4 August, 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…

28 July, 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…

28 July, 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…

28 July, 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…

12 July, 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…

7 July, 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…

7 July, 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…