20 March, 2013
CD and Other Review

Review: 18th-century Portuguese Love Songs

In his booklet notes to this most bewitching of releases, David Cranmer quotes from a 1787 journal entry by the English traveller William Beckford, in which he refers to modinhas, or Portuguese love songs: “This is an original sort of music different from any I ever heard, the most seducing, the most voluptuous imaginable, the best calculated to throw saints off their guard and to inspire profane deliriums.” Wow. Fans of Portuguese fado
 will find these songs, which effortlessly bridged the gap between the popular and the courtly, immediately attractive, languid and sensual. Just listen to a modinha such as Tempo que breve passaste (“So short a time you passed”) by Antonio da Silva Leite. Then there are those, such as the bright, cheeky Onde vas linda Negrinha (“Where are you going, pretty black girl”) by the same composer, alive with Afro- Brazilian rhythms. L’Avventura London director Zak Ozmo, who also plays Spanish and English guitars, has wisely broken up the songs and instrumental works with more “classical” fare with a Portuguese connection – keyboard pieces by Carlos de Seixas and Domenico Scarlatti. The performances by sopranos Sandra Medeiros and Joana Seeara, violone player Andrew Kerr and guitarists Taro Takeuchi…

13 March, 2013
CD and Other Review

Review: Vivica Genaux: A Tribute to Faustina Bordoni

Vivica Genaux’s superb recording of arias by Handel and Hasse composed for Faustina Bordoni shows why that 18th-century singer, who had a notorious catfight with her rival Francesca Cuzzoni in front of the Princess
 of Wales, was so envied. Handel wrote some glorious arias for her, most notably Lusinghe piu care from Alessandro, beautifully sung by Genaux on the opening track. Johann Adolph Hasse didn’t quite have the magic touch of Handel musically, but he married Bordoni and then proceeded to compose 
at least 15 operatic roles for her – truly justifying their contemporary reputation as the power couple of 18th-century opera. As for Genaux, she began her career singing Hasse’s music back in the 1990s with René Kollo, and her interest in his repertoire has never faltered. Her tightly controlled coloratura is ideally suited to Hasse’s technical showpieces, especially in Padre ingiusto from Cajo Fabricio. Genaux’s voice gets swamped occasionally in the Radio Bremen mix, but such is her compelling presence on disc that it hardly matters, and generally she finds sympathetic support in the Cappella Gabetta, established in 2010 with brother and sister Andrés and Sol Gabetta as the driving forces. They are sparkling interpreters of the Baroque…

13 March, 2013
CD and Other Review

Review: Wagner: Der Ring Des Nibelungen (Solti Remastered)

Few would have been surprised when Solti’s Decca recording 
of Richard Wagner’s The Ring 
of the Nibelung was voted The Recording of the Century: there was simply nothing which came within a bull’s roar. The entire seven-year project (1958-1965) was a miracle not just of great casting, singing, conducting 
and orchestral playing; it was equally epic in its organisation, logistics, budgetary discipline and technical innovation. The world of recording was never the quite the same. It changed the way people heard opera in their living rooms. An army of experts and professionals deserve credit for the outstanding quality of the finished product (which has retained its magic aura to this day) but the twin geniuses of the project were undoubtedly John Culshaw and then plain Georg Solti. Culshaw had long been a force in the industry as Decca’s leading recording producer but Solti, despite appearances at the Salzburg Festival and recordings with both the Israel and London Philharmonic Orchestras
 as feathers in his cap, was a completely unknown quantity 
in an undertaking as mammoth as this, by far the largest, most ambitious and genuinely visionary recording ever attempted. Now, with live performances of The Ring appearing as regularly as Railway…

12 March, 2013
CD and Other Review

Review: Opera Australia: La Traviata on the Harbour (DVD)

