Anthony Clarke

Anthony Clarke

Articles by Anthony Clarke

19 January, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: BACH Organ Sonatas BWV 525-530 (organ: Christopher Wrench)

The sonatas were composed over several years from 1722 onwards, although they remained widely unheard until publication 100 years later. They have a constantly lively nature and a beauty of expression which belies early critical writing which claimed they had been composed merely as dry technical exercises in counterpoint and in independence of foot and hand. Although they lack the great rhetoric and drama of the preludes and fugues, they make up for that in their perpetual bright invention. There’s special interest in the instrument chosen for the recording – an organ known as the Garnisons Kirke in Copenhagen, which contemporary organ-maker Carsten Lund completed in 1995 as a reconstruction of the original baroque instrument which dated from 1724. The instrument lacks the grand sonority we associate with more modern instruments, but its agility and very clear piping sonority has great charm, especially when played with the facility heard here. The recording reveals every detail of the instrument and its special baroque-church ambience. It has been recorded in 5.1 Surround SACD, but for people not able to benefit from that, it can also be heard in stereo SACD or in conventional CD-format stereo. The result in all formats is outstanding.

19 January, 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)…

18 January, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: VARIOUS COMPOSERS (The Swingle Singers)

The a capella group The Swingle Singers were originally a French vocal group, founded by Ward Swingle back in 1962, but this 4-disc set represents the 1990s output of a later ensemble, based in London. This excruciatingly twee group has lasted more than four decades. Travel to the wrong parts of the world and you’re likely to still run the danger of hearing them in concert. They just will not give up on their quest to merge the traditions of American jazz scat-singing and European classical music, and lose the best parts of both along the way. The four albums in this set are A Capella Amadeus: A Mozart Celebration, and although Mozart had a strong sense of humour,I doubt if he would have been amused by what the Swingles do to the Overture to The Magic Flute, or to any of the other selections from his operas, piano concertos and sacred music. Bach Hits Back is the Swingle’s second attempt to destroy JS Bach’s reputation. Sadly, despite the title, Bach cannot hit back. The third album, 1812, is a live concert disc which tackles Tchaikovsky, Debussy, Gershwin and even Lennon/McCartney. The collection concludes with Around the World, a folk-song…

18 January, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: A Life in Song: Various arias (bass-baritone: Bruce Martin)

Bruce Martin is a black-voiced bass-baritone whose immense strength also possesses wonderful finesse. His repertoire encompasses classical and contemporary opera, though he became especially noted for his Wagnerian roles – no-one who saw his Australian Opera performance as Hans Sachs in Die Meistersinger will ever forget those performances. This two-disc compilation features studio and live recordings made here and in South Africa. Most come from the 1970s and ‘80s, though the longevity of his voice is attested by a fine recording of the Mussorgsky Songs and Dances of Death from 1999. The repertoire here is huge, ranging from Mozart to Schubert, Verdi to Wagner, and to the further American shores of Lerner and Loewe’s ‘They Call the Wind Maria’, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ and even the Paul Anka rewriting of Jacques Revaux’s ‘My Way’. This is overdue recognition of a special and often difficult career, which seemed crammed with triumphs and disappointments. Long-time Australian Opera friend and patron Martin Dickson is right when he points to Martin’s fastidious attention to musical detail. What he doesn’t mention is how, despite the study, there seems an almost insolent ease in the way he throws out a well-nigh perfect version…

18 January, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: GOLIJOV La Pasión Segun San Marcos (Schola Cantorum de Venezuela, Orquesta La Pasion and Members of the Simon Boliva Youth Orchestra of Venezuela/Guinand)

This is a two-disc CD presentation of a musical setting of the St Mark’s Passion, a text which exists in hundreds of musical settings, with Bach’s at the pinnacle. There’s also a DVD of a performance in Holland in 2008. This modern work – a sort of world-music/classical fusion — comes from composer Osvaldo Golijov, who was born in Argentina from Eastern European Jewish parents, and who has lived in Argentina, Israel and the USA. Expression of a common humanity rather than one strict religious philosophy seems to be key to the work. It pulsates with South American rhythms, but at the same time it sounds as if it would be equally at home in Africa, or New Guinea or anywhere. As you listen, Golijov’s influences seem many, but referential rather than direct. There are allusions to Orff, and even Britten, and Theodorakis too. It’s a fecund work, which has sprung from rich soil. The orchestra is very South American in its basis of percussion and brass. The choral singing is very beautiful, and the small handful of soloists acquit themselves very well, particularly the fine soprano Jessica Rivera. The DVD of the concert performance is worth viewing once to set…

