March 15, 2016
CD and Other Review

Review: Toivo Kuula: South Ostrobothnian Suites Nos 1 & 2 (Turku Philharmonic Orchestra/Leif Segerstam)

Opening with the broad Festive March Op. 13, Ondine’s latest release of music by Finnish composer Toivo Kuula presents orchestral works from a composer better known for his vocal writing. Though more solemn than ‘festive’, the expansive March places Kuula in the tradition of Sibelius, with whom he studied composition. Kuula’s orchestral offerings are unfortunately limited: the composer died young, killed in a fight during celebrations for the end of Finland’s Civil War. The first South Ostrobothnian Suite opens with chorale-like brass and winds underscored by motoring pizzicato strings. The cor anglais is the star of this movement, Landscape, Satu Ala’s tone liquid and tenebrous. The second movement, Folk Song, drips with Finnish melancholy while Ostrobothnian Dance is elegant and convivial. The third movement, Devil’s Dance, is bright and cheery and Song of Dusk is full of rich melody, once again featuring the cor anglais. South Ostrobothnian Suite No. 2 is the work of a more mature composer, but is very much a suite of convenience raher than musical unity – Kuula himself often performed the movements separately at concerts he conducted. The final movement, Will-o’-the-Wisp, opens with a treacley cello solo and is longer than all of the preceding movements combined….

February 22, 2016
CD and Other Review

Review: Ryan Wigglesworth: Echo and Narcissus (Hallé)

Ryan Wigglesworth is making a name for himself as an accomplished conductor, composer and pianist. He is Composer in Residence with the English National Opera, for whom he is writing an opera for the 2017 season, and is Principal Guest Conductor of the Hallé orchestra, who feature on this recording. This album is the first full-length portrait of his compositions and demonstrates his prowess over a variety of mediums. Wigglesworth’s Echo and Narcissus: A Dramatic Cantata, for which the album is named, is a setting of text from Ted Hughes’ Tales from Ovid that had its premiere at the Aldeburgh Festival in 2014. Wigglesworth on piano is joined by mezzo-soprano Pamela Helen Stephen, tenor Mark Padmore and two choruses of female voices. Stephen, augmented by chorus, is the narrator – her voice sumptuous and authoritative. The part of Echo is sung by a wistfully distant second chorus (heard mainly from offstage), while Padmore makes an anxious, keening Narcissus. The album opens with Augenlieder, a suite of four songs, settings of poems linked thematically by eye or gaze imagery, written for soprano Claire Booth. Wigglesworth conducts the Hallé, the orchestra a haunting underbelly to Booth’s limpid soprano. Three orchestral works round…

February 22, 2016
CD and Other Review

Review: Bach: Violin Concertos (Alina Ibragimova/Arcangelo)

Alina Ibragimova has previously tackled Bach’s solo violin Sonatas and Partitas with great success, and here she presents an equally superb recording of the Bach violin concerti. JS Bach’s violin concertos are oft-recorded, so new performances have to face down most of the 20th (and 21st) century’s greatest violinists – not an easy task! However, with sensitive accompaniment from ensemble Arcangelo and director Jonathan Cohen, Ibragimova brings a fresh and lively approach to these popular favourites. Only two of the works on this disc are officially labelled as “violin concertos”, the Concerto in A Minor, BWV1041, and the Concerto in E Major, BWV1042. In contrast, the Concerto in A Major, BWV1055, the Concerto in F Minor, BWV1056, and the Concerto in D Minor, BWV1052 all exist as harpsichord concerti, but due to various quirks, scholars have suggested that the pieces once existed in violin concerto format as well. Parts of the keyboard versions contain passages that seem oddly reminiscent of violinistic writing, complete with double-stops and convenient open strings. The theory is that Bach wrote a violin original, transcribed it for harpsichord (or other instruments), and at some point the violin original was lost, leaving only the transcription. Although these works are more…

February 18, 2016
CD and Other Review

Review: Ravel, Fauré: Piano Concertos, Ballade (Tonhalle-Orchestra Zürich/Lionel Bringuier)

