13 January, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: BEETHOVEN Violin Sonatas No 3 in E flat, Op 12; No 9 in A, Op 47, Kreutzer (Viktoria Mullova, Kristian Bezuidenhout)

Beethoven’s Sonata No 3 was written in 1798, when Beethoven was 27. Already, the composer’s tendency to make the two instruments equal partners was well established. Part of a set, Beethoven dedicated them to his teacher, Salieri. This sunny work contrasts with the seriousness of the Kreutzer. Unusual for the time, the work begins with the violin. One can only imagine the audience reaction at the premiere. The piano enters, and the two instruments seem to square off as if workingout a way of proceeding. Then suddenly, it’s on, and the movement erupts with fierce energy. At the time of the Kreutzer’s composition in 1803, Beethoven was aware of his increasing deafness: the battle in the first movement could reflect this. At 36’, it is a demanding and engrossing work. The recording is excellent and the performances are lively and committed. In the notes, Bezuidenhout makes a persuasive case for the fortepiano, citing the familiar arguments about timbre, speed of audio decay and so on. One must respect the research, up to a point. Some years ago, when challenged over the new passion for the fortepiano, a prominent academic loftily observed, “You’ll get used to it”. Perhaps, but to my…

13 January, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: KHACHATURIAN Piano Concerto, Violin Concerto (piano: Christina Ortiz, violin: David Oistrakh; LSO/Khachaturian; LPO/Boult)

The excerpts from Spactacus and Gayenah conducted by the composer himself with the London Symphony in its palmy days not long before his death, bring these two scores with their heady exoticism to life. The Concertos are a different story. Neither has ever become mainstream repertoire, despite the advocacy of the seriously underrated pianist Mindrew Katz and the peerless David Oistrakh in the Violin Concerto, in which he apparently had serious input. In the Piano Concerto, Katz invests this often racketty score (replete with phoney orientalisms) with genuine poetry, and the lyrical episodes are well handled by Boult in acceptable 1950s sound. Where the work momentarily comes unstuck is in the disastrous inclusion of the flexatone, a kind of musical saw, wisely omitted from Willaim Kapell’s recording. Unlike the theramin in Miklos Rosza’s score to Hitchcock’s Spellbound, where it adds to the sinister ambience, the flexatone sounds like a demented audience member whistling along. The Violin Concerto benefits similarly from Oistrakh’s virtuosity and imagination. For me, the most interesting work in the set is the Suite from the 1942 ballet Masquarade, based on Lermontov’s reworking of the Othello story, where Khachaturian’s sardonic portrait of Leningrad society could almost have been…

13 January, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: LIGETI String Quartets 1, 2; Lux Aeterna; Ramifications; Choral works; Six Bagatelles (Artemis Quartet; Chamber Orchestra of Toulouse/Auriacombe; Barry Tuckwell Wind Quintet; Groupe Vocal de France)

That said, there’s no denying much of his music is extremely avant-garde, and much of this two-CD set could hardly be described as Ligeti’s “greatest hits”. The first CD is dedicated to the String Quartets Nos 1 and 2. The first is a multi-faceted work in 12 movements, none longer than three minutes, with a prestissimo surely inspired by that in Beethoven’s Op 131 Quartet. I found it fascinating, although a cynic might conclude that none of the movements hangs around long enough to become either intimidating or deeply incomprehensible. Just think of the intense abstraction of Bartók’s quartets, taken one step further. The pizzicato of the Second Quartet is particularly ingratiating. The Artemis Quartet is brilliant, with diamond edge precision throughout. The Ramifications for twelve string instruments and the Six Bagatelles for wind instruments (with Barry Tuckwell’s French horn) are witty and accessible. The second CD comprises the Lux Aeterna, which gained momentary exposure in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, but most of the vocal fare is obscure and often sounds overwrought, despite the superb attack, ensemble and intonation of the Groupe Vocal de France. One for Ligeti aficionados only, I imagine.

13 January, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: MOZART Violin Concertos Nos 3, 5, Sinfonia Concertante (violin: Richard Tognetti, viola: Christopher Moore; ACO)

Committing themselves to filling an entire CD with music composed only by Mozart inevitably has an air of strategy about it, as the ACO moves forward through its six-disc collaboration with BIS. This one should certainly keep the deal sweet, even if purchasers come to it knowing or caring little about which label they are buying into. The content and the quality of this performance are all they need to hear. These two violin concertos represent Mozart only just moving out of his teens, at a creative high point. He would soon be ready to start thinking about how his future might unfold if he were to change his lowly status under patronage in Salzburg for the lure of independence in Vienna – or perhaps he had already taken the plunge. As if in belated reply, Tognetti takes his ensemble eagerly through the challenge of giving the young master as much of an encouragement as he might ever have hoped for. This engrossing performance balances precisely the articulation of each individual player with the overall impact of the sound produced by the group as a single unit. Clarity and luminescence bring every note to life, the lightest of trills, the…

13 January, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: Stravinsky, Revueltas: The Rite of Spring, La Noche de los Mayas (Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra/Dudamel)

