August 18, 2017
CD and Other Review

Review: Towner • Muthspiel • Grandage: Migration, Flexible Sky, Black Dogs (Slava Grigoryan, ASQ)

On Migration, Slava Grigoryan and the Australian String Quartet have teamed up to record three recent works written for the unusual combination of guitar and string quartet. The album is named for the first of these, a single-movement work composed in 2003 by American guitarist Ralph Towner, a name that will be more familiar to fans of the German jazz and new music record label ECM than to classical music audiences. Migration languished unrecorded until now, and Towner credits Grigoryan’s enthusiasm and prodigious skill (indeed, in his hands its complex technical demands seem effortless) as central to the success of the work’s complex scalic runs and their integration with elegantly angular string parts. It sits easily alongside Flexible Sky by Austrian guitarist and composer Wolfgang Muthspiel, a dynamic but contemplative work comprising four contrasting movements. Dark and exciting, it features beautiful glissandi, and the notable interplay between violins and guitar reflects Muthspiel’s earlier training on that instrument. Nevertheless, for Flexible Sky, Muthspiel’s approach to instrumentation is democratic, noting that for him the work is “an interactive web of equal voices”. Towner, Muthspiel and Grigoryan regularly perform together as a guitar trio, indicating a degree of intimacy and mutual respect that…

July 27, 2017
CD and Other Review

Review: Paul Terracini: Works for Brass (Sydney Brass)

Australian trumpet player Paul Terracini is an experienced soloist, chamber and orchestral musician, as well as a conductor and teacher. His decision to focus more on composition is borne out by the excellence of the five works for brass ensemble recorded here. The instrumentation is mostly trumpets/horns/trombones/tuba, with the two multi-movement works including timpani and percussion. The odd man out is the Exaudi Orationem Nostram for eight trumpets. Gegensätze contrasts two sections, one lively, the other reflective. In Behind the Shining Door, based on one of Terracini’s choral works, a gentle trumpet melody with accompaniment builds to a climax before sliding into repose. If the outer movements of Concerto for Brass are portraits of a bustling contemporary world, its central movement, based on the medieval chant Pange Lingua, is a serene oasis of contemplation. Its cousin Exaudi Orationem Nostram is a ‘prayer’ in which a multi-faceted motif based on ascending and descending sixths picks up the light as it rolls onwards, delighting in its own beauty. Winmalee Mourning was inspired by a bushfire that destroyed nearly 200 homes in the Blue Mountains village of Winmalee, west of Sydney, in 2013. The first movement, Inferno, paints a picture of paradise lost,…

July 21, 2017
CD and Other Review

Review: Rococo (Dorothee Oberlinger, Ensemble 1700)

Germany’s Dorothee Oberlinger has released a golden new offering with Ensemble 1700, Rococo – Musique à Sanssouci. The album is filled with baroque gems, which unveil the charms of the recorder in a chamber setting. Oberlinger opens with a sense of longing in Gottfried Finger’s A Ground. Her performance is so enchanting that a minute passes before I notice the continuo on a conscious level. The recorder’s airy timbre competes with Oberlinger’s audible breaths, captured with clarity and honesty.The balance with the ensemble is well considered – particularly in Handel’s Concerto Doppio in C Minor for recorder and bassoon. Here Oberlinger merges into the strings and becomes a different player; spirited and concise. A Johann Gottlieb Graun concerto evolves to a fuller sound: the robust string presence hails this new mood before returning the focus to Oberlinger in a Quantz recorder solo from Fantasien und Präludien. In skillful programming, the harpsichord returns in the CPE Bach piece, and the recorder is further layered with viola and continuo in the music to follow.   Oberlinger shares the spotlight with the music itself, in contrast to albums from leading Australian recorder players Genevieve Lacey and Alicia Crossley, whose releases – though magnificent…

July 21, 2017
CD and Other Review

Review: Borodin: Piano Quintet, String Quartet No 2 (Piers Lane & Goldner Quartet)

Chamber music didn’t figure particularly strongly among The Mighty Handful, who established a Russian Nationalist school, which incorporated native themes and folk lore into symphonic and orchestral music. In fact, their  only chamber piece to enter the mainstream chamber repertory is featured on this CD: Borodin’s Second String Quartet in B Minor.  A mature work which, unlike so much of his oeuvre, Borodin actually managed to complete, it is still beguilingly beautiful after all these years, surviving Kismet (whose music I love), and is beautifully and affectionately played by the Goldners. This foray into Borodin’s obscure chamber music is highly rewarding. The companion works are not new to CD but Borodin’s Piano Quintet (there’s a recording of it by Martha Argerich and “friends” at the 2014 Lugano Festival) and his Cello Sonata are likely to be terra incognita to most people.  None of the music featured here is characterised by the traditional, uniquely Slavic sense of yearning, especially in the Piano Quintet where they are joined by pianist and regular collaborator Piers Lane. This early work is sprightly charm personified. Though it’s not in any sense salonistic, the spirit of Mendelssohn hovers over much of it, and the players have…

