Paul Ballam-Cross

Paul Ballam-Cross

Paul Ballam-Cross is a writer and classical guitarist. He holds a Bachelor of Music in Performance and a Doctor of Philosophy, majoring in Musicology. He loves collecting records and will happily spend hours researching everything from Baroque to noise rock.


Articles by Paul Ballam-Cross

23 April, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: Serenissima (Rose Consort of viols)

Inspired by viol-maker Richard Jones’ copies of Venetian instruments, the Rose Consort of Viols presents a globe-trotting recital, centred on Venice (La Serenissima) – a hub for musicians of the time. There’s everything from lively galliards to free-wheeling fantasias, and covering a range of composers from Italy, Germany, France and England. Most of this music is heard far too rarely, and some of it is quite extraordinary. I was once told that Renaissance counterpoint “wasn’t nearly as complex as the Baroque”, and I suspect that such an ignorant statement could be easily shattered by some of the pieces here. For example, the liner notes point out that the tenor viol part of Henricus Isaac’s La my la sol doubles in speed each time it repeats, until it syncs up with the rest of the consort. So much for a lack of complexity! Not all of the works are so logically constructed. The Rose Consort give a fabulously rustic performance of some anonymous dances from the mid-16th century from both Italy and England, and it’s easy to imagine the music as the background to a ball or social event. Furthermore, Delphian have done a fine job in recording the plangent timbre…

22 April, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: Escape to Paradise (Daniel Hope)

Daniel Hope is one of those musicians who can convince in just about any repertoire; he’s recorded unusual concertos like the Berg and Britten, and performed Max Richter’s reimagining of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. Here, he turns to that unfairly maligned genre, film music. Hope was inspired by the way that many of the early twentieth-century European composers persecuted by the Nazis escaped to America, and arrived in Hollywood. As a result, the ‘Hollywood sound’ of early films (think of the dramatic, sweeping scores of the silent film era) can be traced directly back to the late Romantics – the style of Rózsa or Korngold is not so different from that of Strauss, or Schoenberg’s early works. There’s quite a cross-section of composers here. In crafting the program, Hope’s starting point was Korngold’s Violin Concerto, though there are tracks from later film composers like Williams and Morricone included as well. The Korngold concerto is given a stirring performance, but it is, disappointingly, the only solid chunk of music on the CD. The other tracks are fairly short, and so I’m not sure that it’d be comfortable to listen to the entire CD in one sitting – the tracks have a tendency…

19 March, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: Bach: The Art of Fugue (Hewitt)

Buy this album on iTunes: Bach: The Art of Fugue – Angela Hewitt Bach’s final work, The Art of Fugue, is a formidable contrapuntal challenge for any musician – it’s essentially the Mount Everest of Baroque intricacy, containing some of his most devilishly complex part-writing. The work, consisting of fourteen fugues and four canons, is written utilising a different permutation of the same theme in each part, so Bach’s single short theme is presented in dozens of different ways. The four-bar theme is heard in augmentation (longer note values), diminution (shorter note values), inverted (upside-down), and in a whole variety of canons. Such an intensely cerebral work will acquire an air of mystery in any case, and the fact that Bach died before he could finish it has only added to its reputation. Perhaps that’s why it has taken renowned Bach pianist Angela Hewitt quite so long to tackle this behemoth; she’s been recording Baroque works on the piano for many years, but she’s only added The Art of Fugue to her repertoire in 2012. It may have taken her a little while, but it’s been well worth waiting for, and I only wish that she had recorded this work…

27 February, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: Concerto (John Williams)

Entering his fifth decade of performing, it would be natural to expect John Williams to take a creative step back. Instead, it seems that he has undergone a creative resurgence, beginning to publish his own compositions on his own website, and now making recordings himself, too. In the last year, he’s recorded a new CD of solo guitar works, but Williams here turns to concerto repertoire.   This stylistically varied recording begins with a re-visiting of Williams’ collaboration with Chilean group Inti-Illimani. Danza’s Peregrinas is re-worked material from Inti-Illimani’s repertoire, expanded for three soloists and orchestra. The orchestrations here are rather lush, and it’s difficult to resist the rhythmic precision and playfulness of these danzas.   Williams has been a notable supporter of Australian composers, so it’s appropriate that he includes a home-grown work (originally written for him in the 90’s) on this recording with Ross Edwards’ Arafura Dances. Utilising Edwards’ familiar maninyas, the work is an exploration of virtuosic rhythms.   Stephen Goss’s music has been gaining popularity, having been added to the repertoire of some of the major names in the guitar world such as young virtuoso Xuefei Yang. I’ve not yet been converted, finding his works laboured….

