January 30, 2017
CD and Other Review

Review: Iain Grandage: When Time Stops (Camerata of St John’s)

When Time Stops is choreographer Natalie Weir’s exploration of the final moments of a woman’s life. Iain Grandage revisits his score in this explosive recording from the Camerata of St John’s. The composer tells us the piece is “not only about death. It is also intrinsically about life and the moments within it where one’s normal sense of the moment is stretched”. Immediately obvious is the strength of the music without visual support from the accompanying dance narrative. Rowing 1 begins with blood-curdling strings before Katherine Philp halts us with a cello melody. The second track, Street 1, is a violent commotion of textured strings. The relationship between tracks means the album should be approached in one sitting. Higher tones and heightened emotional intensity inform Rowing 2, and First Kiss brings a euphoric wave of strings. Also of note is Orb, with Chloe Ann Williamson’s double bass pulsing under impassioned and fiery melodies from violist Elizabeth Lawrence. The resolution leaves us hanging on for more. Violinist Brendan Joyce stands out in the grating and trance-like repetition of Scan, while Into the Wall is thick and rhythmic. Impeccable intonation is heard in all movements, though particularly noticeable in Rowing 3, which…

January 24, 2017
CD and Other Review

Review: Copland: Symphonies (BBC Philharmonic)

Aaron Copland learnt an important lesson from Nadia Boulanger: keep it simple. The renowned composition pedagogue and mighty force in French contemporary music impressed upon the young American the importance of making orchestral music immediately playable, lest he get on the wrong side of conductor and band. Aware of the consequences, Copland didn’t follow the advice. The result is a fascinating collection of early symphonic sorties, presented on Chandos by the BBC Philharmonic under John Wilson’s baton. The Symphony for Organ and Orchestra opens with a nonchalant Andante, featuring slowly drifting melodic lines without clear harmonic focus. The BBC Symphony strings and winds exude a gentle warmth, matching nicely the sensitive timbral world of Jonathan Scott’s organ. Energy builds in the Scherzo, which features the tune-crafting and rhythmic verve Copland became famous for in his Appalachian Spring. The symphony returns to the warmth of the opening movement in the slow, searching finale, which has a darker, more stern atmosphere, with the organ used to particularly dramatic effect. The stern mood prevails in the composer’s own orchestration of his Piano Variations, which are built on an austere theme announced by low brass, strings and percussion. The miniature variations that follow continue…

January 6, 2017
CD and Other Review

Review: Mozart: Violin Concertos (Isabelle Faust)

Isabelle Faust is an exemplar of the new generation of Modern String Players who have assimilated the techniques of Historically Informed Performance with cross-pollination, inspiring a pragmatic hybrid style. The sickly constant vibrato and bland homogenised phrasing of yesteryear is replaced with a clean-cut sound of impeccable intonation and rhythmically alert rhetorical gestures, effortlessly articulated by her phenomenal bowing technique, (as heard in her breathtakingly beautiful performances of the Mendelssohn Concerto on tour in Australia this year). Faust’s self-effacing persona and collaborative spirit is evident from her various partnerships in chamber music, while the breadth of her repertoire choices and her interest in contemporary works reveals a sharp musical intellect. Yet the end results are music-making of a stimulating spontaneity with a complete freedom from stylistic dogma. This latest release is a perhaps surprising collaboration with Il Giardino Armonico, one of the first Italian groups to embrace HIP. Their early recordings of Vivaldi were a shock to the system with their abrasive rustic accents, but in later years, changes of personnel have refined their sound and they are truly magnificent here under long-term director and co-founder Giovanni Antonini. Accents are as crisp as ever but not so grating as to…

January 5, 2017
CD and Other Review

Review: Per Nørgård: Symphonies Nos 2, 4, 5, 6 (Oslo Philharmonic)

