CD and Other Review

Review: RUO To the Four Corners (conductor: Huang Ruo)

He describes some of his musicians as dramatists in real time, a notion that Ruo tosses off in his closely reasoned appraisal of what form he wants his music to take. Since this is a CD, however, we only have our ears to help us work out what is going on. This is a considerable problem. What do we need to do to appreciate the sound of what Ruo calls “kinetic painting”, for example? And more importantly for someone who has to review it, how many stars is it worth? Aurally, which is the only way we have to judge Ruo’s work, this seems to be music in the style of contemporary leading edge. Western and Chinese instruments are deployed in complex interactions that have nothing much to do with anything traditional or even familiar in musical structure. Without making it easy to get to grips with his methods, then, Ruo is committed to nudging music in directions nobody else seems to know are feasible, or has any interest in exploring. His work is certainly a struggle to decode, but there is a sense to Ruo’s music that affirms the composer as articulate and sensitive

January 18, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: ELGAR Pomp and Circumstance Marches; Serenade for Strings (SSO/Ashkenazy)

Exton is a Japanese label which is in partnership with the Sydney Symphony to bring us high-definition recordings in Super Audio CD format. This is one of several SACDs which presents conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy’s interpretations of England’s most beloved composer, Edward Elgar.  Ashkenazy and the SSO do Elgar proud. These six Pomp and Circumstance Marches are in turn swaggering, majestic, even thoughtful and troubled, and Ashkenazy is totally in tune with his material. At high volume, this SACD has tremendous depth and impact. The brass section really bites and the percussive power has to be heard to be believed.  There’s a tremendous range of expression in these six marches and these are model performances, especially of my favourite among them, the Third. That reference to the six marches isn’t a misprint. Elgar had always intended to write six marches, and left sketches for the last. Contemporary composer Anthony Payne has fleshed out these sketches to give us the missing march. The result works out as half-Elgar and half-Payne, but it complements the authentic five very well. The Pomp and Circumstance Marches dominate the disc, but it’s also a real pleasure to have a sensitive, finely-textured performance of Elgar’s 1892 work…

January 18, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: JENKINS Stella Natalis; Joy To The World (Tenebrae, Adiemus Singers, Marylebone Camerata/Jenkins)

Yet more variations on his patent Adiemus sound are repackaged here into two lengthy, multi-movement feel-good serves, one of them devoted to a kind of shopping-centre evocation of Christmas. His customary warm vocalisations hint at something vaguely holy, intoning words mostly scribed, this time, by the pen of his wife, Carol Barratt – “handy and cheap”, as she rather disarmingly puts it. Trumpet and voice trill merrily, and, as always, the music that Jenkins makes is soothing and pleasant enough on the ear to defy any curmudgeonly whispers of it not being real classical music. His forte as a composer is his unerring affinity with his audience: that chunk of the music-buying demographic that simply wants something to smile to. The similarity of this album to all his others will surely bring him another gold disc at the very least. There is, of course, nothing wrong with any of that: Jenkins may have had the devil’s own job working to perfect the trademark sound that has won him so much success. But having done so, he now feels no compulsion to compose anything different than what has gone before. And given that the Welsh composer has garnered the laudatory acceptance…

January 18, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: MUSSORGSKY • SCHUMANN Pictures at an Exhibition; Kinderszenen (piano: Lief Ove Andsnes)

The recording of Pictures at an Exhibition is in fact the soundtrack to a staged performance and video installation by Andsnes and collaborator Robin Rhode. The performance has been filmed, and the liner notes tell us that Pictures Reframed involves the “murder” of a piano and a leap into the icy North Sea. This disc, however, is the pauper’s edition – there is a much more expensive deluxe version which gives us both the recording and a DVD of the Andsnes-Rhode collaboration. On audio terms alone, this is a straightforward and relatively unflamboyant performance of Pictures at an Exhibition. Like Vladimir Horowitz before him, Andsnes claims to find parts of Mussorgsky’s original composition quite awkward, and seeks to improve on them himself. His rewriting is subtle and not too destructive of a work I’ve always thought as best left unimproved. The Kinderszenen is a gentle, very persuasive reading and both this and the Pictures are given a sumptuous, velvety sheen that brings the ambience of London’s Henry Wood Hall right into your home. Mussorgsky’s Four Short Pieces, a rarely-heard 10-minute suite, rounds out a worthwhile set, though I think the full DVD/CD deluxe package would be more satisfying.

