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…

December 22, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: As Our Sweets Cords with Discords Mixed Be (Consortium5)

Girl bands comprising recorder consorts probably aren’t going to catch on anytime soon. But if they do, UK ensemble Consortium5 could lay claim to being supergroup of the recorder world. Not only do they regularly collaborate with contemporary composers and performers in unique and challenging ways; they are also committed to the preservation of earlier music for what was for centuries one of the most popular instruments in Europe. The consort – a set of matched instruments such as viols or, as here, recorders, in different sizes – which flourished in Europe between the late 15th and early 17th centuries, undoubtedly quickened the development of complex instrumental music in its own right. Elizabethan consort music however represents one of the high points of the genre, with the free exchange between transcriptions of vocal polyphonic works, so-called In Nomines, and more abstract fantasias and dances further enlivened by consort songs and broken consorts (usually strings and winds). Performing on a set of 10 Renaissance recorders, this release finds them moving among the In Nomines of Byrd and Tye, the dances of Ferrabosco and Dowland, the madrigalian fantasias of Coperario and Ward and more besides. Think of a solitary organist producing sounds…

December 14, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: Alchemy (Alicia Crossley)

Bach’s Cello Suite No 1 opens Australian recorder player Alicia Crossley’s latest release, Alchemy, with a shock to the system. Performed on bass recorder, the familiar work is removed entirely from its comfort zone. Crossley takes the suite at a quick pace, her loud breaths a reminder of the realities of performing on such a colossal instrument. The work is followed by Telemann’s Fantasia No 10 on the naturally louder tenor recorder. Although she’s well suited to the baroque, Crossley demonstrates her versatility across a variety of cultures and eras, each work transcribed to suit her needs. Australian composer Anne Boyd’s Goldfish Through Summer Rain introduces exquisite harp textures in a Japanese-sounding work inspired by a Korean poem. Debussy’s Syrinx – originally for flute – is performed expressively with vibrato altering timbre rather than pitch. Takemitsu’s Toward the Sea follows with extended techniques such as ‘finger shading’ and ‘fluttement’ (finger-vibrato) in a spiritual pairing with guitar.  A dreamy Sicilienne by Fauré reintroduces harp, but you’ll have to wait for the end to reach the standout – JacobTV’s The Garden of Love. Of all the unlikely pairings, who knew tenor recorder and Boombox could work so well? The composition challenges Crossley…

December 7, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: Heard This and Thought of You (Genevieve Lacey, James Crabb)

When thinking about what music evokes for different people, it’s worth remembering that centuries-old musical notes on a page had very different connotations for our forebears than they do for us. We find immediate common ground in the denotation, in the mathematics of music; but it is the job of interpretation and scholarship, of imagination and dreaming, to journey further into those dark regions and yield new insights. Thus do we converse with absent friends. Heard This and Thought of You similarly plays with ideas of memory, possibility and friendship over time and distance. In their booklet note, Australian recorder player Genevieve Lacey and Scottish-born accordionist James Crabb admit that little music has been written specifically for the combination of recorder and accordion. Yet these instruments “carry many connotations”. There is also the lovely idea of matching musical voices with writers (Lacey and Crabb love to read) by asking a number of writers to write to someone following the idea “Heard this, and thought of you”. These letters are included in the booklet. The music itself ranges from Renaissance pieces by Ortiz, Palestrina and Locke – a kind of presiding spirit over the recording with his dance suite from Consort…

November 11, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: The Decca Sound – Mono Years (1944-1956)

