June 12, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: Westlake: Paper Planes (Melbourne Symphony/Westlake)

★★★★☆ Music to accompany drama has a distinguished history, never more so since the invention of film, reaching a point in contemporary cinema where music can dominate the entire picture. The otherwise excellent John Williams scores for the Harry Potter films are examples of excess. Smaller productions, like this charming Australian film, use music more carefully, and in my opinion, more appropriately. Nigel Westlake ensures the film’s modest aims are not bashed about the head by the music.  One of our finest composers, Westlake has moved effortlessly between concert hall and film studio; his music for Babe, being one of his most successful scores. Paper Planes could almost be categorised as a rescue film. The boy rescues himself from obscurity, his father from depression. Westlake matches the various moods well, from quieter and often moving moments, to the triumphant scenes matching the boy’s success and excitement. Here, the buoyant main theme is given its head very effectively. One of the composer’s greatest strengths is orchestration. In this case the use of harp and woodwind, which at times enable the music to be shot through with air and light.  The MSO play the music well and with exuberance, although why a…

June 12, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: Elegy (ABC Classics)

★★★★☆ Elegy is the latest of many recent releases commemorating the centenary of the First World War, and ANZAC more particularly.  All the works in this selection were composed in the early decades of the 20th century, and most have some association with war. Some, like Ivor Gurney’s In Flanders (1916), are direct responses to the horrors of WWI; George Butterworth’s settings of A Shropshire Lad, on the other hand, were written a few years beforehand by a young composer who perished in 1916 at the Battle of the Somme. Most of the composers represented are English or French, reflecting Australia’s colonial relations and/or connections to sites of combat. Highlights include Three Songs (1915) by Maurice Ravel, who was deeply traumatised by the devastation he witnessed while trucking supplies through war zones in France, and Frank Bridge’s Lament (1915).  Of particular note, however, is the world premiere recording of the work for which this collection is named, Australian pianist and composer Frederick Septimus Kelly’s Elegy – In Memoriam Rupert Brooke. Brooke, famous for his patriotic ‘forever England’ war poetry, died from sepsis en route to Gallipoli with Kelly and their friend William Dennis Browne, also a composer. Deeply affected by…

June 6, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: Weinberg: Violin Concerto, Symphony No 4 (Warsaw Philharmonic/Kaspszyk)

★★★★☆ When you think of a composer doing it tough in Soviet Russia, your mind probably jumps to Shostakovich. Of course, he wasn’t the only one who struggled (and ‘struggled’ is putting it lightly). Mieczysław Weinberg, a Polish Jew, fled the Germans twice, and met further trouble in the Soviet capital when he was arrested on charges of “Jewish bourgeois nationalism”. Despite hardships, Weinberg managed a 50-year career, completing an impressive 22 symphonies as well as numerous concertos and chamber works.   The Warsaw Philharmonic under Jacek Kaspszyk has chosen this lesser-known composer for its most recent release, with a performance of Weinberg’s Fourth Symphony and his violin concerto. Violinist Ilya Gringolts is a fantastic force on the disc, delivering an impassioned performance that shows off not only his skill but also his emotional depth. The orchestra is similarly fine, with gutsy playing in the faster movements of both works.  In truth, the music pays a huge debt to Shostakovich. Telltale harmonic shifts, stark contrasts in orchestration in the faster movements (particularly wind writing), and a pervading sense of melancholy in the slow movements bear the unmistakeable influence of Weinberg’s friend and contemporary. And as Shostakovich’s music is stained with…

June 6, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: Arnold: Symphonic Works (Royal Scottish National Orchestra)

