November 25, 2016
CD and Other Review

Review: The Haydn Album (Australian Haydn Ensemble)

There have been many prolific composers, but seldom in the field of classical music has anyone made so much of so little as Joseph Haydn. His way of spinning a rhythmic gesture or a fragmentary theme into a skein of golden invention is second to none, and if the twin genii who followed him hadn’t eclipsed all comers, we might hear more of him in the concert hall. One group who has embraced Papa Joseph are the Australian Haydn Ensemble, the five-year-old brainchild of Artistic Director and Principal Violinist Skye McIntosh. A discerning ABC Classics have climbed on board for a debut CD, endorsing a group who have built a following for dynamic performance and imaginative programming, chiefly to date in Sydney and Canberra. This recording should carry them to the ears of the rest of the world. The young ensemble is suitably matched by young man’s music in a charming early symphony, a probably contemporaneous cello concerto and, as a grand finale, a mature work: Haydn’s most popular keyboard concerto – the one with the ear-tickling Gypsy finale. Daniel Yeadon is the excellent soloist in the First Cello Concerto, one of two superb examples believed lost until miraculously discovered…

October 28, 2016
CD and Other Review

Review: Nicola Benedetti plays Shostakovich & Glazunov Violin Concertos

Nicola Benedetti is on the verge of entering the Isserlis/Hough/Lewis/Osborne pantheon of distinction: does she ever produce a dud note, let alone performance? Here, she plays two diametrically opposed violin concertos, by Shostakovich and his teacher Glazunov (a fact I was completely unaware of). There surely can’t have been a master and pupil in all music who wrote in such different idioms, even allowing for the different universes they both lived in, but the unlikely juxtaposition works! Shostakovich withheld his First Violin Concerto, composed in the 1940s, until after Stalin’s death in 1953, when the worst of the ‘terror’ appeared to have abated. Benedetti has described the Shostakovich Violin Concerto No 1 as “harrowing” to play and she graphically conveys this in the opening movement where she prowls this uniquely bleak, the night-is-always-darkest-just-before-the-dawn landscape (except that there is no dawn) like a traumatised soul, producing an appropriately wan tone.  The playing throughout is packed with a sense of powerful torment. In the manic Scherzo she demonstrates all the diablerie of Oistrakh and Vengerov in their legendary recordings, but it’s in the great third movement passacaglia where her playing reaches the white heat of emotion and the work becomes a soaring…

October 28, 2016
CD and Other Review

Review: Ravel: Complete Orchestral Works

Lionel Bringuier’s recordings of Ravel’s piano concertos with Yuja Wang were issued last year, and a second listening confirms the Wang approach has much going for it. Her view of the G Major Concerto soft pedals Ravel’s borrowings from jazz, the opening movement running with the jazzy energies but ditching the stylistic hooks, while her second movement refuses to collapse towards sentimentality. The Left Hand Concerto accrues momentum and dark-hued power, even if Bringuier saunters past some orchestral nuances – compare Boulez’s highlighting of the opening contrabassoon grumbles. But that is perhaps a temporary oversight. Boléro – taken at quite a lick – is satisfyingly painterly, the Tonhalle’s nuanced shades and textures, underpinned by a tightly marshalled snare drum, shining a light through Ravel’s experiment in orchestration without music. La Valse also benefits from the same intensity of colouristic framing, and the surge towards structural fragmentation flirts with unashamed savagery. The whimsy of Mother Goose (complete) and miniatures like Pavane pour une Infante Défunte and Alborada del Gracioso is well judged, a pity though that Ray Chen hams his way through Tzigane. Daphnis et Chloé is a bit wide-angle camera for my taste, a repeat of my misgivings about Bringuier’s…

