Anthony Clarke

Anthony Clarke

Articles by Anthony Clarke

13 January, 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…

13 January, 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…

13 January, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: BEETHOVEN Complete Piano Concertos (piano: Paul Lewis; BBC Symphony Orchestra/Belohlávek)

English pianist Paul Lewis has already recorded for Harmonia Mundi an acclaimed cycle of the Beethoven sonatas, and now turns his attention to the complete piano concertos. Here are all five, housed in a handsome three-disc cardboard digipak. Even if you have individual recordings of these concertos, this set is a tremendous way to survey them all. Lewis’s performance partner is Jirí Belohlávek, conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Belohlávek is more usually heard conducting opera, but that is no liability. In fact, the dramatic sense he brings to these works is part of what makes these recordings so effective. There is nothing in the booklet notes to state whether these are live performances or not. They are made in conjunction with BBC Radio 3, which suggests they were the next best thing – especially recorded for broadcast, with the same zest and spontaneity of a live concert recording. Paul Lewis is an assured pianist in this repertoire, growing in authority through the cycle until its apotheosis in the grand Fifth, Beethoven’s “symphony for piano and orchestra”. The acoustics are really quite extraordinary – strong and sonorous, with piano and orchestra truly at one. This is about the finest-sounding recording of…

13 January, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: VON WOLKENSTEIN Songs of Myself (counter-tenor: Andreas Scholl; Shield of Harmony)

This anthology samples 21 songs from the 130 works he left us in two illustrated manuscripts, and the texts reveal an astonishingly modern character. These poems, sometimes ribald and lusty, sometimes tender, even poignant, still speak directly to us. Like troubadours of all ages (think of our own Bob Dylan) Von Wolkenstein was not too concerned about where he found his melodies, borrowing them from anyone and everywhere. It was his words and thoughts which were important. They are still revelatory. These medieval treasures are interpreted lovingly by the small Shield of Harmony ensemble (featuring soprano Kathleen Dineen) alongside counter-tenor Andreas Scholl, who is in particularly fine voice. I should say fine voices, as in some of the numbers he steps away from his customary counter-tenor mode to sing in his natural light baritone. The recording was made in St Valentine’s Church, Kiedrich, where Andreas Scholl’s career began as a boy-chorister, aged seven. In his very personal liner notes, Andreas reveals that this also was where both his late sister and late father also sang. The recorded ambience is very natural. The love and warmth that flows from venue and songs is audible here too.

13 January, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: KRENEK Sechs Motetten nach Worten von Franz Kafka (soprano: Caroline Stein, piano: Philip Mayers; RIAS Kammerchor/Rademann)

The story of a white opera singer and a promiscuous black jazz musician was a smash hit in Germany and abroad as soon as it premiered in 1928, but was banned by the Nazis as “degenerate art” as soon as they came to power. Krenek, an Austrian of Czech descent, composed several operas, though none was as popular as Jonny Spielt Auf. Krenek was forced to flee Nazi persecution to the USA in 1938, where he worked as both academic and composer. This disc collects examples of his choral writing before and after that move. The centrepiece is Sechs Motetten nach Worten von Franz Kafka from 1959, in which he uses serial-composition technique to glue together scattered slivers of text. The five other choral works (also featuring soprano Caroline Stein) range through his whole career, starting in1923 and tracing his developments through 12-tone techniques to serial. Many performances are a cappella; others feature the discreet piano of Philip Mayers. Despite quality performances, this is heavy stuff. Not only is there a very academic bent, but the music paints a relentlessly bleak world-view, where World War I and subsequent depression, the rise of Nazism and the horrors of the World War…

13 January, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: MOZART Symphonies Nos 39, 40 (Freiburger Barockorchester/Jacobs)