★★★★★ While English composer Malcolm Arnold’s symphonies have been recorded successfully in the past, this new release presents a uniquely fascinating programme. These works were composed in Ireland (1973-76) when Arnold’s life was in turmoil: his marriage collapsed, his alcoholism worsened, and he attempted suicide. It’s all documented here.  Symphony No 7 (1973) is in three movements, each designated as a portrait of one of Arnold’s children. References to other music appear, such as an evocation of Irish dance towards the end of the third movement – a nod to his son Robert’s love of folk group The Chieftains. Repetitive motifs in the second movement represent his son Edward’s autism. It is both unsettled and unsettling.  The Fantasy on a Theme of John Field is possibly one of the most schizophrenic pieces ever written. In this set of variations on Field’s gentle Nocturne No 7 (Reverie), a malevolent force seems determined to throw every variation off balance with dissonant, explosive interruptions. Peace is only achieved in Peter Donohoe’s performance of Field’s original nocturne, sensibly programmed after the Fantasy. Similar savagery afflicts the Philharmonic Concerto, a succinct concerto for orchestra. Pianist, conductor and orchestra are all on top form, relishing Arnold’s…

June 6, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: Mozart: Violin Concertos (Vilde Frang)

★★★★☆ The world might not need another version of Mozart’s various violin concerti, but Vilde Frang’s latest recording makes a good case. Her playing brims with energy, and she has found faultless partners in British period ensemble Arcangelo, ably conducted by Jonathan Cohen.  The disc opens with the lesser-recorded First Concerto, which is sometimes dismissed as a lighter work. Frang exploits this, embodying the youthful vitality of the dancing, twirling, solo violin part. After this tasteful entrée, the disc moves on to the richer Concerto No 5 (The Turkish). Here Frang has a bit more opportunity to show her range, including a bit of grunt in the lower register. She plays with a lithe, graceful sound, and utilises the full palate of tonal colours throughout. Arcangelo and their resourceful conductor encourage her in every musical decision, proving to be fully match-fit partners themselves.  The final inclusion is a stunning interpretation of the Sinfonia Concertante for violin and viola, with violist Maxim Rysanov. The Andante movement was particularly beautiful, with all voices knowing when to accompany or shine. In fact, it’s this point that makes Frang such a stylish player. Her knowledge of when to pull back allows others to shine…

June 6, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: Prokofiev: Orchestral Works (Bournemouth SO/Karabits)

★★★☆☆ Before the live performance of Prokofiev’s Second Symphony, Kirill Karabits warned the audience of an “ear-lashing”. Bearing in mind the disproportionate number of retired majors and active Tory matrons among the Bournemouth Symphony’s subscriber base, I suppose it was wise.  Personally, I’d put the first movement’s shock factor (and it’s really only the first movement which has that motoric Age of Steel quality) at around that of The Rite of Spring. It won’t blow your mind (or your speakers). Despite the obvious commitment of Karabits and his players, I didn’t find the work particularly interesting. But what an incredible advance between this and its immediate symphonic predecessor! The Classical Symphony (No 1) had some lovely moments, especially in the second movement but here, it’s a case of the excellent being the enemy of the merely very good. I still have the mellifluous felicities of the London Symphony’s Sydney performance under Gergiev last November lingering in my ears.  What was interesting was the Sinfonietta, an unjustly neglected work which I’ve encountered only as a fill-up to a late ‘70s recording of Ivan the Terrible. It demonstrates that when Prokofiev set out to charm, he was absolutely beguiling! The other work…

June 6, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: Brahms: Serenades (Leipzig Gewandhaus/Chailly)

Editor’s Choice, Orchestral  – June 2015 And the question remains – why aren’t Johannes Brahms’ Serenades staples of the concert repertoire? Would conductors rather cut to the chase and perform his four symphonies? Or is the truth more that, conceived when Brahms was grappling with the structural minefield of his First Symphony, those two works remain peculiarly difficult to classify? Ought conductors plot a quasi-symphonic pathway through their structures? Or in reality is each movement a self-contained character piece that would likely buckle under the pressure of a consciously symphonic treatment? As Riccardo Chailly points out, Serenade No 1 clocks in at 40 minutes, longer than the symphonies, and no one should be lulled into any sense of false security. The Serenades might exhibit a lightness of surface, but underneath that whimsical charm Brahms’ orchestration, his rhythmic litheness and complex web of internal tempo relationships are difficult to achieve – darn difficult in fact. Chailly’s mettle as a Brahms interpreter crystallised around his 2013 cycle of the symphonies: tempos rethought, textures thinned, traces of Germanic stodge erased. An approach that sets him up well for the Serenades; expect an artful fusion of dramatic contrast operating hand-in-hand with a certainty that…

