August 31, 2017
CD and Other Review

Review: Suite Cubed (Umberto Clerici)

Bach’s six suites for solo cello are cornerstones of the repertoire, and since Casals, they’ve been championed by a host of the world’s greatest virtuoso cellists. The intimacy of the suites, their arcs and lines, and general architecture, are familiar to a great many listeners. There are countless recordings, ranging in interpretation of phrasing, bowing, and tempo, and each connoisseur will have their favourite. But none will have experienced a reinterpretation quite like Umberto Clerici’s. In Suite Cubed, the Sydney Symphony Orchestra principal cellist adopts the general blueprint of the original suites, forming two new suites pieced together from various solo works from the 17th through to the 20th centuries. Bach’s music is treated as a kind of platform for exploring the experience of a solo cello suite: its pacing, progression of tempi and mood, dance character, and dramatic flow. From this familiar territory, Clerici charts a new course, weaving lines into unexpected places in this fascinating approach to musical curation, a kind of contemporary meditation on one of the Baroque’s most popular genres. Clerici’s playing is soulful, robust, and beautifully sculpted. In the first Suite Cubed, in D, he springs from Bach’s resonant and buoyant D Major Prelude backwards…

July 27, 2017
CD and Other Review

Review: Beethoven • Czerny • Liszt: Bagatelles, Piano Sonatas, Variations on a Theme by Rode (Melvyn Tan)

Carl Czerny was a piano student of Beethoven, and played his teacher’s sonatas as they appeared. As a composer he was responsible for many pieces designed to address specific aspects of piano technique. In time, Czerny taught Liszt and possibly influenced his writing; hence the CD title, Master & Pupil. Melvyn Tan first came to prominence as a proponent of the fortepiano, recording the Beethoven concertos on that instrument in the early 1990s with period-style conductor Roger Norrington. Here Tan plays a modern Steinway, but his classical sensibility remains in terms of polish over profundity. Having said that, he employs appropriately Romantic rubato in both the Beethoven Sonata No 30 and Liszt’s B Minor Sonata, and his overview of those two masterpieces contains much lovely playing, while always remaining in scale. In the Liszt we are probably used to more sheer heft, but Tan’s subtle detail proves engrossing.   Beethoven’s Six Bagatelles (his final piano composition) benefit from the simplicity of Tan’s approach; he does not push them out of shape by being over-emotive. To my mind, the pianist is most impressive in the Czerny works: the Variations on a Theme by Rode, and the Funeral March for Beethoven. Showing…

July 27, 2017
CD and Other Review

Review: Bach: The Complete Well-Tempered Clavier recorded by key (Ian Holtham)

To record Bach’s “48” complete – 96 intensely-crafted miniatures spanning nearly five hours – is an immense undertaking. Ian Holtham arranges the movements not in the traditional chronology – Book I (1722) then Book II (1742) – but by key. Each key pair has Book I before Book II, save at the half-way point (F minor) and the end (B minor), where he puts the lighter Book II before the profound Book I. His unique ordering exposes many correspondences and relations between the pairs not heard before. Holtham plays Bach insightfully, adding personal ornamentation, tonal shading and articulation. His fugue voicing is always crystal clear, while his delicacy in some of the most archaic fugal types is almost subdued for such grandeur.Rapid pieces are given virtuosic renditions, difficult problems are gracefully solved. In Book II he makes sense of often rambling structures with clever contrasts of articulation and tonal shading: the G Sharp Major Prelude – the only one with f/p marks, almost unrecognisable as Bach – is exquisitely given, bound to the vast triple fugue that follows, a total contrast of introverted chromaticism. Closing with the Book I B Minor Fugue, its subject the first 12-tone row in music,…

July 27, 2017
CD and Other Review

Review: Haydn: Piano Sonatas Volume 6 (Jean-Efflam Bavouzet)

Six volumes into Jean-Efflam Bavouzet’s tour through the complete Haydn Piano Sonatas, listeners will have a pretty good idea of what to expect. Neither Bavouzet nor his instrument (a contemporary Yamaha concert grand) are particularly interested in authenticity. Instead you get a witty, urbane, slightly French-accented take on repertoire that has long cried out for a contemporary champion. This is Haydn for, and of, a new generation. Wisely ignoring chronology, each volume is a musical lucky dip, throwing together a diverse grouping of works. Volume Six is built around the spacious Sonata in B Flat Major, No 11. Gone is the limpid Bavouzet of his Debussy recordings, and in its place an assertive, rhetorical voice whose lines emerge with such clarity that the effect is of a piano reduction of a comic operatic ensemble. The more sedate E Flat Major Sonata No 43 feels, by contrast, rather anonymous, despite Bavouzet’s frisky ornaments. This gives way with calculated shock to the expansive grace of the central Minuet and Trio. Bavouzet makes his slow movements sing in silky tone and legatos, but it’s the livelier, comic movements where he really comes into his own. I defy anyone to listen to the irrepressible…

