November 4, 2016
CD and Other Review

Review: The Spirit and the Maiden

Queensland’s all-woman Muses Trio – violinist Christa Powell, pianist Therese Milanovic and cellist Louise King – has been promoting female composers in a series of chamber concerts for four years and now they have released their self-published debut album. Taking its title from Elena Kats-Chernin’s relatively well-known The Spirit and the Maiden, it includes three world premiere recordings: Melburnian Kate Neal’s piano solo Song For Comb Man; Queensland jazz lecturer Louise Denson’s engaging Two Boleros and, also from Queensland, Cecile Elton’s Insomnio de la Cuidad (Tango for a Sleepless City) which sits nicely alongside the Boleros, starting lazily until the restlessness begins. Three pieces for cello and piano by Nadia Boulanger take us to another time and place, as does the Czech Víteˇzslava Kaprálová’s Elegy for violin and piano from the 1930s. Kats-Chernin’s trio, based on a legend about a young woman who is captured by a ghost that lives in a well, is the most substantial work and makes a good opener with its exciting, driving rhythms. English composer and mezzo-soprano Judith Bingham’s Chapman’s Pool is a four-part work which starts and ends sombrely. Brooklyn-born Jennifer Higdon’s contrasting Pale Yellow/Fiery Red closes the disc strongly, although you can download Amy Beach’s Romance for…

November 4, 2016
CD and Other Review

Review: Mark Simpson: Night Music

Liverpool-born Mark Simpson has been attracting critical acclaim for his compositional prowess in addition to his virtuoso clarinet playing. In 2006, he became the first ever winner of both the BBC Young Musician of the Year and the BBC Proms/Guardian Young Composer of the Year, an astonishing achievement at just 17 years of age.  Night Music is a collection of eight chamber works covering the last decade, and the works are largely performed by the musicians for whom they were written. The titular work for piano and cello is assured, introspective, intricate and captivating, its intensity heightened by impassioned performances from pianist Alexei Grynyuk and cellist Leonard Elschenbroich.  Not surprisingly, several works have substantial clarinet parts, performed by Simpson himself. Echoes and Embers is a nuanced exploration of the clarinet’s timbral possibilities; Lov(escpape) a tug-of-war between gestural dynamics featuring fluttering, swoops and other extended techniques. Un Regalo for solo cello (performed by Guy Johnston) is also a highlight. Simpson’s detailed notes are included, but, unusually, no information about the performers.  This is a minor quibble in another stellar release from NMC, a charitable company dedicated to British contemporary music. Night Music is an exemplary recording and it will be fascinating…

October 28, 2016
CD and Other Review

Review: Bacewicz: String Quartets

And then there were three cycles – the Silesian Quartet’s version of Polish composer Graz˙yna Bacewicz’s seven string quartets following on the heels of the Amar Corde Quartet (on Acte Préalable) and the Lutosławksi Quartet (on Naxos), and securing her reputation as one of the best-known unknown composers around. Bacewicz died in 1969 and her quartet cycle journeys from makings of tonality that are known towards a hard-fought for personal harmonic wizardry that embraces 12-tone thinking without being overly concerned with ‘correct’ 12-tone technique. Secreted kernels of melody appear discreetly from behind shadowy, shuffling textures to anticipate the soundworld of latter-day Bartók quartets – and even Luigi Nono. Bacewicz’s cycle is noticeably more consistent and chancey than Shostakovich’s, but how depressing to read elsewhere mantras about Bacewicz the “female composer”. Music as great as this ought to leave crude gender categorising far behind. “Music as great as this ought to leave crude gender categorising far behind“ The pivot is the Fifth Quartet. Written in 1955 as she was recovering from serious injury sustained during a car crash, Bacewicz has developed her language from the broadly Neo-Classical turn-of-phrase of the Fourth Quartet – for which please don’t read Stravinskian pastiche –…

