CD and Other Review

Review: VARIOUS COMPOSERS British Music (conductor: Sir Simon Rattle)

Most people who want the much-recorded music by Elgar and Co will already have it, and mostly in better performances. Those who only want the contemporary works by Nicolas Maw et al will likely not want Holst’s Planets or the Walton works. Doubtless there is a droll side to packaging the Dream of Gerontius with Three Screaming Popes (surely a CD first!) but I don’t imagine that was the aim. So the collection has to be for the Rattle fan club.  Setting aside my usual reservations about the conductor (had he been on the scene in the 1950s he would simply have been one of a large number of excellent conductors), these are all perfectly good performances. In the case of the more contemporary music, better than that. Rattle is excellent in this repertoire, making a case for even the most unrewarding scores. For me, the musical utterances of composers such as Turnage often leave a great deal to be desired. Whereas Thomas Adès’s marvellous Asyla, has altogether more colour and variety. The bag of Elgar is mixed. Falstaff is appropriately brisk. The Enigma is excellent. The Gerontius indulgent; with Janet Baker a shadow of her former self, and Nigel…

January 19, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: WEILL Symphony No. 2; Concerto For Violin & Wind Orchestra; Seven Deadly Sins; Mahagonny Suite (various artists)

The music is quite unlike Weill’s “Berlin cabaret” idiom and seems to resonate with an emotional ambivalence between an unsentimental nobility in the extended central largo, combined with wit and grace in the outer ones. The Concerto for violin and wind orchestra is completely neo-classical and somewhat prickly but, as one commentator observed, contains “roses among the thorns”. The mood here is almost Hindemithian with occasional touches of Prokofiev and Stravinsky. Zimmermann plays with an appropriately pared down tone. The vocal works I find less satisfying and unlikely to reward repeated listening, despite fine singing. Elise Ross, conductor Simon Rattle’s first wife, doesn’t quite differentiate sufficiently between the various deadly sins (although is much better than Marianne Faithful). No one can capture the desperation of either Anja Silja or Gisela May in this music, not to mention the 40-unfiltered-cigarettes-a-day croak of the incomparable Lotte Lenya.

January 19, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: ELGAR Symphonies No. 1; In the South, Serenade for Strings (various artists)

Apart from the recent Davis recording of the 1st Symphony with the Dresden Staatskapelle on the Profil label (an absolute blinder) this is the best recording of the work in my view. Barbirolli’s interpretation of the 2nd Symphony was also the best on disc for many years. Although over-shadowed by the remarkable 1st, it is nonetheless a great symphony, worthy of regular performances. Those of us who heard Vladimir Ashkenazy’s masterly performance with the Sydney Symphony last year can attest to this. Of course, the Philharmonia was the better English orchestra at the time. However the Halle orchestra players respond to Sir John Barbirolli in their own special way and play as if the devil were behind them. The interpretation is all. The lovely Serenade for Strings is always welcome. Norman Del Mar directs it well, with considerable sensitivity. Perhaps the recording is a little too reverberant, but that really is a minor problem. Of special interest in this recorded collection is the recording of In the South. Long regarded by Elgar buffs as the best performance ever recorded. If great Elgar playing is what you are after, you can’t go wrong with this excellent re-issue.

January 19, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: The Virgin’s Lament (mezzo: Bernarda Fink; Il Giardino Armonico/Antonini)

If Trevor Pinnock and Christopher Hogwood represent the cooler end of the period instrument music-making spectrum, then Giovanni Antonini and Il Giardino Armonico represent the other explosive extreme. If you add to that volatile mix the melodramatic gestures of mezzo-soprano Bernarda Fink, who is more hyper-emotional than the most exaggerated daytime soap actress, then you are in for an ‘over the top’ listening experience, where the recitatives almost require sea sickness pills in order to deal with all the swells. The Italian tendency for outburst is given free reign in this collection of Marian works, and it is all utterly convincing, if not somewhat shocking. In certain dramatic figures, the strings play incredibly roughly, and yet at the beginning of the CD the playing is so quiet and delicate, the gut strings only just speak. This CD isn’t for everyone but I suspect it is closer to what Vivaldi and his colleagues had in mind when they wrote these works, and it certainly matches the historical descriptions of the weeping and wailing of famous Baroque divas. The works here are by a combination of minor Italian composers such as Ferrandini, Conti and Marini interspersed with works of Vivaldi and Monteverdi…

January 19, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: Il Bel Sogno: Arias by Puccini, Gounod, Massenet, Verdi (soprano: Inva Mula; Zagreb Phil/Lipanovic)

Inva Mula was born in 1963 and has been a star for 15 years. She has appeared with Plácido Domingo in Paris, Munich and Brussels and has also sung at the Vienna State Opera and the Metropolitan in New York. Her most important recording so far has been of Bizet’s little-known opera Ivan IV for Naïve. Mula has an agreeable voice with sufficient power and quality throughout its compass to manage the florid passages of the ‘Jewel Song’ (except for a weak trill) and the melodic legato of ‘Le roi de Thulé’ – both from Faust. Unlike many sopranos of this type, her lower register is firm and opulent, with an attractive vibrato. Her French and Italian are both excellent. She also has a good sense of the operatic situation and the ability to project her arias with dramatic conviction. She does not, however, have sufficient vocal resources to project ‘Sempre libera’ (from La traviata) with the bravura that will bring the house down. She includes a rarely heard aria from Faust that is omitted in many performances and is joined in ‘Sempre libera’ by an off-stage tenor, Agim Hushi. The record’s only real fault is the occasional shrillness it…

