August 4, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: Apres un reve: Strauss, Faure, Britten, Chausson (soprano: Sandrine Piau)

If Sandrine Piau is aging, then nobody has passed the message on to her voice. The French soprano sounds as fresh and ravishing now as she ever has – and this new disc is another pearl in her exceptional solo discography. In line with the title, a dreamlike air pervades this selection of French, German and English songs. Piau’s iridescent soprano, underpinned by the limpid, evocative playing of her regular recital partner Susan Manoff, is ideally suited to the magic (and often the melancholy) of this music. Her voice’s natural shimmer becomes a fully-fledged glow in the Richard Strauss selections which open the disc – Piau’s rendition of the oft-recorded Morgen! could stand with the best of them – and of course she’s especially at ease in the French repertoire. Phrases floated sweetly in the air are her particular talent, but there’s no lack of expressive variety here. With unfailing sensitivity and elegant phrasing, she conveys the rapid cynicism of Poulenc’s Fêtes galantes as easily as the stillness of Mendelssohn’s Schlafloser Augen Leuchte or the rapture of Chausson’s Amour d’antan. The Galgenlieder (Gallows Songs) of contemporary composer Vincent Bouchot are a delightful surprise, and Piau renders them in vivid, memorable…

July 28, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: Wagner and Me (Stephen Fry)

Genial and general arts all-rounder Stephen Fry provides a useful introduction to Wagner in this new DVD. The film is full of fascinating behind-the-scenes activity in various opera houses, including Bayreuth. It’s also nicely shot, although I found a few of the musical edits a little clumsy. Fry has been criticised for inaccuracy, casual frivolity and for a “gee-gosh” approach to the subject. While there is some merit in those comments, what remains is an engaging journey through the Wagner myth and some of the music; an ideal introduction for those new to the composer and his works – and great fun for the rest of us. Fry also gets to grips with the serious side of the music, and the scene where he examines the astonishing Tristan chord is moving and instructional. Many Wagnerians take a deeply serious approach to the work of the great composer, especially The Ring. But high art needs its populist proselytisers, and Fry is ideally placed. He not only reveres Wagner, but is Jewish into the bargain – and this dilemma provides the film with added frisson. He handles this piece of hot toast adroitly and with feeling.  Fry is such a Wagnerite that…

July 28, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: ROSSINI: Arias (soprano: Julia Lezhneva; Sinfonia Varsovia/Minkowski)

At just 21 years old, Julia Lezhneva already has an enviable list of engagements to her name, and a growing discography: this release marks her third album by Naïve, and her solo début.  For such a young singer, the protégée of Kiri Te Kanawa, Lezhneva is indeed remarkable – but an artist promoted so heavily and so early needs to display a talent which transcends her age rather than making a selling point of it, and on this showing Lezhneva has yet to reach that point. Nor is she helped by the choice of repertoire here, a series of grand Rossini scenes, most of which demand greater maturity and vocal grandeur than Lezhneva can yet muster. Her voice is attractive, and dazzlingly agile, and she’s a sterling musician, but one senses she’s not yet tapped into the full expressive possibilities of her voice, nor yet sufficiently strengthened it at either top or bottom. Florid selections like Tanti affetti or Bel raggio lusinghier are reasonably successful – and her ardent Non più mesta is the disc’s highlight – but slower arias, like Sombre forêt or Giusto ciel, fall short, showing gorgeous legato but very little colour or sense of drama. If Naïve were determined…

July 28, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: BAROQUE DUETS (Fiona Campbell; David Walker; Ironwood)

