November 21, 2014
CD and Other Review

Review: Stravinsky, Mahler (Australian World Orchestra/Mehta)

Last year’s celebration of Australia’s musical elite diaspora, the Australian World Orchestra, (plus a few resident players) featured Zubin Mehta on the podium. I’ve always regarded Mehta as a superb “technician” but, apart from a wunderkind debut Bruckner Ninth, while still in his twenties with the Vienna Philharmonic, I’ve never found his interpretations particularly engaging.   However, my reactions to this two CD set of the occasion has somewhat changed my thinking. Their performance of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, in its centenary year, is very fine- without challenging Doráti’s, Bernstein’s first New York version or Igor Markevich’s old Philharmonia (stereo) version where the orchestral shriek at the opening of the second section is truly blood curdling. I don’t think I’ve ever heard the treacherous opening bassoon passage so beautifully shaped. The woodwind is also beautifully captured throughout.  Mehta’s tempi are steady rather than headlong. The performance of  Mahler’s First Symphony was a treat. Mehta included the discarded Blumine (“Flowers’) movement ( as he did in his Israel Philharmonic recording in the late eighties) although Mahler was probably right to remove it, as it sounds genuinely, as distinct from faux, naïve. The string playing was of a caliber we seldom…

June 18, 2014
CD and Other Review

Review: Pfitzner: Cello Concertos (Gerhardt, Berlin Royal SO/Weigle)

A mere five years younger than Richard Strauss, Hans Pfitzner has had a problematic history as Michael Kater has amply suggested in his books on music under the Third Reich. A Romantic conservative, Pfitzner remained firmly associated with the musical trends of his youth (Brahms and Schumann) and given his vacillating anti-Semitism, has remained persona non grata. His only regularly performed work has remained the opera Palestrina, its three Preludes with their scintillating use of age-old modes keeping his name alive within the orchestral repertoire. The three cello concertos are very attractive in their way but conservative in composition, and in all of them the soloist Alban Gerhardt, Sebastian Weigle and the ever reliable Berlin Radio Symphony are equally responsible for maintaining a perfect balance between the cello and its accompanying orchestral forces.  The opening concerto in A Minor is a student work criticised by his teachers and lost during his lifetime, only receiving its premiere in 1977. Perhaps the best of the works is the often delicate G Major concerto Op. 42 which was written for the virtuoso Cassado with assured writing that never drowns the soloist. There is an earlier CPO recording of these concerti with David Geringas however…

September 12, 2013
CD and Other Review

Review: Wagner: Great Wagner Conductors (Various)

This set is a cornucopia of glorious conducting and orchestral playing. While it’s impossible to generalise about works as gargantuan as Wagnerian melodramas, I can’t help thinking, having soaked up this set over a period of weeks, that people who find the contemporary interpretations of Levine, Barenboim & Thielemann faceless, may be onto something. The recordings range from Hans Knappertsbusch with the Berlin Philharmonic in 1927 or 1928, to his Munich recordings of 1962. The sound ranges from the just acceptable to the relatively modern. Knappertsbusch was famously – or notoriously – slow, depending on your point of view, in Wagner. However, there was never any dissent about his unique ability to preserve a line or arc, gradually and convincingly accumulating tension. When it came to architectural grandeur, no one could top “Kna” in these excerpts from Rienzi, Die Fliegender Höllander, the Lohengrin Act 1 Prelude (aptly described by the liner note writer as Wagner’s first piece of truly transcendent music) Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg Overture and Parsifal Prelude in Munich and another Meistersinger Overture coupled with extracts from Die Walküre, Parsifal & Tannhäuser in Berlin. Intriguingly, the Meistersinger Overture in 1928 took 8’34. By the 1962 Munich performance, it…

January 12, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: PROKOFIEV Suites (baritone: Andrei Laptev, soprano: Jacqueline Porter; SSO/Ashkenazy)

Nothing lightweight about this collection of orchestral works by Prokofiev, beginning with the sound. Even in regular stereo it is vivid, and reproduces an accurate concert hall balance. My one sonic reservation concerns the swinging trumpet in Lieutenant Kijé, presumably principal Paul Goodchild: he’s too far away! The Lieutenant Kijé Suite is taken from a 1933 film score. The satirical story of a fictitious scapegoat in the Tsar’s army brought out the composer’s cheeky side, but there is lyricism too. Ashkenazy’s easygoing performance is one of the few on disc to utilise a singer: the pleasant, open baritone of Andrei Laptev. That commedia-dell-arte romp The Love of Three Oranges was premiered in Chicago. To be honest, the best music of the opera appears in the five-movement suite. Ashkenazy doesn’t make the mistake of rushing the famous March, while the Scherzo is brilliantly light on its feet with just enough of a sinister undercurrent. The Ugly Duckling, Op 18, is rarely recorded. Stylistically it epitomises the gentler side of early Prokofiev, along with the Autumnal Sketch, Op 8 and the Piano Sonata No 4, “From Old Notebooks”. Prokofiev colours the story with a Russian slant. Porter brings it off very well….

