March 16, 2016
CD and Other Review

Review: Chindamo: Goldberg Inventions, after Bach

As demonstrated in impressive previous releases, Reimaginings and Dido’s Lament, pianist, composer and arranger Joe Chindamo and violinist Zoë Black are more than capable of transcending their specialities of jazz and classical. Here they tackle one of the great masterworks, with Chindamo playing Bach’s Goldberg Variations while Black performs a solo violin part composed by Chindamo. In some ways, I’m reminded of Schumann’s piano accompaniments to Bach’s sonatas and partitas for solo violin; listeners may also recall James Strauss’s transcription for flute and harpsichord/piano. But this is very different. Chindamo doesn’t change a note of Bach’s original, while supplying a violin line that is highly improvisatory and decorative, like something any good violinist of Bach’s day could have extemporised (possibly with greater contrapuntal and harmonic daring). That’s not meant to detract from the pleasures here. Not only is the playing by turns reflective and exuberant; certain of the variations gain considerably by Chindamo’s violinist enhancements. Variation 9’s canon is infused with a richer, sweeter atmosphere, while Variation 10’s Fughetta wriggles with delight in response to the violin’s ornate countermelody. At other times, however, the results are less happy. For example, Variation 3’s canon suffers from the violin’s hyperactive assault on its clarity, while…

March 16, 2016
CD and Other Review

Review: Brahms: String Quartets (Artemis Quartet)

Since signing to Virgin (now Erato) the Berlin-based Artemis Quartet has recorded some superb accounts of core repertoire including one of the finest Beethoven cycles of recent times.  Brahms supposedly wrote some 20 quartets that ended up in the bin before the rigorously self-critical composer felt ready to publish the three extant examples. Each inhabits its own sound world and are tough nuts to crack; the dramatic intensity of the first and the sly playfulness of the third can both easily turn turgid if slathered with heavy-handed Romantic excess, so Artemis proves to be ideal exponents with their modernist sensibility tempered by warmth of expression and miraculous variety of tonal colour and dynamics.  The opening movement of the First Quartet is perfectly judged, veering between nervous energy and sweet repose but with an eye always on the architecture so that the ebbing conclusion seems an inevitable consequence rather than a mere petering out. The Romanze is breathtakingly beautiful, drawn with the gentlest brushstrokes of tone; the players’ telepathic ensemble playing at the lowest dynamic level is a wonder to behold. Their variety of vibrato and colour illuminates the Scherzo with half-lights and veiled tone evoking a half-remembered dream so that…

February 23, 2016
CD and Other Review

Review: Kaija Saariaho: Let the Wind Speak (Camilla Hoitenga)

A plaintive flute melody, ending in a sigh, opens Tocar, the first track on Camilla Hoitenga’s new album Let the Wind Speak. The recording showcases Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho’s chamber music and it is infused with the close personal relationship between flautist and composer. The album features acoustic works for solo flutes (Hoitenga also plays alto, bass and piccolo) and chamber ensembles, including several new arrangements. At the heart of the CD is Sombre, a work commissioned in 2012 by Da Camera of Houston for performance in the tranquil space of Texas’s Rothko Chapel. Prefaced by solo bass flute, Sombre is based on fragments of Ezra Pound’s last Cantos, from which the album takes its name: “Do not move/Let the wind speak/that is paradise.” Hoitenga and Da Camera are joined by baritone Daniel Belcher, whose dark voice compliments the timbre of the bass flute. Tocar, originally for violin and piano, appears in a new arrangement for flute and harp, Hoitenga’s slides and timbral murmurations against Héloïse Dautry’s expressive harp playing. Although the aural quality of the work is very different, Hoitenga’s “flutistic” arrangement of the violin part perfectly captures the atmosphere of Saariaho’s work. Mirrors, which appears in three different…

February 22, 2016
CD and Other Review

Review: Royal Consorts: Music for English Kings (Latitude 37)

