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…

December 9, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: Haydn: The Creation (Handel and Haydn Society)

Recording of the Month – January/February 2016 How wonderful for an organisation to be celebrating 200 years of performing The Creation! Part One of Haydn’s masterpiece was performed in Boston on Christmas Day, 1815 by the Handel and Haydn Society to a rapt audience of about 1,000 people. It’s hard to imagine how the 13 instrumentalists on that occasion coped with Haydn’s colourful score and supported the chorus of 90 men and ten women, but the pioneering spirit of that performance has born lasting fruit: H+H is still going strong, as this excellent recording attests. Harry Christophers, the current Artistic Director of Boston’s Handel and Haydn Society eschews the ‘blockbuster’ approach of Paul McCreesh’s 2008 account and opts instead for medium-sized forces: a chorus of 42 accompanied by an orchestra of 47 that perform in Boston’s hallowed Symphony Hall. This means that tempi are on the whole slightly more flowing and less monumental, allowing some of the more intimate moments to shine through. Haydn’s English text has always been troublesome. Christophers adopts a less interventionist approach than McCreesh, with the happy result we still have some favourite turns of phrase: the “flexible tiger”, “with verdure clad” and “the wonder of his…

December 7, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: Shostakovich: Symphony No 9 & Violin Concerto No 1 (Mariinsky Orchestra)

I’ve always wondered whether Shostakovich’s Ninth began life as an ironically subversive take on the superstition surrounding Ninth symphonies. It clearly wasn’t what the authorities were expecting as a crowning glory of the so-called ‘Wartime Trilogy’ with the sublime Eighth and the interminable and bombastic Leningrad.  The famous description of it as “Haydnesque in proportion and Rossiniesque in wit” is captured by Gergiev and his Mariinisky forces. I love the constant subversion in the Largo, the only even partly “serious” movement where the funeral march initiated by the bassoon is subverted by… the bassoon. The rag-tag cartoonish quality is also heard to great effect in the finale where we suddenly get a Soviet Army Band appearing.   The First Violin Concerto is an interesting companion: it’s hard to imaging anything more starkly contrasted. Kavakos has shed his wunderkind image and turns in a wonderfully subtle performance, especially in the spectral Nocturne opening movement, surely the most sinister nocturne in all music. I agree with other reviewers in remarking on his restrained volume here but I think it works, like the delicacy of his tone. No one will ever surpass either Oistrakh or Vengerov in his 1994 recording but Kavakos embodies…

December 7, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: D’Indy: Orchestral Works Volume 6 (Iceland Symphony Orchestra)

This final installment of Rumon Gamba’s six discs exploring the orchestral work of turn of the (last) century French composer Vincent d’Indy – whose aesthetic pitched up somewhere between César Franck and Richard Wagner – is probably not the best place to gain an entry-point. Fans will be happy to have a new recording of Wallenstein, the composer’s three-part pseudo-symphony inspired by a rather vainglorious poem by Schiller. The 1976 recording by Pierre Dervaux and the Orchestre de la Loire remains the go-to, but Gamba’s Iceland forces are captured with intimate depth, brass pushed slightly forwards in the mix; d’Indy liked nothing better than a brass fanfare, so such sonic gerrymandering is acceptable. The piece itself, though, is remarkably unremarkable. Given d’Indy’s pedigree as a disciple of Franck and Wagner, his attempts to create a Franckian cyclic structure deploying Wagnerian motifs as staging posts flounder because his melodic and gestural hooks feel so unmemorable and generic. Elsewhere, Bryndís Hall Gylfadóttir’s sweet and effervescent playing sells d’Indy’s folksy Lied for cello and orchestra. But you can see why the monochrome Sérénade et Valse, Suite dans le Style Ancien and Prelude to Act III of his opera Fervaal remain historical curios.

December 7, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: Westlake: Babe Orchestral Soundtrack (Melbourne Symphony Orchestra)

This remarkable film was a hit when released in 1995, garnering an armful of awards and making a squillion at the box office; a triumph for Australian filmmaking. George Miller and Chris Noonan used an imaginative mix of animation, live action and animatronics to create a convincing world of talking animals and drama. The enterprise was helped on its merry way by Nigel Westlake’s fine score, in which he primarily drew on Saint-Saëns’ organ symphony. I use the word ‘merry’ purposefully, as the noble theme of the story and the way it plays out is joyful. Dare I say, heartfelt? Quick grab a tissue!  There are passing glances at other classical composers such as Grieg, Bizet, Fauré and Delibes; whose Pizzicati from Sylvia is used to great effect. Westlake uses this source material creatively and often with humour (even Jingle Bells gets a look in) leaving the great theme by Saint-Saëns as the musical binding for this life-affirming story. The playful arrangement of this big tune for Farmer Hoggett’s dance in the last track is a sheer delight.  Westlake’s skill as a composer is matched by his brilliant orchestration (and in the world of composition the two skills are not…

