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….

September 4, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: Kabalevsky, Prokofiev: Cello Works (Leonard Elschenbroich)

Editor’s Choice Chamber Recording – August 2015 ★★★★ Along with the many other Soviet composers who are deemed insufficiently dissident, Dmitry Kabalevsky’s reputation, despite the craft and quality of his utilitarian output, has been crushed beneath the wheels of the commie-bashing critical bandwagon so it’s high time that his serious work was reappraised.  His breezy First Cello Concerto, Opus 9, is popular among today’s young players on the competition circuit, but the serious Second Cello Concerto, Opus 77, is rarely heard, and that is quite a shame. It is a warmly expressive and accessible work with a distinctive mood entirely of its own.  The concerto’s brooding introduction eventually gives way to a nervous, agitated argument that has an obvious socio-political subtext with furtive glances over the shoulder. The mood carries over to the Presto marcato movement with its inevitable Russian carnival grotesqueries and interrupts the finale’s periods of calm resignation. Written in 1964, one senses in the background the dreadful possibility of Cold War apocalypse or the mundane fear of the dreaded knock on the door.  Leonard Elschenbroich justifies his advocacy by digging in deep with bold, emotive gestures and precise articulation. Litton and the Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra provide a…

August 19, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: Recording of the Month: Lawes: The Royal Consort (Phantasm)

Recording of the Month: September 2015 ★★★★★ I can, it’s true, find a jazz analogy in most things, and this two-CD set of dance music from the 1630s proves to be no exception. Listening to William Lawes’ The Royal Consort, I’m reminded of why hipsters digging Miles Davis and John Coltrane too often find the early 1920s recordings of King Oliver and Louis Armstrong a problem. The sheer ancientism of the music apparently operates under completely different rules and feels so utterly alien to the modern world that its archaism flips over into something entirely new: an avant-garde relic that has to be grappled with. William Lawes inhabited a medieval London that was about to be irreplaceably altered by the Great Fire of 1666. He found gainful employment as a composer at the court of King Charles I and as Parliament flexed its republican instincts, he felt moved to add the prefix ‘Royal’ to his Consort pieces. The much good it did him though: Lawes was killed fighting for the Royalists during the Siege of Chester in 1645. As with all genuinely great dance music – from Rameau right up to Cage – Lawes’ pieces are as much about the idea…

July 24, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: Beethoven: Complete String Quartets Volume 1 (Elias String Quartet)

★★★★☆ A few years ago, I interviewed the London-based Elias Quartet about plans to tour and record Beethoven’s complete string quartets. A few days later the publication that commissioned the interview folded and, as I write, our conversation remains untranscribed: lost words of wisdom. But one section, where we cracked into the true nature of spontaneity in music as familiar as Beethoven’s, rewound through my mind as I listened to these deftly articulate and noticeably personal performances of Op. 18 No 4, Op. 74 The Harp and Op. 130, complete with Grosse Fuge finale – all recorded live at the Wigmore Hall in 2014.  The first thing you notice is the sound. Do I hear residual traces of the old-school charm of, say, the Busch or Borodin Quartets? Quite possibly, but then again this playing is perpetually and effortlessly contemporary. Unlike Riccardo Chailly’s extreme-sports take on the symphonies, the quartet’s tempi stick within a narrow bandwidth. But their performance of Op. 130 aspires to something quasi orchestral, their muscular, pile-driver tone motoring the Grosse Fuge forwards in time, the crystal-cut clarity of line against line never negating their meticulous plotting of the music’s kaleidoscope of inner harmonic tensions. You are…

July 24, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: Boccherini, Cirri: Cello Sonatas (Catherine Jones)

