March 14, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: Hadyn, Debussy: String Quartets (Huon Quartet)

Two minor string quartets recorded in the Ballroom of Government House, Hobart might sound underwhelming. but Virtuosi Tasmania provide a terrific match with Haydn and Debussy on their latest release. Debussy’s stunning String Quartet in G Minor is thrillingly suspenseful. The second movement throbs with metronomic pizzicato, supplying fantastic textural contrasts. The Andantino, doucement expressif is painful in its beauty: this is the sort of music string quartets were created for. The romance comes to an impossibly peaceful ending, weakened only by a shaky beginning to the final chord. A pulsing cello drives the final movement to its brilliant finish. Haydn’s String Quartet in F Minor, Op 20 No 5 sounds conservative and might have had more impact had it been placed first. This is not to suggest the two works aren’t an appropriate fit – in fact, Haydn offers an emotional respite after the intensity of the Debussy. Haydn’s reliably repetitive motives in the first movement are followed by a light Menuetto. Because of the subtlety of this quartet, the ballroom’s mildly reverberant acoustics are more apparent. The Adagio pulses like a lullaby before coming to a dreamy end, followed by the Finale: Fuga a due soggetti. These final…

February 27, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: An AIDS Activist’s Memoir in Music (Lyle Chan)

Lyle Chan has a story to be heard. As an activist at the height of the AIDS epidemic in Australia, he was part of the grass roots movement campaigning for the needs of the suffering, in a time when rampant stigma surrounded the disease. Chan’s story is told through a multi-movement string quartet, performed with skill by the Acacia Quartet, who are gaining a reputation for classy performances of new Australian music. Chan draws on a stockpile of genres, from classical to jazz, creating a language where nothing is out of bounds. He explains his cherry picking: “I never know what musical style will come onto the page when I compose… I’ve learned to allow all authentic voices out, to not judge anything that wants to be articulated.” His music conjures up the agitated period. A pursuit dominated by disjointed rhythms and police whistles depicts a small group of activists with a very large, but then illegal, purpose. The feeling of injustice is heightened in movements like Dextran Man, where a nervous rain dance tells of thousands calling out for medical aid when there was so little. Genuine grief is balanced by a cute sentimentality, and there are touches of humour,…

February 19, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: Bartók: Chamber Works for Violin (James Ehnes)

After the more serious material of the first two volumes, James Ehnes finishes his survey of Bartók’s chamber music for violin on an entertaining note. Here’s the Hungarian master in unbuttoned mood, tapping into the rich folk traditions of his native lands alongside his move to America and his flirtation with jazz. Contrasts was written for Benny Goodman and violinist Joseph Szigeti in 1938. It was one of the first pieces Bartók wrote in America. The music includes complex Bulgarian dance rhythms as well as recognising Goodman’s jazz heritage. The piece features top clarinetist, Michael Collins and pianist Andrew Armstrong. The charming Sonatina, based on Transylvanian folk themes, was originally composed for solo piano until 10 years later a student, Endre Gertler, brought Bartók a solo violin transcription. Bartók told Gertler that he’d wished he written it for fiddle in the first place. For the Forty-Four Duos – bite- sized colourful slices of folk music from the Balkans – Ehnes is joined by Amy Schwartz Moretti. Few of these pieces last a minute, except for the lovely prelude and canon. Some tunes will be familiar in other settings but played by two duelling violins they make for a spicy and entertaining 48 minutes. It’s…

February 15, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: Brahms: Clarinet Quintet (Martin Fröst)

Two masterpieces of Brahms’ late style, the Clarinet Quintet and the Trio for Clarinet, Piano and Cello were written in 1891 for the principal clarinetist of the Meiningen Orchestra, Richard Mühlfeld. For this recording, Fröst has separated the two with his own transcriptions of six of Brahms’ songs, including the beautiful Wie Melodien zieht es mir, which the composer revisited in his A Major Violin Sonata. The quintet and trio are major works by any standard, and Mühlfeld’s playing must have been extraordinary to have forced the middle-aged Brahms out of retirement with such spectacular results. But if you’re looking for the heart of Fröst’s approach to Brahms you’ll find its most unequivocal expression in the song transcriptions. Try Immer leiser wird mein Schlummer, where Fröst evokes a somnolent melancholy through a floating, vibrato-caressed tone, against Roland Pöntinen’s sensitive accompaniment. So – listen to the song transcriptions first. They’ll set you up nicely as fine an account of the B Minor quintet as you’ll hear anywhere. Joined by musicians of the calibre of Janine Jansen and Maxim Rysanov, Fröst infuses Brahms’ autumnal lyricism with a gentle urgency while responding to his partners’ impassioned yet poised playing with a touching sense of…

