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…

November 11, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: Hans Gál: The Four Symphonies (Orchestra of the Swan/Woods)

Hans Gál (1890-1987) was one of those composers of Jewish heritage who fled Nazi Germany. While many headed to the USA, Gál went to England, where he was interred as an enemy alien and imprisoned alongside actual Nazis. His sister perished during The Holocaust and later he lost his 18-year-old son to suicide. After the war, Gál taught at Edinburgh University and was instrumental in setting up the Edinburgh Festival. He continued to compose, though like other refugee composers he did so in a vacuum. He regarded himself as a craftsman: when forced to spend time in hospital in his 80s, he committed himself to writing a fugue every day. Gál enjoyed a burgeoning reputation before life’s vicissitudes intervened. His four symphonies span his entire creative career: the First was written in 1927 and the Fourth in 1974. Nevertheless, his style and language remained consistent. The turmoil of the times is not reflected in his music. Evidently he turned to composition for escape and solace. His symphonic music is redolent of the English pastoral school – even the First, written before he came to England. That work is probably closest to modernism, with its cheeky Scherzo and buoyant, extrovert finale,…

November 11, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: The Decca Sound – Mono Years (1944-1956)

Music lovers over 50 will recall the Ace of Clubs label: a series of reissues of mono recordings from the 1950s. They sold in Australia for $2.95, enticingly cheaper than full price stereo LPs at $5.95. The latest in a series of Decca Sound boxes, delving into the old Decca catalogue, brings back many of those recordings, encased in reproductions of the original sleeves and with bonus tracks to take each CD beyond 70 minutes.  Decca’s Full Frequency Range sound quality was always a feature and is enhanced in the digital remastering, although violin sections are occasionally toppy. For instance, you have to listen through the harsh string sound of Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro to appreciate the bracing vitality of Anthony Collins’s performance. His Falstaff has no such caveat: it sounds great and is enthralling from beginning to end. Sadly there is too much here to cover in a short review. Conductors include stalwarts like Ansermet, Argenta, Boult, Martinon, Fistoulari, Erich Kleiber (beautifully unaffected in Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony), Van Beinum, and the earliest discs by Solti: a riveting Bartók Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta and a lively Haydn Symphony No 100. Unique and celebrated recordings abound: Britten’s Diversions with…

November 11, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: Ravel: Daphnis et Chloé & La Valse

This recording of the complete Daphnis et Chloé came after a run of stage performances at the Bastille last year and it is a shame the production wasn’t filmed as we need a decent staging on DVD. In that context Jordan’s reading would be more satisfying than this audio only account. The needs of choreography have straight-jacketed his interpretation and while some may enjoy its straightforward, unfussy manner, for many it will come across as bland and paradoxically un-theatrical. Limpid textures and restraint are a pleasure in themselves, but the lack of thrust and dramatic gesture stops the performance from taking flight. That marvellous opening sequence of mounting voluptuousness should make senses tingle but fails to arouse. Dorcon’s dance is hardly grotesque, and the mocking laughter is half-hearted. The pirate sequences are way too careful. The Bacchanale never quite takes off. The burbling brook at Daybreak is lovingly articulated though, and one does get a frisson with an orgasmic Sunrise.  Similar issues plague La Valse. Wonderful moments are glossed over, the opening devoid of mystery, the final breakdown lacks abandon. There are fine textures, but I wish Jordan would just cut loose. Orchestral playing is fine but not outstanding. Recorded…

November 11, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: Bewitched (Les Passions de l’Ame/Meret Lüthi)

Where would music be without femmes fatales? In presenting Geminiani’s score for the 1754 pantomime The Enchanted Forest, Les Passions de l’Ame (a Swiss baroque ensemble based in Bern) realise that in the absence of any visual element this instrumental music, however well played, would lack a certain something. How sensible then to programme a cantata by Handel on the same subject (namely from Torquato Tasso’s Gerusalemme Liberata). Enter our temptress, Armida. This scarlet woman bewitches a crusader, Rinaldo, and holds him in thrall to her charms. Rinaldo’s comrades break the witch’s spell and the abandoned Armida is left to lament her fate, even as she tries to win back her beloved with magic and womanly wiles.  The clear, stylish singing of soprano Robin Johannsen provides a welcome contrast to the relatively long stretches of Geminiani’s rather mannered concerti grossi, especially given the variety of moods encapsulated in Handel’s cantata. Her rage aria, Venti, fermate, sì, is an excellent contrast to the more resigned final aria. Les Passions de l’Ame play with dedication and establish their credentials with a fiery account of Geminiani’s own arrangement of Corelli’s take on La Follia. It’s a pity that the rest of Geminiani’s music…

November 6, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: Adam: Giselle (Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra/Fraillon)

