September 29, 2016
CD and Other Review

Review: Debussy, Elgar, Respighi, Sibelius: Violin Sonatas

Debussy, Elgar and Respighi. It’s a curious line-up, but this collection of sonatas for violin and piano works perfectly. All were written within years of each other: Debussy’s in 1916 (it was the composer’s last major work), Respighi’s in 1918 (the year of Debussy’s death), and Elgar’s in 1919. They’re perfect vehicles of expression for world-class violinist James Ehnes, whose performances here demonstrate a brilliant array of tone colours: from bold, impassioned flexing strokes to soft, limpid lines achieved with just the right amount of bow hair. And Andrew Armstrong is the perfect partner – a sensitive player who can pack a punch when it counts. Claude Debussy’s Sonata opens with an unsettled Allegro that twists and winds through some curious harmonic regions. His violin writing emphasises line, with the piano often serving as harmonic and textural support. Both Ehnes and Armstrong capture the strange mystery of this music with their brilliant ensemble skills. The second movement Intermède shifts tempo and mood frequently, while the final movement paints some gossamer-light textures, also seeing the violin rollick from high to low, which Ehnes manages with ease. The first movement of Edward Elgar’s Sonata opens with a spiky counterpoint between the violin…

September 15, 2016
CD and Other Review

Review: Schubert: String Quintet & Lieder

Eight years ago ABC Classic FM listeners voted their top 100 chamber works and Schubert ‘podiumed’ spectacularly, taking four of the top five places, with the Trout Quintet winning gold. Runner-up was the String Quintet, and with so many hundreds of recordings to choose from, what recommends this new release by the French fivesome of the Ébène Quatuor and Gautier Capuçon? Well, if for no other reason than you get a wonderful bonus in five beautifully arranged Schubert Lieder sung by German baritone Matthias Goerne.But at over an hour’s length, the Quintet and its four kaleidoscopic movements are the main course, and what a superb meal the Frenchmen dish up! Schubert’s masterpiece takes no prisoners with its emotional twists and turns, dynamic shifts and roller-coaster mood swings, and this is a very thoughtful and intelligent reading with plenty of Gallic flair and charm. As the quartet says in the liner notes: “It is a quintet reflecting both real life and dreams, the sacred and the profane, joy and mourning, revelry in the open air and monks walking to prayer through the cloisters, jubilation in the tavern, and testament of the soul.” The players are in no hurry – the Adagio comes…

September 15, 2016
CD and Other Review

Review: Taneyev, Glazunov: String Quintets

Sometimes strong performances aren’t enough to throw a work’s greatness into sharper relief. What’s needed are violent contrasts. Which is what we get with these electrifying new interpretations of two Russian string quintets that deserve to be better known. Not that Sergei Taneyev’s first of two String Quintets and Alexander Glazunov’s only String Quintet haven’t been recorded before. But to hear to the Gringolts Quartet and second cellist Christian Poltéra shift from the dense intellectual rigor of the Taneyev to the lightness and charm of the Glazunov with such conviction is something else again. Taneyev was a Renaissance man, as interested in science and philosophy as he was in music while Glazunov was part of the famed Mitrofan Belyayev circle, who benefited from the timber magnate’s fortune and love of chamber music. While his music too can sound academic at times, his compositional fluency from a young age ensured an effortlessness that perhaps eluded Taneyev. Although as Andrew Huth writes in his booklet note, “The heavy burden of theory and reflection that Taneyev brought to the process of composing fades away when actual performance brings the music to life.” That’s certainly the case here. A stormy Allegro con spirito gives…

August 26, 2016
CD and Other Review

Review: A Bassoon in Stockholm… (Donna Agrell)