January 18, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: Chopin 4 Ballade; Sonata No 3 (piano: Jean-Philippe Collard)

It was a salutary recording to listen to. I’d been disappointed recently when reviewing the Collard recording of Chopin waltzes, which I found strangely perfunctory. No such reservations here. This reading certainly deserves its re-issue, which will go in my shelves alongside the classic Rubenstein reading and the recent sensational account by Maurizio Pollini.Particularly notable is Collard’s performance of the most challenging of the Ballades, the F-minor, as it moves from dreamy beauty to electrifying drama. The acoustic of the recording goes a long way in creating its atmosphere. The album, which dates from 1990, was recorded in the famous Salle Wagram in Paris, and is marked by a remarkable natural depth and resonance – which is never so “plummy” it masks the crisp articulation of Collard’s playing. If there is a flaw in this release, it comes solely from EMI Classic’s decision to issue here a straight version of the French CD, complete with a double-fold essay on the music. French is the only language option offered – there is not even a website translation offered for English readers. The language of music may well be universal, but Australian buyers deserve more than this when they spend money on a…

January 18, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: ROSSINI Colbran, the Muse (mezzo: Joyce DiDonato; Orchestra e Coro dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia/Muller)

Many of Rossini’s most fiendishly embellished arias for mezzo-soprano were written for his own wife, Spanish singer Isabella Colbran. In fact, from 1815 until 1823, when her vocal powers had faded, almost all his major operas were created around her. Now another diva, the American mezzo Joyce DiDonato, has taken up the Colbran challenge and given us a thrilling recital of some of the key arias of this period, from Armida, La Donna del Lago, Maometto II, Elisabetta, Regina d’Inghilterra, Semiramide, Otello and Armida.  While Joyce DiDonato is the undoubted star of this recording, she is given fine partnership by orchestra and chorus, and by tenors Lawrence Brownlee, Corrado Amici and Carlo Putelli, and soprano Roberta de Nicola.  Joyce DiDonato, acclaimed widely as one of the finest mezzos performing today, is probably giving us these arias at a level Rossini could only have dreamed of, for although Isabella Colbran inspired them, her own voice was in steep decline in the latter years of her career. But fading or not, the partnership of Rossini and his muse did give us some of the composer’s most exciting writing. Often flamboyant, sometimes deeply sensitive, but always vibrant, these terrific arias would stretch any…

January 18, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: BEETHOVEN Piano Sonatas (piano: Steven Osborne)

For once, the hype is justified. I’ve joined the ranks of reviewers who’ve dived for the thesaurus to unearth new superlatives for Steven Osborne’s Beethoven CD. It’s not easy to cast new light on the Waldstein, let alone the Moonlight or Pathétique sonatas, but somehow he’s managed it.  The Moonlight’s opening movement, piano’s equivalent of the Mona Lisa’s smile, radiates not only sublime mystery, but also charm, as Osborne navigates his way through this strange landscape. Upon hearing the unexpected courtliness of Osborne’s second movement, one is reminded of Liszt’s insightful description of it as “a flower between two abysses”.  The Waldstein is even more of a tour de force than usual: time really does seem to stand still in the transition from the adagio to the final rondo. And Osborne invests the central movement of the sonatina-like Op 79 with a touchingly demure melancholy. Transcendent is a dangerous adjective, but here it is fully justified. The emergence of the Waldstein’s main theme is gloriously unhurried and quite sublimely handled, culminating in a refulgent effect. No wonder this sonata is usually referred to in France as L’Aurore – The Dawn.

January 18, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: WESLEY-SMITH Merry-Go-Round: Chamber Music (percussion: Timothy Constable; Australia Ensemble)

Here though, we have a CD in which the composer’s motivations are so intrinsic to understanding his work that you almost find yourself listening intently to each note for what it may tell you about the South Australian Wesley-Smith. More fundamentally, about what he cares about. Firstly, humanitarianism: Wesley-Smith is music’s defender of the rights of the East Timorese people. But what seems like a political statement can just as easily morph into a jazz pastiche. Secondly, a playful response to childhood classics: he worked for years writing music for children’s television and radio. These are works composed by a man who finds, wherever he looks in the world, the inspiration to create a sparkling micro-environment of sound. The performance, largely wind-based, has just the lightness of touch it needs without fudging the depth of feeling embedded in the music. If the track titles themselves sound rather lightweight – Snark-Hunting, Merry-Go-Round, Oom Pah Pah – we can sense this is simply Wesley-Smith’s way. He applies a quality of understatement that is lacking in the subjects he tackles. His music is tuneful and harmonic, mordant and inquisitive, suddenly pausing for moments of reflection without resorting to melodic sentimentality. Wesley-Smith does right…

January 18, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: STRAUSS Also Sprach Zarathustra; Don Juan; Till Eulenspiegels Lustige Streiche; Ein Heldenleben (conductors: Wolfgang Sawallisch, Klaus Tennstedt)

This release can be placed without hesitation beside those of the other great Richard Strauss ensembles – the Royal Amsterdam Concertgebouw, The Dresden Staatskapelle and the Berlin Philharmonic. It was fascinating to hear the slightly kapellmeisterish Sawallisch in Also Sprach Zarathustra, the quintessentially bourgeois Strauss’s take on Nietzsche’s weird ruminations on the meaning of life. The result is outstanding, both interpretively and sonically, as Sawallisch completely avoids the blowzy schlockfest this work can become in the wrong hands. Nor does he attempt to achieve a more Hollywood effect by interfering with the duration of the opening chords. The Heldenleben is another superb achievement. This hero is less the armchair-bound Colonel Blimp of, say, Mariss Janssons – I always think Mahler nailed his carping critics far more effectively in the Rondo-Burleske movement of his Ninth Symphony than Strauss does. Sawallisch also resists the tendency to slow down unduly in the two quieter sections, which can turn them into a becalmed and interminable coda. Opting for the ending without horns also works better. The perspective and inner detail make this a demonstration-quality CD.

