Anthony Clarke

Anthony Clarke

Articles by Anthony Clarke

10 May, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: THE VIRTUOSO CLARINET (clarinet: Michael Collins; piano: Piers Lane)

This is virtuosity with no excuses. English clarinetist Michael Collins, abetted by Australian pianist Piers Lane, shows just how supple and exhilarating the clarinet can be, in a recital of works drawn from three centuries. The centrepiece is the great Grand Duo Concertant, Op 48, by Carl Maria von Weber. As the title suggests, this is very much a display piece for both instruments, with Lane happily sharing the limelight. Excitement is at the forefront, and the third and final movement is positively charged with drama, before it heads into a deceptive series of finales. The other major work is the premiere recording of a new piece composed in 2009 by clarinetist Simon Milton – his Carmen Fantasy Op 22, which carries with it almost as much bravura excitement as the most famous Carmen paraphrase, by Sarasate for violin. But all the other works, by Gershwin, Rachmaninov, Donato Lovreglio, Milhaud, Messager and Alamiro Giampieri, have their own felicities. Chandos has excelled itself with an up-front recording acoustic which suits the virtuosic nature of the recital. We hear both clarinettist and pianist centre stage as if we are in the choicest of recital hall seats. The clarinet is not my favourite instrument…

10 May, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: SCHUBERT: Lieder Vol 5 “Night and Dreams” (baritone: Matthias Goerne, piano: Alexander Schmalcz)

Franz Schubert left behind some 600 songs when he died in 1828. He was aged just 31 and his end came after the agony of tertiary syphilis – a cruel end for someone who created such beauty. This collection by Matthias Goerne is centred, as the title suggests, on songs of night and dreams, with lashings of melancholy, old age and presages of death. Goerne’s black voice is a perfect vehicle for such dark musings. His is a voice which seems to be moving from baritonal to bass, and in some instances – particularly the thunderous Totengräbers Heimweh (“Gravedigger’s Pining for Home”) his timbre assumes a positively Wagnerian strength. This is a fascinating compilation of Schubert in his darkest moods. As an antidote to its gloomy moments, I would recommend listening also to Goerne’s recording of Die schöne Müllerin, which has its share of grief too, but which also contains carefree beauty missing from this anthology. Don’t misunderstand me: this is a fine collection. But if the listener is starting out on a journey of Schubertian exploration, there are more varied shores to explore than these. Pianist Alexander Schmalcz accompanies satisfactorily, though the keenest sense of artistic collaboration is not fully evident on this disc. The recording acoustic is close, accentuating breathing,…

5 April, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: LOVE SONGS (mezzo-soprano: Anne Sophie von Otter, piano: Brad Mehldau)

The first disc is the closest to the classic art song in style, allowing Anne Sofie von Otter to give full expression to these songs. Five are settings by Mehldau of poems by the early American poet Sara Teasdale, with one poem each from e.e. cummings and Philip Larkin. Von Otter invests these with plenty of rubato and emotion; this is her disc. The second disc shows more freedom in a light pop-jazz way. Although von Otter confesses she dares not try improvisation, she is able to cope easily with Mehldau’s mildly swinging approach to standards by composers including Richard Rodgers, Joni Mitchell, Lennon-McCartney, Bernstein and a group of French masters of the genre, including Michel Legrand and Jacques Brel. She does this by mainly observing rhythm and melody and lightening up the intense interpretative expression we heard earlier. Lightness is the key. It is a pleasant compilation, but one disc might have sufficed. The first grouping is not varied enough in mood to sustain interest throughout; the second disc never quite takes off into the heights of great singing or inspired jazz. Still, it’s a worthy first effort for these collaborators and next time around could see take-off.

