12 January, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: Rubenstein Piano Music 1852-1894 (Joseph Banowetz)

The pleasant salon music drifted around me and I fancied I dozed off. When I stirred moments later, I was aware of an accomplished pianist seated at a grand piano near the picture window of a tastefully furnished room. I saw Schumann wander in from the garden. He nodded to me agreeably and disappeared, probably in search of Clara. Then I fancied Mendelssohn could be seen sitting in a far corner of the room looking slightly pained as he listened. Tchaikovsky came in briefly and enquired if I’d seen Rubinstein anywhere. I replied that I’d glimpsed him earlier arguing with Sinding; or at least I thought I had. He listened to the music for a few minutes, then shaking his head sympathetically, said that he too had had trouble writing solo piano music of any significance. He then muttered something about meeting a young guardsman in the summerhouse and ducked out. I slipped back into reverie as one of the more agreeable works, the first of the two charming Melodies wafted across the room. The waiter confided to me that they were planning first recordings of much of what we were hearing. I nodded, impressed by the largesse of some…

12 January, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: MESSIAEN Poèmes pour Mi (soprano: Anne Schwanewilms; Orchestre National de Lyon/Jun Märkl)

It was originally composed for piano and soprano; this is the version for orchestra first performed a dozen years later. It’s sung here by Anne Schwanewilms, known as an interpreter of Strauss and Wagner. She is obviously a dab hand at more intimate lieder, as these songs – very personal love songs from Messiaen to his wife, mixed with the religious motifs which formed such an idiosyncratic core in his work – are sung with great delicacy and sensitivity. The religious motifs are heard even more strongly in the second offering on this disc, Les Offrandes Oubliées (The Forgotten Offerings) from 1930, Messiaen’s first published orchestral work. This still sounds contemporary in its harvesting of impressionistic dissonances and untamed musical emotions. On this evidence, Messiaen’s personal view of his religion bore heavily on pain and sacrifice and there is a great deal of very quiet solitary introspection too amidst the fury.The final work is a concentrated (9 min) offering to the memory of Mozart, which was commissioned for a premiere performance in 1991, the bicentenary of Mozart’s death. Beautiful mystical passages alternate with barbed sections based on birdsong. Although Messiaen said this piece was meant to evoke the happiness of…

12 January, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: STRAUSS Four Last Songs; Morgen!; Zueignung; Der Rosenkavalier (singers: Kenny, Gore, Harms, Hibbard; Queensland SO/Fritzsch)

Here they are coupled with three excerpts from the opera, including the ecstatic Act Three trio, and two of Strauss’s most languorous solo songs. At 44:36 this makes for a short CD. The disc is a showcase for soprano Yvonne Kenny. Her voice has been described as “silvery”; that, plus her accuracy of pitch and sure dramatic instincts, ensures her success in Handel and Mozart. Her Marschallin from Der Rosenkavalier has also been acclaimed, and you can hear why in the Act One monologue recorded here. Her pointing of detail and sympathetic intelligence bring the character of the ageing beauty vividly to life. At this stage of Kenny’s career she is still able to project her middle register, but I feel that these pieces respond more fully to a larger voice. Despite her positive attributes, something is missing: compare the recordings by Gundula Janowitz, Jessye Norman or Soile Isokoski. Fritszch and the Queensland Orchestra give solid support, though the recording rather crowds them around the soloist. Harms’s robust Octavian and Gore’s slightly mature sounding Sophie are fine – but it’s Kenny’s show. If you’re a fan you won’t be disappointed.

