April 21, 2017
CD and Other Review

Review: Nicholas Buc: Mixtape (Benaud Trio)

I have to admit, I am not one for compilation albums. However, despite its name, the Benaud Trio’s newest release combining fine classical musicianship with pop hits from the 70s to 90s, is not your average mixtape. We jump straight in with the group’s rendition of The Buggles’ Video Killed the Radio Star, presented in a beautiful arrangement by Nicholas Buc that boasts far more dynamism than its original, lending it a new tension and moments of tranquillity. It is thoroughly, and delightfully, surprising. Lullabye (Goodnight, My Angel) is a standout, showcasing Amir Farid’s sensitive piano treatment and the similarly moving Lachlan Bramble and Ewen Bramble on strings. 80s Mixtape brings together a strangely dark Eye of the Tiger, while somehow managing to morph into other hits from Cyndi Lauper to Michael Jackson (who makes an appearance later in the album in Jacksomania!, a tribute to the Jackson 5). Other highlights are Shaken Not Stirred, which brings a new sound to those classic James Bond themes, and the final work, Ben Folds’ The Luckiest, which leaves us with a feeling of closure. It’s likely you’ll have heard every song because as the Benaud Trio says in its notes: “these are…

April 21, 2017
CD and Other Review

Review: Stanford: String Quartets Nos 5 & 8 (Dante Quartet)

Although Irish, we think of Stanford as a quintessential English composer, so to discover his close friendship with Brahms and hence the great violinist Joseph Joachim, is a little surprising. We know Stanford best by his fine music for the Anglican Church, less so by his orchestral music, and even less by his chamber music; evidenced in these two fine string quartets, beautifully played by the Dante Quartet. Both works are robustly Germanic and finely written; the surprise is that they are not better known. The Fifth Quartet opens confidently, full of good ideas and beautifully essayed, the musicians clearly loving every bar. Even though the other movements do not approach the first’s height of excellence, they provide perfect balance; the easy swing of the second movement offering a break from the terseness of the third. In the coda to the final movement Stanford includes a melody from Joachim’s Romance. That same Romance is included on the disc in tribute to their great friendship. Joachim was responsible for Brahms getting his First Symphony performed in England in 1877. In turn, Brahms arranged for Stanford’s music to be performed in Berlin in 1889. The Eighth Quartet from 1919 opens in nervous…

March 17, 2017
CD and Other Review

Review: Mozart & Munro & Palmer (Omega Ensemble)

This album is a little charmer from one of Australia’s finest chamber groups, the Omega Ensemble. Led by David Rowden, it starts with a lovely, nuanced performance of Mozart’s gorgeous Clarinet Quintet. Rowden uses a basset clarinet, the instrument with the extra low notes developed by Anton Stadler, for whom the work was composed. Those woody bass notes that so fascinated Mozart are on display from the outset, enhanced by the ABC’s closely placed microphones. The string quartet, led by Catalin Ungureanu, are fine equal partners in the “conversation” with the soloist and listen out for second violinist Airena Nakamura’s dialogue with Rowden in the beautiful Larghetto. Ian Munro’s three-part quintet Songs from the Bush mixes folk tunes with contemporary themes. For the outer movements, Country Dance and Drover’s Lament,  Munro raids his well-thumbed copy of John Meredith’s Folk Songs of Australia for snippets while the spacious middle section evokes a camp fire under the great Australian night sky. The final work is a corker: It Takes Two – Concerto for Two Clarinets by George Palmer, for which Rowden is joined by Dimitri Ashkenazy. Commissioned in 2008, the former Supreme Court Judge came up with a delightful tribute to friendship,…

March 17, 2017
CD and Other Review

Review: Ulpirra Sonatines (Melissa Doecke, Mark Isaacs)

Named for an Aboriginal word meaning pipe or flute, Ulpirra Sonatines places Ross Edwards and Mark Isaacs – who joins flautist Melissa Doecke on this disc – alongside Poulenc and Dutilleux. The disc opens with the lush first movement of Isaacs’ Sonatine, Doecke soaring over Isaacs’ undulating piano. The recording catches the complex edge of Doecke’s sound as she produces ethereal harmonics and earthy flutter-tonguing. Isaacs’ The River for alto flute and piano revels in the velvet sound of the lower instrument, while providing plenty of opportunity for Doecke to sweep up through the range with a light, flitting agility. The colour and virtuosity of Edwards’ Nura has no doubt contributed to its popularity in the flute repertoire. Wild Bird Morning channels Messiaen while Ocean Idyll is eerily tranquil. In this performance the normally fiery Earth Dance is given a carefully paced, detailed treatment. Doecke’s clean sound winds meditatively above gently flowing water in Edwards’ Water Spirit Song, originally a work for cello, while Ulpirra dances playfully. After this, it is jolting to be thrust into 20th-century neo-classicism with Poulenc’s oft-performed Sonata. Doecke’s tone is honeyed, however, as she delves into the low register and glistens on the high notes…

