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.

September 4, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: Janáček: Orchestral Works Vol. 2 (Bergen Philharmonic)

Editor’s Choice Orchestral Recording – August 2015 ★★★★½ After some wonderful recordings for Chandos with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, Edward Gardner here continues the series he began as the newly-appointed Chief Conductor of the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra with a second volume devoted to Janácˇek’s orchestral works. For this listener at least, the highlight of the first volume (CHSA5142) – and this despite superlative accounts of the Sinfonietta and The Cunning Little Vixen Suite – wasn’t an orchestral work at all, but the gorgeous Capriccio for piano left hand, flute/piccolo, two trumpets, three trombones and tenor tuba. I put that down partly to novelty – I wasn’t familiar with the piece – and partly to the refined pianism of Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, who even with one hand tied behind his back, so to speak, cannot suppress a characteristically Gallic lyricism. There’s something of Bavouzet’s precision in violinist James Ehnes’s fearless, fluent negotiation of extremes of interval and register in Janácˇek’s chamber-like ‘violin concerto’ The Wandering of a Little Soul – actually a realisation by Miloš Šteˇdronˇ and Leoš Faltus (the same team who reconstructed Janácˇek’s unfinished symphony The Danube, also recorded here) of a draft for the…

July 21, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: Ferenc Farkas: Orchestra Music Volume Two (Franz Liszt Chamber Orchestra)

★★★☆☆ Throughout his career, Hungarian composer Ferenc Farkas was engaged in exploring the music of his homeland, both ancient and modern. This second volume of works presents an insight into the eclectic, and frequently retrospective, sound world of his works for string orchestra.  The first and last tracks feature Farkas’s arrangements of Hungarian 16th and 17th-century dances. These suites have a cute, antiquated feel – think Respighi’s Ancient Airs and Dances, or Warlock’s Capriol Suite. The same is true of the Finnish Popular Dances. The Aria e Rondo all’Ungherese also looks backwards, but with a more romantic feel, channeling Grieg’s Holberg Suite. The Musica Pentatonica has a different language, energised by angular phrases and rhythms with a pentatonic harmonic framework reminiscent of Holst and the English pastoralists. The András Jelky Suite, named for an 18th-century Hungarian adventurer, is a welcome contrast. Embracing the language of dissonance but retaining a spirit of romanticism, it contains more colourful harmonies than Farkas’s arrangements of early music. The Concertino for Trumpet and Strings is similarly more adventurous, with a clear and articulate performance by trumpet soloist László Tóth. The Franz Liszt Chamber Orchestra’s performance is solid throughout, under the direction of violinists Gyula Stuller…

July 21, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: Messiaen: Des Canyons aux Étoiles (London Philharmonic Orchestra)

★★★★★ Fresh recordings of Olivier Messiaen’s Des Canyons aux Étoiles… come along only rarely. Scored for four soloists – piano, French horn, glockenspiel and xylorimba – really every player in Messiaen’s orchestra needs to be a virtuosic soloist too. He gently warns anyone fancying their chances that his woodwind writing is exceptionally tough, while few composers throw out as many hardcore challenges to orchestral percussionists as Messiaen. But given that Des Canyons aux Étoiles… (From the canyons to the stars…) is a philosophical and spiritual portrait in sound of the Bryce Canyon in Utah, with its shape-shifting rock structures and vistas of sheer science-fiction awe, it would have been odd had Messiaen not attempted to accentuate the primacy of sound over music by recalibrating the expected relationships between harmony, melody and rhythm. Because Messiaen’s hills are not so much alive with the sound of music – these canyons are brought alive with the sound of sound, this extraordinary score inviting your ears to footslog through a living, breathing, evolving aural environment. The first sound you hear is a faraway French horn call, here the excellent John Ryan, which opens the aperture like a wide-angled lens. Then Messiaen zooms in close:…

July 21, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: Sibelius: Symphonies 2 & 7 (BBC National Orchestra of Wales/Thomas Søndergård)

★★★☆☆ Having previously encountered Thomas Søndergård’s fine work on the Dacapo label I have high hopes for this projected cycle of Sibelius Symphonies on Linn, which should appeal to those who like their Sibelius cool, crisp and bracing. Tempi are swift while phrasing is thankfully free of mannerisms. Textures and sonority are clear and limpid but not overly refined so essential Sibelian cragginess is retained. The first movement of the Second is beautifully judged with its pulsating chords ideally weighted, but the second movement is too matter-of-fact; his reluctance to take a breath robs the piece of narrative flow. The Scherzo whizzes along but the build-up to the last movement seems to embarrass the conductor’s modernist sensibility so is rushed. When it arrives the finale is splendid, despite reticent trumpets.  The early pages of the Seventh can meander in slack hands. Søndergård’s firm grip keeps it to the point, steering it home with a sense of inevitability. The BBC NOW play superbly for their new chief with strings really digging in. Those strings are well captured, but the recording, while marvellously transparent at the front of the orchestra is a little blurred at the rear to the detriment of brass…