October 4, 2016
CD and Other Review

Review: Légende: Works for Trumpet and Piano

Alison Balsom is a skilled, experienced, technically accomplished trumpeter. Her tuning throughout this programme, recorded live, is immaculate. Her flexibility and control is admirable. She shapes phrases with taste. The chosen programme is as varied as the ‘standard trumpet-piano repertoire’ allows. This album is sure to be a hit with Balsom’s large, predominantly English, fan base. And yet, something is missing. Despite allowing her pianist a moment in the spotlight, for a shapeless performance of a movement from Ravel’s Sonatine, this album is a star vehicle. Tom Poster’s piano is relegated to the background, leaving the trumpet hanging, exposed, more obviously revealing the lack of expressive or emotional range in Balsom’s one-note playing. Her programme has stylistic range, from Hindemith’s square-jawed songfulness to Françaix’s quick-witted playfulness, Enescu’s long-breathed lyricism to Maxwell-Davies’ glorious sentimentality. But Balsom gives each piece strikingly similar treatment. Again and again the same note-attack, tone colour and phrase shapes, the same late-breaking, shuddery vibrato. When she takes tiny, welcome expressive risks in her final encore, Jerome Kern’s The way you look tonight, it’s clear what has been missing: any sense of the specialness, spontaneity or danger of live performance. When, why and how should artists communicate to…

October 4, 2016
CD and Other Review

Review: Mozart: Violin Sonatas Volume 1

Violinist Alina Ibragimova and her accompanist Cédric Tiberghien are a class act – witness their 2013 album of Schubert’s complete works for violin and piano, also on Hyperion – but this set of seven very early Mozart violin sonatas, written in between nappy changes presumably, rarely rise beyond the level of a composer expertly, and rather dogmatically, applying the rules who has yet to grasp that the whole point of composing is to put those same rules under the microscope with a view to learning how to make them bend. Still, Ibragimova and Tiberghien couldn’t turn in a lacklustre performance if they tried, and after experiencing this fine duo tackling Schubert, hearing them weave a degree of wonder through such low key material fills me with even greater respect for their interpretive clout. They tread a finely judged line between keeping alert to young whippersnapper Wolfgang’s harmonic language, while avoiding their knowledge of his later harmonic wizardry lest it (mis)inform the naïveté of this music. Ibragimova plays with childlike wonder – but there’s never a trace of sentimentalised whimsy. Sprawling over two discs, here is a lot of Mozart, much of it interchangeable. For my money Sonata No 27 in…

October 4, 2016
CD and Other Review

Review: Martha Argerich & Friends: Live from the Lugano Festival 2015

The 14th year of the Lugano Progetto (which sadly is about to be abandoned) sees Martha Argerich making music with the likes of cellist Gautier Capuçon and violinist Ilya Gringolts. How does one create a balanced snapshot of almost four hours of first-rate music making? Every performance is impressive and the sheer rarity and originality of much of the repertoire is admirable: a charming B Minor Piano Quintet by Ferdinand Ries (Beethoven’s friend), with the same instrumental combination as Schubert’s Trout Quintet, Brahms’ late, autumnal Clarinet Trio, Op. 114 and Horn Trio (with viola replacing horn – it works), Turina’s Second Piano Trio, all infectious Andalucian rhythms and shimmering effects. The sole orchestral offering is the Bacalov Porteña for two pianos and orchestra (Porteña being the word for native inhabitants of Buenos Aires) with Argerich herself and Eduardo Hubert as soloists. She also partners her former partner, Stephen Kovacevich, in Debussy’s En Blanc et Noir. Even the excerpts from Philip Glass’s dance opera Les Enfants Terribles arranged for three pianos scrubs up well. The last work featured is a selection of four dances from Ginastera’s ballet Estancia, including the famous Malambo. For me, the highlight was the gorgeous, silky Poulenc Sonata for two…