Yuja Wang’s ability to colour her playing at speed is like nothing we’ve heard since Martha Argerich. In Rachmaninov and Prokofiev, Wang is a powerhouse, although some critics miss a certain fullness of tone. On paper she would seem an ideal interpreter of the Ravel G Major and Left Hand concertos, but this turns out not to be the case.  In the G Major, Wang’s mercurial facility is her undoing. While she shapes dynamics and phrasing with skill, her nervous energy overpowers Ravel’s cheeky playfulness in the outer movements. The presto finale is a hectic race to the finishing line, despite her accuracy. As pianism it is absolutely astonishing – but is astonishment a reaction that stands up to repeated listening? Her tendency to press on proves fatal in the exquisite Adagio assai, limpid tone notwithstanding. Listen to Alicia de Larrocha here (Eloquence), and the great Spanish pianist transports you to a totally different, dreamlike world. In the Left Hand Concerto, a more declamatory piece, Wang’s urgency short-changes Ravel’s tongue-in-cheek grandiosity in the piano’s initial entry. Later, in the remarkable passage where the pianist has to leap back and forth from bass octaves to high chords, Wang plays so nimbly and so…

February 18, 2016
CD and Other Review

Review: Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring (MusicAeterna/Teodor Currentzis)

Recording of the Month – March 2016 The first time I heard Greek-born, Russian-based conductor Teodor Currentzis and his period-instrument ensemble and chamber choir MusicAeterna was in 2009, when they recorded Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas for the Alpha label. Like many other listeners I was immediately struck by the passion, excitement and sheer craziness of the performances Currentzis elicited from a line-up that included soprano Simone Kermes and baritone Dimitris Tiliakos. Currently Artistic Director of the Perm State Opera and Ballet Theatre, Currentzis has since gone on to make original and highly-praised recordings of the music of Rameau, Mozart and Shostakovich. Now we have an equally distinctive recording of Stravinsky’s revised 1947 version of The Rite of Spring. It, too, has already garnered much critical acclaim; though there are dissenting voices, with Kate Molleson in the Guardian calling it “all too easy, too knowing”. Perhaps Molleson was expecting some kind of Gergiev-like turn (the Russian conductor’s ferociously muscular 2001 recording with the Kirov Orchestra is certainly among my favourites) from a conductor who has a reputation for being something of an iconoclast and for wanting to shake classical music up a bit? The Rite of Spring is already an iconoclast…

February 11, 2016
CD and Other Review

Review: Shostakovich: Cello Concertos Nos 1 & 2 (Capuçon, Gergiev)

Shostakovich’s cello concertos, both written for legendary cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, swing from smouldering slow movements to flashes of manic, frenetic activity. This new recording from Erato pairs French cellist Gautier Capuçon with Valery Gergiev and the Mariinsky Orchestra in a recording that highlights the exquisite details of Shostakovich’s cello writing, taken from concerts in 2013 and 2014 in Paris and St Petersburg. This is Capuçon’s second recording with Gergiev and Mariinsky, having previously released a CD of Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev in 2010. Capuçon hits the spiky five-note motif that opens the First Concerto with restrained intensity. This personal motif, based on the initials of the composer’s name (DSCH), is repeated aggressively in various guises throughout the first movement, returning in the finale to give the concerto a cyclical framework. Capuçon’s tone in the Allegretto is liquid and velvet, but full of depth and crunch as he leans into the low double-stops. The Mariinsky’s strings are lushly dissonant as they introduce the second movement, Gergiev shaping them into flowing arcs before the creeping cello line enters. Capuçon’s glissandi sigh, his sound rich in the lower registers and smooth and glassy in the high. He harnesses space and silence in the cadenza…

February 9, 2016
CD and Other Review

Review: Sibelius: Symphonies (Berlin Philharmoniker/Rattle)