12 January, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: GLUCK Orphée et Eurydice (singers: Flórez, Garmendia, Marianelli; Coro y Orquesta del Teatro Real Madrid/López-Cobos)

Renowned for his virtuosity in bel canto roles, the Peruvian tenor has chosen to focus almost exclusively on that repertoire and this recording marks a rare foray into the world beyond Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini. The focus, accuracy and supple legato which characterise Flórez’s bel canto efforts are undimmed, but it’s also clear that he’s not in his element. Removed from their usual florid surroundings into the cleaner lines of Gluck’s early classicism, Flórez’s bright, slightly nasal timbre and Italianate delivery start to jar: it’s a beautifully sung performance, but never a fully idiomatic one. Ainhoa Garmendia as Eurydice is more persuasive, her impassioned sweetness of tone disturbed only by some tightness at the top of the tessitura, while Alessandra Marianelli is a clear-voiced, if somewhat generic Amour. It is the Teatro Real chorus, however, who provide arguably the loveliest vocal contribution of all, with richly coloured ensemble singing. Jesus López-Cobos conducts with a firm if rather rigid hand, drawing glossy, well-articulated performances from orchestra and soloists, but not much drama – this shortcoming may also have something to do with the concert setting. A success, then – laudable for helping Gluck’s landmark opera back into the mainstream, and for…

12 January, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: MAHLER Symphony No 1; Blumine; Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (baritone: Markus Eiche; SSO/Ashkenazy)

Mahler’s First was one of them. I vividly recall the normally somnolent Thursday afternoon audience rising to its feet to cheer after his 2002 performance. Sadly, neither that, nor the 2008 reprise, has ever been issued. I think his reading had both more Innigkeit and sheer élan than this reading by Ashkenazy, who I doubt has anything particularly interesting to say in this work. The opening string shimmer lacks mystery and expectancy. Is this, perhaps, because he’s a pianist, not a violinist and can’t convey the importance of a sustained string tremolo? The Wayfarer theme goes well enough but, overall, there is little sense of verdant nature awakening to a new day. The Scherzo needs more of what Germans call Schwung (“oomph”), and the trio should resemble an inebriated swoon, which doesn’t quite happen here. In the klezmer-meets-Kurt Weill third movement, again, the music is played a little too straight. The final sprawling movement is always a challenge and Ashkenazy and co. don’t sweep the field here either. Even the famous molto expressivo string passage sounds slightly perfunctory in their hands. Leonard Bernstein is, as usual in Mahler, wonderful in both his recordings, but my favourite performance is Guilini’s in…

12 January, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: Prokofiev: Piano Concertos Nos. 3, 5 (piano: Alexander Gavrylyuk, SSO/Vladimir Ashkenazy)

Vladimir Ashkenazy is well known for his fascination with the earthier side of Russian orchestral music. His orchestration of Pictures at an Exhibition is far more liturgical than Ravel’s, and so it is to be expected he would take a similar view with Prokofiev. Pianist Alexander Gavrylyuk follows Ashkenazy’s lead here: his interpretations and playing are remarkable, with many original touches and a dazzling technique. Ashkenazy as conductor understands what is required in this music and is a superb collaborator. The results are terrific. Like Beethoven, Prokofiev is able to alternate between the male and female moods in his music, setting beautifully dreamy themes against hard brutality. This is what makes the music so attractive and gives it life. The first is the simplest of the five works and easiest to bring off, provided you keep at it. And in this performance they do. This short piece won the composer his spurs in the 1914 Rubinstein Competition. It was a triumph and Glazunov begrudgingly awarded him first prize. Both it and the third concerto leap at you, embracing, irresistible. The third is generally regarded the greatest of the five and it is the most popular, being more comprehensible at first…

12 January, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: CHOPIN Mazurkas, Polonaise-Fantaisie, Scherzo and Nocturne (piano: Cédric Tiberghien)

The awesome fecundity of Chopin and the sheer breadth of his invention often blinds us to the fact that in visual art terms, he was a water-colourist who eschewed the grander mediums of oil or sculpture. But with his chosen palette of the piano, he was grand enough – and delicate enough – for any purpose. In Chopin’s hands, the piano seems to have limitless scope for expression, from the most poised miniature waltz or mazurka to the most dramatic nocturne or scherzo. This recital from French pianist Cédric Tiberghien uses a clever selection of works to show the range of Chopin’s accomplishments. At its heart is a choice of some 13 of the approximately 50 mazurkas Chopin left us. Nestled within these polished miniatures are three more meaty works – the intensely dramatic Scherzo Op 20, the lyrical Nocturne Op 48, and the Polonaise-Fantaisie Op 61, of which Tiberghien writes: “If I were allowed to keep only one work by Chopin, it would be this… it’s the perfect expression of his personality”. This beautifully chosen recital has the benefit of extraordinarily clear acoustics. But the lilting yet powerful performances are enough to make the listener want to seek out…