March 10, 2017
CD and Other Review

Review: Brahms: Piano Quartet No 1, Piano Quintet (Ironwood)

Although it’s tempting to think of period performance as consisting mainly of lutes and viols, the reality is far from that! This is a recording of Brahms’ Piano Quartet No 1 in G Minor and the Piano Quintet in F Minor as he would have heard it. The three string players use gut-strung instruments and Neal Peres Da Costa plays a replica of Brahms’ Streicher grand piano. Along with Ironwood’s extensive exploration of performance practice of the late 19th century, this all adds up to quite a different sound.   I have to admit that I find a significant number of Brahms recordings woefully heavy and ponderous. These recordings, however, are quite the opposite. I suspect that it’s Ironwood’s careful research into the performance of the music of Brahms and his contemporaries that gives these performances a lightness that’s refreshing. Most recordings that I’ve heard of the Piano Quintet tend to emphasise the power of many of the passages, but for once ensemble passages are not completely overpowering. The liner notes point out that one of the key elements of Brahms’ own performances was the avoidance of metronomic playing, calling it “free, very elastic and expansive”. Perhaps it is due…

March 10, 2017
CD and Other Review

Review: Grainger: Complete Music for Four Hands, Two Pianos (Penelope Thwaites, John Lavender, Timothy Young)

In one form or other, most of us are familiar with the music of Percy Grainger; arguably the most internationally successful of all Australian composers – at least until the advent of Peter Sculthorpe. Grainger was also a dazzling pianist and could make one piano sound like four, so the extra layers of counterpoint and detail, all sparkling and optimistic, sound even more spectacular in these editions. Apart from attractive pot-boilers such as Handel in the Strand, Country Gardens and Molly on the Shore, the four discs offer us the opportunity to hear music that we are unfamiliar with. New to me are the Wrath of Odin and The Rival Brothers, and some pieces work best in their orchestral and vocal form, such as The Lonely Desert Man. The Brisk Young Sailor has all the Grainger hallmarks that made him such an entertaining composer: cross rhythms, syncopations and a bright engaging tune. English Waltz is also a marvellous piece and goes with an engaging swing. Not all are short trifles. Hill Song No 1 is over 16 minutes long, and wanders its convoluted way across the keyboard as if the composer was searching for something. The three pianists play the…

March 10, 2017
CD and Other Review

Review: Fin de siècle (Lawrence Power, Simon Crawford-Phillips)

If the violin is the tempestuous, attention-hogging soprano of the string world, the viola is the mezzo – gently melancholic, often found lurking in the shadows just beyond the violin’s spotlight. With this album, Lawrence Power asks a question: what would happen if the viola took centre-stage, stepping forward not just for high-minded sonatas and concertos but for precisely the kind of bravura concert pieces so beloved by violinists?   The answer may not offer the most satisfying recital programme, but it does shed light on some little-known and still-less-often performed repertoire, giving the character-actor of the string family a bold new starring role in the process. Glance down the repertoire list for Fin de Siècle and you get a thrillingly wide-angle view on a period of French music too often distilled down to just Debussy and Ravel, with maybe a smattering of Chausson if you’re lucky. Henri Büsser, Georges Hüe, Léon Honnoré, Lucien Durosoir – the names are as fragrant as their music, whether it’s Büsser’s episodic Appassionato – an ear-seizing opener that packs both high-wire angst and reflective ennui into its barely five-minute span – Hüe’s moody sonata-in-miniature Thème Varié, with its wistful theme and highly characterised sequence…

February 15, 2017
CD and Other Review

Review: Songs of the Latin Skies (Katie Noonan, Karin Schaupp)

The intuitive relationship that vocalist Katie Noonan and classical guitarist Karin Schaupp have developed together makes for some gorgeous music-making in their latest recording Songs of the Latin Skies. Katie Noonan and Karin Schaupp. Photo: supplied It’s their third release together, following the success of their 2012 ARIA nominated album Songs of the Southern Skies and their 2011 eight-track EP Songs from the British Isles. Songs of the Latin Skies features 13 tracks, which pay homage to the great South American songbook of bossa nova, samba, salsa and tango by composers such as Heitor Villa-Lobos, Astor Piazzolla, Luis Bonfá, Antonio Lauro and Antônio Carlos Jobim among others. The duo bring a fresh, distinctive, original take to the repertoire, with Noonan’s exquisite vocals soaring delicately over Schaupp’s virtuosic, equally expressive playing, as they caress the melodies to create a meltingly laid-back album with a spare, minimal beauty that would soothe the most furrowed brow. The first track Seguranca makes for a stunning opening, with some double-tracking of Noonan’s voice creating lovely rich harmonies and showcasing her renowned vocal range from a warm bottom register to a dazzling, ethereal top. Classic bossa nova numbers Desafinado and Wave by Jobim (who wrote The…