July 21, 2017
CD and Other Review

Review: Songs Without Words (Grigoryan Brothers)

The Grigoryan Brothers have impressed in recent years with their ability to genre-hop without ever seeming out of place; their collaboration with the Tawadros brothers a few years ago was excellent. The repertoire here is primarily performances of vocal favourites by Dvorˇák, Fauré, Elgar, and Tchaikovsky, among others, re-worked for guitar duo. There are a few issues with the repertoire selection in that some pieces are rather more effective than others. For example, Rachmaninov’s famous Vocalise comes off a distinct second-best for a simple reason – the guitar’s lack of sustain means that the notes disappear long before they should. In some of the pieces, the duo seems to have realised this dilemma. Tchaikovsky’s None but the Lonely Heart is taken at such a rapid clip that it’s done and dusted in about two minutes, whereas most recordings usually take at least a minute more. Since this is simply the nature of the instrument, pieces that don’t rely quite so much on a single sustained note work considerably better. Manuel de Falla’s set of Seven Spanish Folk Songs are played very effectively, though I wish there was more rhythmic bite in some of them – Jacqueline du Pré and John Williams’…

June 23, 2017
CD and Other Review

Review: Dvořák: Piano Trios Nos 3 and 4 (Trio Wanderer)

American cellist and composer Clancy Newman at a recent concert described Dvořák’s Dumky Trio as something you might hear al fresco – three skilled musicians having fun in an informal and spontaneous way and maybe with the hat out. There’s not much of the street corner busk about France’s Trio Wanderer’s reading of the work on their new album, or if there is it’s one of those elegant Parisian ones built by Baron Haussmann. The piece is played with a little too much Gallic sangfroid for this reviewer who prefers a more hectic, Bohemian feel to the slow-fast six-movement work, the last of the four Dvořák wrote and completed shortly before he took up his post in America. There are no such reservations with the impeccable way they handle the other work on the album, the Op. 65 Third Trio which is, on the whole, darker hued and more in the Brahmsian mould. Its uncharacteristically melancholic third movement is thought to be an expression of Dvořák’s grief at the loss of his mother, followed by an Allegro finale which seems to say “OK, let’s get on with life.” This is their 15th release for Harmonia Mundi, and with occasional forays…

June 23, 2017
CD and Other Review

Review: Beethoven: Cello Sonatas (Renaud Capuçon, Frank Braley)

These are wonderful performances, beautifully and naturally recorded, showcasing an artist with beguilingly beautiful tone and rock solid technique and intonation. Beethoven’s cello sonatas punctuate his oeuvre and the two early sonatas were trailblazers (Mozart ignored the cello as a solo instrument: even his string quintets featured a second viola) and it was not until the “middle” period A Major work that the structure seems confident. Oddly, that said, even the second last sonata, composed on the cusp of the middle-to-late period, has a slow movement lasting just over three minutes and it’s only in the final sonata that we find a full blown Adagio. Among many features that impressed me here were the mysterious depths plumbed in the sometimes awkward-sounding opening Adagios of the two early works, (especially the darker G Minor), which can seem like mere introductions in the wrong hands. Other structural tripwires successfully negotiated include the way Capuçon and Braley make a seamless transition to the ensuing Allegros after the opening Adagios and their ability to contrast the consecutive fast movements of the first two sonatas. The rapport between cellist and pianist is impressive throughout, with especially brilliant and spontaneous interplay in the Op. 69, whose…

June 23, 2017
CD and Other Review

Review: Tommie & Totte (Tommie Andersson, Totte Mattsson)

If you’ve seen any Australian period-instrument orchestras you’ve probably seen Tommie Andersson playing the theorbo as part of the continuo. He’s quite an institution by now, having co-founded the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra as well as co-directing Ludovico’s Band. This CD, however, is a recording from the mid-1980s of Andersson performing as part of a guitar/lute duo with Hållbus Totte. What’s particularly unusual, however, is that the disc is of traditional Swedish folk fiddle music. It was planned to come out on a specialist folk-music label, but for one reason or another was never released. Now, more than 30 years later, the album is finally available. Apparently Swedish folk music doesn’t usually use much in the way of plucked instruments, so the duo were something of a rarity when they first arrived on the scene. If that’s the case, you’d never know it. Switching freely between classical guitars and lutes, the polskas here sound completely natural in their new duo format. On several tracks the duo is joined by fiddlers – and the owners of the record label the album was intended to be released on – Magnus Bäckström and Per Gudmundson, a quartet collectively known as the Nordic Strings. These…

June 23, 2017
CD and Other Review

Review: Dynastie: Bach Concertos (Jean Rondeau)

