March 23, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: Beethoven: Complete Symphonies (Berlin Philharmonic/Karajan)

As we leave CDs behind and move into downloads – where music will no longer be a collectors item but just another dreary list on your computer screen – somebody at Universal Classics at least has a sense of history.  It is five decades since Herbert von Karajan’s 1963 set of the Beethoven symphonies with the Berlin Philharmonic was released. It was not the first recording of these works by the one orchestra and conductor – Karajan himself had recorded them in the 1950s with the Philharmonia – but it was the first to be released and marketed as a set. DG executives were worried the gamble would fail and they wouldn’t break even, but within ten years a million copies had been sold. I once stayed with two lumberjacks in Banff, Canada: these were only classical records they owned. It was everybody’s introduction to Beethoven. The orchestra made these recordings after five years with Karajan in charge. During that time he had hired young players and retired older ones. He also had begun to insist on the ‘long line’ of lyrical impulse, but not yet the moulding of orchestral balance to prioritise beauty of sound over energy and attack….

March 21, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: Shostakovich: Violin Concertos (Tetzlaff)

Shostakovich’s First Violin Concerto is, more or less, in the mainstream but, I have to confess, I’d actually forgotten that he actually wrote a second! Tetzlaff is up with the best in virtually anything he does and his performance and interpretation is very fine. My favourite movement is always the introductory Nocturne, with its sinuous (and in this case sinewy theme). The two even numbered movements provide colour and movement with all the deliberately sinister overtones of forced hilarity and rejoicing they always convey in Shostakovich’s scores. Tetzlaff is alive to every nuance here. In the great Passacaglia, the work’s center of gravity, he is genuinely moving with rock steady tone and dignified phrasing. Of course David Oistrakh, for whom both works were written, casts an eternally long shadow. Nonetheless, Tetzlaff is eminently recommendable.  The Second Concerto was composed in 1966 and is a very different kettle of fish. More sparsely orchestrated, it consists of mainly slow music until the last minutes. The first movement has the sphinx-like inscrutability common to many Shostakovich late scores and the second tends to meander. Tetzlaff is impressive here, but it’s not surprising the work features rarely in concert. Ondine’s sound, Storgårds’ conducting and…

March 15, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: Phase 4 Concert Stereo (Various)

The Decca Phase 4 label began as part of London Records, Decca’s American branch, to specialise in sonic spectaculars. The opposite of Mercury, which employed two microphones, the Phase 4 engineers multi-miked orchestras and highlighted instruments and sections at the mixing desk. From 1964 to 1978 they recorded classical music, often hiring famous but neglected conductors.  This anthology gives a wide cross section, from Robert Merrill singing American patriotic songs with soupy arrangements, to Paco Peña’s flamenco guitar, to Orff’s Carmina Burana. Much is no longer popular, nor does it have the ‘cool’ factor to warrant a revival.  Stokowski conducts Berlioz, Russian music and Vivaldi’s Four Seasons at the end of his career, but is far better served by his 1950s EMI recordings. (His best Phase 4 disc, coupling Ives and Messiaen, is absent!) Stokowski’s Beethoven 9, along with Leinsdorf’s Mahler 1 and Doráti’s New World Symphony are comparatively successful, while Stanley Black is a good conductor of light music. The most interesting recordings are of Herrmann and Rósza conducting their film scores, but these are more extensively covered in Eloquence editions. Decca’s English executives pooh-poohed the Phase 4 sonics, and they were right. The sound is dry, unnaturally close,…

March 13, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: Vivaldi: The Four Seasons (Rutter)

Vivaldi’s most famous work readily lends itself to being performed on flute or recorder, the instruments’ pastoral and avian associations making them a natural fit for these bucolic tone poems overflowing with evocations of birdsong, peasant dances and storms. Jane Rutter and Sinfonia Australis take a hybrid approach, combining modern flute with a small period band under the brilliant Erin Helyard conducting from the harpsichord. Many of the players are Brandenburg Orchestra regulars, including Matt Bruce, Kirsty McCahon and Tommie Andersson on theorbo. The argument thus becomes less about authenticity per se and more about marrying an appropriate period style to an anachronistic tonal palette. Fortunately, it works a treat. Adopting a flexible approach to pulse and tempo throughout – both qualities can be heard right from the outset in Spring – Rutter steers a middle course between highly articulated declamation and floating lyricism in the midst of Sinfonia Australis’ sharply drawn yet delicately rendered sylvan landscapes. Of the two works included which Vivaldi actually did write for flute, the ever-popular Concerto in D Minor RV428 “Il gardellino” and the Concerto in G Minor “La notte”, Rutter uses a 19th-century instrument with an ebony joint for the latter. The sound…

March 10, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: Haydn: Piano Concertos (Bavouzet)