This is the third album recorded for ABC Classics by Melbourne-based early music ensemble Latitude 37. Julia Fredersdorff (baroque violin), Laura Vaughan (viola da gamba) and Donald Nicolson (harpsichord) are renowned exponents of historically-informed performance, and for this recording they train their collective expertise on a cross-section of music from 17th-century England that collapses “the artificial divides of art music and popular music.” The album takes its name from the Royal Consorts of William Lawes (1602-1645), a set of ten suites or ‘setts’ of dances; Sett No 2 is presented here along with works by William Byrd and Henry Purcell, including one of his spectacular Fantasias for Viols and a jaw-dropping Let Me Weep from The Fairy Queen, featuring young Sydney soprano Alexandra Oomens.  These sit beside works by less-famous composers including Davis Mell (1604-1662), William Corkine (1569-1645), and several anonymous works in arrangements. Of particular note is the world premiere recording of Fantasia-Suite No 2, an unpublished work for treble, bass viol and organ by Christopher Gibbons (1615-1676). It is an absolute delight to hear the chamber organ ‘breathing’ as this work begins, and as good a time as any to mention the sumptuous, spacious beauty that characterises the…

February 18, 2016
CD and Other Review

Review: Serene Nights (Guitar Trek)

A much-loved part of the Australian music landscape, Guitar Trek’s newest recording is a wide-ranging set of pieces. With the tagline “gems from classical music and beyond” it’s easy to imagine a rather cynical combination of classical hits, but Guitar Trek have recorded a delightful programme with a solid mix of the familiar and unfamiliar. They’ve given us familiar names but with unfamiliar pieces (Rodrigo’s Four Pieces for Piano), as well as favourites that are always welcome (Tchaikovsky’s Waltz of the Flowers). One of the problems with the guitar quartet is that four of the same instrument results in a limited texture and range. Guitar Trek’s point of difference, however, is that they, along with Australian luthier Graham Caldersmith, have created a guitar “family” – they use treble, baritone and bass instruments, in addition to the normal guitar. This expansion creates significant new opportunities for performance, of which they take great advantage on this CD. For example, part of the disc is devoted to South American music. One piece, Noite Serena (Serene Night) by Rufino Almeida, known as “Bau”, uses Guitar Trek’s classical bass as a substitute for the original piece’s electric bass. Were a standard guitar quartet (sans classical bass)…

February 9, 2016
CD and Other Review

Review: Janáček & Smetana: String Quartets (Takács Quartet)

Editor’s Choice, Chamber – Jan/Feb 2016 In-between a heavy international concert schedule and fulfilling their teaching commitments as resident ensemble at the University of Colorado in Boulder, it’s a wonder that the Takács String Quartet finds time to record for the Hyperion label, let alone live their lives outside of music. Luckily for us they manage, and hot on the heels of their first recorded venture into the wintry landscape of Soviet Russia and Shostakovich with Canadian pianist Marc-André Hamelin (reviewed in October‘s Limelight), they bring a contrasting blaze of colour, warmth and emotion with their latest release. The three works on this disc are custom-made for the Takács with their fearless attack, faultless technique and dazzling emotional range. Just listen to Geraldine Walther’s driving viola work in the first piece, Bedrich Smetana’s From My Life. This is a remarkable autobiographical work, depicting in the first two movements the Czech composer’s youthful love of art, his fondness for dancing polkas and for folk tunes. The beautiful, yearning slow movement is given over to his first wife, who died from tuberculosis, and two of their daughters who didn’t survive childhood. Of the finale Smetana wrote: “The fourth movement describes my discovery…

December 22, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: Beethoven: Sonatas for Fortepiano and Violin Volume 1 (Ogata, Watson)