Here are two releases, each charting a sea change in the vision of a most singular artist. In three decades, four symphonies and two hours of music, we hear the Danish composer Per Nørgård shift from Apollonian order to Dionysian excess. Nørgård’s Second Symphony, written in 1970, breathes the calm air of Jean Sibelius. A lilting, seemingly infinite melodic thread is spun out unendingly, as if by the Fates themselves. The line flows throughout the orchestra, changing colour and character, from pastoral to threatening to mysterious, a calm forest stream that ripples and eddies, twists and turns. In the late 1970s Nørgård came upon the obsessive, hallucinatory visions of outsider artist Adolf Wölfli, whose paintings, writings and musical thoughts were a decisive influence on the composer. Wölfli’s work doused Nørgård’s music with fuel, lending it danger, terror, heat and violence. The composer recently approvingly quoted a listener’s comment, that hearing his music is like taking “a walk with a fire-breathing dragon”. The Fourth Symphony accordingly shimmers with a strange beauty, lingering on horrifying and grotesque apparitions, flying into a heavy-footed dance of death. The Fifth is positively unhinged: overstuffed, overlong, full to the brim with climactic moments. There is a…

January 5, 2017
CD and Other Review

Review: Berlioz: Roméo et Juliette (Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra)

It was the famous gift of 20,000 francs from the aging Paganini that allowed Berlioz to take time out from the drudgery of music journalism in 1839 and devote himself to a new work. Romeo and Juliet had been close to his heart since his then muse and now wife had played the heroine a decade earlier – but Berlioz was never one to choose the obvious. Shakespeare was too sublime to risk throwing it away on the Opéra (who had recently massacred his Benvenuto Cellini), so the French maverick embarked upon his third, and most unusual symphony to date. The result was a unique hybrid that even now struggles to find a home in the concert hall. A pity, as with a little imagination (and enough money for the substantial forces), it is full of drama, poetry and intensely original orchestral passages. In short, a masterpiece. Robin Ticciati has proven himself heir to Colin Davis with his Berlioz series on Linn (a fresh Fantastique, a moving L’Enfance du Christ and a very special Nuits d’Été) and this last instalment is, if anything, even finer. The Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra plays superbly and the Linn engineers achieve a fine separation…

December 21, 2016
CD and Other Review

Review: Love Story (Valentina Lisitsa)

If you want a collection of bombastic, second-rate piano concerti in which Rachmaninov’s parentage is obvious, then this is the disc for you. However, there are some gems, such as Hubert Bath’s 1944 Cornish Rhapsody (A Lady Surrenders) and Richard Addinsell’s Warsaw Concerto for Dangerous Moonlight (1941). On the other hand, I don’t think much of Shostakovich’s music for The Unforgettable Year (1951), steeped in musical rhetoric of the worst type and possibly written to order by the authorities. Similarly vacuous is Kenneth Leslie-Smith’s music for The Women’s Angle (1952) and Nino Rota’s unusually poor music for The Glass Mountain (1949).Charles Williams’ charming music for The Apartment (1949) is far better.  Richard Rodney Bennett’s journeyman music for the overrated Murder on the Orient Express is not the best film music he ever wrote, whereas Jack Beaver’s music for The Case of The Frightened Lady (1940), is first class. After pages of arpeggios it was a relief to hear Dave Grushin’s On Golden Pond (1981) for piano. Finally, Carl Davis’ elegant and freewheeling music for Pride and Prejudice (1985) is arguably the best music on the disc. Valentina Lisitsa plays all the music very well, and the orchestral accompaniments are equally…

December 21, 2016
CD and Other Review

Review: Brahms: Complete Symphonies (West Australian Symphony Orchestra)

