CD and Other Review

Review: The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest (Michael Nyqvist, Noomi Rapace)

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest picks up where the previous film left off – with Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace) in hospital with gunshot wounds. Charged with the attempted murder of her father (she planted an axe in his head), she relies on her old friend and lover Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) to prove her innocence, to take down the authorities who conspired to keep her locked up and silent since she was 12 years old. There are Russian defectors, dodgy psychiatrists, courtroom antics and more.  Containing none of the excitement or even the elegance of the first film, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Hornet’s Nest is cumbersome and way too long. Clocking in at 150 minutes, it’s as though the filmmakers were afraid to upset the book’s squillions of fans by condensing the narrative to make a more intriguing and enjoyable experience.  The performances are all good and there are thrills to be had, but with the book being adhered to so closely there is little chance of getting under the skin of any of the key characters. If I hadn’t seen the previous films, or read the books, I would have been confused.

March 29, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: PROKOFIEV Violin Concerto No 2 • RACHMANINOV Symphonic Dances (violin: Genevieve Laurenceau, Toulouse National Orch/Sokhiev)

Written in 1940, the Symphonic Dances was Rachmaninov’s final orchestral work. Regarded as hopelessly retrospective at the time, it has since been re-evaluated as a masterpiece. The first movement begins with a stamping, syncopated rhythm, alternating with a wistful lament from the alto saxophone. The second movement is a restless waltz that is never content to settle into a single key. The kaleidoscopic third movement closes explosively with the Dies Irae chant, a musical theme that haunted the melancholic composer all his life. Its central episode, a yearning chromatic passage for strings, is as far from the world of dance as could be. The work has been recorded often by more famous orchestras, but Sokhiev gives an impressive and thoughtful performance. His feeling for rubato is spot on. He is not afraid to slow down for lyrical moments, yet the underlying momentum is never sacrificed. Orchestral balance is excellent, and the woodwind soloists play beautifully. The unusual coupling of Prokofiev’s Second Violin Concerto displays the same virtues. The slow movement’s tender melody is spun out effectively by Laurenceau. This young Strasbourg-born violinist made her reputation in chamber music. She plays the tough moments of this concerto accurately, but has neither…

March 29, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: PAGANINI Violin Concerto No 1 • TCHAIKOVSKY Serenade Melancolique (violin: Midori, LSO/Slatkin)

Midori was only 13 or 14 when she recorded this account of Paganini’s First Violin Concerto and two morsels by Tchaikovsky, the Sérénade Mélancolique Op 26 and the Valse Scherzo Op 34. Yet the virtuosic demands of the first and last of these pieces do not daunt her; nor does she ever sound as if sheer virtuosity is an end in itself. These are satisfying performances with no allowance needed for her youthfulness. There is a technical drawback – but it is not hers. Rather, the primitive digital recording technology of the time (this recording dates from 1987) denies her the sonic richness which earlier analogue record producers brought to a fine art, and which today’s digital engineers have rediscovered. There’s a rather dry, clinical feel in the recording. It’s for this reason that Midori’s account of the Paganini, although a satisfying performance, can’t really supplant such fantastic earlier versions as the mid-1980s recording by Itzhak Perlman or (my personal favourite) the incandescent 1950 account by Leonid Kogan. It is, however, fascinating to hear the Paganini set against the two pieces by Tchaikovsky – the reflective Sérénade and Tchaikovsky’s own excursion into the wilds of virtuosity, the impetuous Valse Scherzo.

March 29, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: SHOSTAKOVICH Symphonies No 2 October, No 11 1905 (Mariinsky Orchestra and Chorus/Gergiev)

The 2nd and 11th are among Shostakovich’s least known symphonies. Chronologically they bookend Stalin’s reign in Soviet Russia, a period of great personal anxiety for the composer, which paradoxically produced his symphonic masterpieces (the 5th, 6th, 8th and 10th symphonies). Shostakovich was only 21 when he composed the 2nd, a relatively short work for chorus and orchestra. In its harmony, structure and technique it is pure 1920s avant-garde, but strip away the wailing sirens and shouting chorus effects and you’ll find a Soviet pot-boiler. There is a visceral immediacy to the work’s depiction of the uprising of 1917, but those qualities of ironic jokiness and despair that characterise his best music are entirely absent. By contrast, the 11th, which deals with the aborted revolution of 1905, is a vast orchestral canvas. Quoting revolutionary songs of the period, the work is drawn out in the manner of a Russian novel. Shostakovich’s audience knew these themes – the songs held deep significance for them – but that is not the case with today’s listeners. The composer’s expert use of the orchestra does not negate recurring episodes of stasis or bombast. It is best to approach this symphony as a monumental and dramatic…

March 29, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: HANDEL Arias: Ombra Cara (countertenor: Bejun Mehta; Freiburg Baroque/Jacobs)

