18 January, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: BEETHOVEN Piano Concerto No. 4; Piano Concerto in D minor (piano: Ronald Brautigam; Norrköping SO/Parrott)

Typically iconoclastic, it opens with a solo piano theme that is answered by the orchestra, before a more traditional ritornello follows – based on the piano theme. The second movement, one of Beethoven’s finest, is a dialogue between an initially angry and strident orchestra and a serene piano that eventually dominates – soothing the orchestra. The final Rondo is a joyous romp. For this recording, pianist Roland Brautigam uses a newly revised score for the outer movements that includes annotations by the composer in 1808, eventually deciphered in 1994. The overall effect of these changes is minimal. Towards the end of 1806, Beethoven also wrote his only Violin Concerto for Franz Clement, which is another strikingly original work with its opening timpani strikes. In 1808, at the request of pianist/composer Muzio Clementi, Beethoven transcribed it for piano. Unfortunately much of the piano transcription is a straight repetition of the violin part with little or no harmonic addition. This can be a little disconcerting for the listener used to the violin version. The cadenzas, however, were newly composed by Beethoven and probably contain the most interesting music in the concerto. Brautigam gives a characteristically reliable performance and the Norrköping Orchestra are…

18 January, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: SHOSTAKOVICH String Quartets; Cello Sonata; Piano Trios; Piano Quintet (cello: Heinrich Schiff; Eroica Trio; Jerusalem Quartet; Atrium String Quartet, The Nash Ensemble)

This is especially true as all of the music is of high quality and lacks both the trivial material that mars so much of his work, and the bleak despair of some of his last quartets. The most attractive work is the Piano Quintet which was written between the Stalinist terror of the late 1930s and the Nazi invasion of 1941, a period when life was fairly secure and consumer goods had become more readily available.  On the other hand, the great Piano Trio of 1944 reflects the horrors and privations suffered by the Russian people during the war. The “Jewish” theme of the finale is interpreted now – and was at the time – as a reference to the persecution of the Jews both in Nazi-occupied Europe and the Soviet Union. The Quartet No. 3, written just after the war, begins , according to the composer himself, with a movement describing the “bliss of ignorance” followed by other movements related to the atrocities of the war and a final movement asking the meaning of life itself. Both this and the Quartet No. 7, a depiction of the composer’s late wife, contain moments of real lyrical beauty of which any composer would…

18 January, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: ELGAR Enigma Variations in the South (Sydney Symphony/Ashkenazy)

You really have to go over the top these days in this work (who could forget Bernstein’s transformation of Nimrod from tweedy county type into a Mahlerian Viennese neurotic?) to draw apart from the pack in what has now become, regrettably, a warhorse. With the best will in the world, I can’t pretend that Ashkenazy and the Sydney Symphony have any more to say than Monteux, Jochum, Mackerras or Davis. For me, the real gem in this release is the so called Concert Overture – In the South (“Alassio”), inspired by a holiday the Elgars took on the Italian Riviera. Apparently, they didn’t enjoy themselves very much but you’d never guess it from the music. This score contains some of Elgar’s greatest music. As a symphonic poem, it completely eclipses anything Liszt wrote in the genre and makes Richard Strauss’s Aus Italien, inspired under similar circumstances, sound positively insipid. The opening is one of the most exhilarating in all music: sweeping, impetuous and radiating passion. The Italian sensuality of the viola passage (later published separately as a song In Moonlight) is ravishing. Ashkenazy controls the climaxes perfectly and I urge anyone who has never heard this brilliant piece to investigate it:…

18 January, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: CHOPIN 19 Waltzes (piano: Jean-Philippe Collard)

Back then, the beauty of the best analog recordings was lost in the ferocity of the digital age. It took more than a decade before most studio technicians had developed the skill – or the ear – to again record with natural audio spaciousness and bloom. In this set, the opening waltz is marred by a hard jangly sound in the upper register. It’s impossible to tell if this is from the recording methodology, or studio ambience, microphone placement or from the piano itself, but it sets a discordant tone right from the start. Things do improve as the set continues, but this is a disappointing reading of the waltzes. It seems a rather perfunctory reading. Slower passages in particular, as in the Op 34 No. 3, the Valse Brillante, sound just tired rather than deliciously languid. There are far better accounts of the Chopin Waltzes. The outstanding set, from Romanian pianist Dinu Lipatti, also comes from EMI and is my definite preferred set. The only reason this Jean-Philippe Collard recording could augment a collection is that it collects all 19 waltzes, including four posthumous compositions which are missing from the Lipatti recording. 