Violinist Susanna Ogata is a tenured member of the Handel and Haydn Society. Keyboard player Ian Watson has had a long and distinguished career as an organist, conductor and as a director of early music, recently working with Harry Christophers and The Sixteen on a new edition of Bach’s St Mark Passion. In that same year, Watson and Ogata embarked on a project to record all ten of Beethoven’s Violin Sonatas on period instruments, and this release on The Sixteen’s Coro label is the first recording.  First up: Sonata No 4 in A Minor, Op. 23 (1801), and Sonata No 9 in A, Op. 47, the famous ‘Kreutzer’ from 1803. Watson plays a replica of an Anton Walter (1752-1826) Viennese fortepiano (both Mozart and Beethoven played Walters) while Ogata performs on a Joseph Klotz violin from 1772. It’s a remarkable sound world into which the listener is plunged and, given Watson and Ogata’s rigorous research, it is one we can assume to be similar to that inhabited by the composer himself. The sinewy violin lines are transformed by the deeper but slightly coarser and more nasal tone of the period instrument, making them noticeably more penetrating; this is particularly so…

December 22, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: Side Band

This CD marks the recording debut for Australian performer/composer collective, Sideband. The brainchild of composers Tristan Coelho, Brad Gill and Peter McNamara, it features visceral performances by high calibre musicians. The Sideband composers are joined by emerging composer Chris Williams, and guest Slovenian-Australian Bozidar Kos. In Kos’s Modulations, solo flute is set twisting and writhing in a turbulent sea of percussion, at the same time being warped and transposed by live electronics. Brad Gill conjures a haunting atmosphere in Crickets for baritone and small ensemble, while his complex piano solo, Light, Snow, Suicide, presents a restless tapestry of melodic and chordal fragments. Chris Williams’ work for soprano and percussion, of silence into silence has a strong dramatic presence.  Tristan Coelho commands attention: his 2011 As the Dust Settles for bass recorder and vibraphone presents one of the most engaging soundworlds in the programme. Alicia Crossley’s playing is wildly virtuosic, engaging in erratic dialogue with Gill’s vibraphone. In The Writer’s Hand, Coelho fragments three female voices, creating a maddening counterpoint that pits spitting consonants against a strange lyricism. Peter McNamara’s Cadenza II for cello is another highlight, Julia Ryder deftly managing the complex demands, while his percussion solo, Voltage, features Claire…

December 22, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: Debussy, Stravinsky: Transcriptions for Two Pianists (Bavouzet, Guy)

French pianistic powerhouses Jean-Efflam Bavouzet and François-Frédéric Guy have teamed up to deliver a mega programme of works originally intended for orchestra. First premiered in 1913, all three are heard in piano form, with the shift in perspective providing new insights into the music while testing pianistic skills.  The first of Bartók’s Two Pictures sees washes of lush, whole-tone harmony and strangely winding melodies, conjuring a gorgeous, almost Debussian dream world.  The reverie is over in the second picture, Village Dance. Here, Bartók indulges in heavy harmonic dissonance and exuberant folk-like melody, delivered with full force.  The tone colour of Debussy’s Jeux comes as a soothing and gentle contrast. Bavouzet and Guy manage to make their instruments sound as colourful as Debussy’s orchestra. The opening is so delicately rendered you’re left questioning if it is indeed a piano you’re hearing. Bavouzet’s transcription is an intelligent and elegant reimagining of the original.  Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring is the best-known work on the disc, and hence its transcription is perhaps the hardest sell. Piano four hands necessarily restrains the score’s savagery and contrapuntal melodic webs. While it might not best the original, the composer’s own transcription is the perfect vehicle for this…

December 22, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: Across the Top (Paul Cutlan, Brett Hirst, The NOISE)

Since graduating from the Tasmanian Conservatorium in 1987, reed-playing multi-instrumentalist Paul Cutlan has worked in a wide variety of styles from contemporary classical to jazz and world music. The central work on this disc, the Across the Top suite, is inspired by his work with world music ensemble MARA! on their Musica Viva tour for schools and Indiginous groups across the North of Australia in 2007. All four works on this Tall Poppies disc are influenced by folk music, filtered through composers like Bartók, Britten, Stravinsky and Sculthorpe, and melded with the ideas and practices of jazz improvisation. This never meanders, however, but is all tightly structured and highly approachable, and is, when all’s said and done, best described as chamber music of deep purpose and clarity. Improvisation and world music, when they do occur, are used to enhance Cutlan’s compositional ideas, and his sense of tonal colour and instrumental textures are indeed highly alluring. Those who are familiar with the NOISE string quartet’s recent set of improvised works on two CDs will have some idea of what to expect from their contributions. With Balkan specialists Llew and Mara Kiek, as well as one of Australia’s finest bassists, Brett Hirst,…