Countertenor Bejun Mehta enters the increasingly crowded field of Handel recitals and triumphs with this engaging and exquisitely sung selection of arias and duets, many of them composed for the great castrato Senesino.  Dark yet delicate in timbre, Mehta’s voice defies the common criticisms (or myths) surrounding the countertenor voice, displaying not only spectacular agility but a wealth of colour, superb dynamic control, and a steely strength which underpins the sheer loveliness of sound.  But it is Mehta’s vocal acting which lifts this recital to another level. Be it in the exultant coloratura of Sento la gioia, the long, hushed lines of Stille amare or the militant staccati of Fammi combatere, Mehta teams technical brilliance with sensitive expressivity, capturing even the most broadly drawn Baroque emotions with touching sincerity.  Collections of Handel arias are hardly thin on the ground these days – barely a month seems to pass without a few new additions to the discography – but Mehta’s rare combination of virtuosity and expressive acuity makes this recital one of the finest such releases in recent years.

March 29, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: RODRIGO • GOSS • ALBENIZ Concierto de Aranjuez; Works for Guitar (guitar: Xuefei Yang; Orquestre Simfonica de Barcelona/Oue)

This performance of Rodrigo’s famous Concierto de Aranjuez is probably very different from what the composer ever envisaged or heard. He is on record as saying the guitar does not have great power. Here, through the combination of close-miking and committed performance, the guitar has power aplenty, but this is not just a display of brawn. In fact, under Xuefei Yang’s command, the lyrical second movement of the concerto has rarely sounded so intensely emotional and expressive. It is a phenomenal performance, and Yang’s sensitivity is matched by the playing of the Orquestre Simfonica and a warm, responsive recording timbre. Here too is a brand-new concerto for guitar and orchestra, commissioned by Yang. It is by Stephen Goss, entitled The Albeniz Concerto and drawn from Albeniz’s piano works. It is, on first hearing, a very appealing work, which will probably become a concert-hall staple for this fine Chinese guitarist. Yang herself is no slouch at such arrangements, and the recital includes her own very well executed transcriptions for solo guitar of several Albeniz piano works. Of interest to Australian listeners will be that the guitar she has chosen for the two concertos is a beautifully sonorous instrument made by Greg Smallman and…

March 22, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: SCHUMANN Scenes from Childhood; Papillons; Fantasie Op 17; Novelette (piano: Stephanie McCallum)

Australian pianist Stephanie McCallum is renowned for tackling the 19th-century virtuoso repertoire. Schumann presents an entirely different degree of difficulty. Though by no means easy to play, his music also demands a high level of empathy. His three-movement Fantasie exemplifies the composer’s stormy marriage of form and content. In my opinion, the emotional aspect is already written into the notes: Schumann, like Chopin, does not benefit from extra rubato or exaggerated dynamics. Judging from this recording, McCallum feels the same way. Her gradations of tone colour are subtly judged, and discreet pauses in the music’s progress are never underlined. Nothing is over-pointed. This is true throughout the whole recital. No thundering out the Novelette’s opening deluge of notes for her! In the Scenes from Childhood suite’s best known movement, Traumerei, she plays the famous theme gently but still with youthful energy. The suite ends with a piece entitled The Poet Speaks, in which Schumann recollects his childhood from a mature vantage point. McCallum effectively deepens her tone in response. In the early suite, Papillons, McCallum’s textural clarity is a great asset. Recommended.

March 21, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: VERDI Messa da Requiem (Soloists; Chicago Symphony Orchestra & Chorus/Muti)

Giuseppe Verdi was not the most devout composer of his time, but in Italy he was the most popular. When Rossini died, Verdi set about organising a requiem in the older master’s honour. That project foundered, and Verdi’s Libera me found its way into his full Requiem, written in 1873 in memory of Alessandro Manzoni. From the start, Verdi’s Requiem was more about public than private grief. It is operatic in style and scope – indeed, three of the original soloists sang the leads in the European premiere of Aida. Some conductors try to emphasise the spiritual side of the work, but Verdi’s Requiem is a matter of blood and guts as much as life and death. The chorus’s doomed Requiem aeternam is suffused with the portent of high tragedy. The opening of the Dies irae, with its drum whacks and shattering minor chords, is as tempestuous as Otello’s shipwreck, while the mezzo’s Liber scriptus is direr than any curse hurled out by a gypsy fortune-teller. Muti, an opera conductor par excellence, understands this, and the Chicago Orchestra have a reputation for piling on the decibels when required. The soloists are strong, only lacking an Italianate warmth (apart from Borodina)….

March 21, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: IKON II: Russian Choral Music (Holst Singers/Layton)

This release focuses on Russian composers from the early 20th-century – including some émigré composers – who were linked through the famous pre-Revolutionary Moscow Synodal School of church singing. The comprehensive notes give an excellent background to the composers, who included Chesnokov, Gretchaninov and Viktor Kalinnikov. Though their styles diverge, the extraordinary sonority of the lusciously-voiced choral writing is a common point, as is the deep bass singing – as resonant as cathedral bells. To give a taste of the musical lineage of these composers, some earlier works are represented by Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov. An extract from Rachmaninov’s famous Liturgy shows how deeply that late-Romantic composer was affected by this tradition. Past and present are inextricably linked in this tradition, which draws from Gregorian chant, and which can be heard reflected too in the 20th-century revolutionary writings of Prokofiev, especially for his soundtracks of the movies of Sergei Eisenstein. This is a fascinating assemblage of mostly short compositions of only two or three minutes apiece, but brimming with a radiant serenity way out of scale with their brevity. These ikons truly gleam with beauty.