6 January, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: Brahms: String Quintets (Takács Quartet, Lawrence Power)

Limelight Editor’s Choice – Chamber – September, 2014 Was there really any doubt that this latest release from the Takács Quartet would be superb? Their previous discs of Brahms (including the Piano Quintet, Op 34 with Stephen Hough, and recordings of the string quartets) have been revelatory.  In writing these two quintets, Brahms chose to follow Mozart’s example in his choice of configuration for the strings with doubled viola, rather than the Schubertian choice of a second cello. Here, the Takács Quartet is joined by violist Lawrence Power to give powerful, dark-toned performances of Brahms’s string quintets. “Here is a marvellous example of how to work closely with other players in chamber music” The first quintet (in F Major, Op 88) was thought of by Brahms as one of his best works – he wrote to Clara Schumann boasting about it, and wrote to his publisher Simrock, saying simply, “You have never before had such a beautiful work from me”. It’s in this first quintet that Lawrence Power particularly shines, his tone enriching the texture most beautifully. The additional viola is given several extensive solos, and they’re played with passion and verve. In the slow movement, Brahms writes in the…

2 December, 2014
CD and Other Review

Review: Lebègue, Hardel: Harpsichord Works (Flint)

I must admit I wasn’t familiar with the composers on this disc, but they’re both discoveries that I’m happy to have made. Performing here on two magnificent Ruckers keyboards from the early 17th century, Karen Flint plays these French Baroque works with an exquisitely light touch, presenting Lebègue and Hardel’s dances in the best possible way.  The complete harpsichord works of Lebègue consist of his 1677 Les Pièces de Clavessin, and the 1687 Second Livre de Clavessin. Notably, it’s in the earlier collection that the very first unmeasured preludes (a form of prelude where each note’s duration is at the performer’s discretion) are contained. Most of the three discs are devoted to Lebègue’s music, but the potential dullness of a standardised sound is allayed through clever use of the two harpsichords. Although it’s not stated which one is used where, the benefit is clear in the pleasantly twangy Suitte en F ut fa, a very different sound from the richer instrument used elsewhere. Poor Jacques Hardel left only about 20 minutes of music, but it is extraordinarily beautiful. The noble Courante d’Ardelle, transcribed from a lute original, is particularly affecting. The liner notes are extraordinarily detailed in their descriptions of…

21 November, 2014
CD and Other Review

Review: In Colour (Melbourne Guitar Quartet)

In its previous two recordings, the Melbourne Guitar Quartet chose rather unusual material, including an arrangement of Nigel Westlake’s hypnotic percussion work, Omphalo Centric Lecture, and a reimagining of William Walton’s Five Bagatelles, originally for solo guitar. Here, the repertoire is far less adventurous. Reworkings of Albéniz’s Cordoba and Granados’s various Danzas Españolas have been played on guitar since the early 20th century, so the material here isn’t as fresh and unexpected. The arrangement of Debussy’s Suite Bergamasque has a curiously earthbound feel to it – this won’t replace any of the great pianists for favoured recordings of the work, though the famous Clair de Lune is appropriately dreamy. Furthermore, I feel that the extracts from both Debussy and Ravel’s string quartets (in both cases the second movement) are flat-out unsuitable for guitar quartet format. For example, the trill in the Ravel that introduces the soaring theme that should sound effortless, sounds laboured. Were these pieces chosen simply because they feature pizzicatos in the original string quartet versions? In both cases, tempos are on the slow side, exacerbating the issue. The Granados and Albéniz, on the other hand, are played well, benefitting from the extended range provided by the quartet’s…

20 November, 2014
CD and Other Review

Review: Sculthorpe: Complete Solo Piano Music (Cislowska)

You certainly couldn’t wish for a better send-off. Though sadly passing away earlier this year, Peter Sculthorpe is celebrated in a wonderful way on this recording. Over the course of his entire career, Sculthorpe always returned to the piano, his own instrument. Before his death, he closely supervised the recording of this superb two-disc set, and specifically chose pianist Tamara-Anna Cislowska as the ideal proponent of his works. The program is organised chronologically, beginning with a set of short works written at the age of just 15. For the first half of the first disc or thereabouts, we’re comfortably in a sort of Debussy-esque territory that many wouldn’t quickly associate with Sculthorpe. These early works have rather delightfully evocative titles such as Falling Leaves, Prelude to a Puppet Show, and a slumbering Siesta. However, while these pieces (mostly written before he turned 20) are very beautiful, his unique compositional voice was yet to emerge. “Koto Music includes a sound that resembles nothing so much as a blues-style slide guitar” By the time we’ve arrived at the mid-1950s with the Sonatina, his familiar stylistic approaches have begun to make an appearance, and with the fully-fledged Sonata of 1963, we’ve come to…