May 14, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: Lorin Maazel: The Cleveland Years

The late Lorin Maazel came to Cleveland as successor to Georg Szell in the early 1970s and, for Decca, recorded a number of discs of colourful repertoire in disciplined, lively and exciting performances. It was definitely a partnership worth preserving, and this set brings together all their recordings of the period.  Separate reissues of Maazel’s work have appeared on Eloquence, including much of what is here. The Eloquence issues range wider: if you mainly want the Russian masters, or the recordings of Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé, Debussy’s orchestral works or the admittedly weaker set of Brahms’ Symphonies, you should opt for Eloquence. What this box does contain are two iconic performances that every music lover should own: the bracingly punchy complete Romeo and Juliet ballet of Prokofiev, and the first recording of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess to treat the work seriously as grand opera. A highly impressive performance of the Berlioz Requiem is included, and a Respighi Pines of Rome and Roman Festivals that will knock your socks off. On the final disc Maazel accompanies cellist Lynn Harrell in Tchaikovsky’s Rococo Variations and the Elgar Concerto, showing the breadth of his musical interests. The vibrant sound is the work of…

May 13, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: Seiji Ozawa: The Philips Years

Seiji Ozawa began his career with the highest credentials: assistant to Bernstein in New York, and mentored by Karajan. His first major conducting post was in Toronto. In San Francisco he epitomised the hip, flower-power zeitgeist, then brought the beads and skivvies to Boston where he led the orchestra from 1973 to 2002. He guest conducted frequently in Vienna and Berlin, and in 1992 set up the Saito Kinen Orchestra in his native Japan. Since 2010, illness has curtailed his activities. As a recording artist (primarily for Philips) Ozawa was never extravagantly lauded, but neither was his work as divisive as some. Perhaps this is because his sound is not particularly identifiable (like Karajan) or single-minded (like Boulez). Despite this he produced some of the top recommended recordings, such as a full-blooded Orff Carmina Burana (with Gruberová and the Berlin PO) and a compelling Schoenberg Gurrelieder (with Norman and Troyanos). Both are included, as is his complete Mahler symphony cycle. While interpretatively middle-of-the-road, Ozawa’s Mahler is enjoyable because of the Boston sound, uniquely combining European richness of tone with American precision and clarity. The Saito Kinen sonority is leaner, and their readings are on the cool side. Repertoire is wide-ranging,…

May 11, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: Volkmar Andreae: Symphony in F (Bournemouth Symphony)

The Guild label’s mission to restore Volkmar Andreae to the “pantheon of 20th century Swiss composers” continues apace with the third release of his orchestral works, with the excellent Bournemouth Symphony conducted by the composer’s grandson Marc Andreae. The Symphony in F was composed when he was just 20 and was his first large-scale orchestral work. Its debt to Brahms is undeniable, but it also shows the Wagnerian influence of Andreae’s teacher Franz Wüllner, who premiered Das Rheingold and Die Walküre. Andreae is best known for his recordings of the Bruckner symphonies and it is obvious from this early work that he has studied the Austrian master’s command of symphonic structure. Andreae was offered to succeed Mahler as conductor of the New York Philharmonic but preferred to stay with the Tonhalle Orchestra Zürich. However, like Mahler he did compose some settings of poems by Li-Po after Hermann Hesse pointed out the Tang dynasty poet’s works. Li-Tai-Pe, here beautifully sung by English tenor Benjamin Hulett, is the jewel in the crown of this album. The eight songs are worth the purchase price alone. However John Anderson’s performance of the Concertino for Oboe and Orchestra is definitely an added bonus. In all,…