March 21, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: All-in-one music systems

All-in-one music systems have come a long way from the table-top-sized music centre. These days not only do they cram a lot into a very small space, but they’re also on a mission to prove that hi-fi separates are not the only way to get top audio performance. Ever since Denon threw down the challenge with its earliest D-M series components, the heat’s been on in this sector of the market, with challenges from leading Japanese rivals, and companies better-known for full-size hi-fi components joining the party with gusto. Here, we put six of the best through their paces, in order to answer the all-important question: which gives you the biggest sound from the smallest system? ARCAM SOLO MINI  $1200 ★★★★★ Website Arcam has done a particularly good job of extending its Solo sub-brand. Starting with the original Solo model, we’ve now had a movie-playing version, the Solo Movie; an internet-streaming variant, the Solo Neo; and this, the compact version. OK, the Solo Mini is hardly petite by class standards. Compared with the other systems here, it’s a fairly usual 23cm wide and 35cm deep, but Arcam has kept things suitably low-slung – it’s just 9cm tall – and the quality of build…

March 11, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: Best of Blu-Ray

LG HB45E $349  ★★★★ Website Power player: a fine effort from LG, but there are holes to be picked with overall performance. The design of this LG 2.1 system is something of a paradox. Taking the two speakers (standing nearly 50cm tall) and the subwoofer (comfortably the largest of the three in this test), this system is not just the bulkiest of those on test here, but, well, pretty darn bulky full stop. We can’t help thinking that this detracts from part of the central appeal of a 2.1 cinema system, and makes the much more petite, PS3-shaped main unit – which, like the PS3, is happy standing vertically or horizontally – something of a busted flush. Still, everything is finished to a high standard and there’s an exhaustive specification to match. A clean and clear interface – which, frankly, puts the other systems to shame – makes it easy to access all the functions: Blu-ray, DVD and CD playback are all present and correct, of course, and you also get an external iPod dock, DLNA media streaming, LG’s Netcast internet-enabled apps, an FM/AM radio tuner and even USB recording, to highlight some key features. In action the LG is something…

March 10, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: Internet Radios

MagicBox Nocturne XP2  $230  ★★★★★ Website Flat-fronted and with an integrated iPod dock, the Magicbox Nocturne XP2 is a decorative proposition. Touch-sensitive controls add a dash of panache, though they aren’t the last word in ergonomics. Whether playing Internet, DAB or FM radio, the XP2 holds a signal well, and, provided the signal is of a decent quality, sound is smooth and well integrated. Low frequencies are nicely judged, with a degree of presence and body but no suggestion of unruliness. The top of the frequency range is mercifully benign too, and deft integration means the Magicbox sounds unified and coherent. Some may hanker after a little more scale, but the XP2 is much more saint than sinner. Pure Evoke Flow  $230  ★★★★★ Website Two years a five-star product, the Evoke Flow shows no signs of being overhauled any time soon. It’s winningly sized and proportioned, lustrously finished and has bespoke, bright OLED set-up menus where the other three radios here share the same off-the-shelf interface. It does without an iPod dock, but counters with the option of a rechargeable battery. And it gets only more likeable when tuned to any… Continue reading Get unlimited digital access from $4 per month…

February 17, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: BEETHOVEN Concertos for Piano: Nos. 1, 3 & 4 (piano: John O’Conor; LSO/Delfs)

The great German pianist Wilhelm Kempff was one of the Irish pianist John O’Conor’s teachers. Since 1997, O’Conor has presented Kempff’s ‘Beethoven Interpretation Course’ at the legendary pianist’s villa in Italy. Central to Kempff’s reputation are the five Beethoven piano concertos and so any new recordings by one of his pupils will inevitably face comparison. Sadly this comparison is not flattering. The Concerto No. 1 gets off to the worst possible start; the orchestral introduction is flaccid and O’Conor’s entrance is tentative and uninspiring. Ultimately the entire first movement lacks flair and interpretive sense. (Tellingly it is around three-and-a-half minutes longer than Kempff’s famous 1962 recording.) There is no improvement in the second movement, which lacks passion and sounds mechanical, surprisingly however the third movement is a gem – sparkling, lively and thoroughly enjoyable. Unfortunately this improvement is short lived though, and O’Conor’s performance of the third Concerto, while marginally more even (the outer movements have some moments of quality) still fails to impress. The Concerto No. 4 places the differences between O’Conor and his famous mentor in sharp relief. While Kempff mixes vigour with control, strength with a delicate touch and an imaginative use of rubato and dynamic variation,…

January 20, 2011