January 12, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: ARVO PÄRT Symphony No 4

An early disillusionment with neo-classical and serial trends helped kick-start a radically minimal approach. This is the latest in a long line of Pärt releases on ECM. It’s difficult, then, not to measure it against his earlier discs, including landmarks like Passio and Tabula Rasa. In such company, I’m not entirely convinced by this album. It contains two relatively recent works, written a decade apart. The first, and more successful, is Kanon Pokajanen from 1997. It’s beautiful, classic Pärt – a smooth sound sculpture in which every contour is audible and every line counts. The text is the Canon of Repentance, an Orthodox hymn from the 8th century, sung in Old Church Slavonic. The singing here is gloriously full, transcribing the rich resonance of the Niguliste Church in Tallinn, Estonia. Pärt evidently took his time, spending an “enriching” two years writing it, and it paid off.The Symphony No 4 is a different matter. By its nature Pärt’s music is sparse; however, this piece seems in search of a core. It has all of his trademarks: pockets of sound balanced with silence; high strings; occasional pizzicato flourishes. Yet its greater purpose eludes me. Perhaps it’s the symphonic tag. Part’s previous symphonies…

January 12, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: HALVORSEN Orchestral Works Volume 2 (violin: Marianne Thorsen, Bergen Phil/Järvi)

Johan Halvorsen was always an essential mention on any “one hit wonders” list of classical composers, known exclusively for his Entry of the Boyars. I missed Volume 1 of this series but I’m just as enthusiastic about Volume 2 as everyone seemed to be about its predecessor. Grieg himself loved these scores. Much of the music (Three Norwegian Dances, Air Norvégian and Chant de Veslemöy) features violin solos, delightfully played here by Marianne Thorsen. The second longest piece is the Suite ancienne, formed from entr’acts for the incidental music for Holberg’s (as in Grieg’s Holberg suite) play The Lying-in Room. It’s a skilful pastiche of 18th-century dance forms. My assessment of Halvorsen as a Nordic Eric Coates or Leroy Anderson was completely confounded when I heard the Second Symphony: it reinforced my amazement at how many seriously first-rate symphonies were composed by seriously obscure composers. This one is a little gem, with a recurring “fate” motive in all four movements (à la Tchaikovsky), a delicious oboe melody in the slow movement, reminiscent of the one in the slow movement of Bizet’s Symphony and a lovely intermezzo. All in under 28 minutes. An absolute winner!

January 12, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: Britten, Ravel, Kleinsinger: The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra; Mother Goose Suite; Tubby the Tuba (Narrators: Christopher Lawrence, Marian Arnold, Emma Ayres; SSO/Northey)

As to Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite, if there is a more radiantly beautiful piece of fairy tale music ever written, I doubt I’ve heard it. Musically, George Kleinsinger’s score for Tubby is very professional and works a treat. The American composer seems destined only to be remembered for this clever and delightful work, as we don’t hear much about his musical Shinbone Alley any longer.The Sydney Symphony Orchestra plays the Ravel better than it does the Britten (during which all concerned seem a bit indifferent). As there are plenty of excellent recordings for adults of this music, I assume the slightly patronising tone adopted by two of the readers is aimed at younger persons. Fair enough, though I would have thought such an approach a bit dangerous these days. Marian Arnold does “put on dog” a bit and even Christopher Lawrence, who has such a witty and droll radio style, seems less relaxed than usual. Emma Ayres is the most suited to her part in Tubby the Tuba, striking just the right balance. Conductors Benjamin Northey and Marc Taddei get their respective jobs done well, although I remain cool towards the overly reverberant recording of the Britten.

January 11, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: TCHAIKOVSKY The Nutcracker (Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Rattle)

Tchaikovsky’s ballets are the chick flicks of classical music, but like the best chick flicks they can be witty and reveal a light touch. The Nutcracker is crammed with memorable tunes and piquant orchestration – including the recently invented celeste in the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy – and shows the composer at the peak of his abilities in the famous point numbers of Act 2. The Waltz of the Flowers lilts as flightily as anything by Johannes Strauss. Right from the opening Miniature Overture we know we are in for some magic. Last year, Australian audiences got to sample the Berlin Phil in the flesh. They sounded impressive live, and do so again here. This is a lush orchestra, not a theatre pit band, and under Rattle they give a full-hearted performance. The conductor points and details the lyrical phrases, sometimes too indulgently, but his relaxed tempos never drag. The sound is good if a little dry, and rather light at the bass end of the spectrum. This is a double CD set, unlike Gergiev’s tougher, snappier version, but the extra outlay is worth it. Rattle’s discs come with a colourful booklet filled with beautifully reproduced costume designs,…

January 11, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: Debussy: Fantaisie for Piano and Orchestra; Ravel: Piano Concerto in G; Concerto for the Left Hand; Massenet: Piano works (Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, BBC Symphony Orc