January 18, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: MAHLER Symphony No 2 (mezzo: Alice Coote, soprano: Natalie Dessay; Orfeon Donostiarra; Frankfurt RSO/Järvi)

In the epic first movement, he’s not afraid to slow down daringly for the lyrical second subject and at various other points, nor is he at all prim about portamenti. No one will ever sound as craggy or implacable as Klemperer in this movement, but it’s a more than promising start. The minuet movement has just the right mixture of charm and momentum so as not to sound like a cross between the score to a televised Jane Austen adaptation and Little Bo Peep. The scherzo conveys the relentless tyranny of the mundane with the trio effectively contrasted as an oasis. Alice Coote is fine in Urlicht (“Primaeval Light”) as is the bizarrely cast Natalie Dessay, but it’s in the vast sprawling and kaleidoscopic final movement where Järvi and company excel. The tempos are excellently judged; textures are always kept lucid; and dynamics scrupulously observed, without any feeling of micromanagement. The cathartic moments are all brilliantly realised. One particularly memorable touch – hardly cathartic – is the exchange between the flute and piccolo at the Last Trump, which conveys a genuinely bleak almost creepy sensation. Järvi and his forces manage this vast and complex canvas breathtakingly.

January 13, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: STRAVINSKY • SCARLATTI • BRAHMS • RAVEL Transformations (piano: Yuja Wang)

This scintillating recital is Chinese pianist Yuja Wang’s second recording for DG and marks her as one of the most exciting young performers today. She has chosen her program according to her own concept of “transformations”. For instance, Stravinsky’s Three Movements from Petrouchka traces the transformation of puppet to human and back. The Brahms piece, Variations on a Theme by Paganini is bound up in thematic transformations of one of music’s most famous themes. The Scarlatti sonatas (K 380 and K 466) are oases of quiet in an often tempestuous program. A mighty tempest closes this recital – Ravel’s La Valse, which can be viewed as a transformation of this dance-form. This 1920s piece was written for the Ballets Russes but was rejected. Composer George Benjamin summed it up perfectly when he described La Valse as tracing “the birth, decay and destruction of a musical genre: the waltz”. The DG engineers have close-miked the Steinway used in these sessions but the result is not over-analytical. In fact, the sound is as if we’ve been given a seat right in front of the piano. Yuja Wang is reminiscent of the incendiary Martha Argerich. There is abundant virtuosity on display but it…

January 13, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: VOLUPTÉ Music for Viola and Piano (viola: Roger Benedict, piano: Timothy Young)

Charles Kœchlin is a prolific French composer remembered, if at all, almost exclusively for his 1933 Seven Stars Symphony, which had movements dedicated to Marlene Dietrich, Charlie Chaplin and Greta Garbo; Belgian composer Joseph Jongen is known mainly for organ works. If nothing else, the release demonstrates material for solo viola is much richer than generally imagined. By far the longest work (at 30’) is Kœchlin’s Sonata Op 53 (1912-5), a rich addition to this repertoire. Benedict’s playing is mesmeric, conveying moods varying from languorous to ruminative, and is always darkly beautiful. The third movement andante seems to anticipate Messiaen, with the ethereal voice of the viola floating above pointillistic piano chords. The other pieces which engaged me were Kœchlin’s Quatre Petites Pieces, on which Benedict is joined by the French horn of Ben Jacks. Two complaints: why do the liner notes not follow the performance sequence, causing listeners to keep having to flip back and forth tediously to remind themselves which particular piece they’re listening to? And why does Ivan March state in them “it seems likely that Koechlin intended this [the finale of the sonata] as a threnody [i.e. lament] for Milhaud, the loss of his great friend…”…

January 13, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: TANGUY • SATIE Seneque, Dernier Jour; Socrate (singers: Michel Blanc, Jean-Paul Fouchécourt; Orchestre National de France; Ensemble Erwartung)

In fact, these performances, of Eric Tanguy’s Seneque, Dernier Jour and Erik Satie’s Socrate are capably performed in every respect and the recordings, from Radio France, are as fine as you could wish. Seneque is an imagined musing by the philosopher Seneca on his last day, full of bitterness at having served one of history’s most famous monsters, the Emperor Nero. It’s performed by recitalist-actor Michel Blanc, with the Orchestre National de France under Alain Altinoglu. The more moving Socrate, based on Plato’s writings of Socrates’s last day before taking the hemlock, is sung by the fine lyrical tenor Jean-Paul Fouchécourt, with the Ensemble Erwartung under Bernard Desgraupes. They are similarly themed works, but the Satie piece, which shows a very different Satie than we know from the ubiquitous piano works, resonates more with its understated, calm music. It is a perfect setting for the memoir of how a great man accepted his death. The problem for English listeners is that both pieces are written with the music very clearly subordinated to the task of illuminating the words, instead of being an equal partner to the text as in opera. We are given the translated texts, but reading the translation…

January 13, 2011