Music lovers over 50 will recall the Ace of Clubs label: a series of reissues of mono recordings from the 1950s. They sold in Australia for $2.95, enticingly cheaper than full price stereo LPs at $5.95. The latest in a series of Decca Sound boxes, delving into the old Decca catalogue, brings back many of those recordings, encased in reproductions of the original sleeves and with bonus tracks to take each CD beyond 70 minutes.  Decca’s Full Frequency Range sound quality was always a feature and is enhanced in the digital remastering, although violin sections are occasionally toppy. For instance, you have to listen through the harsh string sound of Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro to appreciate the bracing vitality of Anthony Collins’s performance. His Falstaff has no such caveat: it sounds great and is enthralling from beginning to end. Sadly there is too much here to cover in a short review. Conductors include stalwarts like Ansermet, Argenta, Boult, Martinon, Fistoulari, Erich Kleiber (beautifully unaffected in Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony), Van Beinum, and the earliest discs by Solti: a riveting Bartók Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta and a lively Haydn Symphony No 100. Unique and celebrated recordings abound: Britten’s Diversions with…

November 10, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: Joe Twist: Dancing With Somebody

A miniature EP by Joe Twist: three works about ‘dance’; only 23 minutes. As in most of Twist’s music, allusions to popular culture are abundant. Dancing With Somebody – a string quartet – celebrates the persona (with some musical quotations) of pop diva Whitney Houston. Twist sets rhythmic buoyancy against a dark struggle. A subversive structure plays out: patterns are set up, then disturbed (though not repeated!), all aided by first-rate playing from the Sydney-based Acacia Quartet. In I Dance Myself to Sleep, Twist looks to female characters from films such as Superman and Star Wars. Am I listening to contemporary music for the concert hall or cheap bar music? (I ask that with admiration: Twist squeezes a familiar genre into something weirdly beautiful). Pianist Sally Whitwell is a gorgeous co-conspirator in Twist’s ironic game. The crystalline sound of quartet and piano jars with the overly-sampled Gorilla, a film score. A couple on a weekend away meet an alluring woman and a ritualistic dance takes place. I imagined some sort of sacramental physical theatre but this has too much sampled music masquerading as live instruments. The fade-out at the end was too obvious for what was (so far) an exciting…

October 6, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: Jongen: On The Wings Of Winds (5 Beaufort)

Astonishingly, the Belgian composer, organist and pianist Joseph Jongen (1873-1953) entered the Liège Conservatoire at the age of just eight. So one can imagine the gifts bestowed upon a musician who was at one time considered the greatest living Belgian composer and who is today chiefly remembered for his organ music. This is Volume 85 in Phaedra’s In Flanders’ Fields series, which aims to give listeners some idea of the richness and beauty of Flemish and Belgian classical music, past and present, performed by Flemish musicians. According to Phaedra’s website, the enterprising Flemish label wants to shine “a light on music by composers from the Low Countries, especially from Flanders and Wallonia… to save them from indifference and oblivion.”  Here the spotlight is on Jongen’s chamber music for winds, with and without piano. The earliest work is the Lied for horn and piano; the most mature, the Concerto, Op. 124 for woodwind quintet (1942). 5 Beaufort (the Brussels Woodwind Quintet), which comprises players from the National Orchestra of Belgium, and Belgian pianist Hans Ryckelynck, choose however to open with the uncharacteristically modernist Rhapsodie, Op. 70 for woodwind quintet and piano (1922). The remaining works are an attractive blend of Saxon late-Romanticism…

October 6, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: The Ground Beneath Our Feet (The Knights)

On paper, this album by New York City-based chamber orchestra The Knights looks like a goer. Each piece – apart from Bach’s Concerto for Violin and Oboe, which is the genuine article – riffs off re-imagined ideas of the Concerto Grosso: a small body of soloists co-existing against the firepower of an orchestra. The Knights are musicians on a mission. Describing themselves as “an orchestral collective dedicated to transforming the concert experience”, the first thing to go is a conductor and I wonder if the pressure to count like crazy is why the Bach is taken at such a stampeding tempo? Stravinsky’s Dumbarton Oaks fares better. But the group’s homogenised, pile-driver tone makes you wish for a hint of whimsy, vulnerability even. Steve Reich’s Duet for Two Violins and Strings transforms the concert experience into extreme tedium: this is one of Reich’s most casually note spun and generic scores, not helped by the glutinous recorded sound. A concerto for santur, violin and orchestra cobbled together by Colin Jacobsen (a santur being a Persian dulcimer) is episodic.  The collectively composed …the ground beneath our feet, anchored around a ground bass borrowed from Baroque composer Tarquinio Merula is the final hurrah, but…