Mozart’s late symphonies are too often delivered with profound pomposity and reverence. René Jacobs and the Freiburger Barockorchester blow all the heavy accumulation of false tradition away. These performances must be very close to the musical textures of the composer’s own time, with the added benefit of today’s higher standards of musicianship. In a word, delectable. Many musical scholars believe the 39th and 40th are meant to be considered part of an orchestral trio, along with Mozart’s final symphony, the 41st – Jupiter. René Jacobs has already recorded the Jupiter, coupled with the 38th. But consider that disc later. These stand fine by themselves. They are enchanting performances, faster in tempo than some, and the final movement of the 40th is in particular revelatory in its deft sprung rhythms, although the fleetness does not prevent Jacobs from bringing out properly weighted moments of contrast. The disc is stamped with authority, from both conductor (whose Marriage of Figaro is one of my favourites) and the ensemble. If this disc does not supplant my absolute favourite recordings, from Italian conductor Carlo Maria Giulini, that is perhaps as much to do with sentimental attachment as with absolute musical judgement. This recording certainly stands…

13 January, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: DVORÁK Violin Concertos/Legends (violin: Richard Tognetti, Nordic CO/Lindberg)

The Dvorák violin concerto had a tortuous genesis. In 1879, Dvorák was commissioned to write it, and decided to dedicate it to the great violinist Joseph Joachim, a close friend and musical adviser. Joachim was not happy with it. Dvorák tore up the score and started again. Revision followed revision before Joachim was finally content. Ironically, it appears that even though Dvorák spent more than two years on revisions, Joachim never performed the concerto in public. The publisher who had commissioned the work wasn’t happy either. He wanted a clean break between first and second movements, instead of the beautiful bridging passage which seamlessly links the two. Unlike with Joachim, here Dvorák stuck to his guns. The Dvorák has never become one of the grand concert hall staples, such as the Brahms or Bruch, Beethoven or Sibelius. But our own “living treasure” Richard Tognetti gives a persuasive argument here that it should be. It is a thoughtful piece rather than flamboyant, but abounding in lyricism and with the Slavic dance rhythms which mark so much of Dvorák’s work. Tognetti is in top form and his 1743 Guarneri del Gesu violin helps give this a true Kreislerian warmth. The ten short…

13 January, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: BACH Arias (bass-baritone: Teddy Tahu Rhodes; Orchestra of the Antipodes/Antony Walker & Brett Weymark)

The notes to this recording mention Johann Sebastian Bach’s predilection for using the male bass voice whenever a solemn note needed to be struck or when a figure of authority was invoked. Teddy Tahu Rhodes, the bass-baritone heartthrob of Australia’s opera fans, is now maturing into such a figure. Even the cover photograph for this CD shows a new Teddy – a dignified and wise personage rather than the glamorous, dashing Don Giovanni of his recent past. The 13 arias here are all drawn from Bach’s religious cantatas – there’s not a whiff of secularity to be found. They come from eight cantatas in all, with the Cantata BWV82 “Ich habe genug” presented in full. Teddy’s voice is impressively supple, given that the arias call on his strong bass rather than letting him rip with the more naturally flexible baritonal range. And he is given equally supple support by the very fine Orchestra of the Antipodes, which has been recorded with a very natural and immediate presence. Fine too is the support given in two of the arias by soprano Sara Macliver, while featured oboist Kirsten Barry shines in the final aria from “Ich habe genug”. Lovers of Bach will…

13 January, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: MASSENET Don Quichotte (singers: Berganza, Van Dam, Fondary; Orchestra and Chorus of the Capitol of Toulouse/Plasson)

Massenet composed this in his mature years and although in 1910 it gave him his last great success, his Don fell out of favour as the aggressive, modern new century got into full stride.Yet it is a tremendous work, full-blooded and exciting, with ravishingly beautiful entr’acte passages and sensitive vocal writing. As in the ballet, Massenet fleshes out the character of la belle Dulcinée, the village maiden who captivates our tragic Don. In the book she remains just a part of his noble but flawed imagination, with no more reality than the windmills at which he tilts. Teresa Berganza carries off the role with a sensual lushness, and José Van Dam is the very model of our noble but befuddled Don. This recording, from the earliest years of the digital era, does not quite capture the brilliant immediacy of the slightly earlier analogue set on Decca from Richard Bonynge, but that is more a comment on the limitations of early digital recordings than on the performances. Sadly, this 2-disc set does not come with a libretto. There is a third disc which lets you read the libretto on your computer, but that is a poor substitute for the real thing….

