December 7, 2016
CD and Other Review

Review: Mozart: Piano Trios (Rautio Piano Trio)

This is the debut release from the Rautio Piano Trio, and it’s an assured debut indeed. They perform three of Mozart’s Piano Trios (he only managed to write six, more’s the pity), the Trio in B Flat K502, the Trio in E, K542, and the Trio in G, K564. Mozart wrote these trios over the course of several years, during which time he also wrote The Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni. It might be me being tempted to hear things Mozart never intended, but I feel as though the breezily conversational writing of these trios is indebted to his operatic writing. There’s plenty of cheerful Mozartian melodic lines passing around the ensemble that can’t help but bring a smile to one’s face. These trios were composed specifically for Mozart himself to perform in Viennese concerts. Being well aware of the monetary potential in creating music that could sell, you can almost imagine Mozart composing with one eye on the audience as the movements unfold. The trios are filled with an almost palpable sense of delight in the way the music twists and turns. Pianist Jan Rautio performs here on a fortepiano that once belonged to Christopher Hogwood, and, like…

December 2, 2016
CD and Other Review

Review: Harmonische Freude (Austral Harmony)

This disc brings together an unlikely but convincing combination of instruments in a trio consisting of the organ, baroque oboe and baroque trumpet. The reasoning that Austral Harmony gives for this is rather interesting. A contemporary of Bach’s named Georg Friedrich Kauffmann apparently suggested in some of his chorale preludes that an oboe or “other agreeable instrument” (trumpet, in this case) could play alongside the organ so as to give the impression that an organ stop was being used. I rather like his amiably cheerful descriptions of his own pieces given in the liner notes: “the oboes have been used in such a way here, which should be announced as good news”. Good news indeed for fans of Baroque wind and brass! What you get is a recital focusing on the oboe and organ (with appearances from trumpeter Simon Desbruslais on a respectable six tracks) with music from JS Bach and his contemporaries. There’s actually significantly more by the “other” composers than there is by Bach, but they’re in a similar style, so if you like Bach, you’ll like the other composers here, too. I particularly enjoyed the Sonata o Oboe Solo col Basso by the magnificently named Gottfried August…

December 2, 2016
CD and Other Review

Review: Prokofiev: Works for Violin and Piano (Franziska Pietsch)

It is the earthy directness of violinist Franziska Pietsch’s sound, over Detlev Eisinger’s sepulchral piano, that captures the ear of the listener in this disc from Audite. Prokofiev likened a passage in the first movement of his First Violin Sonata to “wind sweeping across a cemetery” and Pietsch and Eisinger perfectly conjure this darkness, their spacious tempo giving the movement a sense of deep loneliness that periodically swells into pained longing. There is a gritty violence to the jagged Allegro brusco and the third movement is searingly plaintive. The intimate recording captures every detail of Pietsch’s resonant pizzicatos in the outer movements and the finale bristles with folk-energy, receding into quiet lyricism. The Second Violin Sonata – originally composed for flute but arranged for violin at David Oistrakh’s prompting – is almost pastoral. Composed during Prokofiev’s sojourn in the Ural Mountains during World War II, a jagged motif whose rhythm echoes the Morse Code “V for Victory” that accompanied the BBC’s broadcasts recalls the ongoing violence. The motif – three dots and a dash – sends aural sparks flying from Pietsch’s violin and there’s a quirky bounce to her Scherzo.  Pietsch and Eisinger interweave soulfully in the Andante and the finale…

December 2, 2016
CD and Other Review

Review: Dreaming with Daisy (Rachel Scott & David Pereira)