October 2, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: Andrew Schultz: Deep Blue and Dirty

★★★★ This disc features Andrew Schultz’s rather polite chamber and vocal music, performed by the eminent Southern Cross Soloists. The first work, After Nina, is a slowly unfolding reflection on a 1930s civil rights song (as performed by popular African-American singer Nina Simone) scored for clarinet, cello and piano. Its sombre chord progression with occasional dissonant harmonies makes for delicately emotional listening. Similarly, the duet for violin and cello, Indigo Invention, has sweet melodies and an almost romantic lyricism at times. For vocal contrast, To the Evening Star is a cycle of five songs written for soprano Margaret Schindler and pianist Stephen Emmerson, who perform it on the disc. Here Schultz sets words on the inner creative spirit by famous poets like Yeats, Longfellow and Blake. Reflecting on the spark of scientific discovery, Lines Drawn from Silence… features prominent parts for soprano and obbligato violin, set amongst an often-bustling texture of piano and winds.  Returning to instrumental music, the title work, Deep Blue and Dirty showcases Mark Gaydon’s lyrical and full-bodied bassoon playing. The attractive timbral contrast in the bassoon is matched by an evocative piano accompaniment provided by Lucinda Collins. The rapport between the two musicians is highly effective,…

September 21, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: Mahler: Symphony No 2 arranged for two pianos, eight hands

★★★★½ Prior to the recorded age, composers made piano transcriptions for a number of reasons. In the case of Gustav Mahler, transcriptions were presented to orchestral organisations and musicians who had expressed an interest in presenting one of his densely contrapuntal vistas to their audiences. To such a purpose, his popular Resurrection Symphony, which took the composer six years to write, has given birth to two such arrangements including one for piano duet by Mahler’s disciple and specialist, Bruno Walter in the latter years of the 19th century. A third, perhaps more satisfying approach was taken by Heinrich von Bocklet after the composer’s death and it is this which receives its discographic premiere in this excellent Melba release. It does take the ear a while to readjust to this more intimate and chamber-like impression, but here we have four pianists aiming towards a single and coherent performance, rather than having to bypass the often egocentric excesses involving a conductor and orchestral forces, thereby honing in on Mahler’s actual intents. The hushed, otherworldly quality of Urlicht seems appropriately lit from within, though the finale’s choral outburst may lack a little in power. However, all in all, here is an excellent guide towards understanding this great emotional work with even greater insight. Download This Album

September 18, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: Mendelssohn, Grieg & Hough: Cello Sonatas

Recording of the Month: October 2015 ★★★★½   It’s always a coup when two internationally renowned soloists come together to play chamber music, and Steven Isserlis and Stephen Hough undoubtedly make quite the pair, though you wouldn’t guess it straight away. Isserlis, with his signature mop of wild, grey locks, is a hot-blooded player known for his energy and sense of fun. Hough, sporting his neatly parted, conservatively coifed do, is instead the picture of cool, refined control. Hairstyles aside, they each possess profound musical intellects, while both are considerable champions of creative diversity. Isserlis is just as much at home playing Bach as he is tackling the toughest of contemporary music, and besides the standard repertoire, Hough has a keen curiosity for discovering some of the more rarely heard music of the 19th century. It’s a testament to each of them that they can effortlessly trade the soloist spotlight for the delicate and often difficult dualism of chamber music.  This disc marks their third joint foray into the cello sonata repertoire. They’ve done the Brahms sonatas as well as Rachmaninov and Franck. This time they’ve chosen to feature some lesser-known offerings, including Grieg’s only cello sonata and Mendelssohn’s second….