18 January, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: TCHAIKOVSKY • RACHMANINOV Piano Trios (piano: Lang Lang; violin: Vadim Repin; cello: Mischa Maisky)

Deutsche Grammophon announces this as Lang Lang’s first CD of chamber music and, on the whole, it is successful. The Tchaikovsky Trio was written in 1881 in memory of Nicholas Rubinstein, pianist and founder of Moscow’s Conservatory – a man who had both praised and denounced Tchaikovsky and who aroused conflicting emotions in him. It consists of two movements – a Pezzo elegiaco and a theme with 11 variations and a coda. The second movement was considered by Tchaikovsky’s contemporaries to be a musical portrait of Rubinstein’s many-faceted personality. The music does not sound particularly elegiac. It is typically Tchaikovskian in its melodies and depth of emotion, but sometimes seems a bit too long for its material. The distinguished performers treat the music sensitively, accurately and with considerable exuberance. At times, particularly in the coda of the second movement, they might be considered too vehement and sometimes push their tone too much. The Rachmaninov Trio (not to be confused with his later and better known Trio elegiaco) is a youthful work written in four days when the composer was 19. It is in one movement with many tempo variations and many contrasting moods. It is a self-contained piece of music of considerable drama and…

18 January, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: JC BACH La dolce fiamma: forgotten castrato arias (counter-tenor: Philippe Jaroussky; Le Cercle de l’Harmonie/Rhorer)

Are we living in a golden age of music-making? It’s inevitable that we always reference the past. No generation before ours has had its immediate predecessors so thoroughly chronicled. The musicians of the past are not just the stuff of legend – they are with us every day. Philippe Jaroussky need not worry about such comparisons. His is a counter-tenor whose falsetto voice is so high that it has almost lost all characteristics of that genre.  As Australian audiences know, his voice is so clear and white that it is unnervingly close to a female soprano. He may lack the utter purity and beauty of the best sopranos in the highest register but replacing it is an almost unnerving other-world open-edged timbre. The period accompaniment from the Cercle de l’Harmonie is deft and assured. The lively lyricism of JS Bach’s youngest son is heard here in a way that has perhaps not been possible for a couple of centuries. Jaroussky is an idiosyncratic counter-tenor. He certainly does not supplant my memories of past greats such as Michael Chance or our own Graham Pushee. But he is perhaps unique amongst today’s counter-tenors and must be heard to be believed. This is truly…

18 January, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: RACHMANINOV Symphony No. 2; Caprice Bohémien (Sydney Symphony/Ashkenazy)

This entire performance lasts just a few seconds under an hour (one of the longest in the catalogue) and the Sydney Symphony plays well, with a convincing pulse. They played it repeatedly under Ashkenazy’s predecessor Edo de Waart but the strings are lacking the last ounce of luxuriance and the brass tone refulgent throughout. I enjoy hearing these wonderful heartfelt melodies unfold in a leisurely rather than manic way, however, I would have appreciated a little more urgency, and that uniquely Slavic sense of yearning in this beautiful, highly strung score, rather than languor bordering on lethargy. One thing I did like was the authentic final chord where Ashkenazy dispenses with the timpani thwack leaving just a morose grunt from the double basses. Things improve with the spiky, Prokofiev-like scherzo (taken at a moderate tempo) and the soft-centred trio is ravishingly handled. In the emotional core of the work, the famous adagio, Ashkenazy creates just the right flow without mawkish sentimentality or excessively overwhelming climaxes. The finale also radiates festive exuberance with the climaxes carefully controlled and gradated. The youthful Caprice Bohémien makes a very generous fill-up played with great abandon. Sound and balances are satisfactory. 

18 January, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: Barber 100th Anniversary (various performers)

EMI is celebrating his birth by releasing this treasure trove of wonderful music. There is something for everybody: Do you want one of the loveliest works for string orchestra? Here’s the famous Adagio – as well as the string quartet from which it comes. How about one of the best violin concertos written in the last century? Do you prefer something with more orchestral zing? Then the Overture to‘The School for Scandal’ will fit the bill. Barber’s orchestra style was pungent and full of restless energy. The Essay for Orchestra is a good example. The opening is reminiscent of the Adagio. From there the work moves forward nobly and more energetically. What is clear in a work such as this, is the composer’s assuredness, clear musical view and an ability to create well structured and compelling works in a familiar and yet original way. That said, I have heard more exciting performances of this fine work. This version under Leonard Slatkin is well played, while Barbara Hendricks gives a sympathetic reading of Knoxville. Some of his other lovely song settings are very English in style and effect. This is not a criticism, but interesting nonetheless. Thomas Allen sings them superbly,…

18 January, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: ROGER Piano Sonata; Piano Trio; Variations on an Irish Air (Gould Piano Trio)

So assuming we start with only limited knowledge of him or his music, we can at least hear that he left this world while in a rather sombre mood. If one had to pin down one key characteristic of Roger’s style, it would be a sensitivity to the nature of individual instruments, when he scores them as interactively as he does here. For example, in the Quintet for clarinet, two violins, viola and cello, he lets the clarinet participate in proceedings, rather than dominate them, finding a pitch for it that at times actually masks its identity as a clarinet. Given that the next item here happens to be the earliest of these works, his Piano Sonata (1943), the fact they share the same feeling means we do not need long to mark a consistency in Roger’s work. On the way through, he lifts the mood with a slightly less dour feel at mid-point for the Trio, and reveals a shade more thoughtfulness in the earlier Variations. Roger writes with no sign of heavy-handedness, delivering an overall sound that is modern, tonal mid-20th century, without conforming to any particular program or movement. The overall experience is that of an agreeable…