In the ballet world, Adam’s Giselle is almost as often performed as Swan Lake and The Nutcracker. However on the concert stage, it hasn’t achieved the same popularity as its Russian cousins. Despite the efforts of this beautiful recording by the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra, expertly led by Nicolette Fraillon, it’s not hard to understand why. Adam’s buoyant melodies aren’t as charming as those in a Strauss waltz and there isn’t the same melodrama as you hear in Tchaikovsky’s famous ballets. The Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra with Fraillon at the helm do play Adam’s score stylishly and without fault, once again proving they are one of Australia’s most versatile orchestras. Their balance in the romantic orchestration has wonderful depth and is consistently lush. The frequent woodwind details are delightfully delivered, notably the interchanging flute and clarinet solos. Giselle and Albrecht’s Pas de Deux reveals the strength of individual players, with all the soloists playing with poise, especially the opening cellist.  This disc is marketed toward the dance student, with the inclusion of ten alternative dance solos at varying tempi designed to suit differences in choreography or a dancer’s individual technique. If you are a fan of Adam’s music, or you are a…

November 6, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: Ives: Symphonies Nos 1 & 2 (MSO/Davis)

Far from hinting at the avant garde orchestral works to come, Charles Ives’ symphonic debut could almost have been penned by Dvorˇák with Brahms and Tchaikovsky looking over his shoulder. Ives had heard the New York premiere of the New World Symphony and he paid it more than a passing nod, almost channelling the famous Largo (including cor anglais). This engaging work, written when he was still at Yale, shows the insurance salesman-cum-composer was no mere hobbyist. It includes a highly competent fugue in the Scherzo, engaging melodies and skilful use of orchestral palette. The five-movement Second Symphony, championed by Bernstein, is more characteristic with snatches of Stephen Foster’s Camptown Races and American hymns vying with quotes from Beethoven, Brahms, Bach and Wagner. There’s a hint of what was to come in the final bars where it ends on an abrupt, comical key change – a musical thumbing of the nose? The work was applauded at its premiere although Ives is said to have spat at its reception. The Melbourne Symphony Orchestra are clearly relishing their collaboration with Chief Conductor Sir Andrew Davis judging from the playing in both works. Phrasing and tempi are excellent and technically they are up there with overseas orchestras. Production from Chandos is exemplary….

November 5, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: Prokofiev & Shostakovich: Cello Concertos (Steven Isserlis)

Editor’s Choice, Orchestral – September 2015 Prokofiev’s ‘First’ Cello Concerto in E Minor, Op. 58 had a troubled existence and found little favour with the public. It was not until an encounter with Mstislav Rostropovich that it was successfully performed. However, Prokofiev had developed doubts about its form and asked Rostropovich to help restructure it. The result was the so-called Sinfonia Concertante, Op. 125, a vastly different work, which came in time to entirely eclipse its predecessor. Neither work shows Prokofiev at his creative zenith: the Op. 125 is bizarre and rambling in parts and has never become a repertoire staple. Steven Isserlis has been one of the world’s leading cellists for a generation and seems artistically incapable of playing a dud note, let alone giving a dud performance, but, when I read one reviewer’s cynical comment on a live Isserlis performance of the original Op. 58 (that it was what you exhumed when you’d recorded just about everything else in the cello repertoire), I instinctively agreed. “Isserlis seems incapable of playing a dud note, let alone giving a dud performance” Isserlis’s liner notes are persuasively eloquent, and although they still have a whiff of special pleading, his sheer panache never…

October 14, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: Vaughan Williams, Macmillan: Oboe Concertos (Nicolas Daniel)

This programme has been cleverly crafted around the world premiere recording of Sir James MacMillan’s Oboe Concerto performed by its dedicatee Nicholas Daniel with the composer at the helm. It is a bold virtuosic work that should prove popular with both players and audiences.  The breezy first movement, a bustling affair with the soloist goaded on to challenging passage-work by startling effects in the orchestra, contrasts starkly with the following Largo based on material from a earlier composition In Angustiis (a post-9/11 lament for solo oboe). It juxtaposes periods of keening sorrow with outbursts of rage, while stretching the expressive possibilities of the instrument just about as far as it can go. The Finale is forthright and playful, opening with a demented parody of serialist pretensions before veering off in unexpected poly-stylistic directions – although some of its jokes are a little too wacky for its own good.  The disc opens with Vaughan William’s pastoral idyll with the soloist directing a performance that should serve as a top recommendation for this under-recorded gem. The Britten Sinfonia’s limpid strings conjure moments of heart-stopping beauty such as the hushed rapture at the close of the first movement. Daniel’s slender but focused tone is quintessentially British and…

September 4, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: Avi Avital: Vivaldi