This new disc from Erato brings together the most prominent members of the Bach family – JS, JC, CPE in concerti and WF in a short keyboard piece. Johann Sebastian ran a musical society named Collegium Musicum (which was founded by Telemann!), and often gave concerts at the local Café Zimmermann. I have to say that I rather like the idea of drinking a coffee and listening to a newly-written Bach concerto. The art is a nice change from the portraits of Bach that so often wind up appearing on the cover of CDs. Flip open the cover here and there’s Rondeau himself relaxing in a forest, looking like he could fit right in with hip folksters like Devendra Banhart or Iron & Wine. That being said, the styling of the performers makes absolutely no difference to the sound, so how does he play? Very well, as it turns out… but with some decidedly odd phrasing in some places. In the tutti passages everything goes swimmingly. The orchestral playing is powerful and decisive, the harpsichord nicely recorded. However, once Rondeau hits the cadenzas, he injects ritardandos in every few bars. I found this a little affected and, at times, quite…

June 23, 2017
CD and Other Review

Review: Rostropovich Encores (Alban Gerhardt, Markus Becker)

In the era of Spotify playlists and three-minute YouTube videos, we might expect to be living in a golden age of the “sample album”. And yet, with a few fascinating exceptions (I’m looking at you, Mahan Esfahani and Daniel Hope), the classical music establishment still mostly dishes us jumbled, forgettable pot-pourris. So why should we care about Alban Gerhardt’s new collection of encores? Well, for one, it’s immaculately played by Gerhardt and pianist Markus Becker. But, more importantly, the programming comes straight from the cellist’s beating heart. Gerhardt grew up with a Rostropovich obsession (even waking each day to the strains of the Russian’s recording of Popper’s Elfentanz), and this homage to Rostropovich’s passionate, wide-ranging musicianship is lovingly shaped throughout. The selection of repertoire is testament to Rostropovich’s genuine commitment to the many varieties of short-form concert work, from test pieces to education works, from emulations of the human voice to applause-getting fripperies. Some of these works (most in arrangements by the Russian cellist himself) cover trodden ground, but curios like the Chopin and Scriabin Etudes and Stravinsky’s Mavra give welcome variety. There are relatively few jaw-dropping virtuoso pieces, the exceptions including Rostropovich’s Humoresque, which gets the album off to…

May 19, 2017
CD and Other Review

Review: Castello: Sonate Concertate in Stil Moderno, Libro Primo (Academy of Ancient Music/Egarr)

Richard Egarr, Director of the Academy of Ancient Music describes Viennese composer Castello’s music as “utterly boundless in its virtuosity, imagination and colour, and would take anything we could throw at it in performance.” Well, he’s right. Although Dario Castello isn’t terribly well known these days since almost no biographical information about him has survived, back in the early 17th century he was celebrated across Europe with reprint after reprint of his Sonate Concertate. Subtitled in Stil Moderno (in the modern style), these unusual pieces live up to their description by including rapid-fire wind passages and sections that change mood at the drop of a hat. It’s a bit CPE Bach-esque in that Castello seems to delight in confounding both listeners and players with unexpected twists and turns. Castello realised that this sort of thing meant that the pieces were tricky to play but wouldn’t have any of it, writing that although the sonatas “may appear difficult, their spirit will not be destroyed by playing them more than once…this will render them very easy.” Helpful advice! There’s a focus on the winds here, with wind instruments appearing in solo form across a solid three-quarters of the disc. The flashy writing…

May 19, 2017
CD and Other Review

Review: Current (Nexas Quartet)

Current is a fitting name for Nexas Quartet’s new release featuring five leading Australian composers. Elena Kats-Chernin’s repetitive theme opens From Anna Magdalena’s Notebook, over which soars Andrew Smith on alto sax, with Nathan Henshaw nearby on tenor. Each musician exudes a certain clarity in tone but texture is added through growls and the sound of occasional clicky keys. Originally written for string quartet, the saxophone quartet’s warmth in this 2015 (soprano sax) arrangement by Michael Duke enriches this magical work. Nostalgia by Daniel Rojas (arranged by Jay Byrnes, baritone sax) pays a solemn homage to the composer’s memories of childhood naivety. An adrenaline-fuelled Slipstream by Matthew Orlovich features a bicycle bell, illustrating the sensation of cycling by use of wildly ascending and descending passages and swelling dynamics. Matthew Hindson’s Overture from Scenes from Romeo and Juliet is utterly startling, with its jabbing tones and high-impact silences. Romeo sounds like a challenge but Nexas rates highly with outstanding consistency in both individual performance and ensemble balance. This continues with Lachlan Skipworth’s Dark Nebulae, in which the musicians are so restrained that we have to open our ears in order to hear the waves of the player’s droning, unnerving overtones. A…