Editor’s Choice, Jan/Feb 2016 – Orchestral Nearly 30 years ago Simon Rattle recorded a cycle of the Sibelius symphonies in Birmingham and despite the adulation of some critics the set left others cold with their infuriating undercutting of brilliant insight with arch mannerisms. His textural clarity and bold delineation of dynamics that served him so well for Stravinsky was evident, but his tendency to prod and poke at phrasing and rhythms tended to pull the rug from under Sibelius’s carefully prepared climaxes. His latest readings bear similar traits, and while that implies a consistent point of view, he hasn’t yet convinced me, despite the glorious playing. Rehearing earlier accounts from Karajan, Kamu or Levine reminds one how different today’s Philharmoniker sounds from that of old; gone is the luxuriant plush sound with laser-like focus and bottomless reserves of tone. In its place is a lean transparency and limpid beauty of sound, but still with plenty of weight and malleable sonority.  Sample the opening of the Third Symphony. It’s as cool and transparent as melt-water while the moments of hush have remarkable focus at a barely perceptible dynamic. Or try the bardic slow movement with its delicate dabs of colour and…

January 24, 2016
CD and Other Review

Review: Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev: Piano Concertos (Kirill Gerstein)

It may surprise you to learn that there were three editions of Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto: the first from 1875, the second a revision of 1879, and the third a posthumous version published in 1894. It is the latter that has been performed ever since, though it differs in many ways from the earlier versions.  Gerstein gives us the premiere recording of the 1879 version. Differences are notable, beginning with the opening, where the piano chords are arpeggiated rather than played as blocks. With the piano a kind of uber-harp, it brings the music closer to the world of Tchaikovsky’s ballet scores. This edition is a prettier work, with fewer opportunities for barnstorming. Cuts in the third movement have been opened up. Gerstein’s performance is lighter in texture than most; he and Gaffigan made this deliberate choice. At times I miss the passion and momentum of the young John Ogdon, but on its own terms this performance has integrity.  Prokofiev’s Second Concerto is similarly detailed and fluent, but occasionally cautious. The running scales of the scherzo could be more devil-may-care. In the first and third movements Gerstein’s humming proves a distraction, particularly on headphones. Why do some continue to indulge…

January 20, 2016
CD and Other Review

Review: Shostakovich Under Stalin’s Shadow (Boston Symphony/Nelsons)

Editor’s Choice, Orchestral – December 2015 Andris Nelsons has intimate first-hand knowledge of growing up under the cosh of the Soviet regime. As an impressionable 12-year old in 1990 he saw his native Latvia declare independence from the Soviet Union, and among the adjustments to be made was the joyful reappearance of his ‘disappeared’ grandfather, who had spent the previous 15 years holed up in Siberia. Is it because Nelsons understands instinctively the political lunacy that shaped this composer that he can play the music of Shostakovich as opposed to allowing his interpretations to become overstacked with symbolism, metaphor and mythology? Other conductors, of course, shared comparable experiences – Rozhdestvensky, Ashkenazy and Maxim Shostakovich, the composer’s son. But how rare it is to hear Shostakovich’s musical motivation so starkly delineated which, in turn, illuminates the politics. This first installment in a projected cycle to be released with the tag ‘Under Stalin’s Shadow’, opens with a sonic emergency. Shostakovich’s 1936 opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk was the source of all subsequent bother that the composer would have with the regime. Denounced in Pravda as “petit-bourgeois formalism”, Nelsons needs you to know precisely why this music displeased The Party. The introductory chords…

January 19, 2016
CD and Other Review

Review: Brahms: Piano Concertos (Barenboim, Staatskapelle Berlin/Dudamel)

Daniel Barenboim’s 1967 set of the Brahms Concertos with Barbirolli and the New Philharmonia grabbed the moment as the young pianist embarked on a voyage of discovery safe in the knowledge that his mentor was on the podium. Barenboim’s 1980s remakes with Mehta and the New York Philharmonic have always struck me as curiously unlovely; the work of two hard-nosed pros with nothing to prove, or lose.  These new recordings stand somewhere between the two, a reminder that Brahms has been as much tormentor as mentor to Barenboim. The Staatskapelle Berlin is Barenboim’s own orchestra and Gustavo Dudamel is clearly having a ball pushing levers and turning knobs that, no matter what he does, are preset to generate a stylistic Brahmsian sound. Riccardo Chailly’s Leipzig set with Nelson Freire arguably finds pliant subclauses within their comparably authentic sound; but Dudamel doesn’t put a foot wrong. Barenboim’s playing comes, of course, loaded with gravitas, but he is not immune from moments of routine. The Second Concerto’s Allegro appassionato benefits from a temporary lift as Barenboim lightens textures during the repeat. But otherwise he defaults to rather monochrome dynamics and tone. The First is more consistent. Nothing is rushed or forced during…

