CD and Other Review

Review: The Celtic Viol (viol: Jordi Savall, harp: Andrew Lawrence-King)

Delve into the solid booklet to find your language of preference (obscure ones welcome), and read how these specimens of traditional music have been passed down through the generations, often unwritten. Read also how composers O’Carolan, Simon Fraser, Niel Gow, James Macpherson, and William Marshall wrote tunes that became folklore. There is enough reading material to keep you at it right the way through your simultaneous listening. Dividing the works into eight sections, based on the use of various instruments and tunings, serves an academic purpose, but more involving is the story shared by Savall and Lawrence-King that is your ticket to distant places and times. Their close examination and near fanatical attention to detail throws up a whole world of music with a naïve sophistication that is as good as a historical diorama presented in musical form. Be present as a condemned prisoner offers his air at the foot of the gallows; follow episodes from the life of Bonnie Prince Charlie; sway to reels taken to the New World by the first emigrants; and so much more. The longer you listen, the more you will find yourself rapt in this haunting enactment of bygone tradition played with such devotion.

January 13, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: Mendelssohn: A Midsummer Night’s Dream (NZSO/Judd)

The NZ orchestra plays competently but without distinction. The competition is considerable and everybody even remotely familiar with classical music knows it backwards. In the faster sections some of the strings are racing to catch up; the ethereal silkiness required to release the genius in the music is absent. The woodwind have a better time of it, their work in the scherzo lifting the general standard. The choirs and soloists are excellent. Setting aside the bargain of getting the complete score on a budget label, the appeal of this disc lies in the inclusion of sections of text from the play. Mendelssohn was devoted to Shakespeare, and so it is important to occasionally hear the music in context. It doesn’t make the music any better, but the connection is much more than simply academic. Emily Raymond’s Titania is the most convincing of the actors; she brings grace and style to the part. Tom Mison’s detached Oberon, on the other hand, sometimes sounds as if he’s reading it for the first time. Adrian Grove is characterful as Puck. The other actors vary considerably, often sounding arch in the way some actors do when performing “important” texts. Although the woodwinds sound clear…

January 13, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: TCHAIKOVSKY Three Piano Concertos; Concert Fantasia (piano: Stephen Hough; Minnesota Orchestra/Vänskä)

Tchaikovsky’s first piano concerto is as much a portal into the classico-romantic landscape as Beethoven’s fifth symphony, or Grieg’s piano concerto. As a dedicated listener, you most likely have them burned deep in your consciousness, even if you forget which is which. Hough’s working now becomes the one that a new generation of listeners will go through life hearing as the very thing Tchaikovsky had in mind, no matter Hough being his millionth interpreter. Will anyone suspect the orchestra of being recorded at too high a level? A release like this would never be issued with any distortion. Would it? Hough holds nothing back, he can hardly afford to, seeing the industrious violinist sidelined without so much as a mention. A high-fives spectacle for the audience, with the treat for all of us now of having Tchaikovsky’s concertos resolutely nailed down in this one place anew. Transcriptions of two of Tchaikovsky’s songs tie off disc 1 as pensive solo encores, while the added extras on disc 2, alternative versions of the middle movement from concerto No 2, stem from Hough’s endless quest for ultimate musical truths. Such attention has helped him earn the reputation he enjoys today, along with that…

January 13, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: SHOSTAKOVICH 24 Preludes and Fugues, Op 87 (piano: Alexander Melnikov)

Shostakovich’s Op 87 represents an intellectual effort that harks all the way back to J.S. Bach, and Melnikov is happy to adopt an intellectual approach of his own in the way he addresses these formidable works. On the three discs in this set Melnikov plays all the notes you hear, writes the ones you read in the booklet, and answers questions posed by Andreas Staier on the DVD. He does all these things extremely well.He engages with Shostakovich as a figure deserving respect and appreciation from other musicians, eschewing the derision that some have levelled at Shostakovich for writing music they misconstrue as plain boring. If this package is up against any particular hurdle, it is most likely to be what comes across as its rather rarified approach to a composer other sources have been working hard to domesticate. This is not where you would turn to discover Shostakovich the composer of great music. On the contrary, Shostakovich was drawn to what might easily seem rather a creatively barren subject, yet one which was so important to him that he wrote the whole set in just three and a half months, sparing himself nothing in making full use of his…