December 22, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: Russian Cello (Zoe Knighton, Amir Farid)

If there is one nationality who really wrote with hearts on sleeves, it was the Russians. If there is an instrument that can really explore torment, it’s the cello. Russian Cello, is a wonderfully colourful project for Zoe Knighton and Amir Farid who deliver a selection from known masters (Stravinsky, Rachmaninov, Prokofiev) and less-known contemporaries (Glière, Gretchaninov and Sokolov).  The duo start with an exquisite rendition of Rachmaninov’s Vocalise that allows Knighton to warm up her thrilling tenor-sound, sensitively accompanied by Farid. The programming continues with other ‘songs without words’, including an enchanting Album Leaf from Glière followed by Stravinsky’s eccentric, folk-inspired Chanson Russe. The playing goes up a gear with a pair of Glazunov items, beginning with Chant du Ménéstrel. Knighton’s portamento is suitably full of woe and in the substantial Elégie she really gets to show much more range, muscling into her lowest register with grit. Farid is an attentive partner in crime. Both are attuned to each other’s subtle musical choices.  Gretchaninov’s Sonata is the first long-form piece on the album. With charming interjections from the piano and a pretty melody for the cello it’s a lovely warm up for Prokofiev’s Sonata, which gives Knighton and Farid…

December 22, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: Divine Noise (Menno van Delft, Guillermo Brachetta)

Rameau’s oeuvre for harpsichord comprises a mere four dozen pieces from a composing career of nearly six decades so it is not surprising that players have taken to raiding the great tunesmith’s operatic works, citing his transcription of Les Indes Galantes as precedent. The bulk of this recital is Guillermo Brachetta’s transcription for two harpsichords of music from Platée (1745); a scathing satire of fashion and operatic conventions disguised as a comic romp. Poor Platée is a hideously ugly nymph (a tenor in drag) who resides in a swamp but is quite unaware of her uncomeliness. Heartless Jupiter decides to prove his fidelity to Juno by courting such an unlikely conquest just for the fun of it and leaves Platée broken and humiliated to the cruel amusement of the gods. Rameau’s score satirises Italian opera with bizarre vocal gymnastics and is chock full of musical non sequiturs, onomatopoeic effects (a croaking chorus of frogs), startling orchestration and dozens of good tunes. You may wonder if all this comes across with the reduced palate of the harpsichord, but such is the quality of harmonic and melodic invention beneath the opera’s glitteringly orchestrated surface, these reductions can stand on their own even…

December 22, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: Shostakovich: String Quartet No 2, Piano Quintet (Takács Quartet, Hamelin)

Shostakovich’s Piano Quintet in G Minor first came into the world as his second string quartet. Then he wrote what we now know as his A Major, No 2 and reworked the G Minor piece into a quintet so that he could join the Beethoven Quartet on piano when the two works were premiered. They therefore sit side by side very comfortably on disc, and they could be in no better hands than those of the Takács Quartet and Canadian pianist Marc-André Hamelin. This excellent Hyperion release marks the Takács’ first recorded venture into Shostakovich territory, and it is most welcome. From the quartet’s densely layered opening moments it’s obvious that the Colorado-based foursome are very much at home here. The Recitative and Romance second movement, which poured out of Shostakovich in a single day and probably with late Beethoven in mind, is perfect for Edward Dusinberre’s distinctive solo violin. The Piano Quintet, on the other hand, gives several nods to JS Bach, especially in the pivotal Fugue. Here Hamelin – a Hyperion regular with 50 albums under his belt – makes an exciting companion for arguably the world’s finest quartet. Together they manage to eke out little touches of…

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