January 30, 2017
CD and Other Review

Review: British Violin Sonatas Volume 2 (Little & Lane)

A Wykehamist friend, who lived in Norfolk, once drolly opined that every British composer born in the final decades of the 19th century invariably composed something called “Idyll for Strings.” True enough: all those depictions of torpid, hazy late-Victorian/Edwardian summer afternoons. I’ll admit I was expecting this CD to contain little else. Not really. Much of this music is quietly trenchant, even defiant, in a civilised way, as well as being beautifully crafted and containing a fulfilling combination of radiant Romanticism and modernity. The magnum opus is Ireland’s First Sonata (the otherwise excellent sleeve note curiously refers to his Second, which I’ve never heard performed as the “more familiar”). I loved its Brahmsian touches with their uniquely English twists and its solid arguments. It richly deserves to be better known. Similarly, the unfinished Frank Bridge and Arthur Bliss works. The Bliss, dedicated to Lady Elgar, is more substantial and complex and conveys, among other things, the burden of grief the composer experienced to the end of his life over the death of his brother, Kennard, in the First World War, a war in which the composer himself was a combatant and obviously survived. I jolly well wish they had completed…

January 30, 2017
CD and Other Review

Review: Bach & Schumann (Argerich & Perlman)

Perlman and Argerich have only played together on one previous occasion: in Saratoga, New York in 1998. A disc of Beethoven and Franck exists from that time, but their previously unreleased live recording of Schumann’s Violin Sonata No 1 opens this new disc. It is clear from the start that a rapport exists between these two great artists. Argerich also recorded this work with Gidon Kremer, whose more sharply articulated style was well suited to her pianism, but there is no denying the synchronicity heard here in the ebb and flow of the first movement. The rest of the disc was recorded in the studio this March, when Argerich was 74 and Perlman 70. They might have been 40: I hear no lessening whatsoever of the pianist’s dynamism or the violinist’s rich tone and rock-solid pitch. Schumann’s Drei Fantasiestücke follow, beautifully realised, and the remarkable Scherzo by Brahms from the “F-A-E Sonata”, to which he contributed this single movement. Later Schumann replaced the two movements written by his protégées Brahms and Albert Dietrich, and the work became Schumann’s Third Sonata.   Both players lean into their instruments, which makes for exciting Brahms but anachronistic Bach (in the latter’s Sonata No…

January 30, 2017
CD and Other Review

Review: Telemann: Sonatas, Sonatinas and Fantasias (Lacey, Gower, Mortensen)

Telemann’s prodigious output – he wrote around 250 suites and concertos alone – was matched by a propensity for eclecticism and innovation. His chamber music, largely for domestic consumption and here represented by works for recorder, bassoon and harpsichord thus derives much of its charm from its use of mixed musical idioms – particularly Italian and French – and the fresh ways in which these are combined to bridge the gap between the older learned style and the new, simpler galant style. Playing a boxwood alto recorder, and accompanied by Jane Gower on Baroque bassoon and Lars Ulrik Mortensen on a Ruckers double harpsichord (Carey Beebe, 2003), Genevieve Lacey opens with Telemann’s C Major Sonata, the charming Larghetto of which is one of its chief attractions. The three close the programme with the even more impressive D Minor Sonata, featuring an exciting final Allegro. In between are delights aplenty, from the C Minor Sonatina for bassoon and harpsichord, Gower’s rich, fruity tone marvellously contrasting with Mortensen’s bright, “broken style” chords, to the E Major Fantasia for solo recorder with its sinuous virtuosity and cleverly implied part-writing. Also notable is a fine Sonata in F Minor with recorder and bassoon taking…

January 30, 2017
CD and Other Review

Review: Four Hands: Australian Music for Piano (Viney-Grinberg Piano Duo)

The piano four-hands configuration is surely one of the more humble performance traditions, shirking the flashy egoism of solo playing in favour of friendly fun. But that’s not to say the music isn’t virtuosic, as Anna Grinberg and Liam Viney show in their recent release on ABC Classics, offering an attractive programme of Australian music that’s not without depth. Carl Vine’s Sonata for Piano Four-hands is a multifaceted work that explores the textural combinations possible where four hands share melodies and accompanying figures that ripple and dance with a modal energy. Stuart Greenbaum’s own sonata takes inspiration from the cosmos, building a language inspired by the relationship between Sun and Earth – at times powerful and domineering, at others contemplative and spacious. Both works are evocative responses to the four-hands conundrum and make for satisfying listening. Music by Ross Edwards and Peter Sculthorpe tap into the duo’s tradition of music for younger players. Edwards’ Nine Bagatelles are charming miniatures that dance and play with casual merriment, and occasionally a hint of the telltale Edwards ‘maninya’ style. Sculthorpe’s Four Little Pieces are all arrangements of previous works for piano, imbued with a lyrical melodic character. Elena Kats-Chernin’s Victor’s Heart is a…