CD and Other Review

Review: ROSSINI Colbran, the Muse (mezzo: Joyce DiDonato; Orchestra e Coro dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia/Muller)

Many of Rossini’s most fiendishly embellished arias for mezzo-soprano were written for his own wife, Spanish singer Isabella Colbran. In fact, from 1815 until 1823, when her vocal powers had faded, almost all his major operas were created around her. Now another diva, the American mezzo Joyce DiDonato, has taken up the Colbran challenge and given us a thrilling recital of some of the key arias of this period, from Armida, La Donna del Lago, Maometto II, Elisabetta, Regina d’Inghilterra, Semiramide, Otello and Armida.  While Joyce DiDonato is the undoubted star of this recording, she is given fine partnership by orchestra and chorus, and by tenors Lawrence Brownlee, Corrado Amici and Carlo Putelli, and soprano Roberta de Nicola.  Joyce DiDonato, acclaimed widely as one of the finest mezzos performing today, is probably giving us these arias at a level Rossini could only have dreamed of, for although Isabella Colbran inspired them, her own voice was in steep decline in the latter years of her career. But fading or not, the partnership of Rossini and his muse did give us some of the composer’s most exciting writing. Often flamboyant, sometimes deeply sensitive, but always vibrant, these terrific arias would stretch any…

January 18, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: BEETHOVEN Piano Sonatas (piano: Steven Osborne)

For once, the hype is justified. I’ve joined the ranks of reviewers who’ve dived for the thesaurus to unearth new superlatives for Steven Osborne’s Beethoven CD. It’s not easy to cast new light on the Waldstein, let alone the Moonlight or Pathétique sonatas, but somehow he’s managed it.  The Moonlight’s opening movement, piano’s equivalent of the Mona Lisa’s smile, radiates not only sublime mystery, but also charm, as Osborne navigates his way through this strange landscape. Upon hearing the unexpected courtliness of Osborne’s second movement, one is reminded of Liszt’s insightful description of it as “a flower between two abysses”.  The Waldstein is even more of a tour de force than usual: time really does seem to stand still in the transition from the adagio to the final rondo. And Osborne invests the central movement of the sonatina-like Op 79 with a touchingly demure melancholy. Transcendent is a dangerous adjective, but here it is fully justified. The emergence of the Waldstein’s main theme is gloriously unhurried and quite sublimely handled, culminating in a refulgent effect. No wonder this sonata is usually referred to in France as L’Aurore – The Dawn.

January 18, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: WESLEY-SMITH Merry-Go-Round: Chamber Music (percussion: Timothy Constable; Australia Ensemble)

Here though, we have a CD in which the composer’s motivations are so intrinsic to understanding his work that you almost find yourself listening intently to each note for what it may tell you about the South Australian Wesley-Smith. More fundamentally, about what he cares about. Firstly, humanitarianism: Wesley-Smith is music’s defender of the rights of the East Timorese people. But what seems like a political statement can just as easily morph into a jazz pastiche. Secondly, a playful response to childhood classics: he worked for years writing music for children’s television and radio. These are works composed by a man who finds, wherever he looks in the world, the inspiration to create a sparkling micro-environment of sound. The performance, largely wind-based, has just the lightness of touch it needs without fudging the depth of feeling embedded in the music. If the track titles themselves sound rather lightweight – Snark-Hunting, Merry-Go-Round, Oom Pah Pah – we can sense this is simply Wesley-Smith’s way. He applies a quality of understatement that is lacking in the subjects he tackles. His music is tuneful and harmonic, mordant and inquisitive, suddenly pausing for moments of reflection without resorting to melodic sentimentality. Wesley-Smith does right…

January 18, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: STRAUSS Also Sprach Zarathustra; Don Juan; Till Eulenspiegels Lustige Streiche; Ein Heldenleben (conductors: Wolfgang Sawallisch, Klaus Tennstedt)

This release can be placed without hesitation beside those of the other great Richard Strauss ensembles – the Royal Amsterdam Concertgebouw, The Dresden Staatskapelle and the Berlin Philharmonic. It was fascinating to hear the slightly kapellmeisterish Sawallisch in Also Sprach Zarathustra, the quintessentially bourgeois Strauss’s take on Nietzsche’s weird ruminations on the meaning of life. The result is outstanding, both interpretively and sonically, as Sawallisch completely avoids the blowzy schlockfest this work can become in the wrong hands. Nor does he attempt to achieve a more Hollywood effect by interfering with the duration of the opening chords. The Heldenleben is another superb achievement. This hero is less the armchair-bound Colonel Blimp of, say, Mariss Janssons – I always think Mahler nailed his carping critics far more effectively in the Rondo-Burleske movement of his Ninth Symphony than Strauss does. Sawallisch also resists the tendency to slow down unduly in the two quieter sections, which can turn them into a becalmed and interminable coda. Opting for the ending without horns also works better. The perspective and inner detail make this a demonstration-quality CD.