24 October, 2014
CD and Other Review

Review: Sarasate: Opera Phantasies (Reinhold, Zedler)

Musikproduktion Dabringhaus und Grimm makes a big deal on their website about the ideals behind high-end audio production, and this recording certainly sounds superb. The tone is warm and naturally resonant, and the instruments are reproduced in a beautifully natural-sounding fashion. If you have a serious audio system at home, this is the sort of recording that you can use to show off just how good a CD can sound. It’s a disappointment, then, that the playing on this disc is merely adequate, rather than good or great. When you can hear every note with crystal clarity, it’s distressing to realise that what should be breathtakingly virtuosic runs at the end of the famous Carmen Fantasy are, in this recording, rather messy. The more reflective passages come off well, with the duo working well together, but in these pieces the spotlight is clearly on the violin. In turn, this means that the flaws come through rather obviously. The other issue is merely a matter of programming. I will admit to a soft spot for the late 19th century’s more flamboyantly virtuosic works, but isn’t an hour and a quarter of operatic paraphrases really a bit much? Yes, they’re rendered in lovingly…

8 September, 2014
CD and Other Review

Review: Pepe Romero: Master of the Guitar

In a career that’s lasted more than half a century, Pepe Romero has proven himself to be an important part of the classical guitar’s 20th-century revival. With a prodigious, flamenco-based technique, his intense and raw performances are celebrated here in a generous 11CD box set, covering the greater part of the Spanish guitar repertoire.  If you’re looking for the less Spanish-influenced music that was to appear in the guitar repertoire in the 1960s and 70s (Britten’s Nocturnal, perhaps?), then this definitely isn’t the place. A solid five CDs here are devoted to the guitar repertoire from Spain, but then again Romero’s at his very best in repertoire that’s written in a modern, yet lyrical style. He particularly shines here in performances of the music of Joaquín Rodrigo and Federico Moreno-Torroba, and it’s refreshing that it’s not only these composers’ big hits that are included. Of especial note is Rodrigo’s Invocación y Danza, perhaps his greatest composition. It’s written in an entirely different style to his sunny concertos, and is instead a dark and almost destructively powerful rumination on the music of fellow Spaniard Manuel de Falla. Romero’s performance here is stirring stuff indeed, showing the guitar in its best light. Other…

21 July, 2014
CD and Other Review

Review: Schubert: Piano works (Chamayou)

In this thoughtful and measured recital, French pianist Bertrand Chamayou gives evocative accounts of a wide range of Schubert pieces. In the liner notes, Chamayou suggests that the album is “a kind of imaginary recital programme, along the lines of a concert that could have been heard in Vienna at the beginning of the Romantic period, in the cosy and intimate atmosphere of a salon… but which, for various historical reasons, could not have happened in this form”. While several other pianists have used the idea of a Schubertiade as inspiration for recital programming, the anachronistic inclusion of arrangements and transcriptions by Liszt and Richard Strauss make this a performance to remember, and prove that Chamayou has put a considerable amount of thought into this CD. At its heart is a strong performance of the Wanderer-Fantasie, a work that Chamayou infuses with a crucial sense of interconnection between the movements. It’s particularly important here, as the whole work is built on a motif taken from Schubert’s lied Der Wanderer, and that vital link is neatly highlighted.  The other major works on the disc include the late Drei Klavierstücke D946, and the delightful 12 Ländler D790. The Klavierstücke were written within…

21 July, 2014
CD and Other Review

Review: Brahms: Violin Sonatas (Kavakos, Wang)

Leonidas Kavakos and Yuja Wang here give a hearty, if rather cold, performance of Brahms’ much-loved violin sonatas. Wang has proven her virtuoso skills with her previous recital CDs, but this is the first recording she’s made of chamber music. It’s concerning, then, that this release feels a little like star players working well together, but not connecting as deeply as befits the repertoire.  More could be made of many of the most ethereal moments in the music (some of them seem to pass without notice), and there’s an almost palpable sense of relief from the players when the big tunes kick in. Take, for example, the piano’s turn at the theme partway through the first movement of the Violin Sonata in G, accompanied by a delicate pizzicato violin. In other recordings, this return to the theme is a hushed and delicate remembrance, almost magical in its simplicity. Here, it’s merely pretty.  Similar issues arise in the other sonatas. The A Major’s grazioso third movement sounds wooden, with none of the grace and lightness of touch that, for example, Arthur Grumiaux and György Sebo˝k give it. This is very heavy Brahms, then, played solidly and weightily. Kavakos and Wang fare…