Cellist Rachel Scott is spreading the gospel of classical music far and wide. She works with underserved communities as Education Director of the Australian Children’s Music Foundation and runs her own popular concert series, Bach in the Dark. Her second self-released album Dreaming with Daisy emerges from a close-knit collaboration with cellist David Pereira, who she has been performing with for six years. According to Scott, their work “is as much a celebration of their friendship as their artistry”. Click Here To Purchase Album Dreaming with Daisy has the feel of a celebration, of untempered, free and loose-limbed music-making, where lines are shaped with boldness, and questions of style seem beside the point. The recorded sound, with its in-your-face rawness, is apt for music-making of immediacy and intimacy, but does reveal frequent, jarring intonation issues, as well as some rough-and-ready sounds from both cellists. Depending on your perspective, the programme is a delightful potpourri or a mismatched patchwork. Full-throated Bach rubs up against Pereira’s own jazzy fantasy on Daisy, Daisy (with its bicycle fittingly “built for two”), and Dotzauer’s indulgent Mozart variations run into some gravelly heavy metal from Elena Kats-Chernin. A conscious decision appears to have been made to…

December 2, 2016
CD and Other Review

Review: Glow: Jaakko Kuusisto

Jaakko Kuusisto is one of those ‘triple threat’ musicians. Accomplished as a violinist, conductor and composer, he has received numerous accolades in his native Finland and around the world. His recordings have mostly featured him as performer or conductor, however this most recent release focuses on the Finnish maestro’s chamber works, performed by a catalogue of exemplary Finnish musos, including Kuusisto himself. Much of the music adopts a language evocative of the early 20th century. Play III sounds like a lost Bartók string quartet, while Valo for piano and violin makes extensive (crossing into exhausted) use of the whole-tone scale in its harmonic and melodic progressions – a favourite device of the so-called musical ‘impressionists’. An ornamented transfiguration of the opening bassoon solo in Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring becomes an effective source of material for much of Loisto, also for piano and violin. Play III is a bold opening to the disc. The rich, robust sound of quartet Meta4 sets a strong tone on an album featuring expert musicianship from all featured performers. Kuusisto’s own performances in the two works for violin with piano, and in the central work, Play II, are incredibly powerful, his robust and expressive tone matching…

November 17, 2016
CD and Other Review

Review: Ives: Violin Sonatas (Annabelle Berthomé-Reynolds)

Much of his compositional output was written prior to a heart attack in 1918 and remained unperformed until after his death, but American modernist Charles Ives is now well-established as a significant and pioneering composer. Ives’ father George was a bandmaster during the American Civil War, and taught his musically-inclined son skills that included playing the piano in one key while singing in another.  In part, as a consequence of this, Ives’ works explored polyrhythms, dissonance, atonality, quarter-tones and other techniques that were to become international staples of experimentalism. Another of Ives’ enduring preoccupations was traditional American hymns and songs, references to which can be heard at various junctures in his Four String Quartets, composed between 1910 and 1917.  There have been regular releases of the set since the premiere recording by Rafael Druian (violin) and John Simms (piano) in 1957, but only a handful are currently in print. Welcome then, is this new recording from French violinist Annabelle Berthomé-Reynolds and Belgian pianist Dirk Herten. Berthomé-Reynolds brings a delicate lyricism to these intricate but very accessible works, and the interplay between violin and piano is unified and sympathetic. Ives veers from rousing sprightliness to dreamy pastoral (sometimes within a few…

November 4, 2016
CD and Other Review

Review: Mozart: Violin Sonatas (complete)

Dutch label Channel Classics has released an attractive box set of the first complete series of Mozart violin sonatas to be performed on period instruments. The albums, featuring English duo violinist Rachel Podger and keyboardist Gary Cooper, were released individually from 2004 to 2009 when they picked up a swag of awards. Now they come in an eight-disc box, giving listeners the chance to appreciate the sweep of the 36 works that covered 25 years of the composer’s life. Cooper performs on a copy of a 1795 Viennese fortepiano by Anton Walter – the maker favoured by Mozart and Beethoven – while Podger plays her 1739 Pesarinius violin, made in Genoa by a student of Stradivari. For the final disc Cooper switches to a 1766 Kirckman harpsichord, exactly the sort of instrument the young Mozart would have used, while the bass line is augmented by cellist Alison McGillivray. As Podger says: “Approaching [Mozart’s] music instinctively comes most naturally to me. It seems so effortlessly composed, and communicates with us directly.” Beautifully recorded, the set would make an ideal companion to the Beethoven sonatas being recorded by US violinist Susanna Ogata and British fortepianist Ian Watson. The Mozart canon, however, is…