May 9, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: Beethoven: Piano Concertos Nos 3 & 4 (Maria João Pires)

Onyx’s first installment from Portuguese pianist Maria João Pires shows how foolish Deutsche Grammophon were to let her go. Pires is unafraid to take risks. Her view of Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto not only enters into a pianist-composer dialogue, but also probes our relationship as consumers of this (too) regularly recorded masterwork. With Daniel Harding and the SRSO resonating in empathy, Pires stretches the opening movement to just short of 20 minutes which, although not unprecedented, blows air through the structure, allowing us time to look around, to reacquaint ourselves with what we know from a slightly oblique angle. Some of my reviewer colleagues have suggested that at this tempo Pires and Harding let the momentum droop, but personally I hear liberation within their deliberation. Pires’ analytically detailed playing tunnels deep inside the poetic soul of Beethoven’s score; no glossing over his abrupt changes of mood, the confrontation between soloist and orchestra in the slow movement given Stravinskian objectivity – although you do wish the Finale could have been a little more peppery and genuinely vivace. The Third Concerto is as bold as brass too, the first movement peaking as Pires rips through the cadenza before tip-toeing around the graceful…

May 8, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: Hush Live in Concert (Hush Collection Volume 14)

Hush Live in Concert is the 14th in a series of albums released to calm and comfort families facing stressful medical procedures. It’s a compilation of Hush Foundation recordings selected by former ABC Classic FM presenter Emma Ayres.  Opening with two of Paul Grabowsky’s Ten Healing Songs, it is apparent that this is anything but the conventionally soothing ‘Debussy for Daydreaming’ or ‘Relaxation Made Easy’ album.  Andrea Keller’s A Castle for All is oddly uplifting as it cycles repetitively through the same series of chords. Brass, wind and percussion instruments appear to improvise around Keller’s piano, and while it has plenty of musical tension, the overall feel is not a dark one. Tony Gould’s Gentle Conversations is as it sounds – a smattering of percussion, a gentle pulse, and a layering of instruments simulate just that. Though magnificently played by the Grigoryan brothers, Songs with Strings is perhaps a touch too intense and emotionally confronting for this album. Mark Isaacs’ romantic and visually evocative The Wind in the Willows is more fitting; one can imagine a little bushland animal emerging from the tooting of Geoff Collins’ flute. The childlike journey continues through Paul Stanhope’s tinkling The Magic Island, performed by…

May 6, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: Wiener Philharmoniker Symphony Edition (Vol 1 & 2)

Its policy towards female musicians, the behaviour of both administration and players towards Jewish colleagues during the Second World War, its variable performance standards and its exaggerated, hypocritical, archaic formality have all made the Vienna Philharmonic the most enigmatic of great orchestras.  The fact that John Culshaw, arguably the greatest recording producer of the 20th century (and genius), who did more than anyone to create the orchestra’s recorded legacy, was expected to regard his invitation to attend a meeting of the Orchestra’s board as a singular honour, says it all. In fact, Culshaw’s contribution to what Germans/Austrians call a festschrift, or series of celebratory articles, contains some of the more honest comments. To paraphrase him, “At its best, it’s sublime; anything less is usually pretty awful.” Mahler, as the Director of the Vienna State (Court) Opera, observed this more than a century ago when he referred to schlamperei masquerading as “tradition” among the State Opera Orchestra, from which all VPO players are drawn. Compared to the Berlin Philharmonic or the Amsterdam Concertgebouw, it was less versatile. In the 1960s, Barbirolli was bemused at their inability to grasp cross rhythms in Debussy’s La Mer. At the same time the Principal Trumpet…

Processing...
Thank you! Your subscription has been confirmed. You'll hear from us soon.
Sign Up To Our Newsletter
ErrorHere