Ravel’s wonderful Piano Concerto in G continues to be one of the most popular in the concert hall and on record, but each time I hear it I am made aware of how difficult the perfect ensemble playing is to achieve. His Concerto for the Left Hand requires a different approach, for here the broad sweep of Ravel’s ideas are paramount. Mostly this is achieved in this excellent recording. Only the rapid-fire trumpets in the explosion of sound at the five-minute mark are lost. Bavouzet is at his eloquent best in the slower movements of both concerti. Debussy’s piece is a mixture of old and new, and although not top-drawer Debussy, it is a delightful work. This, and a selection of Massenet’s piano music, is what separates this CD from the pack. It is rare repertoire and unfamiliar to me. I think lovers of French piano music will be as delighted as I was. Massenet’s Toccata is a brilliant piece and although it predates much of Ravel, is very companionable. Deux Impromtus and Deux Pièces pour piano find Massenet in a more mellifluous mood. Finally Valse folle is quite rambunctious and punchy. Bavouzet plays all the music exquisitely. Never lacking…

January 11, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: Brahms: Symphony No 4, Beethoven: Coriolan Overture (Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique; The Monteverdi Choir/Gardiner)

At first glance, Gabrieli and Schütz, glorious as they are, seem to be at odds with the symphony. Gardiner’s notes are the key to this collation. Using original instruments he has juxtaposed the symphony with some of the composer’s neglected choral music. He argues that as these wonderful works came first they are germane to his orchestral writing. The other composers were selected for their influence on his choral style and the Coriolan Overture represents the defining shadow of Beethoven. This is steely, hard-edged tough as nails Brahms. There will be those for whom this is heaven-sent, yet for all Gardiner’s dedication and well-argued rationale, much of this performance is a tiresome dose of musical political correctness. For example, the scrawny violin tone does not sit well with the composer’s grand phrases and rich palette. However, his approach works well in the lively Allegro giocoso, with its sharp rhythms and bright woodwind writing and also serves the edgy restlessness of the last movement. Musical research will continue and performance practice will evolve, as it should. Tastes will change and change again. I recommend the CD for the extensive interview between Gardiner and Hugh Wood. That alone is worth the price…

January 11, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: Goetz, Wieniawski: Piano Concertos (Hamish Milne)

Hermann Goetz spent most of his life under the shadow of TB, which claimed him just before he turned 36. Judging by his letters, Goetz was as polite and charming as this concerto. Thankfully, the orchestration, so often thick and unoriginal, is refreshingly transparent and the melodies fall gratefully on the ear. If I had to guess the composer, I’d say Max Bruch, although there are inevitable echoes of Schumann and Chopin. The first movement ambles along genially and the second is delightful in a sentimental way. Things liven up slightly in the finale but, come on guys, at 41 minutes this work is only seven minutes shorter than your average Brahms Second Piano Concerto, and look at how much he managed to pack into that! The other work, by Józef Wieniawski, brother of the more famous violin virtuoso and composer Henryk, was actually composed almost a decade earlier than Goetz’s, but seems more modern. I can’t agree with the sleeve note writer that the character of this work represents Sturm und Drang, implying a fusion of tension and drama, and a relentless barrage of bravura playing. I found it only slightly more energetic than its companion. Both works are…

January 11, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: Prokofiev, Ravel: Piano Concertos (Anna Vinnitskaya)

They were more stunned than impressed, dubbing the composer an enfant terrible, a description Prokofiev liked. His music was the height of aggressive modernism in 1913, although the version of the Second Piano Concerto we know today is a rewrite from ten years later, after the original score perished in a fire. Another young Russian virtuoso, Anna Vinnitskaya, takes a considered and personal approach to the work. In the manic cadenza of the first movement she does not essay the sheer torrent of sound produced by others, but emphasises the musical themes instead. Her steely, relentless scherzo is succeeded by a characterful third movement taken at a steady pace. She launches into the finale with speed and accuracy, making the most of the contrasting episodes. Varga, who has accompanied her before, is supportive of every choice. The score’s wit eludes them, notably in the scherzo, but within their constraints they give a detailed, committed performance. The Ravel concerto is not so individual, but equally well played. This high-spirited divertissement with its jazzy flavour suits Vinnitskaya’s crisply articulated touch – which she softens for the dreamy slow movement. Again, orchestral ensemble is spot on, and the sound is terrific. Recommended in…

January 3, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: Sibelius: Symphonies (New Zealand SO/Inkinen)

I was amazed to read one review of this performance of Sibelius’s First Symphony which confidently asserted that Pietari Inkinen was to be congratulated on his achievement in effacing virtually all traces of Tchaikovsky from the music, as if that were a major criterion in assessing it! Inkinen is no young man in a hurry in Sibelius: his account of the First Symphony, at 40 mins, is one of the longest in the catalogue. His certainly doesn’t stint on the Romantic rhetoric either, pace my fellow reviewer. His reading is leisurely and well upholstered – poles apart from, say, Osmo Vänska’s trim, taut and terrific approach. These recordings are quite closely miked, meaning, inter alia, we hear plenty of harp throughout, especially in my favourite passage, the delicate section of the slow movement where sonic magic is made by the harp, woodwinds and triangle. Alas, the string sound is occasionally thin but, in general, the playing is distinguished and the timpani is well captured in the scherzo. In the unjustly neglected Third – just as elusive in its own way as the Sixth – Inkinen inclines toward steady tempos and I particularly like the way he manages the often awkward…

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