February 8, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: Birdsong At Dusk (Barton, Kurilpa String Quartet)

William Barton is well known for his cross-genre collaborations and adventurous performance style. We see both on this disc that features his famous didgeridoo playing, married with his talents as a composer. He’s joined here by a formidable line-up of musos, including the Kurilpa String Quartet, vocalist Delmae Barton (William’s mother) and violinist John Rodgers, in a stunning album that sees a blending of classically notated, popular and Indigenous Australian musical styles. Barton explores the full range and virtuosity of his instrument, with rumbling drones and colourful animal calls – we’re even treated to the expressively plaintive voice of Barton himself. The title track Birdsong at Dusk opens with him singing over rich murmurs in the cello that build to encompass the full quartet. There’s a haunting beauty in this free, open music, before it is transformed into a vibrant dance through the rhythmic spirit of the didgeridoo and clapping sticks. Petrichore features an impossibly fast dialogue between violin and didgeridoo, with the rapid, bullet- like staccato in the didge answering the busy passagework of John Rodgers’ impressive violin playing. 7/8 not too late is a fascinating, improvisatory didgeridoo solo that at one point breaks out into a sort of pop-inspired beatboxing. Here Barton is…

January 11, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: Belle Epoque (Galatea String Quartet)

If CDs can be judged by their covers then this intriguing release from the Zurich-based Galatea Quartet could be Record of the Year. And with typical creativity they don’t pair the venerable Debussy Quartet with its usual Ravel bedfellow, but instead throw in Milhaud’s First Quartet. And what a pleasant surprise it is, a work of real lyrical beauty and elegiac sensibility, until the vibrant finale whose darting rhythms and jack-in-the-box mood-swings so suits the playing style of this seriously engaging and altogether contemporary-sounding ensemble.  The Debussy too is excellently played, sounding crisp and fresh with the kind of youthful vigour, at which the Ebène are the current masters, and which typifies the current crop of outstanding new-generation string quartets. But perhaps most interest lies in the closing, three-movement Sonatine for String Quartet by Pierre Menu, a prodigiously gifted young French composer who at just 23 died from the effects of poison gas during the First World War. While the quasi-impressionist work itself isn’t especially individual, this world premiere recording does suggest that his premature loss to French music justified the grief expressed by his contemporaries.  It’s a close-miked recording, making some instrumental timbres and studio noises a touch too…

January 6, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: Brahms: String Quintets (Takács Quartet, Lawrence Power)

Limelight Editor’s Choice – Chamber – September, 2014 Was there really any doubt that this latest release from the Takács Quartet would be superb? Their previous discs of Brahms (including the Piano Quintet, Op 34 with Stephen Hough, and recordings of the string quartets) have been revelatory.  In writing these two quintets, Brahms chose to follow Mozart’s example in his choice of configuration for the strings with doubled viola, rather than the Schubertian choice of a second cello. Here, the Takács Quartet is joined by violist Lawrence Power to give powerful, dark-toned performances of Brahms’s string quintets. “Here is a marvellous example of how to work closely with other players in chamber music” The first quintet (in F Major, Op 88) was thought of by Brahms as one of his best works – he wrote to Clara Schumann boasting about it, and wrote to his publisher Simrock, saying simply, “You have never before had such a beautiful work from me”. It’s in this first quintet that Lawrence Power particularly shines, his tone enriching the texture most beautifully. The additional viola is given several extensive solos, and they’re played with passion and verve. In the slow movement, Brahms writes in the…

November 21, 2014
CD and Other Review

Review: In Colour (Melbourne Guitar Quartet)