October 4, 2016
CD and Other Review

Review: Franck, Debussy: Piano Quintet, String Quartet

Whilst Debussy’s and Ravel’s quartets have been constant disc-mates since the LP epoch, there is greater artistic justification for hearing Debussy coupled with Franck’s wild, alarming (yet classically built) quartet-plus-piano masterpiece, given that Debussy took ages to expunge Franck’s influence from his system. The Franck Quintet might or might not have been a coded love-letter to the composer’s pupil Augusta Holmès, but it transcends all attempts at biographical reductionism. By comparison, the Debussy, however beguiling, can seem slightly incoherent.That Marc-André Hamelin meets Franck’s punitive technical demands was to be expected. Less predictable (since few will have heard Hamelin in chamber music before) is his collaborative panache. This admirably vivid performance never conveys the feeling of pianist and colleagues going their separate ways. Rather, they catch fire from each other’s interactions. As for the Debussy, the Takács instrumentalists give – thank goodness – the sense that they have never heard of wishy-washy terms like “Impressionism.” They often dare to be downright harsh, above all in the pizzicato-dominated second movement. This is a good account to reassure those who think themselves over-familiar with the composition. The recorded sound, somewhat dry (and markedly kinder to the piano than to the strings), nowhere detracts…

September 29, 2016
CD and Other Review

Review: Debussy, Elgar, Respighi, Sibelius: Violin Sonatas

Debussy, Elgar and Respighi. It’s a curious line-up, but this collection of sonatas for violin and piano works perfectly. All were written within years of each other: Debussy’s in 1916 (it was the composer’s last major work), Respighi’s in 1918 (the year of Debussy’s death), and Elgar’s in 1919. They’re perfect vehicles of expression for world-class violinist James Ehnes, whose performances here demonstrate a brilliant array of tone colours: from bold, impassioned flexing strokes to soft, limpid lines achieved with just the right amount of bow hair. And Andrew Armstrong is the perfect partner – a sensitive player who can pack a punch when it counts. Claude Debussy’s Sonata opens with an unsettled Allegro that twists and winds through some curious harmonic regions. His violin writing emphasises line, with the piano often serving as harmonic and textural support. Both Ehnes and Armstrong capture the strange mystery of this music with their brilliant ensemble skills. The second movement Intermède shifts tempo and mood frequently, while the final movement paints some gossamer-light textures, also seeing the violin rollick from high to low, which Ehnes manages with ease. The first movement of Edward Elgar’s Sonata opens with a spiky counterpoint between the violin…

September 15, 2016
CD and Other Review

Review: Schubert: String Quintet & Lieder

Eight years ago ABC Classic FM listeners voted their top 100 chamber works and Schubert ‘podiumed’ spectacularly, taking four of the top five places, with the Trout Quintet winning gold. Runner-up was the String Quintet, and with so many hundreds of recordings to choose from, what recommends this new release by the French fivesome of the Ébène Quatuor and Gautier Capuçon? Well, if for no other reason than you get a wonderful bonus in five beautifully arranged Schubert Lieder sung by German baritone Matthias Goerne.But at over an hour’s length, the Quintet and its four kaleidoscopic movements are the main course, and what a superb meal the Frenchmen dish up! Schubert’s masterpiece takes no prisoners with its emotional twists and turns, dynamic shifts and roller-coaster mood swings, and this is a very thoughtful and intelligent reading with plenty of Gallic flair and charm. As the quartet says in the liner notes: “It is a quintet reflecting both real life and dreams, the sacred and the profane, joy and mourning, revelry in the open air and monks walking to prayer through the cloisters, jubilation in the tavern, and testament of the soul.” The players are in no hurry – the Adagio comes…

September 15, 2016
CD and Other Review

Review: Taneyev, Glazunov: String Quintets

Sometimes strong performances aren’t enough to throw a work’s greatness into sharper relief. What’s needed are violent contrasts. Which is what we get with these electrifying new interpretations of two Russian string quintets that deserve to be better known. Not that Sergei Taneyev’s first of two String Quintets and Alexander Glazunov’s only String Quintet haven’t been recorded before. But to hear to the Gringolts Quartet and second cellist Christian Poltéra shift from the dense intellectual rigor of the Taneyev to the lightness and charm of the Glazunov with such conviction is something else again. Taneyev was a Renaissance man, as interested in science and philosophy as he was in music while Glazunov was part of the famed Mitrofan Belyayev circle, who benefited from the timber magnate’s fortune and love of chamber music. While his music too can sound academic at times, his compositional fluency from a young age ensured an effortlessness that perhaps eluded Taneyev. Although as Andrew Huth writes in his booklet note, “The heavy burden of theory and reflection that Taneyev brought to the process of composing fades away when actual performance brings the music to life.” That’s certainly the case here. A stormy Allegro con spirito gives…