I have to admit that I’ve got a soft spot for the bassoon. It’s not the most sensual of instruments, but it’s more than capable of stirring the listener’s emotions, or astonishing with flights of virtuosity. Although the cover of the disc oddly doesn’t mention her name at all, this is essentially a chamber recital from bassoonist Donna Agrell. Focusing on works written for 19th-century bassoonist Frans Preumayr, this recording includes chamber music from Swedish composers who don’t pop up all that often – Éduoard Du Puy, and Franz Berwald.   Last year I reviewed a live performance in which the players expressed concerns about the quality of Berwald’s music. Although it’s far from flabbergasting anyone, I would argue that one doesn’t need to hear masterworks all the time. No one cooks with Wagyu beef every day – sometimes all the heart desires is a trip to the local Bunnings’ sausage sizzle. Berwald’s music isn’t going to replace Haydn or Mozart, but it’s fun while it lasts. The two Berwald pieces on this disc (the Septet in B Flat and the Quartet in E Flat) are not without charm, but it’s in the Quintet in A Minor by Du Puy…

August 5, 2016
CD and Other Review

Review: Matthews: String Quartets Volume 3 (Kreutzer Quartet)

David Matthews (b. 1943) and his composer brother Colin were protégés of Benjamin Britten. The string quartet medium is clearly one that appeals to David; he has written 12 so far. Although this is the third volume in the series, it actually contains the earliest: Quartets Nos 1-3 (composed between 1969 and 1978), plus a short Mirror Canon (1963) and a string quartet transcription of Scriabin’s Piano Prelude, Op. 74 No 4. TUnderstandably, the First shows some influence of Britten’s own quartet writing: there are passages containing wisps of thematic material hovering over sustained chords, often in high harmonics, and occasional musings from solo instruments. Along with that, however, are strong rhythmic passages and thick textures. Matthews’ primary influences of Tippett, Berg and, most notably, Beethoven were present from the start. The First, in five movements played without breaks, is densely packed with contrapuntal incident. The Second, more classically styled, was written while Matthews was in Australia staying with Peter Sculthorpe. The piece culminates in a moving elegy (am I wrong to hear Sculthorpe’s fingerprints in the syncopated ostinati of the second movement?). By comparison, the Third seems a more public statement. All three major works and the two fillers…

August 5, 2016
CD and Other Review

Review: James Wood: Cloud-Polyphonies

James Wood is an English percussionist, composer and conductor; he is also a musicologist and instrument designer. Tongues of Fire is a large-scale work for choir and percussion quartet that weaves together an extraordinary range of cultural forms and ideas, from Latin-American Spanish to the works of Hildegard of Bingen, in order to mystically evoke New Testament descriptions of Pentecost. Wood’s expertise in percussion is evident in the musical representation of tongues of fire and rushing wind, in addition to the symbolic import of choral parts in eight different languages.  By contrast, Cloud-Polyphonies is a three-part percussion work exploring the movement of natural entities – starlings, clouds and buffalo – an unlikely triumvirate at first glance, but a combination that works spectacularly. Starlings evokes the “extraordinary aerobatic displays” made by these birds before migration using marimbas and woodblocks, and 66 drums conjure the thumping of buffalo hooves on changing earthen terrain. The textures created by Wood and brought to fruition by the Yale Percussion Group are mesmerising and hypnotic, and complemented by a spacious, reverberant acoustic in which the many overtones and subtleties created by the instruments are gloriously evident.

August 5, 2016
CD and Other Review

Review: Bruch: Piano Quintet (Goldner String Quartet, Piers Lane)

For their eighth outing with the British Hyperion label Australia’s finest, the Goldner String Quartet and pianist Piers Lane, transport the listener to the richly romantic sound world of Max Bruch. Famed for his first violin concerto – his other two remain relatively rare curiosities – the German composer wrote very few chamber works, and those that survive come from the beginning and end of his career. He composed two string quartets, the one on this terrific album is his first, from his student days. The influence of Brahms is all pervasive, but there’s no harm in that and the work, performed with great expressive beauty here by the double husband and wife team led by Sydney Symphony co-concertmaster Dene Olding, shows that the 18 year-old already had a good grip on development and technique, with strong melodies and some interesting dynamic shifts. Olding and Dimity Hall, second violin, combine beautifully while violist Irina Morozova and cellist Julian Smiles lend impeccable support.   Lane, who was born in London but brought up in Brisbane, joins them for the best work on the programme, the thoroughly engaging piano quintet, which Bruch slaved over for seven years before finally delivering to his…