In its previous two recordings, the Melbourne Guitar Quartet chose rather unusual material, including an arrangement of Nigel Westlake’s hypnotic percussion work, Omphalo Centric Lecture, and a reimagining of William Walton’s Five Bagatelles, originally for solo guitar. Here, the repertoire is far less adventurous. Reworkings of Albéniz’s Cordoba and Granados’s various Danzas Españolas have been played on guitar since the early 20th century, so the material here isn’t as fresh and unexpected. The arrangement of Debussy’s Suite Bergamasque has a curiously earthbound feel to it – this won’t replace any of the great pianists for favoured recordings of the work, though the famous Clair de Lune is appropriately dreamy. Furthermore, I feel that the extracts from both Debussy and Ravel’s string quartets (in both cases the second movement) are flat-out unsuitable for guitar quartet format. For example, the trill in the Ravel that introduces the soaring theme that should sound effortless, sounds laboured. Were these pieces chosen simply because they feature pizzicatos in the original string quartet versions? In both cases, tempos are on the slow side, exacerbating the issue. The Granados and Albéniz, on the other hand, are played well, benefitting from the extended range provided by the quartet’s…

January 12, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: Rapsodia (violin: Patricia Kopatchinskaja)

Dubbed the “barefoot fiddler”, Patricia Kopatchinskaja is a young violinist from Moldova. This intimate disc captures her raw energy and stylistic hunger, with a mixture of folksongs, 20th century and contemporary classical works for violin with accompanying piano, double bass and cimbalom. It’s hard not to get swept up in her sheer love of music, her sense of freedom and spontaneity. You hear this especially in the folksongs. Likewise, the fully-notated classical works sound freshly invented. And Kopatchinskaja’s liner notes are as fun and as frank as her playing. Dubbed “the music of my life”, the disc is a family affair. Joining Kopatchinskaja at various points is either or both of her parents, Emilia and Viktor, playing violin/viola and cimbalom respectively. The mix of styles can at times seem a little bizarre, even if the pieces share Eastern European roots. The standouts for me are the folksongs, although they’re complemented well by the more classical outings. Ravel’s Tzigane might be an obvious inclusion and Enescu’s folk-inspired pieces are perhaps a little dry, however Ligeti’s unadorned Duo and younger composer Jorge Sanchez-Chiong’s vignette Crin are gems. Overall, a disc full of vivid colour and confident virtuosity.

January 11, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: BEETHOVEN Violin Sonatas Nos 2, 5,10 (violin: Alina Ibragimova, piano: Cédric Tiberghien)

Again, their readings are marked by a seemingly infinite variety of inflections, astutely calculated nuances and exquisitely judged tempi. Listen to the way they play the deliberately out-of-sync notes in the Spring Sonata’s tiny scherzo (all 81 seconds of it, displaying Beethoven’s rather tentative approach to the idea of the four-movement sonata!), or the delightfully delicate way they negotiate the finale to the Op 12 No 2, when the piano reaches the end one bar later than the violinist. Hilary Finch, in her excellent sleeve notes, writes of the melody in the first movement of the Spring Sonata as “irresistibly vernal, creative sap rising freely…” which makes the drama of the second half of the movement all the more effectively contrasted. For all these delights, my greatest interest lay in the Op 96, Beethoven’s last Violin Sonata. Unlike the symphonies, piano sonatas and string quartets, Beethoven’s violin sonatas did not penetrate his “late” period, so this work is as close as we get. Nonetheless, it’s still enigmatic: its opening trill always seems to come out of silence as the continuation of music which has already begun. The overall mood of the work is lyrical, with a delightfully spiky scherzo, realized…

January 11, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: Beau Soir (Janine Jansen, Itamar Golan)

The great names of French music leap out, and we are also tantalised by the inclusion of the famous name of Boulanger. In this case, Lili, sister of famous teacher and musicologist Nadia. Lili’s contribution is a limpid three-minute Nocturne with a passionate central section. Less well known is the Swiss composer, Richard Dubugnon, who Jansen tells us is heir to the French sound.And it is true; Dubugnon’s pieces are safely at home with his famous colleagues Debussy, Ravel and Fauré – so much so that it is not always easy to tell where some of their music stops and his begins. He has three works on the CD: La Minute Exquise, Hynos and Retour à Montfort-l’Amaury. This last was written for the CD and is the most vigorous of the three. Messiaen’s splendid Thème et Variations is from the same oeuvre as Quatuor pour la fin du temps. The composer ranges widely from intimate delicacy to an energetic, passionate vigour that forms the core of the work. Fauré’s Après un rêve, which follows, sounds as if it could be an extra variation. One of the larger works on the CD is Debussy’s Sonata for Violin and Piano, a fine…