October 27, 2016
CD and Other Review

Review: Mozart: Piano Concertos Nos 5 & 6

This latest volume in Ronald Brautigam’s consistently brilliant survey of Mozart’s works for piano and orchestra finds the Dutch fortepianist in fine fettle in some of the early concertos.  Joined by superb German period-instrument band Die Kölner Akademie under Juilliard-trained director Michael Alexander Willens, Brautigam raises the curtain with the main attraction, so to speak. Written in 1773, Mozart’s Piano Concerto No 5 was his first original piano concerto, the previous being arrangements of other composers’ music. It’s a thrilling work, with a grand opening Allegro replete with trumpets and timpani, a delicate Cantabile slow movement and a punchy, exciting concluding Rondo.  All of which contrasts nicely with Mozart’s sweeter, more delicate Piano Concerto No 6 in B Flat (1776). Gone are the martial effects; instead the main attraction is a stately, delicious Andante where flutes replace oboes, upper strings play on the bridge and lower strings are for the most part plucked. More contrasting again are the Three Concertos for keyboard, two violins and basso arranged around 1772 by Mozart fils and père after JC Bach’s keyboard sonatas of 1766. With Brautigam joined only by violinists Peter Hanson and Marie-Luise Hartmann and cellist Albert Brüggen, these are more in…

October 27, 2016
CD and Other Review

Review: George Butterworth: Orchestral Works

I write this review on the exact centenary of the Battle of the Somme, which is being appropriately (and heart-rendingly) commemorated, and in which this composer died, at 31. I’m surprised how deeply affected I am hearing this exquisite CD.  The very mention of Butterworth’s name induces a pang in many people. He was the archetypally gallant yet reticent Edwardian hero, a fine Etonian scholar and musician (and revered by the men he led into battle) and this marvellous music rekindles the pain at the loss of someone cruelly extinguished on the cusp of probable greatness. All the orchestral pieces (some arranged and developed by the conductor) are radiantly preformed and perfectly convey the haunting, dappled beauty of Edwardian summers – great houses, croquet lawns and languid figures in muslin and linen, but not without a hint of mystery.  The texts of the song cycle A Shropshire Lad were composed by AE Housman and these renditions by James Rutherford are in the same league as those of Sir Thomas Allen. The singing is hearty, direct, innocently patriotic and occasionally suffused with an almost Mahlerian melancholy. The CD contains a premiere recording of the previously unfinished Orchestral Fantasia developed from a 92-bar…

October 27, 2016
CD and Other Review

Review: Magnus Lindberg: Al Largo, Cello Concerto No 2 & Era

In the mid 1980s, Magnus Lindberg’s sound-world underwent a drastic overhaul. His mammoth work Kraft (1983-5) reveals a composer delving into the kaleidoscope of Modernism. Yet only a few years later, Lindberg’s works were sounding radically different, embracing tonal harmony, and drawing on a wealth of styles, from minimalism to Boulez. The works on this recent release bear a strong Neo-Romantic quality, if not in harmony, then in gesture. Al Largo is a scintillating work bristling with detail. Orchestrations are lush and powerful, rarely retreating below piano, making for a dynamic and full-bodied experience. Commencing with a startling brass fanfare, Lindberg conjures up a series of vivid orchestral scenes, culminating in a joyous exultation. “Orchestrations are lush and powerful, making for a dynamic and full-bodied experience“ The composer’s Second Cello Concerto is a rich, dynamic work, highly expressive in an almost Romantic sense. Despite this, gestures assume a more modernist character, unlocking the rich timbral profile of the cello. Certain features are shared throughout all three movements, particularly Lindberg’s bold and rhapsodic approach, with broad, sweeping melody a constant feature in the solo part. Anssi Karttunen delivers a consistently powerful performance, plumbing the work’s expressive depths and achieving brilliant contrast in the…