By any standards, Opera Australia’s staging of La Traviata on Sydney Harbour in April was 
a triumph. The terrifying logistics included a purpose-built raked stage on foundations driven deep into the harbour bed, a signature oversized chandelier rising and falling above the action, and amplified singers coordinated by video-link with conductor Brian Castles-Onion and the AOBO Orchestra underneath it all. What could possibly go wrong? Oh, and did anyone mention how much this all must have cost? In the end, the critics were unanimous in their praise for 
a production that had so many unforgettable visual images associated with it, from the fireworks at the end of the drinking song, to the high notes in Sempre Libera being sung mid-air above Sydney Harbour, and on to the party guests in Act Two arriving by water-taxi. But as this incredible DVD demonstrates, what made this production one for the ages was the exact opposite of spectacle. With its superb casting, Francesca Zambello’s staging of the Verdi masterpiece centres ultimately on the deep and profoundly human relationships that occur against that tawdry world of the beautiful people and their glitter-ball existence. Librettist Francesco Piave’s intense psychological drama features lengthy duets wherein the…

11 March, 2013
CD and Other Review

Review: James Rutherford: Most Grand to Die

The First World War took its toll on a whole generation but George Butterworth was probably British music’s greatest loss, killed on
 the Somme in 1916. Ivor Gurney survived, but was confined to a mental hospital for most of his remaining life. Ralph Vaughan Williams escaped with impaired hearing but his musical outlook was darkly coloured by his wartime experiences. Programming these composers side by side isn’t unusual (Simon Keenlyside’s excellent Songs of War is still fresh in my ears), but when the singer is as good as James Rutherford it’s a pleasure to revisit the repertoire. The songs were mostly written before the conflict and so are not all as mournful as the CD cover might suggest. Death is a regular guest of A E Housman, and Gurney’s poems are certainly elegiac, but there is much idyllic music here as well. Butterworth’s Bredon Hill and On the Idle Hill of Summer, Gurney’s Severn Meadows and Sleep and Vaughan Williams Let Beauty Awake and Bright is the Ring of Words are among the finest songs in any language. James Rutherford’s is a substantial baritone voice, darker than Bryn Terfel’s but with plenty of bite. Thomas Allen (or indeed Keenlyside) may…

11 March, 2013
CD and Other Review

Review: Bernarda Fink: Spanish Songs

Bernarda Fink has a vibrant mezzo-soprano voice and the sense of style to interpret this program to the manner born – which, despite her surname, she was. The daughter of Slovenian parents, she was brought up in Buenos Aires. Her repertoire includes Baroque music and mainstream German and French song, but this Spanish recital does not come out of the blue: it follows an earlier release of Argentinean songs from 2006. The diverse program,
which includes many rarities, concentrates on three of the
four masters of 20th-century Spanish song. (The missing one is Joaquín Turina.) It opens with Falla’s well-known Seven Popular Spanish Songs, and straight away Fink reveals her strengths: a strong chest voice for Andalusian declamation, the ability to float her warm tone at the top of her register and an understanding of the emotional terrain that allows her to hold nothing back in this spirited, heart-on-sleeve music. Rodrigo’s gentle Adela 
follows, the first of his Tres canciones españolas, and here Fink presents a beautifully poised cantilena against the simple accompaniment, rendered with style by American pianist Anthony Spiri. Rodrigo’s songs tend to
be spare in texture, Granados’s popular Tonadillas notable for their elegance, while Falla remains the most earthy. Throughout,…

11 March, 2013
CD and Other Review

Review: Lang Lang: The Chopin Album

It can’t be easy being Lang Lang, what with the hype surrounding him as the world’s favourite pianist and all. And yet as a commercial commodity the 30-year-old’s been delivering that showmanship and technical excellence ever since he wowed Beijing and the world more than half his lifetime ago. The hard bit comes in translating the unparalleled reputation into musical performances that truly take your breath away year after year. He remains a wonderful player, the recording quality of his discs is a given, and in the show- off works like those featured on his previous Liszt album, his extrovert style is hard to beat. But Chopin? Sure, it’s well- known that Lang Lang has built much of his career on this beloved composer’s work, and for the non- specialist music-lover buying on the performer’s well-deserved reputation alone, there will be more than enough musical ability here to leave a favourable impression. But for those comparing Lang Lang’s Chopin
 with recent efforts by the now- septuagenarian Maurizio Pollini
on DG, and Lang Lang’s labelmate, young tearaway Khatia Buniatishvili, things become more competitive. With all the poetry and sadness deriving from a lifetime of supreme musicianship, Pollini’s take on
the 24 Preludes Op…