12 January, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: PAGANINI 24 Caprices (violin: Julia Fischer)

  This may be the closest thing to a live performance I have ever heard on a studio recording. The sound on my studio monitor-style speakers is uncannily like having Julia Fischer play her violin just three or four feet away from you. It’s not so much that her instrument has been miked very closely – more, the illusion is total that she is there, standing close and playing her instrument at her so-intimate audience. The Paganini Caprices are amongst the most famous of the solo violin repertoire, and many of the items are a recitalist’s dream for an audience-shattering finale. Most famous of course is the final Caprice, which is the wellspring for innumerable themes and variations, including the Brahms piano variations and, my own favourite, Rachmaninov’s sublime Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. Fischer wants us to consider these Caprices as more than standout individual bravura pieces. She wants us to listen to them as a unified whole. I’m sure Paganini relished the flamboyant aspect of these works, but Julia’s performance is not only technically accomplished, it is artistically persuasive as well. The bravura is still there, but she does draw out intrinsic beauty, and thoughtfulness as well….

12 January, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: BACH The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book One (piano: Zhu Xiao-Mei)

Two years ago Zhu Xiao-Mei recorded Book Two of The Well-Tempered Clavier (or, as this French disc dubs it, Le Clavier Bien Tempéré), and now gives us this two-disc set of Book One. The reason for this odd order, she says, is simply that she believes Book Two has languished besides the popularity of Book One. This ordering helps redress that balance. Mei, now living in Paris, has a special affinity with Bach. Not long after starting her piano studies, she was caught up in China’s Cultural Revolution and found herself working in a labour camp. Music was forbidden, but she had smuggled in a copy of the WTC, and spent day after day copying it to share with her companions. This gave her an especially deep acquaintanceship with the work, which shows clearly in this recording. It is instantly a classic account, which I’ll keep alongside my András Schiff and Sviatoslav Richter. Though those have great strengths, this account is somehow more touching, as if she is able to pierce through to the essential simplicity which lies within this great work. The recording too is flawless. Her piano is a Steinway, which allows more interpretative freedom than a period-instrument,…

12 January, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: CHARPENTIER David and Jonathan (Soloists and Chorus of Pinchgut Orchestra, Cantillation, Orch of the Antipodes/Walker)

 This recording was made over four performances by Pinchgut Opera at Sydney’s City Recital Hall in 2008. It shows clearly the advantages – and limitations – of live performance recordings. The advantages are the feeling of immediacy, of being caught up in the excitement and danger of live performance. If one performer falters, the whole ensemble can fall. On audio, however, live performance can be distracting. Footsteps, movement of scenery, and of course audience noise, can take the edge from an otherwise immaculate performance. That does happen here intermittently. But only intermittently. In essence, this is another splendid outing from Pinchgut, which continues to offer esoteric operas our national company could not economically stage in the major Sydney and Melbourne theatres. This opera from 1688 features some of Charpentier’s most unshackled writing, free from earlier performance conventions. It’s performed here on Baroque instruments while the supple voices of the principals – especially the outstanding Baroque tenor Anders J Dahlin as David, Sara MacIiver as his beloved Jonathan and baritone Dean Robinson as Jonathan’s father Saul – tackle the special demands of this period’s music with relish. Some studio recordings have finer polish than this, but few match its impetuous drama.

12 January, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: MOZART Arias for Male Soprano (soprano: Michael Maniaci, Boston Baroque/Pearlman)

Today, we can only guess what the true castrati may have sounded like. Today’s falsetto or counter-tenors give perhaps the closest approximation of the sound. A recording does exist of one of the last castratos from the Vatican Choir of the late 19th century. It gives an aged and ghastly sound which could not be representative of a castrato in his prime. Michael Maniaci describes himself as a “male soprano” rather than a counter-tenor, as he says this is his natural voice. Most counter-tenors are in fact baritones (or, occasionally, tenors) who can produce a sustained and strong falsetto. Michael Maniaci says “my voice seems to sit most naturally in the soprano register. While my vocal cords lengthened and thickened somewhat, they didn’t do so to the extent that most men experience”. So here are arias for castrati from Idomeneo, Lucio Silla, La Clemenza di Tito and from Exsultate, Jubilate, sung in a style which may – just may – approximate what Mozart’s audience would have heard from that era’s superstar eunuchs. I don’t find Michael Maniaci’s voice a naturally beautiful one, but the artistry is evident, and the accompaniment from Martin Pearlman’s Baroque orchestra is exemplary.