18 January, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: DAUGHERTY Fire and Blood; MotorCity Triptych; Raise the Roof (violin: Ida Kavafian; Detroit SO/Järvi)

The composer traces musical connections to the natural drama of volcanic eruptions in Mexico, the industrial landscape of Detroit and the genesis of the civil rights movement in Alabama. The opening three-movement violin concerto, Fire and Blood, wastes no time acquainting us with what has been firing Daugherty’s musical imagination. The work channels all the energy the composer and the players can marshal directly into our ears. Kavafian works like a Trojan, and was probably thankful to have the rest of this “live” CD off to be able to recover his strength. The MotorCity Triptych is a loud and violent depiction of industrial Detroit. A listener looking for time to reflect and savour the music has come to the wrong composer. By the time we come to the third work, and Raise the Roof begins, eyes may well have been turned upwards to see if the roof was anywhere in sight after the music that had been pounding away for the best part of the previous hour. The music belongs to the mid-20th century at its noisiest and most relentless, and you may like to have a CD of recovery music handy to wind down with afterwards. Heavy metal might…

18 January, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: BRAHMS Piano Concerto No 2, Klavierstücke (piano: Nicholas Angelich; Frankfurt RSO/Järvi)

Nicholas Angelich certainly has the measure of this gigantic work. Any performance lasting more than 50 minutes is usually in trouble; any lasting less than, say, 46, likewise. At just over 48, Angelich is splendidly central – in terms of tempi at least. However, his opening movement reveals his technique, insights and sensitivity as equally impressive, with Olympian grandeur tempering this storm-tossed music.  In the scherzo, Angelich is truly demonic, but more adversarial than belligerent in his attitude to the orchestra. The cello solo at the opening of the slow movement I find slightly mundane, but it seems more eloquent in its subsequent appearance. Here, Angelich finds much beautifully veiled yet profound emotion, whereas in the finale, he is delightfully skittish.  The eight Klavierstücke Op 76 are an excellent complement. Although composed at much the same time, they occupy a different world. Titled either Capriccio or Intermezzo, all are gentle and introspective, except No 2, sprightly and even spiky, and No 5, with its touches of restrained rhetoric, providing a foretaste of the radiant autumnal quality of Brahms’ later piano pieces. Angelich reveals more sense of Innigkeit – “inwardness”, very important in Brahms – than Ciccolini or even Gieseking.

18 January, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: SWEELINCK Psaumes français; Canciones Sacrae (Cappella Amsterdam/Reuss)

This CD, another of many which present their entire length free of instruments, is packaged with the usual care and precision of harmonia mundi, sharply constructed and printed with a learned but readable description of the people and their music, with no unwanted capital letters. Cappella Amsterdam has developed under its director Daniel Reuss over the past 40 years to their present formidable strength. Of the 25 members pictured in the group photo in the liner notes, 18 of them are granted individual parts to sing on this recording. But it’s impossible to pick anyone out, as the essence of the idea is that the choir delivers all that is heard, with no allowance for solo deviations. It would take an early vocal music specialist to really separate the ten works presented here into significant individual items, though the words are all there for the asking in the usual languages. The sound quality of the recording is consistent throughout, conforming with all relevant expectations. There is clearly a sizeable market out there for historic sacred music of this type, judging by the number of new releases we see every year. This particular disc meets all the criteria for respectability without…

18 January, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: ANGEL SONGS (Choir of Trinity College, University of Melbourne/Jones)

The most modern composition – and the only secular piece on the album – is derived from a lullaby (‘Goodnight my Angel’ by American pop singer Billy Joel), which is given the full King’s Singers treatment by that vocal group’s chief arranger. It’s a very cloying piece indeed, matched here in saccharine levels only by one of my pet hates, Brahms’ Lullaby. But those two are the only doses of cloying sweetness found on this rich anthology of near-perfect choral singing, which also forms a platform for some very fine soloists from the Trinity College choir. Composers featured here include Mozart, Handel, Mendelssohn, Purcell and Haydn, while modern choral specialists such as John Rutter, David Willcocks and Herbert Howells are also heard to fine advantage. It’s very difficult to single out just one piece from the 20 choral works presented here. But soprano Siobhan Stagg’s contribution to Mozart’s Laudate Dominum is certainly worthy of special mention for its clarity and purity. The exultant Purcell offering, ‘Hark! The echoing Air’ from The Fairy Queen is given a truly exultant performance by the ensemble, with fine playing from trumpeter Mark Fitzpatrick and cellist Michelle Wood. The recording, which was made in the…