Performances of The Rite of Spring don’t get much better than this. If the words astounding and dazzling seem a bit rich, then let me go further by adding that this remarkable youth orchestra is the result of an astonishing new approach to teaching classical music. This new approach, El Sistema, comes from a most unpredictable source – the slums of Venezuela. And I quote: “In 1975, Venezuelan economist and amateur musician José Abreu founded Social Action for Music. Abreu has dedicated himself to a utopian dream in which an orchestra represents the ideal society, and the sooner a child is nurtured in that environment, the better for all.” El Sistema has been a huge success with over 30 orchestras in Venezuela, creating a revolution in classical music education. In many cases it has lifted poverty-stricken youngsters out of lives of crime and despair. I knew nothing about Gustavo Dudamel when I first saw him in London a few years ago. After just two concerts with the Philharmonia, I knew (along with anybody else who was in the hall) that a great conductor was emerging before our eyes. A graduate of El Sistema, he is now the musical director of…

13 January, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: LEIGHTON Orchestral Works Volume 3 Symphony No 1; Piano Concerto No 3 Concerto Estivo (piano: Howard Shelley; BBC National Orchestra of Wales/Brabbins)

Much like other British composers Edmund Rubbra and George Lloyd, Leighton published his first symphony (1963-4) in the face of the orthodoxy of the time, which considered the symphony a spent and irrelevant art form. Leighton wrote: “The idea of a symphony is still valid… it is often a work to which the composer attaches particular importance and is usually meant to be a particularly personal document”. Indeed! The First Symphony is very powerful in an engagingly edgy, Age of Anxiety way, with a dark first movement which begins with echoes of Sibelius’s Fifth and gradually intensifies the tension. While the scherzo is frantic and marginally outstays its welcome, the final movement starts very coolly, the piece ending quietly and equivocally. I found it absorbing. Despite my best efforts, I could find no references or influences from other composers, indicating that Leighton quickly found his own voice and I would have no hesitation in recommending it to even conservative palates. I can’t wax quite so enthusiastically about the Piano Concerto No 3 Concerto Estivo. At 37’ it’s rather long, and not even the advocacy of Martyn Brabbins, sans pareil in this repertoire, nor the artistry of Howard Shelley, who, I’ll…

13 January, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: MASSENET Don Quichotte (singers: Berganza, Van Dam, Fondary; Orchestra and Chorus of the Capitol of Toulouse/Plasson)

Massenet composed this in his mature years and although in 1910 it gave him his last great success, his Don fell out of favour as the aggressive, modern new century got into full stride.Yet it is a tremendous work, full-blooded and exciting, with ravishingly beautiful entr’acte passages and sensitive vocal writing. As in the ballet, Massenet fleshes out the character of la belle Dulcinée, the village maiden who captivates our tragic Don. In the book she remains just a part of his noble but flawed imagination, with no more reality than the windmills at which he tilts. Teresa Berganza carries off the role with a sensual lushness, and José Van Dam is the very model of our noble but befuddled Don. This recording, from the earliest years of the digital era, does not quite capture the brilliant immediacy of the slightly earlier analogue set on Decca from Richard Bonynge, but that is more a comment on the limitations of early digital recordings than on the performances. Sadly, this 2-disc set does not come with a libretto. There is a third disc which lets you read the libretto on your computer, but that is a poor substitute for the real thing….

13 January, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: Mixed Dozen: A Selection of Music for Trumpet and Piano (trumpet: Paul Goodchild, piano: David Miller)

The Spanish title has theatrical associations; the work’s formal opening giving way to a livelier section in which the soloist is seriously tested. Paul Goodchild passes with flying colours. From the same period are sonatas by Martinu and Hindemith. Even in an intimate work such as the Sonata, Hindemith’s stern style is on show, the musical responsibilities shared equally between the two musicians. Goodchild’s poetic side can be heard in the lovely Choral, La Vieille Année s’en est Allée by Pierre Max Dubois. Bernstein’s Rondo for Lifey, which follows, is in perky contrast. In a similar vein, Ibert’s Impromptu has a jaunty feel to it. Australian composers are also well represented.  Mathew Hindson’s Ignition: Positive is a study in contrasts. The slow opening gives way to a raunchy and engaging finale. Fellow Australian Alan Holley contributes a set of six ruminative, unaccompanied pieces. The recording is first-class and Greg Keane’s notes are stylish and informative.

12 January, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: Tchaikovsky, Liszt: First Piano Concertos (Alice Sara Ott; Münchner Philharmoniker/ Hengelbrock)

 Both are hugely popular and despite bursts of enjoyable vulgarity, both are terrific. There are also more good recordings of them than one can count, to say nothing of the dodgy ones. The Munich orchestra on this disc plays with great style and elegance. Ms Ott, who hails from Munich, is on top of the demanding scores. Her approach to the Tchaikovsky is dreamier than most, which is no bad thing, especially in the divinely beautiful slow movement. Even in the scherzo-like second section of the movement she maintains this lightness. Conductor Hengelbrock attends with equal sensitivity. It is their approach that distinguishes this version of the work. The performance of the first movement, just before the cadenza in particular, becomes a bit stodgy. In fact, at the risk of running to cliché, one could say that these are very German performances. As a pianist-composer, Liszt set the bar high, and few attempted his rambunctious concertos whilst he was in town. Listening to it now, a unified one-movement work, we would hardly credit that it took the composer 26 years to finish. German horns are in a class of their own, and they sound very fine at the beginning of…