This collection reunites Australian mezzo-soprano Fiona Campbell and American countertenor David Walker in duet following performances with Pinchgut Opera in Vivaldi’s Juditha Triumphans and Cavalli’s L’Ormindo. The latter was the starting point for this inspired partnership, with two scenes bound to please Pinchgut devotees since the production was never recorded for commercial release. A protégé of Monteverdi, Cavalli was the most influential and prolific opera composer of the 17th century. With duets from his L’Ormindo and La Calisto framing the album, Campbell and Walker invite listeners to dine on a banquet of Italian Baroque delicacies, with a few choice excerpts from Handel’s English oratorios and operas for good measure. Most of the duets being love songs or laments, there is much sighing and weeping and few opportunities to break out of a solemn mood.  In L’Ormindo’s extended Act III death scene Campbell’s warm mezzo is not always as controlled as it could be, but her unbridled fervour captures the anguish of a heroine’s darkest hour. Luminous, vibrato-less strings from period-instrument ensemble Ironwood bring clarity and gravity to the moment. Pur ti miro from Monteverdi’s L’Incoronazione di Poppea is the earliest work on the menu and the most ravishing, with voices…

July 12, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: BRITTEN: Cello Symphony; Symphonic Suite from Gloriana; Four Sea Interludes (Paul Watkins vc; Robert Murray t; BBC Phil/Gardner)

The Cello Symphony was one of Britten’s few substantial pieces of abstract symphonic music, and rather than dubbing it a concerto he places the soloist on more equal footing within the orchestral texture. The orchestration is just as vivid as his music for voice, but it is also one of the composer’s most fierce and challenging scores. The Chandos sound gives much-needed warmth to this angular, thorny terrain. The cello is less forward – and more introspective – than in Pieter Wispelwey’s recent recording, maintaining Britten’s desired balance. By the same token, Paul Watkins doesn’t have quite as much bite as the work’s dedicatee Rostropovich in the 1965 premiere recording conducted by Britten. Watkins maintains edge-of-your-seat energy throughout, particularly in the gutsy Presto inquieto where his virtuosic flair is matched by profound lyricism. The third-movement cadenza and its burnished trumpet obbligato are a highlight. In the Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes, Edward Gardner expertly explores the contrast in Britten’s palette, most effectively in the limpid precision of the BBC Philharmonic strings. The North Sea’s vast beauty, the lilt of maritime village life, and the underlying warning of what the harsh elements may have in store – all these are…

July 7, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: SERAPHIM: Arias (Sara Macliver; Various choirs and orchestras)

Seraphim takes its name from the opening Handel aria praising the highest order of angels. Sara Macliver, appropriately, is one of Australia’s most angelic-voiced sopranos, and this selection of recordings old and new presents a roughly chronological traversal of joyful and gentle music from the Baroque to popular music. ABC Classics’ ten-year portrait of the Perth-born singer comprises just over half a disc of new recordings, with the first section given over to jubilant Baroque arias in which her radiant personality shines through. The title track is elegant and buoyant under the Orchestra of the Antipodes and Brett Weymark, Macliver tossing off coloratura passages with brilliance and precision, matched by trumpet soloist Leanne Sullivan. Her diction, however, isn’t always as clear as her melodic lines. But in Purcell’s Hark! The Echoing Air from The Fairy Queen, she channels Emma Kirkby in her prime. Less convincing are the two contemporary offerings: a stiflingly smooth rendition of Bernstein’s Somewhere – no swell, no surge of emotion – and a similarly unremarkable Joni Mitchell cover. There’s no question Macliver’s silvery tone and supreme musicianship are a joy to hear, but Seraphim is all green pastures (none greener than Canteloube’s Baïlero) without any of…

July 7, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: PERGOLESI: Stabat Mater (Anna Netrebko; Marianna Pizzolato; Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia/Pappano)

Just when you thought the market for Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater had reached saturation point, here’s Deutsche Grammophon with yet another. Although it’s called A Tribute to Pergolesi, the title could as easily have been A Vehicle for Anna Netrebko, since the Russian soprano is surely its raison d’être. The repertoire is a surprising choice for Netrebko, but this recording is remarkably effective. Netrebko’s voice is about a size larger than one would usually expect in this repertoire, and lacks the pinpoint precision of a typical Baroque specialist, but she wields it with such ardency and lustrous, expansive sound that she’s hard to resist. Young contralto Marianna Pizzolato is less gripping but no less lovely. Underpinned by Pappano’s elegant, sympathetic conducting, the two singers make a striking pair.  The Stabat Mater itself is beautifully, if not sensationally performed, but what really clinches this tribute are the less familiar secular cantatas which precede the main event. Pizzolato’s limpid account of Questo è il piano is a minor revelation, and Netrebko’s fiery Nel chiuso centro is a major one – operatic yet not overblown, it’s a 16-minute précis of what makes this soprano such a captivating performer and thrilling proof that Pergolesi’s talent…