January 18, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: MAHLER Symphony No 2 (mezzo: Alice Coote, soprano: Natalie Dessay; Orfeon Donostiarra; Frankfurt RSO/Järvi)

In the epic first movement, he’s not afraid to slow down daringly for the lyrical second subject and at various other points, nor is he at all prim about portamenti. No one will ever sound as craggy or implacable as Klemperer in this movement, but it’s a more than promising start. The minuet movement has just the right mixture of charm and momentum so as not to sound like a cross between the score to a televised Jane Austen adaptation and Little Bo Peep. The scherzo conveys the relentless tyranny of the mundane with the trio effectively contrasted as an oasis. Alice Coote is fine in Urlicht (“Primaeval Light”) as is the bizarrely cast Natalie Dessay, but it’s in the vast sprawling and kaleidoscopic final movement where Järvi and company excel. The tempos are excellently judged; textures are always kept lucid; and dynamics scrupulously observed, without any feeling of micromanagement. The cathartic moments are all brilliantly realised. One particularly memorable touch – hardly cathartic – is the exchange between the flute and piccolo at the Last Trump, which conveys a genuinely bleak almost creepy sensation. Järvi and his forces manage this vast and complex canvas breathtakingly.

January 13, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: STRAVINSKY • SCARLATTI • BRAHMS • RAVEL Transformations (piano: Yuja Wang)

This scintillating recital is Chinese pianist Yuja Wang’s second recording for DG and marks her as one of the most exciting young performers today. She has chosen her program according to her own concept of “transformations”. For instance, Stravinsky’s Three Movements from Petrouchka traces the transformation of puppet to human and back. The Brahms piece, Variations on a Theme by Paganini is bound up in thematic transformations of one of music’s most famous themes. The Scarlatti sonatas (K 380 and K 466) are oases of quiet in an often tempestuous program. A mighty tempest closes this recital – Ravel’s La Valse, which can be viewed as a transformation of this dance-form. This 1920s piece was written for the Ballets Russes but was rejected. Composer George Benjamin summed it up perfectly when he described La Valse as tracing “the birth, decay and destruction of a musical genre: the waltz”. The DG engineers have close-miked the Steinway used in these sessions but the result is not over-analytical. In fact, the sound is as if we’ve been given a seat right in front of the piano. Yuja Wang is reminiscent of the incendiary Martha Argerich. There is abundant virtuosity on display but it…

January 13, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: VOLUPTÉ Music for Viola and Piano (viola: Roger Benedict, piano: Timothy Young)

Charles Kœchlin is a prolific French composer remembered, if at all, almost exclusively for his 1933 Seven Stars Symphony, which had movements dedicated to Marlene Dietrich, Charlie Chaplin and Greta Garbo; Belgian composer Joseph Jongen is known mainly for organ works. If nothing else, the release demonstrates material for solo viola is much richer than generally imagined. By far the longest work (at 30’) is Kœchlin’s Sonata Op 53 (1912-5), a rich addition to this repertoire. Benedict’s playing is mesmeric, conveying moods varying from languorous to ruminative, and is always darkly beautiful. The third movement andante seems to anticipate Messiaen, with the ethereal voice of the viola floating above pointillistic piano chords. The other pieces which engaged me were Kœchlin’s Quatre Petites Pieces, on which Benedict is joined by the French horn of Ben Jacks. Two complaints: why do the liner notes not follow the performance sequence, causing listeners to keep having to flip back and forth tediously to remind themselves which particular piece they’re listening to? And why does Ivan March state in them “it seems likely that Koechlin intended this [the finale of the sonata] as a threnody [i.e. lament] for Milhaud, the loss of his great friend…”…

January 13, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: TANGUY • SATIE Seneque, Dernier Jour; Socrate (singers: Michel Blanc, Jean-Paul Fouchécourt; Orchestre National de France; Ensemble Erwartung)

In fact, these performances, of Eric Tanguy’s Seneque, Dernier Jour and Erik Satie’s Socrate are capably performed in every respect and the recordings, from Radio France, are as fine as you could wish. Seneque is an imagined musing by the philosopher Seneca on his last day, full of bitterness at having served one of history’s most famous monsters, the Emperor Nero. It’s performed by recitalist-actor Michel Blanc, with the Orchestre National de France under Alain Altinoglu. The more moving Socrate, based on Plato’s writings of Socrates’s last day before taking the hemlock, is sung by the fine lyrical tenor Jean-Paul Fouchécourt, with the Ensemble Erwartung under Bernard Desgraupes. They are similarly themed works, but the Satie piece, which shows a very different Satie than we know from the ubiquitous piano works, resonates more with its understated, calm music. It is a perfect setting for the memoir of how a great man accepted his death. The problem for English listeners is that both pieces are written with the music very clearly subordinated to the task of illuminating the words, instead of being an equal partner to the text as in opera. We are given the translated texts, but reading the translation…

January 13, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: HAYDN Concertos for Harpsichord and Violin (violin: Stefano Montanari, harpsichord: Ottavio Dantone; Accademia Bizantina/Dantone)

Ottavio Dantone’s harpsichord in particular sounds as though it is gamely holding back the full force of the orchestra until it has whispered its way to a suitable break. Violinist Stefano Montanari seems to be better able to handle the contrast, though at the expense of sounding a bit tetchy in case the orchestra catches it unawares. The work of this respected Italian ensemble, then, comes both fluid and sensitive, and loud and forceful. They do both very well, but the two forms do not mix that happily on the one CD unless you can find a tolerable half-way setting. It is an unusual factor to take into account when assessing a recording, when levels and contrasts are usually so balanced as to not be noticeable. Especially with a composer like Haydn, whose skill as a smooth colourist is almost magical. Perhaps authenticity is best kept in shape with a touch of rough handling now and then. Whatever, some adjustment may be needed to get the most out of this performance, but an hour of Haydn is always an hour’s treat.