January 13, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: GILARDINO Transcendentia: Complete studies for guitar (guitar: Cristiano Porqueddu)

The package contains detailed explanations of every one of the 60 studies by Angelo Gilardino, an Italian composer born in 1941, who also had a long and successful international career as a concert guitarist. You may be forgiven for finding that the written descriptions in the CD notes are a good deal more entertaining than the sounds you hear. The reality of what is played is dry as a bone compared to anything you read, so tantalising references to “Pink Floyd’s electrophonic music” (sic), ghost clarinets, barbarian drums, isolated drippings of melting crystals and homages to various composers and artists boil down to fanciful notions of what you might make of these solo acoustic runs if you give your imagination freedom to run amok. You will only find out anything about either participant from the brief, untranslated biographies. Full marks, true enough, for these pieces being exactly what they set out to be: studies, with none of the characteristics of sonatas or anything else that might make more sense to a non-specialist audience. Handsome as the box may be, unless you are a guitar ace yourself, you may find one of the CDs on its own is more than you…

January 13, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: HOLST A Somerset Rhapsody; Brook Green Suite; The Perfect Fool; The Planets; Suite No 2 for military band; St Paul’s Suite; Egdon Heath; Hymns from the Rig Veda; A Choral Fantasia (Janet Baker;

The Neptune movement is conspicuously faster than in his earlier EMI version, but without sounding in any way perfunctory. Mercury also whips along. Boult is not the only conductor to distinguish himself: André Previn and the LSO, during their halcyon days, turn in a wonderful performance of the ballet music from his failed opera The Perfect Fool, alternately boisterously rollicking and ethereally magical. But if I had to nominate one work to hear on this masterly anthology, it would be Egdon Heath, subtitled “Homage to Hardy”. In the almost continuous soft playing, Previn and co. evoke perfectly the sense of haunting loneliness in the place Hardy himself described as “singularly colossal and mysterious in its swarthy monotony.” The other discoveries are three of the Sanskrit hymns the composer set from the Rig Veda, which make me wonder whether any other composer “does” the mystical and otherworldly as well as Holst. Sir Charles Groves, Sir Malcolm Sargent, Norman Del Mar and Imogen Holst also make valuable contributions to this invaluable collection.

January 13, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: Virtuosi Tasmania in Concert with Annalisa Kerrigan (soprano: Annalisa Kerrigan; Virtuosi Tasmania)

Acoustically, the sound confirms we are in authentic locations, but without an audience. The violins come off well enough, but the larger instruments (one cello, one double bass) sound too far removed to have much in the way of a grounding effect, so the overall impact is a touch deflated. The players could all do with a bit more elbow room. Kerrigan, her voice strong for a soprano, comes from something like middle distance. The balance between her and the other performers may be struck more by virtue of their relative strengths and how far their sounds effectively have to carry. Nevertheless, Kerrigan and the ensemble do make a good-sounding team. The selection and mix of tracks work well, with room left on the disc to have added one or two extra pieces. The minimal CD notes are informative enough to still be useful. While the hum of an audience attending a full live performance may have helped complete the ensemble’s presentation, the CD does what it sets out to do. It lets us appreciate how Virtuosi Tasmania sounds in typical concert style, and sense a distinct charm that makes future releases worth listening out for.

January 13, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: Beethoven: Violin Sonatas No 3 in E flat; 9 in A (Viktoria Mullova, piano: 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…

January 13, 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…

January 13, 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…

January 13, 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.

January 13, 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…

January 13, 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…

January 13, 2011