June 28, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: A LESSON IN LOVE: Songs by Schubert, Schumann, Debussy et al (soprano: Kate Royal; piano: Malcolm Martineau)

Two previous solo recordings by the British soprano Kate Royal displayed her broad musical interests and imaginative programming. Her new CD is equally thoughtful. Rather than structure a recital in the usual “four groups plus two encores” format, Royal has devised a story arc for her album. This “lesson in love” concerns a young girl’s journey from the anticipation of romance, meeting Mr Right, their marriage, and his ultimate betrayal. Opening with the little-known Waitin’ by William Bolcom, Royal fits many well-loved songs into the scenario, including Schubert’s Gretchen am Spinnrade, Duparc’s Extase, Britten’s setting of the folksong O Waly, Waly and three songs from Schumann’s Myrthen. Waitin’ is sung again at the very end by the now worldly-wise protagonist, this time with a more pensive and knowing attitude. Most of the 28 songs fit the storyline neatly; only a couple, such as Danny Boy, seem to come from out of nowhere. Royal’s soprano is surprisingly strong, though not naturally warm. She hails from a line of British singers that includes Felicity Lott, Margaret Price and the Australian Elsie Morison. Occasionally at forte her very top register takes on a raw quality, although in Gretchen her high notes are perfectly…

June 21, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: BRITTEN: Peter Grimes (Glyndebourne)

Peter Grimes is one of the roles for which American tenor Anthony Dean Griffey is best known: Australian audiences may have seen him in the cinema broadcast of the Metropolitan Opera’s Peter Grimes or at the West Australian Opera in 2009. This, however, is a much earlier Grimes, recorded live at Glyndebourne in 2000, and it’s likely his interpretation has matured since then. Griffey sings with a strong, often beautiful voice, but his delivery is disappointingly monochromatic and restrained, never properly plunging into the vast emotional depths the role offers. From the indignation of the Act I storm scene, to the wistfulness and subsequent violence of Act II, to the final desolation of the mad scene, Griffey’s Grimes sounds basically the same, his expressive palette too limited to suggest the character’s extraordinary trajectory. As his Ellen, Vivian Tierney makes a pallid beginning, but then hits her stride, singing the Embroidery Aria with a poignant, brittle sweetness. Susan Gorton is a suitably bawdy Auntie, though her voice is at times easily confused with that of Hilary Summers’ menacing Mrs Sedley, and Steven Page makes a solid if unmemorable Balstrode. Other roles are all filled respectably and the Glyndebourne chorus is in…

May 3, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: MOSTLY MOZART (soprano: Mojca Erdmann; La Cetra Barockorchester Basel/Marcon)

Mojca Erdmann is a young soprano from Hamburg, best known for her role in Simon Rattle’s Berlin recording of Ravel’s L’Enfant et les Sortilèges and as the soloist in Jonathan Nott’s performance of Mahler Four. In this, her first solo album, she seems perfectly matched to the Classical-period repertoire. Her smallish voice is flexible and pure-toned and she makes good use of vibrato for dramatic purposes, singing with great control, considerable beauty and an obvious awareness of character and dramatic context.  The program consists mostly of Mozart’s lighter roles. She is a pert Zerlina, but less characterful as Susanna. Even so, she manages the legato winningly in Susanna’s aria Deh vieni, non tardar. She throws herself with gusto into Tiger! Wetze nur die Klauen from Zaide, capping the aria with a ringing top D, yet draws out the line of Pamina’s aria from The Magic Flute at a slow tempo to produce a poised and heartfelt interpretation. Erdmann also sings two excerpts from Günter von Schwarzburg by Ignaz Holzbauer, an opera Mozart himself enjoyed, as well as arias by JC Bach, Paisiello and Salieri. Marcon and his “historically informed” band La Cetra play beautifully, another plus for this highly enjoyable…