January 13, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: BEETHOVEN Complete Piano Concertos (piano: Paul Lewis; BBC Symphony Orchestra/Belohlávek)

English pianist Paul Lewis has already recorded for Harmonia Mundi an acclaimed cycle of the Beethoven sonatas, and now turns his attention to the complete piano concertos. Here are all five, housed in a handsome three-disc cardboard digipak. Even if you have individual recordings of these concertos, this set is a tremendous way to survey them all. Lewis’s performance partner is Jirí Belohlávek, conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Belohlávek is more usually heard conducting opera, but that is no liability. In fact, the dramatic sense he brings to these works is part of what makes these recordings so effective. There is nothing in the booklet notes to state whether these are live performances or not. They are made in conjunction with BBC Radio 3, which suggests they were the next best thing – especially recorded for broadcast, with the same zest and spontaneity of a live concert recording. Paul Lewis is an assured pianist in this repertoire, growing in authority through the cycle until its apotheosis in the grand Fifth, Beethoven’s “symphony for piano and orchestra”. The acoustics are really quite extraordinary – strong and sonorous, with piano and orchestra truly at one. This is about the finest-sounding recording of…

January 13, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: BEETHOVEN String Quartets Nos 6, 13 (Artemis Quartet)

Given a couple of personnel changes, and with a few more years under their bows, this new CD needs little time to assure us that they remain a formidable ensemble, their reputation for getting everything they can out of their instruments intact. The members each bring a personal excitement of their own that gives listening to these works a particularly thrilling edge. Beethoven under this scrutiny is a figure strong enough to withstand assault at the same time as receive veneration, and they have no fear of subjecting him to both in equal measure. In other words, the Artemis Quartet are prepared to do whatever it takes to dig to the heart of his music. This they do by giving 100 percent in their playing. They start with an early quartet – the last in the opus 18 set – that rattles wildly, and strikingly good-humouredly, free of any limitation imposed by coming so soon after Mozart and Haydn had been working their hardest on that particular model. It runs for 28 electrifying minutes, hurtling without ceremony straight into Beethoven’s maturity with his massive 46-minute opus 130, by which time he had so many ideas to get out that he…

January 13, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: VON WOLKENSTEIN Songs of Myself (counter-tenor: Andreas Scholl; Shield of Harmony)

This anthology samples 21 songs from the 130 works he left us in two illustrated manuscripts, and the texts reveal an astonishingly modern character. These poems, sometimes ribald and lusty, sometimes tender, even poignant, still speak directly to us. Like troubadours of all ages (think of our own Bob Dylan) Von Wolkenstein was not too concerned about where he found his melodies, borrowing them from anyone and everywhere. It was his words and thoughts which were important. They are still revelatory. These medieval treasures are interpreted lovingly by the small Shield of Harmony ensemble (featuring soprano Kathleen Dineen) alongside counter-tenor Andreas Scholl, who is in particularly fine voice. I should say fine voices, as in some of the numbers he steps away from his customary counter-tenor mode to sing in his natural light baritone. The recording was made in St Valentine’s Church, Kiedrich, where Andreas Scholl’s career began as a boy-chorister, aged seven. In his very personal liner notes, Andreas reveals that this also was where both his late sister and late father also sang. The recorded ambience is very natural. The love and warmth that flows from venue and songs is audible here too.

January 13, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: KRENEK Sechs Motetten nach Worten von Franz Kafka (soprano: Caroline Stein, piano: Philip Mayers; RIAS Kammerchor/Rademann)

The story of a white opera singer and a promiscuous black jazz musician was a smash hit in Germany and abroad as soon as it premiered in 1928, but was banned by the Nazis as “degenerate art” as soon as they came to power. Krenek, an Austrian of Czech descent, composed several operas, though none was as popular as Jonny Spielt Auf. Krenek was forced to flee Nazi persecution to the USA in 1938, where he worked as both academic and composer. This disc collects examples of his choral writing before and after that move. The centrepiece is Sechs Motetten nach Worten von Franz Kafka from 1959, in which he uses serial-composition technique to glue together scattered slivers of text. The five other choral works (also featuring soprano Caroline Stein) range through his whole career, starting in1923 and tracing his developments through 12-tone techniques to serial. Many performances are a cappella; others feature the discreet piano of Philip Mayers. Despite quality performances, this is heavy stuff. Not only is there a very academic bent, but the music paints a relentlessly bleak world-view, where World War I and subsequent depression, the rise of Nazism and the horrors of the World War…

January 13, 2011