July 29, 2016
CD and Other Review

Review: Stuart Greenbaum: Mondrian Interiors (Jessica Fotinos, ANAM Musicians)

From 2011 to 2015, the Australian National Academy of Music and the Melbourne Recital Centre presented the Australian Voices concert series, celebrating significant Australian composers. Included was a programme of chamber works by Stuart Greenbaum (b. 1966). This recording, released on ANAM’s own imprint, features seven Academy musicians with harpist and ANAM alumna Jessica Fotinos, performing three works by Greenbaum in which harp plays a central role. Mondrian Interiors is a collection of eight pieces inspired by an exhibition of works by the Dutch artist, with works scored for combinations of oboe, clarinet, horn, bassoon, piano and harp.  Four Finalities is a song cycle written in collaboration with poet Ross Baglin and performed by mezzo-soprano Lotte Betts-Dean. The delicate interplay between Betts-Dean’s forcefully ethereal voice and the harp is utterly captivating, enhanced by a rich and spacious recording sonic. Finally, Nine Candles for Dark Nights is solo harp piece written for Australian harpist Marshall McGuire that explores and expands the sonic capacities of this instrument.  This is a tremendously accessible collection of works that balances the obvious beauty of the harp with subtly nuanced complementary sonorities. The performances are fresh and exciting, and it’s to be hoped that we’ll see many more…

June 15, 2016
CD and Other Review

Review: Flute Perspectives: Australian Contemporary Flute (Derek Jones)

Australian flautist Derek Jones’ new album Flute Perspectives opens with Peter Sculthorpe’s Songs of Sea and Sky, an adaption of a traditional dance song from Saibai, an island in Torres Strait. Originally for clarinet and piano, the music juxtaposes distinctive melodies from the region with the music of the missionaries, whose melodies and forms seeped into those of the Torres Strait Islands in the 19th century. The tension between these ideas styles is most potent in the fourth movement, Mission Hymn. A simple hymn tune in the piano, played by Leigh Harrold, is both peaceful and anachronistic against bird-like chirping and fluttering in the flute part. Sculthorpe’s influence on Australian music was pervasive and reverberates through many of the works on this disc. A student of Sculthorpe, Barry Conyngham’s Flute alternates burbling, flourishes in the instrument’s low register with declamatory snatches of melody. Australian jazz musician Brian Brown, Sculthorpe’s contemporary, improvised the dance-like Lily’s Garden, playing through a midi channel into computer notation software. The work celebrates the birth of Lily Jones – Derek Jones’ daughter and Brown’s granddaughter. Jones’ own composition on the album, Stillness, first appeared on his self-published album Sun Down Moon Up and is also grounded…

May 31, 2016
CD and Other Review

Review: Firsova: A Triple Portrait (Marsyas Trio)

The Marsyas Trio’s A Triple Portrait presents the haunting chamber music of Russian composer Elena Firsova (b. 1950). Firsova, a student of Aleksandr Pirumov and (unofficially) Edison Denisov, moved from Moscow to London just before the fall of the Soviet Union. This disc is the first dedicated to her introspective, personal chamber music. The Marsyas Trio – named for the musical satyr – consists of Australian flute player Helen Vidovich, Canadian cellist Valerie Welbanks and New Zealand pianist Fei Ren. The album opens with the rich sound of Welbanks’ cello in Homage to Canisy, a work inspired by the French castle, Chateau de Canisy, where the composer visits each year, and where the work had its premiere performance in 2010. The centre-piece of the album, A Triple Portrait Op. 132 – from which the disc takes its name – was commissioned by the trio in 2012. The first movement Andante rubato is purely solo flute, the Adagio a short, eloquent trickle of piano notes and the third movement opens with cello and piano, before the flute rejoins to complete the trio. A plucked, walking bass line from the cello gives the movement a smear of blues. Vidovich and Welbanks are…