I enjoyed this Brahms cycle. Fortunately, Asher Fish is not a member of the “Brahms Lite” Chapter or a Chailly/Gardiner – style speed merchant. What’s more, unlike the hapless, battle-jacketed George W Bush standing on the deck of that aircraft carrier, under a sign proclaiming “Mission Accomplished”, Asher Fisch really has accomplished his “mission” to transform the West Australian Symphony Orchestra from merely good into a potentially great instrument, on the strength of theses performances at least. It plays with confidence, sheen and finesse. The buoyant galumphing rhythm of the opening movement of the First Symphony is just right (no repeat observed – presumably because of the plan to fit this and the Second Symphony on a single CD) without diminishing the inherent drama. The second and third movements are really like lightly scored serenade movements buffering two huge epic book-ends, but it’s here the quality of the woodwind phrasing (and the depth of the orchestra’s talent) becomes apparent. This is warmly shaped, with oboe and clarinet solos notable but also a lovely extended reverie by concertmaster Jackson duetting with horns. The Finale, with its deliberately tentative opening, is always problematic but Fisch guides his players through treacherous shoals until the liberation of…

December 7, 2016
CD and Other Review

Review: Adams: Scheherazade.2 (Leila Josefowicz, St. Louis Symphony)

John Adams frequently references tradition in his music, using contemporary sonorities and forms to comment on the past. His most recent major orchestral work, Scheherazade.2, is only on the surface a nod to Rimsky-Korsakov’s symphonic poem, taking a more contemporary approach in telling the famous story. Remarking on the disturbing violence committed against women in stories from The Arabian Nights, Adams was inspired to reinvent the principal tale, imagining a strong and empowered ‘modern’ Scheherazade. The composer gives voice to this powerful retelling in a massive four-movement work that’s part symphony, part concerto, with a dramatic solo violin part embodying the Scheherazade character (another cursory nod to Rimsky-Korsakov’s original). The work receives here its premiere recording with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and David Robertson (also Chief Conductor of the SSO) with the soloist for whom it was written, Leila Josefowicz. Josefowicz’s performance is outstanding, negotiating the virtuosic solo part with passion, assurance and an ironclad tone. She slides, ducks and weaves around an often-aggressive orchestra that’s given an exotic flavour thanks to the addition of a Cimbalom – a Hungarian dulcimer. The St. Louis orchestra’s sound is simply magical and perfectly balanced in this recording under Robertson’s expert direction. 

December 2, 2016
CD and Other Review

Review: Mozart: Symphonies Nos 39, 40, 41 (Australian Chamber Orchestra)

As Donald Francis Tovey writes in his eminently useful Essays in Musical Analysis, Mozart’s three last symphonies, written in 1788 over six weeks, “express the healthiest of reactions on each other” and, being “in Mozart’s ripest style makes the full range of that style appear more vividly than in any other circumstances. Consequently, they make an ideal programme when played in their chronological order.” Thus does one often hear them, as a kind of triptych or three-movement, Major-Minor-Major meta-symphony, both in concert and on record. And thus does one hear them in this instance, recorded live during the Australian Chamber Orchestra’s 2015 Mozart’s Last Symphonies national tour, which commemorated 25 years since the great Frans Brüggen conducted the orchestra in the same programme. It was also Tognetti’s first year as leader. Listening again to Brüggen’s last great pronouncement on these three symphonies (for the Glossa label in 2014), one marvels anew at the way he shapes the Orchestra of the 18th Century’s lithe, colourful responses to Mozart’s almost Shakespearean combination of low comedy and high seriousness. But it is to John Eliot Gardiner’s live 2006 recording of Symphonies Nos 39 and 41 that we must turn to find something like…

December 1, 2016
CD and Other Review

Review: Sibelius: Symphonies Nos 3, 6 & 7

The classical music recording industry must be in better shape than we think: this is the culmination of Osmo Vänskä’s second Sibelius cycle in little more than a decade. The first with Finland’s Lahti orchestra was widely regarded as “the one to have” but these BIS performances with the Minnesota orchestra (which seems to have at last survived its travails, fortunately) have run that cycle close. This CD lasts 82 minutes – with magnificent sound. As an aside, why, one wonders, can’t more CD’s offer such outstanding value?  The Third, Sixth and Seventh are, each, in its own way, emotionally ambiguous and unconventional and occupy their own unique sound world’s, just as do the symphonies of Beethoven and Vaughan Williams. The Third Symphony has always been one of my favourites, despite, or perhaps, because, of being, along with the Sixth, the least performed, but arguably, the most original, even by Sibelius’ standards. The coherent whole transcends the disparateness of the individual movements. I love the Haydnesque bustle of the opening movement and that sudden pause shortly after the start, which seems like a sort of gasp from someone suddenly realising they’re hovering on the edge of a precipice, or contemplating…