June 30, 2017
CD and Other Review

Review: The American Recordings (Paderewski)

Ignacy Jan Paderewski (1860-1941) was the most famous classical pianist of the early 20th century. (Another great pianist, Moriz Rosenthal, mockingly remarked: “He plays well… but he’s no Paderewski.”) He became Prime Minister of Poland in 1919, following his successful lobbying to have Poland granted independence after the war. He toured Australia in 1904, but mostly to America where eventually he settled and was one of the first landowners to establish a vineyard in California. A charismatic figure, Paderewski was in great demand in the recording studio. Between 1914 and 1931 he made many records for the Victor Company, all reproduced in this set, including one newly discovered matrix. There are no concertos or sonatas, but his repertoire is remarkably mainstream: Chopin, Schubert, Liszt and Debussy. (This is in marked contrast to records made by contemporary opera singers, who seemed wedded to third-rate material.) He included his own music in recitals, especially his popular Minuet in G. We get four takes of it here (from 1917, 1923 and 1927), the first the most ingratiating. The biggest surprise comes from the earliest session: Couperin’s Pièces de Clavecin, Book 5, No 8 and Book 14, No 2. Tempos are wayward, but he…

June 30, 2017
CD and Other Review

Review: Grant Foster: Works for Piano (Grant Foster)

Hitting play on Grant Foster’s world premiere recordings – When Love Speaks – I am nicely settled and ready to pen my review. What I am not ready for is the raw romance of this solo pianist and composer; to be struck and emotionally swayed by his music in less than five seconds flat. What is this beautiful work? Romance in C Sharp Minor brings us the feel of its title, and holds nothing back – while powerful, it exposes a vulnerability that reaches the heart. Romance in C follows, leading us into a gentler introspection. After its soothing introduction, a pure melody line with just enough harmonic support tells us its story; Foster continues this style through each piece. We hear rises and falls one would expect from Romantic works written more than a century ago. Foster’s music is ambitiously reminiscent of the greats, notably Chopin and Rachmaninov, but with an accessible human touch. I nearly leap out of my seat when I hear the Piano Sonata, which opens with a darkness successfully indicative of its dedication to those lost in war. Elegy is a stirring homage to Sir Robert Helpmann; and Six Preludes, like much of Foster’s work,…

June 30, 2017
CD and Other Review

Review: Beethoven: Piano Sonatas (Paavali Jumppanen)

Finnish pianist Paavali Jumpannen’s formidable repertoire includes cycles of Mozart and Beethoven, his Boulez Sonatas are critically acclaimed, and he is a vigorous champion of new music. Jumpannen’s scholarly and voracious approach is reflected in meticulously researched liner notes for this fourth instalment in his cycle of Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas. This set covers seven middle-period works: Sonatas 16-18 (Op. 31, from 1802), and 24-27 (Opp. 78, 79, 81a and 90, from 1809-14). These are deeply thoughtful readings, restrained and delicate, less volcanic than is often the case but with absolute technical precision and nuance. This is particularly evident in what the pianist terms the “enigmatic arpeggios” of the Tempest Sonata, which in his hands are more rippling than tempestuous and replete with contemplative pauses. The extraordinary trills of Op. 90 are rendered with high drama and expertly-judged balance between the hands, resulting in a breath-taking performance of this sonata, a precursor of the anguished emotionality that would receive fuller expression in Beethoven’s late works. The recording is rich and present with lovely depth, with a slight tendency to brightness in the upper registers. Listeners interested in these endlessly fascinating sonatas will find much of note in Jumpannen’s interpretations – a…

June 30, 2017
CD and Other Review

Review: Bartók: Piano Music Volume 3 (Cédric Tiberghien)

French pianist Cédric Tiberghien opens the third disc of his Bartók series with the Hungarian composer’s First Piano Sonata. Tiberghien’s rendition is heavy with rubato, giving the first movement a quirky, lurching feel – very different to the driving forward momentum of Claude Helffer or the solid pacing of Alain Planés, who have recorded the work for Harmonia Mundi. But if the rhythm feels wayward, the tone sparkles – Tiberghien wrings as much glitter as he does crunch from the dissonant folk-harmonies, and the recording quality is immaculate. There is a gravitas to the Sostenuto E Pesante and a crisp, dancing energy to the Allegro Molto. Tiberghien’s translucent sound and spacious approach in the Three Hungarian Folk Songs from the Csík District – settings of melodies the composer heard played on a peasant flute – imbues these miniatures with a sense of mystery, while Tiberghien revels in the eccentric characters of the Bagpipers and the lumbering Bear Dance in Bartók’s Sonatina. The lively Three Rondos on Slovak Folk Tunes feel clean and simply drawn compared with the darker, more complex Opus 18 Etudes that follow, before the disc culminates with Bartók’s Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion. Pianist François-Frédéric Guy…