12 January, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: ANDREW FORD The Waltz Book (piano: Ian Munro)

In a clever nod to Chopin’s Minute Waltz, Ford compiled a whole hour’s worth of his own ‘minute waltzes’. It’s a great idea which makes for an engaging and surprisingly rich disc. Like many of Australia’s best composers, there’s an unresolved complexity in Ford’s thinking. You can often hear his different influences competing openly with each other: English music, folksong, rhythm and blues, 20th century modernism. Perhaps ironically, a collection of miniatures such as this allows him, and us, to unpack these strands and gain a deeper understanding of what makes him tick. Spanning such a long period, the project became a kind of default diary. One speculates on the personal meanings behind each title, especially the Finnish ones (Ford met his Finnish wife during this time). The emotional and stylistic breadth is both The Waltz Book’s strength and its underlying risk. Ford’s approaches to the waltz vary dramatically, often from one piece to the next. The gorgeously tender It’s Dark in Helsinki is tailed by the almost obnoxious Mad March Days. The interleaving Invocations are Webernian in their pungency compared to the neo-Romanticism elsewhere. My advice for first-time listening is to savour the disc like a packet of chocolates…

12 January, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: BEETHOVEN Eroica Variations: Piano variations on themes by Haibel, Wranitzky, Salieri, Süssmeyr (piano: Ian Yungwook Yoo)

 But I feel they should shoulder the blame for the fetish with “completism” – in their inexorable march to record every note ever composed, irrespective of its merit. This CD is a case in point: the only reasonably well-known work is the Op 35 so-called Eroica variations on that theme used first in the Prometheus ballet music and then the finale of the eponymous symphony. Ian Yungwook Yoo is a fine pianist, who makes the crucial distinction of contrasting each variation and investing them with a particular quality. He misses nothing. The opening hauntingly anticipates Beethoven’s Op 111, his ultimate and for me greatest piano work, but Variation 5 has witty syncopations. There is playfulness in other sections and power in the concluding fugue, which prefigures the titanic conclusion of the Hammerklavier. I have to confess that, despite the advocacy of Ian Yungwook Yoo, I found the other works on this CD indescribably tedious. Anyone familiar with the aforementioned Prometheus ballet or the Triple Concerto knows that Beethoven wasn’t always storming the barricades or shaking his fist at fate, but I found 48 minutes of variations on extremely obscure music just too much, especially at one sitting. The four stars are…

12 January, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: SCHUMANN Spanische Liederspiel; Minnespiel; Spanische Liebeslieder (singers: Petersen, Vondung, Güra, Jarnot, pianists: Berner, Radicke)

Robert Schumann composed two cycles from the set in 1849, for mixed voices and, in the case of the Spanische Liebeslieder Op 138, two pianists. Hugo Wolf later drew on Geibel’s work for his Spanish Songbook, a setting much better known today than Schumann’s, partly because the earlier cycles require multiple musicians. Looking to the warmth and freedom of southern Europe was a common theme of German Romantic art but, typically, Schumann’s choice of poem tends towards the melancholy. The duet from Op 138, “Cover me with flowers for I am dying of love” more or less sums up the dichotomy. Yet there is a sombre side to the Spanish soul that chimes perfectly with the “tortured genius” of Schumann’s muse. (Most of the songs in both sets are in the minor key.) The only overt Spanish-sounding note is in the instrumental Nationaltanz of Op 138, where the composer imitates the strumming of guitars and (possibly) the stamping of feet. These are stunning performances. The four young singers – none of whom I had encountered before – have strong, clear voices and the ability to colour the dramatic points of the poetry. Both pianists are sensitive, and the recording quality…

12 January, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: Wagner: Wesendonck Lieder; Preludes and Overtures (soprano: Measha Brueggergosman, The Cleveland Orchestra/Wesler-Möst)

Wagner’s love affair with Matilda Wesendonck led to the beautiful song cycle named after her and the lyrics she provided. It is musically akin to Tristan und Isolde. Canadian soprano Measha Brueggergosman’s diction is clear and her voice suited to the music. She sings with ease, although with a bit too much vibrato, especially given the brilliant competition in this work, from Kirsten Flagstad to Cheryl Studer. The rest of the program (from a performance in Severance Hall this year) delivers the usual Wagnerian suspects. Including, appropriately, the Prelude to Act One of Tristan und Isolde and Liebestod. Alas, the counterpoint to the big melodies is often weak and the playing dull. The two Lohengrin preludes to Acts One and Three get similar treatment. The prelude to Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg and The Ride of the Valkyries don’t fare much better. The prelude to Rienzi, the composer’s first success, is a terrific piece. However, the brass fanfares are perfunctory and the usually thrilling piece sounds more like a ride in the country. Overall, Möst’s tempi are languid, which doesn’t sit well with the music. Is this the Cleveland Orchestra of legend? Based on this CD, I don’t think the orchestra…