September 29, 2016
CD and Other Review

Review: Vaughan Williams: Symphonies Volume 1

I’ve never really ‘got’ Vaughan Williams’ London Symphony, preferring Eric Coates’ more literal representations to RVW’s impressionistic, vaseline-coated lens. That said, this performance is impressive from beginning to end. The depiction of a stirring organism followed by the mighty crash is just one of many choice moments. Manze (such an unlikely candidate as a fine RVW conductor) handles the aquatints and orchestral contours with finesse and imagination. In the slow movement (Bloomsbury Square on a November Afternoon) the sounds of hansom cab and lavender seller are beautifully captured by the engineers, but there’s also a secretive feel. (Is that also the sound of a member of the Bloomsbury set en route to have a liaison with a close relative?) The Scherzo movement, although termed a nocturne, is more extrovert, with the festivities of the rich in the great hotels of the Strand in full swing against sounds of raucous poverty on the opposite bank, again perfectly conveyed. The finale is vintage Vaughan Williams with the threefold march-allegro-march describing the sort of dignified noble pageantry one rarely associates with this composer. The Eighth Symphony is a product of the composer’s Indian summer. Partly an exercise in sonorities (a highly successful one)…

September 29, 2016
CD and Other Review

Review: Rosetti: Sinfonias and Concerti

It’s a bizarre feeling to listen to a world premiere recording of works finished in the 18th century. Compagnia di Punto, a modular ensemble specialising in historical interpretations of early music, have released the first recordings of a handful of Antonio Rosetti’s last works. A contemporary of Haydn and Mozart, in his time he was praised as “one of the most beloved composers”. After listening to the disc, I agree, and I’m wondering why I haven’t heard Rosetti more. This disc features a variety of Rosetti’s works, three sinfonias and two concerti – one for flute and the other for natural horn. Many composers are flippantly compared to Mozart, but in this instance the comparisons are warranted. The opening bars of the first sinfonia throw me straight into the midst of The Marriage of Figaro. Compagnia di Punto musicians do use historical instruments, and so this adds an earthy, rustic quality to the balance, much like a hearty soup. It’s especially evident in the wind parts, where the articulation is rough, or the pitch is slightly bent for further emphasis. Sure, it’s different from the polished interpretation you expect from a ‘classical’ recording, but it adds an infectious enthusiasm to…

September 29, 2016
CD and Other Review

Review: Lutosławski: Concerto for Orchestra

Witold Lutosławski was commissioned to write his Concerto for Orchestra in Stalinist post-WWII Poland. Modelled to some extent on Bartók’s famous work of the same name from 1943, the Concerto was a turning point for Lutosławski, and one that came about, as he put it, “as a result of my episodic symbiosis with folk music and in a way that was for me somewhat unexpected.” It took four years to complete, and it’s an exuberant, exciting work, written in 1954 to put a then-young Warsaw Philharmonic through its paces. Peruvian conductor Miguel Harth-Bedoya, in his 16th season with the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra, conjures instrumental passages of great beauty, verve and dynamism. However, in similar manner to its earlier namesake, there is plenty of darkness bubbling below the surface. It’s paired with Schoenberg’s 1937 orchestral arrangement of Brahms’ Piano Quartet No 1, the original of which is so expansive as to be a logical choice for further development. It is supremely lyrical, bursting with tunes, and this arrangement mitigates the contained intensity of the original in favour of a more accessible treatment. Again, the FWSO is in its element, especially rollicking through the final ‘gypsy rondo’ movement. The works sit…

September 29, 2016
CD and Other Review

Review: Czerny: Grand Concerto in A Minor

Czerny isn’t remembered in history with as much prestige as Mozart and Beethoven, but his works have just as much to say. While the weighty strings which open the Grand Nocturne Brilliant, Op. 95 sound reminiscent of Mozart’s Requiem, the work is quick to form its own identity. Remarkably balanced winds and strings give way to the main feature: Tuck. At once, she is romantic, aggressive and pronounced; her melodies don’t flow smoothly, but this sheds light on her precision and accuracy (and the clear recording). The title concerto is next, off to a modest start. The work and its interpretation are as predictable as we’ve grown to expect (largely thanks to Mozart, who Czerny was performing at nine years old). But Czerny’s concertos offer similar pleasures and complexities – without the ego. This honours the pianist’s virtuosity but pays respect to the form, which relies on other instrumentalists. Thankfully, this collection of musicians under Richard Bonynge is remarkable. Finally we come to the Variations de Concert de l’Opéra Le Siège de Corinthe, Op. 138. The disjointed opening takes a good 30 seconds to find its way into a building melody. A couple of minutes in, the horns interject with…