December 7, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: Schubert: Nikolaus Harnoncourt conducts Schubert (Berlin Philharmonic)

Editor’s Choice – Orchestral, October 2015 When I spoke to Nikolaus Harnoncourt about his new Schubert set for Limelight’s August issue, one thing was made clear from the get-go: the prevailing wisdom that the truly superlative Schubert symphonies are the Unfinished and the Great needs to be questioned. “Already his own style is in place from the first movement of the First Symphony,” Harnoncourt told me. And the conducting bears out those bold sentiments. Harnoncourt’s idea of a ‘Schubert style’ runs contrary to deeply held ‘certainties’, while remaining stubbornly rooted in the notes. The First Symphony is revealed as the work of an enfant terrible, a cocky young composer fully-versed in the lessons of Beethoven; stinging dissonances disrupt what might otherwise be smooth harmonic pathways. That opening movement is taken at a high-velocity tempo, Harnoncourt daring momentum to buckle when the harmony is at its most disobedient. And having comprehensively demolished the misnomer that his earliest symphonies might be pallid re-makes of Mozart and Haydn, Harnoncourt aims to change hearts and minds about Schubert’s middle and late-period symphonies. His earlier cycle, recorded in 1992 with the Concertgebouw, balances out intriguingly between the peppery soul of the Romantic spirit tempered by…

November 18, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: John Adams: Absolute Jest (San Francisco Symphony)

This new recording on the San Francisco Symphony’s own label presents two works written three decades apart by American composer John Adams. Although Adams is most commonly associated with Minimalist compositional techniques, these are only very obliquely in evidence in this world premiere recording of Absolute Jest (2013 Most unusually, the work is scored for string quartet with symphony orchestra – “pretty much a repertory black hole,” as Adams notes dryly. This piece takes as its starting points phrases from late Beethoven string quartets, predominantly Op. 131, 135, and the Große Fuge (Op. 133), weaving them into “a colossal 25-minute scherzo” with orchestral elaborations, digressions and counterpoints, and nods to other Beethoven works. “Absolute Jest is playful, in the literal sense of scherzo as joke, but it is by no means lightweight”  It’s hugely playful, in the literal sense of scherzo as joke/jest, but it is by no means lightweight, flippant or ironic. Rather, it’s a vivacious, lively homage, a recent example in a long line of composers (including Brahms and Stravinsky, to name but two) looking back and ‘sampling’ the work of their forebears in order to create new and exciting compositions.  Absolute Jest is paired here with a…

November 11, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: Ge Gan-Ru: Shanghai Reminiscences & Butterfly Overture

Though Ge Gan-Ru was raised and educated in Shanghai where he would discover the Western avant garde (Stockhausen, Cage and Crumb), like Tan Dun and Bright Sheng, upon moving to the US he would adopt a hybrid style bringing together traditional Chinese elements with a style associated with American modernists such as Copland and Bernstein. It was during his period of overseas study that, homesick, he would experience recurring “dreams of the street scenes and sounds of old Shanghai”, which led to a wish to compose music that would bring a coalescence of East with West. And Shanghai Reminiscences is the musical realisation of that wish.  Opening this large-scale work we hear the chanting monks and bells of his beloved Jing An temple, placed within an emotional and harmonic milieu akin to Bernstein’s Symphony No 2 (The Age of Anxiety). Woven into this ingenious work, the listener also discovers elements of traditional Peking opera and folk tunes set against the more familiar (for us) sound world of the Western violin. The other piece on this disc is Butterfly Overture, a tribute to his first teacher at the Shanghai Conservatory, Chen Gang who composed the Butterfly Lovers violin concerto – still…

November 11, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: Eugen Suchoň: Baladická suita, Metamorfózy & Symfonietta rustica

The Slovak composer Eugen Suchoň (1908-1993) possessed a rich, distinctive voice that drew as much on the diatonicism of late-Romanticism and the modality of Slovak folk music as on Impressionism and chromaticism. But what most astonishes when listening to these three impressive large-scale orchestral works from the mid-1930s and mid-1950s is Suchonˇ’s subtle yet expansive orchestrations and fulsome narrative drive. It’s easy to be reminded that he did a lot of piano improvising for silent films. Metamorfózy (Metamorphoses, 1953) is quasi-programmatic, the portrait of the artist around the time of World War II. Each of its five sections is exquisitely crafted but the final Allegro feroce, with its rushing strings and explosive brass and percussion, steals the show. The earlier Baladická Suita opens in a mood of bustling energy through which one can glimpse the gorgeous lyricism of the following Adagio, which in turn submits to a frenetic Allegro molto that is itself conquered by the final movement’s lush impressionism.  Completed in 1956, Symfonietta Rustica is adapted from parts of the composer’s Sonata Rustica for solo piano and is dominated by the spirit of folk song and dance. The Estonian National Symphony Orchestra under Järvi play this music as though…