11 March, 2013
CD and Other Review

Review: Anthony Pateras: Collected works 2002–2012

Not many composers would be reasonably justified in releasing a retrospective collection of their works at the meager age of 33, let alone have the arsenal in their creative inventory to present it in five meaty volumes. But then, having already collaborated with the likes of Richard Tognetti, Jon Rose and Brett Dean, Melbourne-raised Anthony Pateras isn’t like many other young composers. Pateras’ Collected Works 2002–2012 affirms his position as one of the most respected and sought-after Australian composers of his generation. The 5-CD limited edition box set spans a decade of creative output across various instrumental media, from chamber, orchestral to solo piano. Reproduced in the notes are excerpts from a handful of Pateras’ highly personal and oftentimes clinically schematic scores, offering a fascinating insight into the composer’s unique way of assembling sounds. The list of Pateras’ recruited performing artists reads as an all-star line of Australian talent, comprising Dean conducting the ANAM Orchestra in the fragmented, free-wheeling Immediata electric violin concerto with Tognetti as soloist, Melbourne-based experimental outfit Golden Fur in chamber piece Broken then fixed then Broken, and Timothy Munro as bass flautist in the ethereal and monolithic Lost Compass. Pateras himself executes a mix of prepared…

11 March, 2013
CD and Other Review

Review: Dvořák: Piano Quintet, String Quartet in F (American)

Ah, the impetuosity of youth, the volatility of the mood swings, the enviable I-know-everything attitude and the history-was-a-crock-and-nothing-really-mattered-until-now approach to life! Wrap it up into a musical package and you might end up with someone like Teo Gheorghiu, the brilliant Zurich-born pianist whose competition success while still a foetus stamped him as one of the wunderkinds of our age. Now, let’s not pretend that at the ripe old age of 20 he’s the world’s greatest authority on Dvořák, but when the famous opening cello theme in the Piano Quintet Op 81 sounds elegant but somehow soporific, you just know that he’s about to put a bomb under it. And, sure enough, he does, the main Allegro taking off at roughly prestissimo before the flailing adolescent fingers increase the tempo beyond all known verbal descriptions. And so it goes throughout this impertinent, altogether exhilarating performance filled with extreme tempo and dynamic shifts, look-out-Grandma daredevilry and hold-onto-your-hat wheelies and burnouts, that make you wonder whether to scold him or applaud. Certainly one senses that the poor old Carmina Quartet, who were born in a more sober time, sound relieved to have made it unscathed through that first movement’s merciless game of catch-me-if-you-can….

11 March, 2013
CD and Other Review

Review: Brahms: Violin Sonatas (Marwood)

“Too much beer and bread,” said Paul Dukas about the music of Johannes Brahms, and certainly there have been some who have found the contrapuntal density of the Viennese master an inhibition. It would be a churlish listener, however, who could apply this prejudice to the violin sonatas, packed as they are with gentle lyricism,
 memorable melody and plenty 
of fresh air between the notes.
These three works, written over 
a ten-year period, show Brahms
 at his sunniest and have attracted distinguished interpreters. This 
latest CD features British violinist
 Anthony Marwood and his Serbian
 partner, pianist Aleksandar Madžar, recorded live at London’s Wigmore Hall. The duo recently delighted Australian audiences on their national tour for Musica Viva and so this CD is doubly welcome. The G Major Sonata here receives one of
 the loveliest readings I can recall, Marwood’s silvery tone spinning a continuous line with numerous inspired touches. A violinist with 
a lighter touch yields riches and offers greater flexibility than those who opt for melody at the expense of a more engaging conversational tone. The outer movements capture Brahms’s magical Viennese lilt and the poignant Adagio is especially memorable, its mellow song wistfully tugging at the heart. Madžar here…