★★★★ Well, in theory it’s a bad idea to judge a book (or a CD) by its cover, but in the case of Avi Avital’s new recording it works rather well. Set against a Venetian background, the typography of his name neatly reflects the letters in the name of Vivaldi and the two prove to be a fine match for each other. Here, Avital borrows liberally from Vivaldi’s concerti for other instruments. The mandolin’s tuning is identical to that of the violin, albeit with doubled pairs of strings, so it’s a fairly straightforward matter to transfer works across. Of the concertos, he plays the Concerto in A Minor, RV356, and the Concerto in G Minor, RV315, AKA Summer from The Four Seasons. You’d think that some of the hair-raising runs in these pieces, seemingly so effortless on the violin, would be awkward or ungainly on the mandolin, but if that’s the case Avital doesn’t show it. Particularly inspired is the inclusion of the Trio Sonata in C, RV82 (originally for violin and lute) with the combination of mandolin, lute, and basso continuo providing a charming atmosphere of convivial music making. There are some other inventive borrowings from other Vivaldi concerti,…

September 4, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: Songs My Mother Taught Me (Nemanja Radulovic)

This is a deeply personal collection from violinist Nemanja Radulovic. It’s an engaging mix of violin showpieces with traditional Serbian dances and film music sitting comfortably alongside short works by classical composers that take varying degrees of inspiration from Eastern European folk traditions. These include a Brahms Hungarian Dance, the Danse Russe from Swan Lake and the March from Prokofiev’s The Love for Three Oranges. Radulovic is also a great champion of somewhat neglected Georgian composer Aram Khachaturian; two of his works appear here including the famous Sabre Dance, which Radulovic plays like leaping flames. His affinity for fiery gypsy dances (there’s a lot of dancing) is clear and his playing full of passion and vigour with a raggedly emotional edge. Radulovic meanwhile is all long, wild hair, skinny black jeans and impossibly shiny boots – a compelling combination as unforced and natural as his playing.  The closing Macedonian song, Zajdi, Zajdi, Jasno Sonce, features the only vocals on the album, from the extraordinary Ksenija Milošević, a well-known Serbian violinist and singer who has made several appearances at Eurovision. It’s hard to convey in words how riveting this piece of music is; the words weep without the listener requiring any…

September 4, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: Czerny: Bel Canto Concertante (English Chamber Orchestra)

★★★ Carl Czerny’s piano works have been important studies for a very long time but we know almost nothing of his other compositions. Here we have four works with Czerny following the fashions of the day and making elaborate piano variations based around music from particular operas – in this case, bel canto arias from Bellini’s Norma and ll Pirata, Auber’s Fra Diavolo and Gli Arabi nelle Gallie by Pacini. They are clearly showpieces, most probably intended to be watched as well as listened to; just the thing to keep the aristocracy entertained after dinner without giving them indigestion. However, to judge by some of the musical flippancy on hand it is clear that even had there been no Beethoven, Czerny may have not amounted to much beyond his splendid piano exercises. Schumann thought his music was rubbish, and said so.  The album ranges from the remarkably trivial (the Norma variations) to the delightful (Fra Diavolo) – the principal theme familiar to me from my early piano exercises as On Yonder Rock Reclining. The most thoughtful piece is the Il Pirata variations and the dullest, those from Gli Arabi. Czerny was a familiar of Beethoven, which is well and good,…

September 4, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: Island Songs (Amy Dickson)

★★★★ Amy Dickson shows off her astounding virtuosity in a programme of ‘local’ works for alto and soprano saxophones inspired by natural and imaginary worlds. Island Songs is one of Peter Sculthorpe’s last compositions, drawing on a mix of wartime popular song and Aboriginal chant. The first half, Song of Home, features brooding strings, shimmers of percussion and a sea of oscillating violin melodies, over which Dickson’s pure saxophone soars with a plaintive elegance. The second part, Lament and Yearning, blends Sculthorpe’s love of ancient lands with his sadness for modern climatic dangers.  After the long, smooth gliding of Island Songs, Dickson harnesses an entirely different energy for Brett Dean’s Siduri Dances, managing the brutally jagged and dissonant melodic language with a vibrant ferocity. The Sydney Symphony’s strings conjure an effectively disturbing sonic environment led by Benjamin Northey (who also conducts the Sculthorpe).  The multi-movement Full Moon Dances is a concerto for alto saxophone and orchestra exploring Ross Edwards’ ‘Maninya’ style with echoes of ritual music from both Western and South-East Asian cultures. Dickson’s dazzling artistry is on display throughout, in particular in the second movement, which jets forward with some unashamedly raucous and ‘ecstatic’ orchestral jiving. Here the SSO plays under the baton of Miguel Harth-Bedoya.