November 25, 2016
CD and Other Review

Review: The Romantic Piano Concerto 68: Moszkowski

Hyperion deserves its reputation for uncovering hidden gems of the Romantic piano repertoire. This latest recording debuts an early concerto of Moszkowski that was only uncovered in 2008. The conductor, Vladimir Kiradjiev, deemed it too good to remain unpublished (as the composer himself wished) and it was issued by French publishers in 2013. The same conductor leads an impressive BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra through the work. It’s an instantly likeable piece, brimming with tuneful themes, but not without the rhapsodic fever expected of a pianistic showstopper. The soloist, Ludmil Angelov, is known as an interpreter of Chopin, and brings a sparkling dexterity to the faster passages. The second movement is particularly moving, the second theme emerging on the piano from the midst of the chorale previously played by the orchestra. The wonderful stillness is reminiscent of Rachmaninov, though it predates him by a quarter of a century. Angelov is charming throughout, and though the final movement is a little long-winded, it’s a fine recording that should help the piece enter the repertoire. The disc concludes with Schulz-Evler’s Russian Rhapsody, another work deserving of greater acclaim. Angelov again demonstrates his astonishing quick-silver technique in a work of incredible virtuosity, building in…

November 25, 2016
CD and Other Review

Review: Brett Dean: Shadow Music (Swedish Chamber Orchestra/Dean)

Brett Dean (b. 1961), born and raised in Brisbane, took up composing during his 14-year tenure as violist with the Berlin Phil. In 2000, he returned to Australia where his appointments have included Artistic Director of ANAM and curating the Sydney and Melbourne Festivals. Shadow Music brings together works for various permutations of chamber orchestra, in addition to an arrangement for flute, clarinet and string orchestra of the (third) Adagio molto e mesto movement of Beethoven’s first Razumovsky Quartet. Dean’s arrangement is approximately half the length of Beethoven’s, and beautifully expands the harmonic intensity of the already symphonic original. This segues into Testament, a reference to the famous Heiligenstadt Testament, written by Beethoven in 1802, in which he despaired of his increasing deafness. These two works form a complementary whole, the latter a meditation on Beethoven’s inner world of tinnitus and chaos. Etüdenfest (2000) is a gloriously hectic melange of string exercises with piano evoking the panic of practice rooms as exam time approaches. Shadow Music is elusive and at various turns dark, veiled, ghostly and diaphanous; Short Stories are a series of five interludes with literary allusions. This is nuanced, complex and fantastically assured music by a renowned Australian…

November 25, 2016
CD and Other Review

Review: Shostakovich: Cello Concertos Nos 1, 2

This is a stunner. Weilerstein manages to make this difficult music absolutely riveting. If I had to point to a collaboration between orchestra and soloist that was as close to ideal as humanly possible, then this would be it. The cellist herself is at the top of her profession. The Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra (described by one English critic as “super-elite”) is in red-hot form, as is Spanish conductor Pablo Heras-Casado,  currently Principal Conductor of the Orchestra of St. Luke’s, but who has also performed at the Met and with the Vienna Philharmonic.  These concertos are among the most important 20th-century repertoire for the instrument, and Weilerstein’s playing seems to convey that. The first concerto’s Moderato hovers between wonder and melancholy, sentiments not uncommon in Shostakovich’s music. Later we hear the composer’s own motif, DSCH, which he employed often, perhaps as a badge of defiance in the face of Stalin’s grotesque tyranny.  The second concerto reverses the traditional structure. It begins with a long (nearly 15 minutes) Largo, followed by an Allegretto which would test the chops of any cellist. Weilerstein makes it sound as if it was written for her, as indeed many more recent large-scale works have been….