11 March, 2013
CD and Other Review

Review: Brahms/Berg: Violin Concertos

Despite the academic narrative that suggests opposing aesthetics, the pairing of the Brahms and Berg Violin Concertos makes perfect historical sense, Berg’s anguished tribute In Memory of an Angel 
to Alma Mahler’s daughter, who died aged just 18, representing a logical extension of the late Romantic sensibility from which the Second Viennese School took its lead. But French violinist Renaud Capuçon’s performance of the two works, conducted by fellow 30-something Daniel Harding with the Vienna Philharmonic, almost makes Brahms sound postmodern compared with the merely “modern” Berg, courtesy of the vastly different characters that he brings to each of its three movements. Technically excellent throughout, the first movement of the Brahms faffs about interpretively for nearly its entire 22-minute duration, not really engaging the emotions, until the Kreisler cadenza (so much spikier and self-conscious than the usual
 Joachim one) suddenly resolves into the most sublime conclusion imaginable. The slow movement then continues in the same
 vein, making it a candidate for a standalone Swoon compilation. Then the finale sounds like it’s had its structure rearranged by Picasso in his cubist phase, passages of clashing genres and rhythmic gear shifts being emphasised (à la Boulez with Mahler) rather than reconciled. And…

11 March, 2013
CD and Other Review

Review: Mahler: Symphony No 2 (MSO)

In an industry said to be in more or less dire straits by various sources, I’m amazed that a small boutique label like Oehms can afford to issue two recordings of Mahler’s Resurrection symphony with different conductors and orchestras. Simone Young’s Hamburg recording followed
 hot on the heels of Markus Stenz’s Cologne effort. Now, here is another Markus Stenz live performance with the Melbourne Symphony, of which he was chief conductor. Stenz proved his credentials as a Mahler conductor during his slow-release cycle a few years ago. This performance dates from December 2004. I don’t know why it’s taken almost a decade to reach us. That said, I enjoyed this traversal. It’s quite different from Simone Young’s: more volatile, with a much greater range of tempos and moods. Occasionally, I felt he skated over details in the first movement and the phrasing risked sounding perfunctory. (Perhaps ironically, this version is overall about four minutes longer than Young’s.) The Minuet movement is commendably unsentimental
 but the Scherzo is taken too 
fast for it to register its sardonic and demonic quality. Both Stenz’s soloists, mezzo-soprano Bernadette Cullen and soprano Elizabeth Whitehouse, seem more comfortable than their Hamburg counterparts. Also, in the Urlicht…

7 March, 2013
CD and Other Review

Review: Schubert: Complete Symphonies (Minkowski)

What a journey is traversed in Schubert’s nine symphonies, from the adolescent pomposity of the opening flourish of the First, through the genuine drama of the Fifth and onto the pure, unadulterated inspiration of the final two. And along the way are the under-appreciated gems, the Third in particular that, please forgive me, beats hands- down anything that Mozart or Mendelssohn had written in the symphonic form by the same age of barely 20. No wonder so many of the great conductors have had a crack at the complete set, and let’s just list von Karajan, Böhm, Barenboim, Muti, Abbado and Harnoncourt for starters, not to mention the Peter Maag LP-era and the Jos van Immerseel sets. So Marc Minkoswki and Les Musiciens du Louvre Grenoble are mixing it with the big boys in this new boxed set recorded live in March 2012 in Vienna’s Konzerthaus. Good thing they know what they’re doing. Using the same technique they applied to Haydn’s London Symphonies, the 30-year-old French group performed the entire series in a week and recorded the lot, the upshot of the spontaneity being some really exciting performances, and the downside being the occasional ouch-moment when the period instruments remind…