★★★★★ Giovanni Battista Cirri (1724-1808) and Luigi Boccherini (1743-1805) were both born in Italy; were both virtuoso cellists; worked extensively abroad (Cirri in England, Boccherini in Spain); and had a collection of six cello sonatas printed in London around 1775. But Italian-based Australian cellist Catherine Jones is surely right when she says that Cirri “is already composing in an early Classical style” while Boccherini “is a composer of the high Baroque.” To prove her point, she presents three sonatas from each, revealing the delight she shares with both composers in the cello’s technical and expressive capabilities.  Jones has previously recorded three Boccherini sonatas from the same collection while a student; the Cirri sonatas – Nos 3, 4 and 5 – are premiere recordings. Her light, responsive touch and pungent, mostly vibratoless tone perfectly match Boccherini’s playfulness, exuberant embellishment of repeated figures and his imitations of the strummed chords of the Spanish guitar, which are redolent of another Italian who worked in Spain, Domenico Scarlatti.  Jones, supported throughout by Nuti, McGillivray and Carter, also luxuriates in the rich sonorities of the drawn-out single and multiple-stopped tones. These characterise certain episodes in Boccherini’s music. Cirri’s, by contrast, display a Classical restraint. Highly…

July 24, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: The Sky is Melting (Marianne Rothschild, Glenn Riddle)

★★★☆☆ In The Sky is Melting Linda Kouvaras responds to the heat of the Australian summer – an idea translated into sound with great success by Australian duo Marianne Rothschild (violin) and Glenn Riddle (piano), whose new album is an impressionistic journey taking in a range of compositions from contemporary Melbourne. The title track opens with dreamy piano themes reminiscent of Debussy before Rothschild’s striking melody takes the forefront. The first of Stuart Greenbaum’s Six Occasional Pieces reveals Rothschild has little intention of colouring her tone to suit the feel of different works, and the pure consistency of sound does evoke a sense of aural fatigue, but hers is an attractive tone nevertheless. Riddle’s piano gives the piece a contemporary feel, with repetitive cycles of chords commonly heard in modern song. Life Cycles was written for a funeral, though the solo violin lament lacks sensitivity. But a refreshing pizzicato and charmingly simple melody represents an “occasion” of childbirth in For Alette – an uplifting celebration of new life.  Argentinian Etching by William James Schmidt was inspired by a 1970s artwork by Stefan Strocen of a figure reaching toward a sun-like orb, and the duo make it a well-executed rhapsody with…

July 24, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: The Chopin Album (Sol Gabetta, Bertrand Chamayou)

★★★★☆ A title like The Chopin Album, might lead you to expect a disc from the latest pianistic talent, but happily on this occasion it’s a collection of repertoire for cello and piano duo from close friends, cellist Sol Gabetta and pianist Bertrand Chamayou. The stunning centrepiece is the significant Cello Sonata in G Minor. The complexity of the first movement alone is a marvel, and it’s a shame the piece isn’t more widely known. Gabetta talks about approaching Chopin as a bel canto composer, who was always aware of a ‘vocal’ line in the music. It’s a fitting analogy and Chamayou and Gabetta show great sensitivity towards the primary melody, while still uncovering Chopin’s rich polyphony. The Largo movement is achingly beautiful, without becoming too overly sentimental.  The militaristic Polonaise Brilliante provides both Chamayou and Gabetta with plenty of virtuosic scope and both performers relish the opportunity. The remainder of the album serves as a tribute to the friendship between Chopin and respected cellist Auguste-Joseph Franchomme. The two men co-authored the Grand Duo Concertant and worked independently on arrangements and transcriptions of Chopin’s music. An original work of Franchomme’s is included on the album, the Nocturne for Cello and…

July 21, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: Mozart: Divertimenti (Scottish Chamber Orchestra)

Editor’s Choice: Chamber, July 2015  ★★★★★ Although this is a debut recording by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra Wind Soloists, the six players each boast impressive individual track records. As part of the SCO itself, they previously made a recording of wind concerti by Weber, which in turn inspired the creation of the ensemble on this disc.  As the liner notes point out, throughout Mozart’s life, one constant was that he always wrote music for entertainment. Whether that music was designed to be played at parties or banquets, at evenings out or formal ceremonies, it’s abundantly clear that Mozart took all this good-natured music very seriously. “It’s abundantly clear that Mozart took all this good-natured music very seriously” The recording opens with the Serenade in E Flat, K375. There’s a well-known letter to his father in which Mozart describes his delight at discovering the musicians performing the work beneath his window as a surprise one evening. Similarly, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra Wind Soloists present us as listeners with a pleasant surprise, as they (somewhat unusually) play the original version of this work for pairs of clarinets, horns and bassoons. Normally, the Serenade in E Flat features a pair of oboes as…