August 26, 2016
CD and Other Review

Review: A Bassoon in Stockholm… (Donna Agrell)

I have to admit that I’ve got a soft spot for the bassoon. It’s not the most sensual of instruments, but it’s more than capable of stirring the listener’s emotions, or astonishing with flights of virtuosity. Although the cover of the disc oddly doesn’t mention her name at all, this is essentially a chamber recital from bassoonist Donna Agrell. Focusing on works written for 19th-century bassoonist Frans Preumayr, this recording includes chamber music from Swedish composers who don’t pop up all that often – Éduoard Du Puy, and Franz Berwald.   Last year I reviewed a live performance in which the players expressed concerns about the quality of Berwald’s music. Although it’s far from flabbergasting anyone, I would argue that one doesn’t need to hear masterworks all the time. No one cooks with Wagyu beef every day – sometimes all the heart desires is a trip to the local Bunnings’ sausage sizzle. Berwald’s music isn’t going to replace Haydn or Mozart, but it’s fun while it lasts. The two Berwald pieces on this disc (the Septet in B Flat and the Quartet in E Flat) are not without charm, but it’s in the Quintet in A Minor by Du Puy…

August 5, 2016
CD and Other Review

Review: Matthews: String Quartets Volume 3 (Kreutzer Quartet)

David Matthews (b. 1943) and his composer brother Colin were protégés of Benjamin Britten. The string quartet medium is clearly one that appeals to David; he has written 12 so far. Although this is the third volume in the series, it actually contains the earliest: Quartets Nos 1-3 (composed between 1969 and 1978), plus a short Mirror Canon (1963) and a string quartet transcription of Scriabin’s Piano Prelude, Op. 74 No 4. TUnderstandably, the First shows some influence of Britten’s own quartet writing: there are passages containing wisps of thematic material hovering over sustained chords, often in high harmonics, and occasional musings from solo instruments. Along with that, however, are strong rhythmic passages and thick textures. Matthews’ primary influences of Tippett, Berg and, most notably, Beethoven were present from the start. The First, in five movements played without breaks, is densely packed with contrapuntal incident. The Second, more classically styled, was written while Matthews was in Australia staying with Peter Sculthorpe. The piece culminates in a moving elegy (am I wrong to hear Sculthorpe’s fingerprints in the syncopated ostinati of the second movement?). By comparison, the Third seems a more public statement. All three major works and the two fillers…

August 5, 2016
CD and Other Review

Review: James Wood: Cloud-Polyphonies

James Wood is an English percussionist, composer and conductor; he is also a musicologist and instrument designer. Tongues of Fire is a large-scale work for choir and percussion quartet that weaves together an extraordinary range of cultural forms and ideas, from Latin-American Spanish to the works of Hildegard of Bingen, in order to mystically evoke New Testament descriptions of Pentecost. Wood’s expertise in percussion is evident in the musical representation of tongues of fire and rushing wind, in addition to the symbolic import of choral parts in eight different languages.  By contrast, Cloud-Polyphonies is a three-part percussion work exploring the movement of natural entities – starlings, clouds and buffalo – an unlikely triumvirate at first glance, but a combination that works spectacularly. Starlings evokes the “extraordinary aerobatic displays” made by these birds before migration using marimbas and woodblocks, and 66 drums conjure the thumping of buffalo hooves on changing earthen terrain. The textures created by Wood and brought to fruition by the Yale Percussion Group are mesmerising and hypnotic, and complemented by a spacious, reverberant acoustic in which the many overtones and subtleties created by the instruments are gloriously evident.