September 29, 2016
CD and Other Review

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

The recently appointed Music Director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Andris Nelsons, continues his series of the ‘war symphonies’ of Shostakovich in this double-disc set. The Tenth appeared a year ago to great acclaim, and the Sixth and Seventh are slated for future release. This series of symphonies is the pinnacle of Shostakovich’s achievement in the form, reputedly mapping the composer’s anxiety, anger and subversion during the fraught years of war and Stalin’s rule. Valery Gergiev recorded much the same selection with the Kirov (Mariinsky) Orchestra in the early 2000s for Philips (leaving out the post-war Tenth, arguably the best, and adding the experimental pre-war Fourth). That set makes for an interesting comparison. The Boston Symphony is known for its polish, and it is an aural pleasure to revisit their beautifully upholstered, well recorded sound. Nelsons has galvanised these musicians.Dramatic moments like the descending brass motifs in the Eighth’s third movement absolutely tell. Quirky, pointed phrasing from the clarinet brings Shostakovich the clown to life in the central movement of the Ninth, and the Fifth’s first movement climax carries plenty of weight. The passage that follows, with flute and horn mingling in gentle counterpoint, is as meltingly lovely as it…

September 14, 2016
CD and Other Review

Review: Bartók: Complete Works (Decca)

Universal has been scouring their prodigious back catalogue for a few years now – putting together a wide ranging series of bargain priced sets based on classic recordings, artists and composers. As one of the most important of 20th-century composers, the Hungarian Béla Bartók (1881-1945) has only become known to mainstream Western audiences since the commission of the late virtuosic Concerto for Orchestra, written for the Boston Symphony and Serge Koussevitzky. That work raised his profile and ensured the popularity of his unique, often percussive and proto-primtive style, one based on his serious collection of middle European folktunes. Works such as the highly idiomatic cycle of six string quartets were then taken up along with modern jazz by the Beats of the late 1950s and these still sound uniquely modern. Fortunately Universal with its roster of fine labels (Decca, DG and Philips) have done very well by Bartók over the years and this set is complete, unlike the earlier release on Hungaroton, with some works being recorded specifically for this project. The pianistic duties are often delegated to Zoltán Kocsis (his highly acclaimed cycles of works for both solo and concertante works from the 1990s), whilst a fellow Hungarian, conductor…

September 9, 2016
CD and Other Review

Review: The Menuhin Century (Warner Classics)

Yehudi Menuhin (1916-1999) was the most widely known violinist of the 20th century. A child prodigy, he recorded the Elgar Concerto at the age of 16 with Elgar conducting. His recording career spanned seven decades. The earliest discs were made for American Columbia in 1928, but from 1929 until 1998 he recorded for EMI. It is from his EMI catalogue that these 80 CDs are drawn (they are available separately, or in one box with a set of DVDs). Amazingly, these are not Menuhin’s complete recordings: his late conducting work and some duplications (such as Lalo’s Symphonie Espagnol) are missing. The landmark recordings are here: the 1932 Elgar; the complete Beethoven Sonatas with the distinguished pianist Louis Kentner; Beethoven, Brahms, Mendelssohn and Bartók concertos under Furtwängler, and earlier sessions with his mentor, the Romanian composer Georges Enescu. The young Yehudi’s sheer panache and extraordinary musical instincts are a revelation: hear him delighting in his skill in the Virtuoso collection, in pieces by Sarasate and Fritz Kreisler recorded in the late ‘30s. In mid-career, Menuhin’s technique faltered; problems with his bowing arm plagued him from then on. You can hear it in his live performance of the Britten Concerto from Edinburgh…