29 March, 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.

22 March, 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…

21 March, 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.

20 January, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: RAVEL Tzigane: Music for Violin, Cello and Piano (violin: Kristian Winther, cello: Michelle Wood, piano: Anthony Romaniuk)

I find this pared-back version by far the more powerful. The Hungarian Gypsy flavouring accentuates the drama of the work, like a fiery shot of grappa in espresso. Violinist Kristian Winther is the showcased artist here, with Anthony Romaniuk and Michelle Wood providing sympathetic accompaniment. Kristian, originally from Canberra, is only 25. This recording suggests he is poised on the edge of a great career. His playing is sensitive when called for, but is distinguished in the main by a full-blooded vigour and impetuousness which is never less than totally exciting. The four works heard here – Tzigane, Sonata for Violin and Piano Number 2, Piece in the Form of a Habanera and the Sonata for Violin and Cello – span from 1907 to 1922 and include some of the most aggressive and dynamic of Ravel’s chamber writing – what he called his ‘motor’ or ‘mechanised’ style. That sounds heartless – but nothing Ravel wrote could be termed that. There’s too much soul incorporated in his driving rhythms. The acoustics on this SACD are as exceptional as anything Melba has produced, which means close to recorded perfection. This is a hybrid-disc, which means that if your player cannot reproduce SACD,…

20 January, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: BACH Cantatas Vol 41 (bass: Peter Kooij, soprano: Carolyn Sampson; Bach Collegium Japan/Suzuki)

Impeccable playing standards, coupled with BIS’s outstandingly clear SACD recording technology and the fine acoustics of the Shoin Women’s University Chapel make these recordings real sonic treasures. If Bach could hear these recordings I am sure he would have been moved beyond words hearing the love and care these players bring to his music. It is also a clear indicator of the way classical music is expanding in Asia and how our finest practitioners of the near future will most likely be Japanese, Korean or Chinese. There are no post-colonial qualifiers required here – these performances are amongst the finest in the world and clearly have a particular sensibility which favours the most intimate expressions of Bach’s various methods of text painting. It is particularly pleasing to hear Ich Habe Genug BWV 82 sung by a soprano rather than baritone or mezzo, in this case Carolyn Sampson, who effortlessly sustains the line and mood. The bass Peter Kooij is featured in Cantatas BWV 56 and 158 and he is equally commanding in his delivery, though perhaps not as emotionally engaging as Sampson. The concluding chorales are sung by four singers, one to a part, which seems totally organic in terms…

20 January, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: BEETHOVEN Complete String Quartets (Goldner String Quartet)

This is such an offering. The Goldner Quartet is drawn from members of the Australian Ensemble and led by Dene Olding, one of Australia’s most respected violinists. His choice of instrument speaks volumes: he plays a Joseph Guarnerius. The other members are Dimity Hall (violin), Irina Morozova (viola) and Julian Smiles (cello) and they combine to perfection. Beethoven’s 17 works for string quartet (including the ‘Grosse Fuge’ which was originally composed as the finale for another of the quartets) are heard here as a complete performance cycle, recorded at the Sydney Conservatorium between 19 August and 5 September, 2004. The recording quality is so fine that the sound of audience applause at the close of the first quartet comes as a real shock. There is absolutely no indication before then that this is a live recording. No coughs, no fidgeting, no latecomers – this is as all concerts should be but so rarely are. But the live nature of the recording is what marks it out. For as we progress through the eight CDs, through the relative simplicity of the first six quartets to the sudden leap in maturity of the three Razumovsky quartets, and finally to the profound gravid…

20 January, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: MONTEVERDI L’Incoronazione di Poppea (soprano: Danielle de Niese, mezzo: Alice Coote; Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment/Haim)