January 14, 2016
CD and Other Review

Review: Rachmaninov Variations (Daniil Trifonov)

First, it’s exciting to hear the great Philadelphia Orchestra in such fine form. It augurs well for Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s tenure. And second, Daniil Trifonov seems headed towards the “for once the hype is real” stratosphere on the strength of his first studio recording for DG. This ‘concept’ album showcases Rachmaninov works for variations, one orchestral, two for keyboard only, in which the young pianist pays homage to his musical idol. The Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini is truly sensational. This recording was made exactly 80 years after the legendary recording with the composer himself and Stokowski conducting this same orchestra. The pizzicati double bases in Variation 7 are beautifully captured but, for me, the most magical moments are Variations 11 and 12 where Trifonov’s aristocratic poise reminded me of Michelangeli (in very different repertoire) without the latter’s cold perfection.  The Chopin Variations (based on the C Minor Prelude) are rarely performed and not even Trifonov’s brilliance and insight can prevent them from outstaying their welcome. The Corelli Variations are another matter. The high points here are Variation 15, (Lullaby) which Trifonov manages to suffuse with an air of unease. The final pages are a model of hushed, haunted intensity….

January 5, 2016
CD and Other Review

Review: Saariaho: Quatre Instants, Terra Memoria & Émilie Suite (Strasbourg PO/Letonja)

If a three-and-a-half star rating feels miserly for a record that promises much, you should know that the last time I reviewed music by Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho, I feared for the continued well-being of my computer as I punched my displeasure into my keyboard. Saariaho’s early music – especially gems like Verblendungen and Lichtbogen – were packed with raw-boned harmonic and timbral intrigue; but then, during the 1990s, her music drifts towards generic notions of lyricism and line, leaving those of us who admired the early work to wonder what happened to her incisive, bold spirit. The great British comedian Les Dawson once claimed that “beauty fades, while ugliness endures” and although Saariaho’s music from the 1980s was never exactly ugly – the beauty was elemental, bracing and absolutely revitalising – the ambient, soft-focus leanings of more recent pieces can sit too comfortably inside emotional inverted commas. But then I play this disc and Quatre Instants, her 2002 song cycle for soprano and orchestra, and Terra Memoria, a realisation of her 2007 Second String Quartet for full strings, win me over in a way I wasn’t expecting. The soundscape of Terra Memoria mirrors those qualities in the early music that…

December 12, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: Dvořák: Complete Symphonies (Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra)

José Serebrier’s new Dvořák cycle ranks with Kubelík’s, Kertesz’s, and Rowicki’s sadly overshadowed but excellent set. For me, the last three symphonies are usually the least interesting and revealing – as here, where they’re perfectly OK but unremarkable (the third movement of the Eighth lacks the sinuous elegance of other readings). Where this cycle scores is in the performances of the neglected Second, Fifth and Sixth Symphonies and the generous addition of other major works such as the Legends, the delightful Scherzo Capriccioso, the masterful concert overture In Nature’s Realm and a selection of Slavonic Dances in radiant performances, the Bournemouth players in top form.  No young composer was more prolix than Dvořák (one of his early string quartets lasts 70 minutes!), as demonstrated in the First Symphony, subtitled The Bells Of Zlonice where the youthful rhetoric runs unchecked. The three-movement Third and the Fourth (whose last movement always reminds me of a bizarrely titled song I heard as a child on the ABC Argonauts programme: “Dashing away with a smoothing iron, she stole my heart away”) are interesting, but the Second Symphony, long a favourite of mine, is more disciplined and Serebrier has its measure, making it a real…

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