12 January, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: Prokofiev: Piano Concertos 1, 2, 4 (piano: Alexander Gavrylyuk, SSO/Vladimir Ashkenazy)

Vladimir Ashkenazy is well known for his fascination with the earthier side of Russian orchestral music. His orchestration of Pictures at an Exhibition is far more liturgical than Ravel’s, and so it is to be expected he would take a similar view with Prokofiev. Pianist Alexander Gavrylyuk follows Ashkenazy’s lead here: his interpretations and playing are remarkable, with many original touches and a dazzling technique. Ashkenazy as conductor understands what is required in this music and is a superb collaborator. The results are terrific. Like Beethoven, Prokofiev is able to alternate between the male and female moods in his music, setting beautifully dreamy themes against hard brutality. This is what makes the music so attractive and gives it life. The first is the simplest of the five works and easiest to bring off, provided you keep at it. And in this performance they do. This short piece won the composer his spurs in the 1914 Rubinstein Competition. It was a triumph and Glazunov begrudgingly awarded him first prize. Both it and the third concerto leap at you, embracing, irresistible. The third is generally regarded the greatest of the five and it is the most popular, being more comprehensible at first…

12 January, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: HAYDN Mariazellermesse; Missa in tempore belli (Trinity Choir; REBEL Baroque Orchestra/Burdick)

Much of his church music, admittedly, lacks any more than a hint of introspection, spirituality or light and shade. One always has the impression that in Haydn’s take on Catholicism a good time was had by all. Even the supposedly darker Missa in tempore belli, nicknamed the “Timpani Mass”, really becomes ominous only with the menacing timpani figures in the Agnus Dei depicting Napoleon’s army besieging south-east Austria. Otherwise, only the unsettled minor key mood of the Benedictus undermines the otherwise joyful mood. Interestingly, the man whom Beethoven a few years later considered (initially at least) to be a liberator was viewed by the more conventional Haydn as a threat to civilisation. That said, performances of this calibre deserve an unreserved welcome. These two works were composed 24 years apart, the Mariazellermesse in 1782 as a celebration of the ennoblement of a prominent Catholic, a retired army officer who organised Marian pilgrimages. Owen Burdick and his forces (the Trinity Choir refers to the Trinity Episcopal Church in Wall Street, Manhattan, not Trinity College, Cambridge) and REBEL Baroque orchestra are agile and idiomatic in this music while, among the soloists, the men are adequate but the real star in both masses…

11 January, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: MOZART Requiem; Exsultate, Jubilate (singers: Sara Macliver, Sally Anne Russell, Paul McMahon, Teddy Tahu Rhodes; Cantillation; Orchestra of the Antipodes/Walker)

On the first listening, I was slightly underwhelmed. This performance, with orchestra using ‘period’ instruments just didn’t deliver the liveliness and inventive brilliance this classic Requiem usually shows.The fault was mine. The next day I cranked up my amp and played it at something approaching recital hall level. The music blossomed. Instruments opened up and voices became truly dynamic. Some music needs this approach. Forget the neighbours – let everyone share in Mozart’s final creation. Yes, a Requiem is often sad. But despite the fact that Mozart was dying as he wrote it, this piece is also full of great joy. For me, there are three great Requiems, by Mozart, Verdi and Fauré; all share this transcendental nature. Of the four very capable soloists, Sara Macliver shines out, and her performance of the very beautiful Exsultate, Jubilate is a particularly fine addendum. Also included on the disc are two gems; Ave verum Corpus and Sancta Maria, mater Dei, making a fully-rounded program of Mozart’s sacred works. Antony Walker’s Cantillation choral group and his Orchestra of the Antipodes are as lustrous as ever. Walker’s career is now centred on the USA, but long may he be able to return home to…