March 29, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: HANDEL Arias: Ombra Cara (countertenor: Bejun Mehta; Freiburg Baroque/Jacobs)

Countertenor Bejun Mehta enters the increasingly crowded field of Handel recitals and triumphs with this engaging and exquisitely sung selection of arias and duets, many of them composed for the great castrato Senesino.  Dark yet delicate in timbre, Mehta’s voice defies the common criticisms (or myths) surrounding the countertenor voice, displaying not only spectacular agility but a wealth of colour, superb dynamic control, and a steely strength which underpins the sheer loveliness of sound.  But it is Mehta’s vocal acting which lifts this recital to another level. Be it in the exultant coloratura of Sento la gioia, the long, hushed lines of Stille amare or the militant staccati of Fammi combatere, Mehta teams technical brilliance with sensitive expressivity, capturing even the most broadly drawn Baroque emotions with touching sincerity.  Collections of Handel arias are hardly thin on the ground these days – barely a month seems to pass without a few new additions to the discography – but Mehta’s rare combination of virtuosity and expressive acuity makes this recital one of the finest such releases in recent years.

January 12, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: CHARPENTIER David and Jonathan (Soloists and Chorus of Pinchgut Orchestra, Cantillation, Orch of the Antipodes/Walker)

 This recording was made over four performances by Pinchgut Opera at Sydney’s City Recital Hall in 2008. It shows clearly the advantages – and limitations – of live performance recordings. The advantages are the feeling of immediacy, of being caught up in the excitement and danger of live performance. If one performer falters, the whole ensemble can fall. On audio, however, live performance can be distracting. Footsteps, movement of scenery, and of course audience noise, can take the edge from an otherwise immaculate performance. That does happen here intermittently. But only intermittently. In essence, this is another splendid outing from Pinchgut, which continues to offer esoteric operas our national company could not economically stage in the major Sydney and Melbourne theatres. This opera from 1688 features some of Charpentier’s most unshackled writing, free from earlier performance conventions. It’s performed here on Baroque instruments while the supple voices of the principals – especially the outstanding Baroque tenor Anders J Dahlin as David, Sara MacIiver as his beloved Jonathan and baritone Dean Robinson as Jonathan’s father Saul – tackle the special demands of this period’s music with relish. Some studio recordings have finer polish than this, but few match its impetuous drama.

January 12, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: DVORÁK Rusalka (singers: Martínez, Jovanovich, Schelomianski, Diadkova; The Glyndebourne Chorus, London Philharmonic Orchestra/Belohlávek)

 Glyndebourne’s Rusalka made headlines last year when soprano Ana María Martínez took a tumbleinto the orchestra pit, escaping injury only by landing on a cellist instead of the floor. She was back on the proverbial horse for the rest of the season, however, and now we have a souvenir of those performances, with Martínez in pretty and plaintive voice as the doomed nymph. Her vibrato won’t be to all tastes, but ultimately this is a fine, persuasive portrayal. That said, she’s very nearly outshone by her colleagues. Brandon Jovanovich cuts a dashing figure as the Prince, singing with clarion freshness, while two Russians – Mischa Schelomianski as Vodník and Larissa Diadkova as Ježibaba – bring idiomatic colour and lyricism to their roles. Bit parts are admirably filled across the board; the three Wood Nymphs are especially impressive, but the star of this show is conductor Jirí Belohlávek. His shimmering reading revels in both the fairytale magic and the humanity of Dvoák’s opera, drawing from the London Philharmonic playing of revelatory and refined romanticism. This set inevitably includes some stage and audience noise, but this is relatively unobtrusive and, especially as weighed against Blohlávek’s mighty contribution, ought not to deter any but…