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…

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…