May 19, 2016
CD and Other Review

Review: Reicha: Wind Quintets (The Thalia Ensemble)

If the prospect of a whole disc of wind quintets by Antoine Reicha – whose biggest claim to fame was his friendship with Beethoven – hardly sets pulses racing then the actuality proves more enchanting. The Thalia Ensemble performs on period instruments – no valves on Hylke Rozema’s gamey natural horn – which lifts the soundworld of Reicha’s music out from that rather antiseptic sheen I associate  (unfairly perhaps) with modern instrument wind quintets. Each of Reicha’s 24 wind quintets conforms to the standard four-movement mould as handed down from Haydn and Mozart, and revolutionised by his friend Ludvig van B. Of the two quintets on offer here, the earlier G Major Quintet, Op. 88 embeds the sound of surprise into its form most effectively. Harmonic tricks of the light and rarefied timbres are deployed to spice up the formula. Reicha’s Lento prologue stumbles into existence: a questioning opening chord catches the clarinettist mid-phrase before the music slithers chromatically towards the Allegro main event. Reicha was a flautist and his flute writing is correspondingly athletic, defined by “here’s me”. But my ear was as captivated by his bassoon parts, which dramatically break free from the ensemble, gurgling and turning like water…

May 13, 2016
CD and Other Review

Review: Haydn: String Quartets Op. 76 (Doric String Quartet)

The Doric Quartet, operating out of London, challenge all our assumptions about Papa Joe’s string quartets, telling us, “We know Haydn can sound like this, but have you ever considered it could sound like that too?” Haydn’s Opus 76 was the last extended set of string quartets he wrote, contemporary in his output with The Creation and the London Symphonies, music that would distil an entire lifetime of creative discovery into structures where the genuinely sublime felt at ease with the authentically bawdy. If you prefer your Haydn performed within carefully delineated ‘Classical’ limits, then the Doric’s re-examination of the DNA of these late-period scores might represent too much of a walk on the wild side. The quartet splash around wideband dynamics and proto-expressionistic timbres with such obvious abandon we are reminded that Haydn would not only provide a seedbed of ideas for Mozart and Beethoven, but that stirrings of Schubert, Bruckner and Second Viennese School thinking, too, are to be found within the thrusting loins of this music. Op. 76, No 1 gives notice of how every detail will be up for renegotiation. Notice cellist John Myerscough’s free-spirited phrasing during the first movement’s opening theme; but also how the…

May 6, 2016
CD and Other Review

Review: Beethoven: Piano Trios (Seraphim Trio)

Australia’s Seraphim Trio contrasts early Beethoven – the genial G Major Trio – with the later Ghost Sonata (No 5), so named because of the eerily troubled scene conjured up in its central movement. No 4, is sometimes known as Gassenhauer after the popular tune by Joseph Weigl that forms the basis of Beethoven’s variations in the finale. The Seraphim captures the light-heartedness of the early trio with style. Goldsworthy’s delicate piano figuration in the final movement is delightful, and all three musicians display subtle shading throughout, not least in the darker slow movement. In the Op. 70, Nankervis’s cello is eloquent in bringing out a strain of melancholy in the ‘ghostly’ movement, but it is pointless to single out individual performers because unanimity of vision is the Seraphim’s strength. How well they judge the arpeggio passage just before this movement’s close. The robust variations in Op. 11 are lots of fun, and I hear the subtlest sense of ‘heart on sleeve’ in the preceding lyrical Adagio movement. These musicians are clearly enjoying themselves in this lighter side of Beethoven. By comparison, Trio Wanderer on Harmonia Mundi takes a more straightforward approach. Their performances do not remind us (as the…

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