11 January, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: LOCATELLI • YSAYE • CHAUSSON • SHOSTAKOVICH • RACHMANINOV Tribute to David Oistrakh (violin: Lydia Mordkovich)

This Bach-meets-Paganini tour de force begins with a prelude marked Obsession, presumably about the shadow Bach had cast over this music, but the finale Les Furies falls back on the famous Dies irae theme. In the Chausson Poème, Mordkovich is smoulderingly passionate. The jewel in the crown is the Shostakovich Sonata, Op 134 for Violin and Piano. The composer had written his Second Violin Concerto as a 60th birthday present for Oistrakh but got the years wrong and this sonata was composed for his real 60th birthday. It distills the ambience of the twilight world where ambiguity flourishes amid a thicket of coded messages, no doubt understood by Oistrakh but missed by the musical commissars. The first movement flirts, ironically, with the twelve-tone technique (strictly forbidden by the regime) in the first movement. The central allegretto consciously eschews contemplation for a manic moto perpetuo but the third movement presents a complex passacaglia (theme and variations) of increasing intensity and complexity. Again, a reference to Bach’s solo violin style emerges, this time fused with a sort of Rachmaninov-like effusiveness, only to subside ultimately into a withdrawn coda. Powerful stuff! David Oistrakh would have been proud.

3 January, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: SHOSTAKOVICH 24 Preludes and Fugues (piano: Roger Woodward)

Inspired by the Bach playing of the young Tatiana Nikolayeva, the composer wrote his own series of preludes and fugues for her in record time. In 1975 few music lovers knew the work, and it was the young firebrand Roger Woodward who made the first complete recording in the West. That set has now been reissued after 35 years in the RCA vaults. Woodward treats this work as if it were avant-garde – which it was closer to being in 1975. For a start, he plays most of it at dazzling speeds; his performance is 20 minutes shorter than Ashkenazy’s. Woodward’s articulation is crisp and pointed, the result not unlike Glenn Gould’s Bach (and the sound quality is similarly on the dry side). At high speed the C-sharp minor prelude positively glistens, while the A minor prelude and fugue barrel along. The G-sharp minor fugue is undeniably exciting, though it soon turns a trifle clattery, and the lovely A major prelude loses its tranquillity at Woodward’s rushed tempo. The well-known D-flat major prelude becomes a galumphing, mechanistic waltz: echoes of the young, sarcastic Shostakovich of the 1920s, so clearly heard in some other performances, are nowhere in evidence here. The…

3 January, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: JOSEF SUK Ripening, Symphony No 1 (BBC Symphony / Belohlavek)

Zráni (Ripening) is one of a number of deeply felt compositions – inspired by the rapid deaths of Suk’s wife and of Dvorák (Suk’s father-in-law) – that could loosely be described as being in the “triumph of the human spirit over tragedy” genre. This kaleidoscopic score demands virtuoso playing and it certainly receives it here. The BBC Symphony seems to have assimilated a genuinely Czech sound into their playing, even though some of the more histrionic sections of this score are heavily reminiscent of Richard Strauss. Its quiet opening is beautiful. Having said that, I think Zráni, at 38 minutes, is just too long, especially with such a rambling structure and virtually no program. With such an eventful score, the inclusion of a brief chorus towards the end seems strangely superfluous! The early E major symphony is another matter altogether. It radiates the same fresh alfresco sonorities as Dvorák’s best symphonic works. The lyrical first movement and the exuberant yet slightly demonic scherzo both contain some lovely themes, and the slow movement has a noble quality. The finale is a slight problem, however. Initially, it trips along with a wonderfully catchy “traveling” tune which would have done Suk’s father- in-law…