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…

May 6, 2016
CD and Other Review

Review: Sea Eagle: Works for horn (Richard Watkins)

Sea Eagle is a survey of seven pieces from the British horn repertoire, recorded by venerable hornist Richard Watkins. Released by NMC Recordings, its name comes from the Peter Maxwell Davies work with which this album begins. This is the oldest work on the disc, composed for the hornist in 1982, and is the only featured solo work. Watkins approaches Maxwell Davies’ challenge with an intense conviction; his sharp-sighted tone and innate ability to convey such contoured phrasings make him a true rhetorician of the instrument. This is especially apparent in the Adagio, in which Watkins soars freely between registers as if slipping between a series of up and downdraughts. The turbulence of his trills and flutter-tongued notes in the outer movements are always well measured and add a marked contrast to the surrounding legato sections. Gerald Barry’s trio for voice, horn and piano (Jabberwocky) is entirely raucous in the best sense of the word and is a perfect marriage to Lewis Caroll’s nonsensical text. Here the hornist possesses an electric cuivré that penetrates the ears, matching Mark Padmore’s fierce and guttural German pronunciation and Huw Watkins’ jaunty and well-judged piano. My only qualm with this album is that the remaining works of this…

April 19, 2016
CD and Other Review

Review: Bruckner: String Quintet, Intermezzo, String Quartet (Fitzwilliam String Quartet)

I’ve always had a high regard for Bruckner’s String Quintet in F Major, the work he wrote in the afterglow of his Fifth Symphony, and every bit as symphonic in scope and ambition. Alongside the Quintet, the Fitzwilliam String Quartet has included the String Quartet in C Minor, which Bruckner composed when studying under Otto Kitzler, and an alternate view of the chamber music path he might have followed presents itself. Young Anton revels in inhabiting the compositional fabric of Mozart, Schubert and Mendelssohn. The tone is light and playful; but ultimately Bruckner’s sonic imagination drove him elsewhere.  Adding guest violist James Boyd, the Fitzwilliam Quartet performs with gut strings and period instruments configured to exactly the pitch Bruckner himself would have expected. Vibrato is expertly controlled throughout, and although the medium might cross into unfamiliar terrain, the sound and motivation behind this music is pure Bruckner. Beginning in the midst of an unfolding harmonic argument, the fulsome and fine-grained blend of the Fitzwilliam approach sings proudly. Phrasing breathes luxuriously and is never allowed to tip into the red heat of faux-Romanticism. The extended Adagio – where Lucy Russell’s violin soars towards the heavens – could well be one of…

April 19, 2016
CD and Other Review

Review: Brahms: Piano Quartet Op. 60, Piano Trio Op. 8 (Trio Wanderer)

A decade has passed since Trio Wanderer gave us a superb set of Brahms’ Piano Trios with the first Piano Quartet as filler. That recording set a benchmark thanks to the ensemble’s ideal balance of elegance and expressive intensity, so this sequel is long overdue. The rarely heard first version of the Op. 8 Trio is a fascinating adjunct to that set and the Wanderers tackle the work with a different mindset, helping to delineate the self-critical composer’s maturing concision. They don’t linger as they did during the lengthy first movement, which Brahms initially over-egged with five themes,  several of which were replaced by the lovely secondary subject.  Hanslick thought the fugato passage as inappropriate as a schoolboy Latin quotation in a love poem and the composer took note and cut it. The marvellous Scherzo he left well alone but for a few nips and tucks, however he wisely remodelled the middle of the slow movement; the mood swings of the original are superfluous with such animated flanking movements.  The last movement meanders through some tortured passages with a good third of the movement later excised and the clunky conclusion scrapped. While it’s an interesting example of a composer’s distillation…

April 15, 2016
CD and Other Review

Review: Lalo: Piano Trios (Leonore Piano Trio)

Following their acclaimed album of works by Arensky, British outfit Leonore Piano Trio moves to France to take on the three trios by Germanophile Édouard Lalo. These attractive works are full of melody, combining Gallic charm with a weightier feel. As Roger Nichols’ liner notes wittily describe the Scherzo in No 1: “rather like fairies dancing in lederhosen.” The Leonores – Benjamin Nabarro violin, Gemma Rosefield, cello and pianist Tim Horton – play with the assurance of noted soloists in their own right but also with precision and sensitivity as an ensemble.  Although Lalo was a violinist, playing in several of Berlioz’s concerts, it is the solo cello that introduces the first and last movements of the First Trio where the footprints of his musical hero Schumann lie deeply embedded. This serves as a reminder that the Frenchman also wrote a characteristically melodic and energetic concerto for cello. Schumann is also an influence in the passionate Second Trio, written a couple of years later in 1852. For the next 12 years Lalo suffered writer’s block until he remarried and his creative spark rekindled. This was the time of Symphonie Espagnole and eventual success. His Third Trio, from 1880, is a…

April 1, 2016
CD and Other Review

Review: Arrangements for clarinet trio (The Clarinotts)

Imagine the horror of being born into a family where you’re the only one among parents, grandparents and siblings who doesn’t excel at something! No such problems among the Ottensamers, father Ernst and brothers Daniel and Andreas aka the royal family of the clarinet, who share the Principal Clarinet positions of the Vienna and Berlin Philharmonics. Andreas, who was appointed to his Berlin Philharmonic position at 21 also declined a position at Harvard (as one does). Their ensemble, The Clarinotts, play an impressive range of E Flat, B Flat and A clarinets, bass clarinet and bassett horn and performs traditional classical music as well as arrangements, jazz and “edgy” contemporary repertoire. While their breathtaking (pun intended) virtuosity can be taken for granted, what makes The Clarinotts’ playing even more miraculous is their impeccable ensemble, as well as their flair for playing “out” in a soloistic manner, which many orchestral musicians find difficult. (It was the alleged inability of the clarinettist Sabine Meyer to blend in with the woodwind “choir” of the Berlin Philharmonic that caused the final rupture between the orchestra and Herbert von Karajan in the mid-1980s).  Clearly the Ottensamers don’t have a problem in this department. This is a…

March 23, 2016
CD and Other Review

Review: Pleasure Garden (Genevieve Lacey)

This latest recording from Genevieve Lacey might seem a little whimsical, however this is the closest thing to a classical ‘concept album’, that I’ve encountered, and it is worth consideration.The recording focusses on Lacey performing the music of 17th-century Dutch musician Jacob van Eyck. Encasing these small monophonic treasures is music co-composed by Lacey with the record’s producer Jan Bang. The centrepiece of the album seems to be Jacob van Eyck’s Amarilli, best known for its inclusion in the Italian Songbook for young vocalists. In Lacey’s hands, it’s a work of haunting purity. It returns in variation throughout the album, and in each rendition its stillness creates a moment of peace. The pieces by Bang and Lacey fuse technology and nature. A range of captured sounds are used, including unusual performance techniques like flutter-tonguing, pitched bells, layered drones on various recorders and perhaps most blatantly, the different songs of birds. Each work seems to be Lacey’s mediation on a given sound. My favourite moment was a fragment of Bermagui Dawn, where among the bird calls, a fragment of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue emerges only to disappear once more.  Despite comprising shorter works, this album is best listened to in its…