June 23, 2017
CD and Other Review

Review: Fantasies (Piotr Anderszewski)

This programme is built around around two substantial Fantasias for piano: the Mozart in C Minor K475, composed in 1785, and the early Fantasie in C by Schumann, written in 1836. Although only 50 years separate them, the two works fall distinctly into the Classical and Romantic periods of European music. They share a free form in common (in spite of the Schumann falling, sonata-like, into three movements), but their differences are fundamental. Mozart’s idea of the fantasy is to be free with keyboard decoration, and to roam through different keys and thematic ideas not dictated by a predetermined structure. Schumann’s idea of fantasy is an emotional one, ranging through those heightened states so beloved of the early Romantics, namely fiery passion and introspective melancholy. Mozart’s Piano Sonata No 14 is also in C Minor: a dark key for the composer (as for Beethoven), so there is an argument that a more Romantic approach is justified. In both works pianist Piotr Anderszewski gives us just that, to generally good effect. He is suitably stormy in the Sonata’s first movement, but I find the slow movement – for all his sensitivity – to be too introverted. He approaches it with eyes…

June 2, 2017
CD and Other Review

Review: The Complete DG Recordings (Maurizio Pollini)

Unlike the lifelong artistic journey of some other pianists, that of Maurizio Pollini has remained remarkably consistent. Winning the 1960 International Chopin Competition, the young virtuoso’s approach right from the start was one of clarity, served by a technique of formidable strength and accuracy. Pollini made two recordings of Chopin for EMI, then took an extended break. In 1971 he signed with DG where he has remained to this day. Every one of his early LPs was an event, due to his phenomenal concentration and technical assurance: His Prokofiev Seventh Sonata and Stravinsky’s Three Pieces from Petrouchka, and his Chopin Études, remain gramophone classics. From then until the ultimate release in this box from 2014, he has not so much mellowed as matured. He continues to seek out a work’s structure and clarify its textures; he is revelatory in Schoenberg. The more important the music, the better. Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier (Book 1), Beethoven’s and Schubert’s late Piano Sonatas all receive this treatment. The slow movement of Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto (especially in the earlier performance under Karl Böhm) is neither personal introspection nor a lyrical serenade; it is a hymn. With Pollini you get none of the wry humour…

May 19, 2017
CD and Other Review

Review: Bach & Tárrega et al: Two Portraits of One Subject (Paul Ballam-Cross)

I’ve been listening to a lot of Schumann lately, so it was with some pleasure I discovered that young Australian guitarist/composer Paul Ballam-Cross also finds Schumann “deeply inspiring” as he admits in the note on his self-titled debut recital. Ballam-Cross’s Two Portraits of One Subject is dedicated to Schumann. But those same qualities of melancholy, intimacy and nostalgia permeate the entire programme, which comprises works by Schumann (of course), Bach (a favourite of Schumann’s), Tárrega (who adored Schumann’s music), Chopin (born the same year as, and championed by, Schumann) and Sor (whose three studies evoke a kind of Schumannesque saudade). Tárrega’s preludes owe a debt to Chopin, and it is with Tárrega’s transcription of Chopin’s Mazurka No 4 that Ballam-Cross prefaces his sensitively rendered performances of those nine miniature masterpieces. He opens his recital, however, with Bach’s oft-performed-on-guitar Suite No 1 in G. He makes of it a spacious, searching prelude to the rest of the programme, which then moves through Sor to Ballam-Cross’s own lyrical, musical commentaries on Schumann’s work and personality, Chopin and Tárrega, before coming to rest, appropriately, on the latter’s transcription of Schumann’s Bunte Blätter No 1. This is a beautiful and thoughtful debut, which as…

May 19, 2017
CD and Other Review

Review: Liszt & Wagner: Piano Works (Imogen Cooper)

In addition to masterful technique and sensitive lyricism, the English pianist Imogen Cooper is renowned for her impeccably considered and well-researched programmes, which eschew obvious choices. Her fifth recording for Chandos explores Franz Liszt and Richard Wagner, exact contemporaries with personalities, egos and intertwined personal lives more generally associated with dissolute rockers of a century later; despite often strained relations, they were friends and great mutual admirers. This album’s initial impetus was Cooper’s rediscovery of Zoltán Kocsis’ piano transcription of the Prelude to Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, and the notion of playing it alongside Liszt’s transcription of the Liebestod, effectively, the beginning and end of the (five hour) opera. Particularly inspired is Cooper’s decision to include, as a bridge between these two abysses, Liszt’s La Lugubre Gondola, written after a premonition that Wagner would die in Venice and his body would be borne along the Grand Canal, which did in fact happen. Also included are four of Liszt’s Italian Années de Pèlerinage, and his extraordinary transcription of Gretchen from his Faust Symphony, which glistens in Cooper’s hands. The liner notes by Dr Conor Farrington are erudite, learned and fascinating, as are the additional notes from Cooper herself. Zoltán Kocsis died…

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