No other composer, in my experience, had such a warm and simple character (but a multi-faceted musical personality) as Joseph Haydn. Widely contrasting elements of Rococo delicacy and sturdiness combine with exuberance and melancholy, seriousness and wit, forcefulness and elegance. However, unlike Mozart, Haydn’s only concertos to have fared well are the two cello concertos (one discovered relatively recently) and his trumpet concerto. Neither the violin nor the keyboard concertos have entered the Haydn ‘canon’.  In the case of the keyboard concertos, it’s not for want of distinguished advocacy: In the mid ‘70s, Michelangeli (of all people ) recorded two with the Zurich Chamber Orchestra under Edmund de Stoutz and, more recently, pianists of the calibre of Andsnes and Hamelin have essayed their considerable charms, with impressive and persuasive results. Now, Jean-Efflam Bavouzet has interrupted his Haydn Sonata cycle with three genuine concertos ie. the three without textural or chronological ambiguity to cast doubt on their authenticity.  Bavouzet has been around for a while but recently he’s entered the “Is there anything this guy can’t do?” stratosphere with an acclaimed Beethoven Sonata cycle, an award winning Prokofiev Concerto cycle, Debussy, and miraculous Ravel, as heard in his Sydney recital last…

February 27, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: Concerto (John Williams)

Entering his fifth decade of performing, it would be natural to expect John Williams to take a creative step back. Instead, it seems that he has undergone a creative resurgence, beginning to publish his own compositions on his own website, and now making recordings himself, too. In the last year, he’s recorded a new CD of solo guitar works, but Williams here turns to concerto repertoire.   This stylistically varied recording begins with a re-visiting of Williams’ collaboration with Chilean group Inti-Illimani. Danza’s Peregrinas is re-worked material from Inti-Illimani’s repertoire, expanded for three soloists and orchestra. The orchestrations here are rather lush, and it’s difficult to resist the rhythmic precision and playfulness of these danzas.   Williams has been a notable supporter of Australian composers, so it’s appropriate that he includes a home-grown work (originally written for him in the 90’s) on this recording with Ross Edwards’ Arafura Dances. Utilising Edwards’ familiar maninyas, the work is an exploration of virtuosic rhythms.   Stephen Goss’s music has been gaining popularity, having been added to the repertoire of some of the major names in the guitar world such as young virtuoso Xuefei Yang. I’ve not yet been converted, finding his works laboured….

February 20, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: Cole Porter in Hollywood

It is now six years since aficionados of the classic Broadway musical mourned the tragically early death of John McGlinn, who did such exhaustive work creating definitive recordings with authentic orchestrations and vocal arrangements. We can thank EMI (now Warner Classics) for signing John Wilson who has continued in the tradition but with a focus on the film musical.  The first two albums, That’s Entertainment and Rodgers and Hammerstein at the Movies, were delightful romps and this latest is likewise. Wilsons’ reconstructions of the souped-up Hollywood orchestrations are delivered by his hand-picked band in period style with swoopy strings and fruity saxes, but with just enough British reserve to avoid going over-the-top in glitz; one can still visualise a knowing campy twinkle in the eye.  His casting of singers is impeccable; genuine Broadway style voices with no nasty modern pop-vocalist mannerisms or plum-in-the-gob operatic diction – oh, how nice it is to hear every delicious Porter lyric clearly enunciated in a natural idiomatic style.   Most of the program is from the 1950s, so the opening number from Silk Stockings makes an apt curtain raiser as a paean to the technological innovations of that decade with Anna-Jane Casey and Matthew…

February 20, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: Sculthorpe: The ABC Recordings

According to interviews, the late Peter Sculthorpe stipulated that from the earliest he could remember, he wanted to not only be a composer but, more specifically, an Australian one. And it was during the late 50s and 60s that he came of age with innovative works like Irkanda and the seminal Sun Music I – IV – a time when Australian literature (Patrick White) and art (Drysdale, Boyd, et al) would present our land of ‘wide and open plains’, not to mention indigenous culture to an international audience. In this generous boxed set containing several ARIA winners, we see his growth as a composer, often leading to to a later rewrite. For example, there are two performances of Sun Music (the old EMI recording led by John Hopkins and a later one featuring the Adelaide Symphony with David Porcelijn which replaces western style drones with didjeridu). Irklanda IV has three recordings, the bird-like glissandi and static approach reflecting the heat of the outback. The orchestral recordings culminate in his late masterpiece, his Requiem which brings together the Adelaide forces under Arvo Volmer with didjeridu virtuoso, William Barton. An equally important bonus lies in a DVD devoted to the works that arguably…

February 5, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: Shostakovich: Cello Concertos (Oslo Philharmonic)

In my recent review of Petrenko’s recording of Shostakovich’s Fourteenth Symphony, I said it made his other lugubrious works sound like Offenbach. Well, I spoke too soon. Despite excellent playing, conducting and engineering, I strongly recommend against anyone in anything like a fragile state listening to this CD. Mørk has covered these works before but I doubt whether those recordings could top these. The Oslo Philharmonic’s accompaniment certainly reinforces Petrenko’s reputation as one of the great Shostakovich conductors of our age. Mørk also distinguishes himself throughout, conveying the gruesome parade of fear, anxiety, despair, grotesquerie and sheer bafflement. They keep the first movement of the First Concerto moving in a business- like way, making it even more sinister. In their hands, the final movement’s inclusion of a supposedly favourite folk song of Stalin is more sardonic than ever, while the threnody-like second movement sees a few green shoots of warmth and lyricism. The Second is far less known and for me the most telling moment, especially in the current international context, was the way the orchestral climax in the first movement is brutally quelled by the bass drum, as if to kill any momentum. Petrenko and Mørk’s tempi in this work are among the…