18 January, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: Piazzolla and Beyond (trumpet: David Gordon, violin: Adam Summerhayes; London Concertante)

That augurs badly for this disc, which presents new settings of six works by Argentina’s tango-master Astor Piazzolla, alongside four original compositions inspired by Piazzolla by pianist David Gordon and violinist Adam Summerhayes. Piazzolla, an innovative composer and musician who created cutting-edge music inspired by the tango tradition, breathed fresh life into what had become a rather tired musical genre. But although an inspired creator, he set strict limits on his musical expression. He used a bandoneon (an instrument similar to a concertina) as his main instrument. He eschewed strings and percussion, and even disliked jazz-style improvisation. Yet this album presents a string orchestra with piano, and positively glistens with percussive effects from the stringed instruments as well as great expressive jazz riffs. It should be a universe away from Piazzolla’s world. Yet it is not. In their very free interpretations of Piazzolla’s works, and in their own compositions, Gordon and Summerhayes honour the composer by giving us some wildly expressive and continually exciting music which is as thrilling as the tango itself. As an act of homage, this works. As an explosion of raw musical passion, it works even better. 

18 January, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: CHOPIN 19 Waltzes (piano: Jean-Philippe Collard)

Back then, the beauty of the best analog recordings was lost in the ferocity of the digital age. It took more than a decade before most studio technicians had developed the skill – or the ear – to again record with natural audio spaciousness and bloom. In this set, the opening waltz is marred by a hard jangly sound in the upper register. It’s impossible to tell if this is from the recording methodology, or studio ambience, microphone placement or from the piano itself, but it sets a discordant tone right from the start. Things do improve as the set continues, but this is a disappointing reading of the waltzes. It seems a rather perfunctory reading. Slower passages in particular, as in the Op 34 No. 3, the Valse Brillante, sound just tired rather than deliciously languid. There are far better accounts of the Chopin Waltzes. The outstanding set, from Romanian pianist Dinu Lipatti, also comes from EMI and is my definite preferred set. The only reason this Jean-Philippe Collard recording could augment a collection is that it collects all 19 waltzes, including four posthumous compositions which are missing from the Lipatti recording. 

18 January, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: JC BACH La dolce fiamma: forgotten castrato arias (counter-tenor: Philippe Jaroussky; Le Cercle de l’Harmonie/Rhorer)

Are we living in a golden age of music-making? It’s inevitable that we always reference the past. No generation before ours has had its immediate predecessors so thoroughly chronicled. The musicians of the past are not just the stuff of legend – they are with us every day. Philippe Jaroussky need not worry about such comparisons. His is a counter-tenor whose falsetto voice is so high that it has almost lost all characteristics of that genre.  As Australian audiences know, his voice is so clear and white that it is unnervingly close to a female soprano. He may lack the utter purity and beauty of the best sopranos in the highest register but replacing it is an almost unnerving other-world open-edged timbre. The period accompaniment from the Cercle de l’Harmonie is deft and assured. The lively lyricism of JS Bach’s youngest son is heard here in a way that has perhaps not been possible for a couple of centuries. Jaroussky is an idiosyncratic counter-tenor. He certainly does not supplant my memories of past greats such as Michael Chance or our own Graham Pushee. But he is perhaps unique amongst today’s counter-tenors and must be heard to be believed. This is truly…

18 January, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: ANGEL SONGS (Choir of Trinity College, University of Melbourne/Jones)

The most modern composition – and the only secular piece on the album – is derived from a lullaby (‘Goodnight my Angel’ by American pop singer Billy Joel), which is given the full King’s Singers treatment by that vocal group’s chief arranger. It’s a very cloying piece indeed, matched here in saccharine levels only by one of my pet hates, Brahms’ Lullaby. But those two are the only doses of cloying sweetness found on this rich anthology of near-perfect choral singing, which also forms a platform for some very fine soloists from the Trinity College choir. Composers featured here include Mozart, Handel, Mendelssohn, Purcell and Haydn, while modern choral specialists such as John Rutter, David Willcocks and Herbert Howells are also heard to fine advantage. It’s very difficult to single out just one piece from the 20 choral works presented here. But soprano Siobhan Stagg’s contribution to Mozart’s Laudate Dominum is certainly worthy of special mention for its clarity and purity. The exultant Purcell offering, ‘Hark! The echoing Air’ from The Fairy Queen is given a truly exultant performance by the ensemble, with fine playing from trumpeter Mark Fitzpatrick and cellist Michelle Wood. The recording, which was made in the…

18 January, 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…

18 January, 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.

18 January, 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…

18 January, 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…