January 19, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: VIVALDI Various arias (mezzo: Magdalena Kožená; Venice Baroque Orchestra/Marcon)

This disc, entitled simply Vivaldi, is the second collaboration between Czech mezzo-soprano Magdalena Kožená and the Venice Baroque Orchestra. It is fine enough to make me want to seek out that first partnership, of arias by Handel. This puts the spotlight on Venetian master-composer Vivaldi, in the musical area he favoured above all others – opera. We know Vivaldi mainly through his instrumental writing. However, as the notesto this disc stress, Vivaldi saw himself predominantly as a man of the theatre. The15 tracks here are drawn from 14 of the more than 90 works he wrote for the opera stage.  Kožená’s lustrous voice is clear and agile enough to handle with ease all the pyrotechnics of Vivaldi’s most technically difficult arias. But for this recital she has deliberately chosen the deceptively ‘easier’ slower arias where the singer must search predominantly for lucid expression and meaning. The result is ravishingly beautiful. Most of the arias will be unfamiliar – even the limpid and melancholic ‘Gelido in ogni vena’ from Farnace has its own unique style and beauty, even though we can hear that it has evolved from the famous ‘Winter’ violin concerto. Particularly effective are the arias in which Michele Favaro (transverse flute)…

January 19, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: DEBUSSY Pour le piano; Children’s Corner; Estampes; Arabesques; L’isle joyeuse and other works (piano: Jean-Bernard Pommier)

The charms of the Children’s Corner Suite are well known and it sounds more effective in this original form than in Caplet’s orchestration. Less familiar are the three pieces constituting Pour le piano, written in homage to the Baroque composers whom Debussy admired. Only one of these, the Sarabande, has become well known, largely because of Ravel’s orchestration. But the others, a Prelude and a Toccata are enjoyable and rewarding to virtuosos. The three Estampes probably represent Debussy’s piano style at its most mature and enjoyable; Pagodes evokes the Orient, La Soirée dans Grenade, in Habanera rhythm, evokes Spain and Jardins sous la pluie, France. The two Arabesques are usually dismissed as immature by most commentators, but they are pretty and deserve an occasional hearing. L’isle joyeuse is one of Debussy’s most effective concert pieces (even Rachmaninov found it difficult to play). La plus que lente will be familiar to most listeners. A novelty is Pièce pour l’oeuvre du ‘Vêtement du blessé’ (Dressing the wounds of Soldiers), lasing precisely one minute, and written in homage to wounded soldiers in WWI. Pommier plays all these works excellently and the recording, although dating from 1989, is first-rate. Recommended to those who yearn…

January 19, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: WALTON Cello Concerto, Passacaglia for solo cello BLOCH Suite No. 1 for solo cello LIGETI Sonata for solo cello BRITTEN Ciaccona (cello: Pieter Wispelwey; SSO/Tate)

It was premiered by its dedicatee, Gregor Piatigorsky, in January 1957. It is a calmer, more serene composition than many of his earlier works – the violin concerto for example – reflecting the brevity of expression common in his later output. Its opening movement (Moderato) is pastoral and frequently beautiful, the second (Allegro appassionato) lively and passionate and the third (Tema ed improvvisazioni) contrasts both the pastoral and the passionate. This live, warts-and-all recording, featuring Dutch cellist Peter Wispelwey, conductor Jeffrey Tate and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, was made in 2007 at the Sydney Opera House. Wispelwey is a passionate advocate for this work and it shows; the SSO, directed by the underrated Tate, play out of their skins. The remainder of this disc was recorded later in Holland and features Wispelwey playing solo cello pieces of the 20th century. It would be easy to dismiss these as mere filler, but they are actually wonderful and welcome renditions of some rarely heard pieces. Chief among them is a superb version of Ernest Bloch’s fascinating Bach-inspired Suite No. 1 for solo cello, alongside short works by György Ligeti, Walton and Benjamin Britten.