February 3, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: Mozart: Piano Concertos (Angela Hewitt)

Angela Hewitt has made a career as the other great Bach pianist from Toronto, though like her predecessor, Glenn Gould, she has recorded much more widely – from Couperin to Ravel. This is the third instalment in an ongoing cycle of Mozart’s Piano Concerti – this one devoted to two of his larger scale later works, No 22 with its varied instrumental accompaniment and the grand C Minor with its inventive clarinet obbligato. Hewitt has chosen live performances – though you’d never guess it, so quiet and unobtrusive is the audience. And while there is an occasional blurred or overplayed passage where the left hand dominates, the variety of colour is amazing. Her performances are informed as much by earlier piano practice as individual insight. She is joined by the National Arts Centre Orchestra who are equally vividly caught by the microphones, bringing out those inner incisive rhythms that we associate so strongly with Mozart. These are personal performances which admirably capture much of Hewitt’s live allure and we must remember that these concerti were ‘cutting edge’ when Mozart wrote them in the mid 1780s – so new in fact, that this was a mere decade after the introduction of the clarinet…

February 2, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: Martha Argerich & Friends (Live at the Lugano Festival 2013)

The range of pieces here is so wide that all I can do is comment on the individual works. But I must admit I like live performances, where we know that minimal ‘tarting up’ has taken place. Drawn from a concert given at the Lugano Festival in 2013, we begin with Beethoven’s First Piano Concerto. This delightful work proceeds with more punch than usual and Argerich is in fine form. The last movement, arguably the bounciest piece Beethoven ever wrote, is splendid. Argerich delivers the same incisive standard in the rarer Second Cello Sonata. The cellist, Gautier Capuçon, does not quite match the level of his accompanist. One would be hard pressed to recognise the usually flamboyant Respighi, the composer of the great Roman orchestral triptych, by his more sober and formal Violin Sonata. Workmanlike is the best word I can find for it; still it’s worth having, especially the lyrical final movement. Minor Liszt and less familiar Shostakovich follow, both initially hiding their identities, they give cellist Capuçon some fine opportunities to shine. The third disc is soley devoted to French music, beginning with the rapturous Ravel Violin Sonata. Wistful and elegant, it wends its way for 16 minutes across…

January 31, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: Mendelssohn: Symphonies, Hebrides Overture (CBSO/Gardner)

Basing a Mendelssohn cycle on his appearances in Birmingham with the local band is a rather jejune connection. Was there anywhere Mendelssohn didn’t go? That said, I greatly enjoyed these performances in which Edward Gardner, yet another glamorous and talented young conductor, cuts a swathe through familiar works. I’ve never heard the last movement of the Italian Symphony dispatched with such brio. It’s altogether sunnier than Brüggen’s recent recording. I also commend the way Gardner observes the first movement repeat, which has what must be the loveliest ‘lead backs’ in music. The Reformation Symphony was composed to mark the 300th anniversary of the Augsburg Confession, a major milestone in the formation of the Lutheran Church. (Despite his Jewish heritage, Mendelssohn became a Lutheran convert.) In the Symphony, he uses ‘Catholic’ polyphony which is ultimately overcome by the Lutheran Chorale Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott. Scoring and structure are simultaneously grandly architectural and austere, though I was bemused to read one description of the waltz in the scherzo as “louche”. Calling anything by Mendelssohn “louche” is like saying one of Bruckner’s scherzos is “chic”. Chandos’s sound and the CBSO’s playing are gorgeous, especially the Principal Flute, which intones the hymn tune. This work deserves the same…

January 31, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: Mlynarski, Zarzycki: Violin Concertos

Hyperion continue their excellent work in unearthing rare concerti, giving the lie to the cliché that interest in classical music, especially non-mainstream works, is in decline. Music by two Polish composers from the late 1800s is under the microscope on this occasion, wonderfully played by violinist Eugene Ugorski and the Scottish Orchestra conducted by Michał Dworzyński. Emil Młynarski studied composition with Liadov and orchestration with Rimsky-Korsakov. The brilliance of the latter’s instruction is clear in Młynarski’s work. He was a conductor of opera and orchestras, working across the musical spectrum in Poland all his life. His two concertos are fine, romantic works, so good as to wonder at their eclipse over the last century. Twenty years separate the two concerti, the second emerging as the more subtle of the two. The Ukrainian, Aleksander Zarzycki, studied in Berlin before settling in Warsaw in 1871. A popluar dance at the time known in Paris as the cracovienne and in Vienna as the krakauer, emerges here as the attractive two-part Introduction et Cracovienne. The Mazurka is dedicated to the Spanish composer, Sarasate. For me, it is the most familiar piece on the disc; a delightful work. These are all very attractive compositions, and I…

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