That said, I greatly enjoyed these performances in which Edward Gardner, yet another glamorous and talented young conductor, cuts a swathe through familiar works. I’ve never heard the last movement of the Italian Symphony dispatched with such brio. It’s altogether sunnier than Brüggen’s recent recording. I also commend the way Gardner observes the first movement repeat, which has what must be the loveliest ‘lead backs’ in music. The Reformation Symphony was composed to mark the 300th anniversary of the Augsburg Confession, a major milestone in the formation of the Lutheran Church. (Despite his Jewish heritage, Mendelssohn became a Lutheran convert.) In the Symphony, he uses ‘Catholic’ polyphony which is ultimately overcome by the Lutheran Chorale Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott. Scoring and structure are simultaneously grandly architectural and austere, though I was bemused to read one description of the waltz in the scherzo as “louche”. Calling anything by Mendelssohn “louche” is like saying one of Bruckner’s scherzos is “chic”. Chandos’s sound and the CBSO’s playing are gorgeous, especially the Principal Flute, which intones the hymn tune. This work deserves the same…

January 31, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: Mlynarski, Zarzycki: Violin Concertos

Hyperion continue their excellent work in unearthing rare concerti, giving the lie to the cliché that interest in classical music, especially non-mainstream works, is in decline. Music by two Polish composers from the late 1800s is under the microscope on this occasion, wonderfully played by violinist Eugene Ugorski and the Scottish Orchestra conducted by Michał Dworzyński. Emil Młynarski studied composition with Liadov and orchestration with Rimsky-Korsakov. The brilliance of the latter’s instruction is clear in Młynarski’s work. He was a conductor of opera and orchestras, working across the musical spectrum in Poland all his life. His two concertos are fine, romantic works, so good as to wonder at their eclipse over the last century. Twenty years separate the two concerti, the second emerging as the more subtle of the two. The Ukrainian, Aleksander Zarzycki, studied in Berlin before settling in Warsaw in 1871. A popluar dance at the time known in Paris as the cracovienne and in Vienna as the krakauer, emerges here as the attractive two-part Introduction et Cracovienne. The Mazurka is dedicated to the Spanish composer, Sarasate. For me, it is the most familiar piece on the disc; a delightful work. These are all very attractive compositions, and I…

January 31, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: Brahms: Complete Symphonies (Staatskapelle Dresden)

Christian Thielemann may have attracted some unfavourable headlines in his time – fallings out with big opera companies and run-ins with Simon Rattle and Daniel Barenboim – but there’s no doubting he’s a worthy keeper of the flame when it comes to the core Austro-German repertoire. The boyish-looking 55-year-old’s new “dream job” as chief conductor of Staatskapelle Dresden is already producing treasures with this DVD set of Brahms’s four symphonies. The live performances in Dresden and Tokyo are compelling viewing and listening with the orchestra’s famed soft and burnished sound ideal for this material. Thielemann is authoritative and punctilious throughout, setting excellent tempi and showing us how well he absorbed his work experience jobs with Karajan in Berlin and Barenboim at Bayreuth. An added bonus is a fascinating documentary in which the conductor is a companion on this journey through the symphonies. He shows us each work’s distinctive character and points out pitfalls for the unwary. He says the third symphony is the most enigmatic, mainly because it “implodes” rather than ending in a blaze of triumph. “There’s a kind of archaic violence that emanates from Brahms… if violence can be positive then it is in Brahms,” he concludes. You may not…

January 30, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: Martha Argerich & Friends (Live at the Lugano Festival 2013)

The range of pieces here is so wide that all I can do is comment on the individual works. But I must admit I like live performances, where we know that minimal ‘tarting up’ has taken place. Drawn from a concert given at the Lugano Festival in 2013, we begin with Beethoven’s First Piano Concerto. This delightful work proceeds with more punch than usual and Argerich is in fine form. The last movement, arguably the bounciest piece Beethoven ever wrote, is splendid. Argerich delivers the same incisive standard in the rarer Second Cello Sonata. The cellist, Gautier Capuçon, does not quite match the level of his accompanist. One would be hard pressed to recognise the usually flamboyant Respighi, the composer of the great Roman orchestral triptych, by his more sober and formal Violin Sonata. Workmanlike is the best word I can find for it; still it’s worth having, especially the lyrical final movement. Minor Liszt and less familiar Shostakovich follow, both initially hiding their identities, they give cellist Capuçon some fine opportunities to shine. The third disc is soley devoted to French music, beginning with the rapturous Ravel Violin Sonata. Wistful and elegant, it wends its way for 16 minutes across…

January 27, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: Mahler: Symphony No 5 (Leipzig Gewandhaus)

Riccardo Chailly’s way with Mahler is a known quantity thanks to his superb CD cycle with the Royal Concertgebouw, probably the most recommendable complete set with magnificent orchestral playing and stunning sound. He occupies a pragmatic middle ground between the two schools of Mahler style; the classically restrained, if sometimes dull, with the emphasis on structural logic versus the wildly emotive, if self-indulgent, with live-for the-moment thrills and spills. His acute ear for sonority reflects his progressive tendencies but his old school operatic training is evident with his projection of a singing line and careful dramatic pacing. Since moving to Leipzig he seems to have refined his approach to suit the different character of his orchestra with its dark hued strings, mittel-Europa wind timbres and gleaming brass. The mark of a great orchestra is the quality and focus of playing at the lowest dynamic levels – listen to the closing moments of the Adagietto; the strings fading to the merest whisper yet still perfectly blended together like a delicate silken thread. Chailly’s ability to clarify telling details is typified by the empty rattle of hard-stick timpani strokes in the opening funeral march that are so often lost in the mix….

January 27, 2015