January 19, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: HANDEL Concerti Grossi, Opus 6 (Australian Brandenburg Orchestra; harpsichord and direction: Paul Dyer)

Statistics prove nothing, and what applies today may not have applied at all three centuries ago, but it is unusual to have a set as large as this to refer to in one place. Two CDs are just about big enough to hold all 31 movements of the 12 Concerti Grossi of Handel’s Opus 6, without any evidence of tampering with their content. Everything here attests to the fecundity of Handel’s imagination. Every variation you might think of is no more than his starting point, and from start to finish of this impressive undertaking by the ABO, there is not a dull moment, never a hint of repetition. Of course, without paying close attention to the detailed playlist, you will not stand a chance of being able to trace all of this sequentially from one concerto to the next. But in terms of the overall effect, that hardly matters at all. Wherever you are within it, what you find yourself listening to is fresh, vigorous even when introspective, exquisitely played and a real joy to be hearing. If you think of Baroque music as being yawn-inducingly dull fare, this might just change your mind. You owe it to your aural…

January 19, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: VARIOUS COMPOSERS Homage (violin and viola: James Ehnes)

Every generation there is a new high-water mark in virtuoso violin playing set by a recording artist. Heifetz, Julian Sitkovetsky, Michael Rabin, Gidon Kremer and others each took it upon themselves to create cutting-edge recorded documents that revealed the advances in technique they had achieved, and here is the equivalent CD of our time.  James Ehnes takes virtuosity to a new level in Homage, playing on 12 different priceless instruments from David Fulton’s collection – quite likely the greatest private collection in history. All up it includes six Strads, two Del Gesu Guarneris (including Menuhin’s Lord Wilton), as well as a Pietro Guarneri, and violas by Gasparo da Salo, Andrea Guarneri and Guadagnini. Aware of the history-making opportunity afforded to him by having access to these instruments, Ehnes has risen to make a classic violin recording.  Matching the cleanness of Heifetz, but with a richer sound and a more varied tonal palette than all of the above, and with an astounding and instinctive melodic gift that only Kremer could rival, Ehnes has staked out a unique place in the violin-playing firmament. If people think that this may be a result of the wonders of digital editing, there is even a DVD…

January 19, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: CHOPIN: Études BEETHOVEN Sonata Op. 106 ‘Hammerklavier’; Liszt: Paganini Étude no.3 ‘La Campanella’ MUSTO Improvisation and Fugue (piano: Nobuyuki Tsujii)

This disc, recorded during the competition, contains some of the performances that so impressed the judges. Chopin’s Études are ideal competition pieces with their combination of technical and musical demands and Tsujii’s performance is generally equal to both challenges. No. 1, with its glittering arpeggios and No. 2 with its chromatic scales both demonstrate his remarkable technical facility without displaying much musical subtlety. By No.3, however, both elements combine wonderfully and Nos. 4, 5 and 6 are equally well balanced. Beethoven’s Hammerklavier is a much greater challenge for any pianist. Although Tsujii is absolutely comfortable with its technical demands, his performance does at times lose focus. In the Adagio, for example, he displays a remarkably delicate touch but his performance lacks momentum at some crucial moments, leaving it sounding episodic. Liszt’s La Campanella, is a different matter altogether, revealing his talent in full. Not a note is out of place, technically difficult passages are rendered with insouciance making the overall effect dazzling. Finally, the performance of John Musto’s Improvisation and Fugue, won Tsujii the prize for the best performance of a new work. A strong debut from a formidable talent who promises much.

January 19, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: NYMAN The Piano Concerto; MGV (piano: Kathryn Stott; Michael Nyman Band and Orchestra; Royal Liverpool PO/Nyman)

Argo, under Andrew Cornall, in the late 1980s and ‘90s produced an extraordinary array of historic recordings of American and English minimalists such as Bryars, Nyman, Torke, Kernis and Turnage. Much of the Argo back catalogue is now being released by Decca as digital downloads, although this CD, along with the other Nyman Argo recordings, is being released on Michael Nyman’s own label. Nyman initially studied Baroque music and much of his music is based on the same structures as one would find in Purcell. His breakthrough came when he played the Mozart “Catalogue Aria” from Don Giovanni in a style reminiscent of Jerry Lee Lewis, and realised that the structures of Classical and Baroque music continued to function perfectly when combined with the impetus and energetic thrust of rock and roll. In a way he got lucky with one truly great idea that produced a career’s worth of pieces of which the visceral MGV is one of his best. The title stands for Musique à Grand Vitesse (High Speed Music) and the powerful momentum it produces creates an amazing effect. Meanwhile The Piano Concerto, drawn from his ingenious film score for The Piano that made his name a global…

January 19, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: NYMAN The Piano Concerto, MGV (piano: Kathryn Stott; Michael Nyman Band and Orchestra; Royal Liverpool PO/Nyman)

Argo, under Andrew Cornall, in the late 1980s and ‘90s produced an extraordinary array of historic recordings of American and English minimalists such as Bryars, Nyman, Torke, Kernis and Turnage. Much of the Argo back catalogue is now being released by Decca as digital downloads, although this CD, along with the other Nyman Argo recordings, is being released on Michael Nyman’s own label. Nyman initially studied Baroque music and much of his music is based on the same structures as one would find in Purcell. His breakthrough came when he played the Mozart “Catalogue Aria” from Don Giovanni in a style reminiscent of Jerry Lee Lewis, and realised that the structures of Classical and Baroque music continued to function perfectly when combined with the impetus and energetic thrust of rock and roll. In a way he got lucky with one truly great idea that produced a career’s worth of pieces of which the visceral MGV is one of his best. The title stands for Musique à Grand Vitesse (High Speed Music) and the powerful momentum it produces creates an amazing effect. Meanwhile The Piano Concerto, drawn from his ingenious film score for The Piano that made his name a global…

January 19, 2011