This DVD of the Glyndebourne production from 2008 has some outstanding singing, particularly from the two key protagonists, the ambitious courtesan Poppea (sung by Danielle de Niese and acted with seductive style) and her lover and eventual husband, the emperor Nerone (Alice Coote). The performance is distinguished too by the extraordinary vocal presence of Iestyn Davies in the role of Poppea’s lover Ottone. He is simply one of the finest counter-tenors I have heard in years. The performance is worth persevering with just for his revelatory work. Persevering is the right word. This Glyndebourne performance, directed by Canadian Robert Carsen and with sets and costumes by Michael Levine and Constance Hoffram, is one of the most boring productions I’ve seen. Memories of The Australian Opera’s production from the 1990s highlight the paucity of imagination of this production. Everything is red. Red, red, red. The sets consist for the most part of red curtains which open to reveal still more red curtains. The characters sit on stark modern red chairs in front of the curtains. Their costumes are all boring modern dress, which fail to alleviate the boredom of the sets. There is a lot of gender-bending in the performances, both…

19 January, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: VIVALDI Juditha Triumphans (Pinchgut Opera; Cantillation; Orchestra of the Antipodes/Cremonesi)

This vocal master-work from Vivaldi is less than a decade short of its 300th birthday but here comes up fresh and sparkling, and with the zest of a teenager. Vivaldi, who we know best as an instrumental composer, claimed to have composed some 90 operas, but few are heard today. This work is even rarer. The liner notes tell us that as well as the operas, he wrote four oratorios. But Juditha Triumphans, based on a particularly blood-thirsty Biblical tale and described as a ‘sacred military oratorio’, is the only work to have come down to us. Judged by this sole work, the loss is ours. For the work is endlessly inventive, with some passages propelled by energetic momentum, and others paced like some peaceful inner reflection that ebbs and flows like our thoughts. The choral singing and the orchestral playing of Cantillation and the Orchestra of the Antipodes manage to combine forthright appeal with fragile delicacy when needed. And the five vocalists are beautifully matched, with contralto Sally-Anne Russell particularly affecting in the title role. The oratorio for the most part has survived, but its overture has been lost. In its place, the Orchestra of the Antipodes performs a…

19 January, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: VIVALDI The Four Seasons (piano: Jeffrey Biegel)

Why? His answer may well be “Why not?” After all, piano transcriptions of works written for orchestra or other instruments are very common and are often just about as interesting as the original compositions. Recently I heard a four-hand arrangement of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite and marvelled at just how much of the original orchestration seemed still present – and how witty the arrangement was. This however seems very much a technical exercise, of interest maybe to home performers. But while listening, I kept thinking just how much richer the original seems by contrast. There seems little here to sustain attention – what it did do was provoke me to reach for my old but still favourite recording of the original, on period instruments, by Nils-Erik Sparf and the Drottningholm Chamber Ensemble (on the BIS label). Now, there’s a recording. Also included here are arrangements of Vivaldi’s Mandolin Concerto in C major and his Lute Concerto in D major. They similarly seem more technical exercises than something with wide appeal. There may be huge pleasure to be gained from playing these, but sadly, the recording process can’t cope with that sort of satisfaction.

19 January, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: The First Recordings (soprano: Dame Nellie Melba)

The sound was thrilling, but in reality, atrocious. And she fared not much better on CD. When, years later, I listened to some of the early transfers from historic 78s to CDs of early Melba material, I wondered just what the fuss had been about. Why did opera-goers of her time make Nellie Mitchell from Melbourne the biggest star on two sides of the Atlantic? The transfers had removed a lot of the scratches and crackle but what was left was still thin, even sour. Well, this new release is a revelation. This is a dub of newly-discovered 1904 metal masters struck from the original wax, which had been languishing unplayed in the Deutsche Grammophon warehouses in Hanover for more than 100 years. Not only are the recordings cleaner than any others I’ve heard, they are also for the first time transferred to CD at Melba’s proper pitch, not erroneously lifted as every other transfer has been. Here is Puccini’s Mimi, sung as Puccini himself taught it to her. And Tosti, Verdi, a very effective ‘Porgi, Amor’ from Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro, and simple folk songs to complete a portrait of her repertoire. This is acoustic history made palatable. We…