November 4, 2016
CD and Other Review

Review: The Spirit and the Maiden

Queensland’s all-woman Muses Trio – violinist Christa Powell, pianist Therese Milanovic and cellist Louise King – has been promoting female composers in a series of chamber concerts for four years and now they have released their self-published debut album. Taking its title from Elena Kats-Chernin’s relatively well-known The Spirit and the Maiden, it includes three world premiere recordings: Melburnian Kate Neal’s piano solo Song For Comb Man; Queensland jazz lecturer Louise Denson’s engaging Two Boleros and, also from Queensland, Cecile Elton’s Insomnio de la Cuidad (Tango for a Sleepless City) which sits nicely alongside the Boleros, starting lazily until the restlessness begins. Three pieces for cello and piano by Nadia Boulanger take us to another time and place, as does the Czech Víteˇzslava Kaprálová’s Elegy for violin and piano from the 1930s. Kats-Chernin’s trio, based on a legend about a young woman who is captured by a ghost that lives in a well, is the most substantial work and makes a good opener with its exciting, driving rhythms. English composer and mezzo-soprano Judith Bingham’s Chapman’s Pool is a four-part work which starts and ends sombrely. Brooklyn-born Jennifer Higdon’s contrasting Pale Yellow/Fiery Red closes the disc strongly, although you can download Amy Beach’s Romance for…

November 4, 2016
CD and Other Review

Review: Mark Simpson: Night Music

Liverpool-born Mark Simpson has been attracting critical acclaim for his compositional prowess in addition to his virtuoso clarinet playing. In 2006, he became the first ever winner of both the BBC Young Musician of the Year and the BBC Proms/Guardian Young Composer of the Year, an astonishing achievement at just 17 years of age.  Night Music is a collection of eight chamber works covering the last decade, and the works are largely performed by the musicians for whom they were written. The titular work for piano and cello is assured, introspective, intricate and captivating, its intensity heightened by impassioned performances from pianist Alexei Grynyuk and cellist Leonard Elschenbroich.  Not surprisingly, several works have substantial clarinet parts, performed by Simpson himself. Echoes and Embers is a nuanced exploration of the clarinet’s timbral possibilities; Lov(escpape) a tug-of-war between gestural dynamics featuring fluttering, swoops and other extended techniques. Un Regalo for solo cello (performed by Guy Johnston) is also a highlight. Simpson’s detailed notes are included, but, unusually, no information about the performers.  This is a minor quibble in another stellar release from NMC, a charitable company dedicated to British contemporary music. Night Music is an exemplary recording and it will be fascinating…

October 28, 2016
CD and Other Review

Review: Bacewicz: String Quartets

And then there were three cycles – the Silesian Quartet’s version of Polish composer Graz˙yna Bacewicz’s seven string quartets following on the heels of the Amar Corde Quartet (on Acte Préalable) and the Lutosławksi Quartet (on Naxos), and securing her reputation as one of the best-known unknown composers around. Bacewicz died in 1969 and her quartet cycle journeys from makings of tonality that are known towards a hard-fought for personal harmonic wizardry that embraces 12-tone thinking without being overly concerned with ‘correct’ 12-tone technique. Secreted kernels of melody appear discreetly from behind shadowy, shuffling textures to anticipate the soundworld of latter-day Bartók quartets – and even Luigi Nono. Bacewicz’s cycle is noticeably more consistent and chancey than Shostakovich’s, but how depressing to read elsewhere mantras about Bacewicz the “female composer”. Music as great as this ought to leave crude gender categorising far behind. “Music as great as this ought to leave crude gender categorising far behind“ The pivot is the Fifth Quartet. Written in 1955 as she was recovering from serious injury sustained during a car crash, Bacewicz has developed her language from the broadly Neo-Classical turn-of-phrase of the Fourth Quartet – for which please don’t read Stravinskian pastiche –…

October 4, 2016
CD and Other Review

Review: Légende: Works for Trumpet and Piano

Alison Balsom is a skilled, experienced, technically accomplished trumpeter. Her tuning throughout this programme, recorded live, is immaculate. Her flexibility and control is admirable. She shapes phrases with taste. The chosen programme is as varied as the ‘standard trumpet-piano repertoire’ allows. This album is sure to be a hit with Balsom’s large, predominantly English, fan base. And yet, something is missing. Despite allowing her pianist a moment in the spotlight, for a shapeless performance of a movement from Ravel’s Sonatine, this album is a star vehicle. Tom Poster’s piano is relegated to the background, leaving the trumpet hanging, exposed, more obviously revealing the lack of expressive or emotional range in Balsom’s one-note playing. Her programme has stylistic range, from Hindemith’s square-jawed songfulness to Françaix’s quick-witted playfulness, Enescu’s long-breathed lyricism to Maxwell-Davies’ glorious sentimentality. But Balsom gives each piece strikingly similar treatment. Again and again the same note-attack, tone colour and phrase shapes, the same late-breaking, shuddery vibrato. When she takes tiny, welcome expressive risks in her final encore, Jerome Kern’s The way you look tonight, it’s clear what has been missing: any sense of the specialness, spontaneity or danger of live performance. When, why and how should artists communicate to…

October 4, 2016
CD and Other Review

Review: Mozart: Violin Sonatas Volume 1

Violinist Alina Ibragimova and her accompanist Cédric Tiberghien are a class act – witness their 2013 album of Schubert’s complete works for violin and piano, also on Hyperion – but this set of seven very early Mozart violin sonatas, written in between nappy changes presumably, rarely rise beyond the level of a composer expertly, and rather dogmatically, applying the rules who has yet to grasp that the whole point of composing is to put those same rules under the microscope with a view to learning how to make them bend. Still, Ibragimova and Tiberghien couldn’t turn in a lacklustre performance if they tried, and after experiencing this fine duo tackling Schubert, hearing them weave a degree of wonder through such low key material fills me with even greater respect for their interpretive clout. They tread a finely judged line between keeping alert to young whippersnapper Wolfgang’s harmonic language, while avoiding their knowledge of his later harmonic wizardry lest it (mis)inform the naïveté of this music. Ibragimova plays with childlike wonder – but there’s never a trace of sentimentalised whimsy. Sprawling over two discs, here is a lot of Mozart, much of it interchangeable. For my money Sonata No 27 in…

October 4, 2016
CD and Other Review

Review: Martha Argerich & Friends: Live from the Lugano Festival 2015

The 14th year of the Lugano Progetto (which sadly is about to be abandoned) sees Martha Argerich making music with the likes of cellist Gautier Capuçon and violinist Ilya Gringolts. How does one create a balanced snapshot of almost four hours of first-rate music making? Every performance is impressive and the sheer rarity and originality of much of the repertoire is admirable: a charming B Minor Piano Quintet by Ferdinand Ries (Beethoven’s friend), with the same instrumental combination as Schubert’s Trout Quintet, Brahms’ late, autumnal Clarinet Trio, Op. 114 and Horn Trio (with viola replacing horn – it works), Turina’s Second Piano Trio, all infectious Andalucian rhythms and shimmering effects. The sole orchestral offering is the Bacalov Porteña for two pianos and orchestra (Porteña being the word for native inhabitants of Buenos Aires) with Argerich herself and Eduardo Hubert as soloists. She also partners her former partner, Stephen Kovacevich, in Debussy’s En Blanc et Noir. Even the excerpts from Philip Glass’s dance opera Les Enfants Terribles arranged for three pianos scrubs up well. The last work featured is a selection of four dances from Ginastera’s ballet Estancia, including the famous Malambo. For me, the highlight was the gorgeous, silky Poulenc Sonata for two…

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