July 20, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: Holst: The Planets (Sydney Symphony/David Robertson)

In March, when the world observed Earth Hour, conductor David Robertson led the Sydney Symphony and a “Global Orchestra” in an innovative Internet project in which musicians around the country hooked up to play along with a live performance in the Opera House. The idea was to perform an hour-long piece while the country turned off the lights. There could only be one work that would be perfect for the occasion and that is Gustav Holst’s The Planets. It’s often easy with such a familiar work to think it a hackneyed old warhorse. But forget the countless misuses and abuses by ad execs and lazy movie directors and put yourself in the shoes of someone hearing it for the first time. Surf just a few bars of any movement and you realise for an English audience in 1916 there was nothing quite like it. Stravinsky, Dukas, Wagner and Debussy were all influences but this is still a strikingly original work. Mars with its insistent 5/4 beat and chaotic chords or the quiet beauty of Venus; the Mendelssohnian quicksilver of Mercury or the bubbling jollity of Jupiter’s opening; the ominous sense of senescence of Saturn and Uranus’s magical innocence through to…

June 16, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: Boulez: 20th Century Music Box Set

★★★★☆ Pierre Boulez turned 90 on March 26 this year, and several reissues have already appeared to commemorate the occasion. This set collects together his DG recordings of basic 20th-century repertoire: primarily Bartók, Stravinsky, Debussy, Ravel, Schoenberg, Berg, Webern, as well as his own music.  Boulez first recorded almost all this music for Sony (CBS) in the 1960s and 70s. In the ‘90s he signed with DG and began again. While his later recordings are polished, better recorded, and extremely well played, I mostly prefer the earlier set. In 1966, when Boulez made his first controversial disc of La Mer, he was still a rebel and regarded Debussy as revolutionary. An edgy, analytical performance resulted, but in this one with the Cleveland Orchestra from 1991 all discoveries have been made.  Sony issued a box of their Boulez recordings, reviewed here recently by Philip Clark, where the repertoire is quirkier and more diverse. In the new box, for example, we have no Pelléas et Mélisande or Berg Violin Concerto, no Berio, Elliott Carter, Manuel de Falla, nor Boulez’s orchestral masterwork Rituel. We get Stravinsky’s Ebony Concerto but not Pulcinella. The Sony box reproduced the original LP covers, whereas Universal settles for…

June 14, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: Beethoven: Emperor Concert (Nelson Freire, Leipzig Gewandhaus/Chailly)

  This is smashing programming: Beethoven’s last piano concerto and final piano sonata performed by two Decca war horses. Beethoven dedicated the concerto (as well as the Op. 111 Sonata) to Archduke Rudolf; the imperial epithet was coined by his English publisher (not the first or last time a publisher ‘re-interpreted’ a composer’s intentions!). In the context of a work in E Flat, the curious key relationship of the nocturnal second movement in B emphasises the movement’s reflective and subdued character. Brazilian pianist Nelson Freire first performed it in 1957 at the age of 12. Now 70, Freire changes gear effortlessly between rhythmic vitality and deliquescent lyricism in the prolonged opening movement. The Leipzig Gewandhaus occasionally seems more brawny in interpretation of this audacious music than Freire. The Piano Sonata No 32 arrived about ten years after the Emperor Concerto and falls into Beethoven’s late period. Not uniquely it is in two movements: a sonata-allegro followed by a set of variations including the famous proto-boogie-woogie third variation. The rhetorical vigour of the first movement comes off with genius. The herculean second movement is elegant, Freire poetic in tone and line. If really great playing by artists at the top of…

June 13, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: Stravinsky: Works for Piano & Orchestra (Bavouzet, São Paulo SO/Tortelier)

★★★★☆ “Stravinsky belongs to that group of composers whom we admire first and foremost for their intellect…  but it would be a mistake to believe that this intellectual admiration excludes emotion.” So writes pianist Jean-Efflam Bavouzet in the note to his terrific new recording featuring Stravinsky’s works for piano and orchestra and which appeals to the heart as much as the head. Bavouzet won awards last year for his recording of the Prokofiev Piano Concertos. Here, joined by a very much on-form São Paulo Symphony Orchestra under the suave, alert direction of Yan Pascal Tortelier, he again demonstrates his affinity for genuine orchestral collaboration while submitting to that lapidary yet rhythmically vital realisation of line and texture so important in Stravinsky’s music. The Concerto for Piano and Wind Instruments has never sounded more like a multi-coloured riot of tessellation across which drift occasional shadows. The following Capriccio is also pure delight, Bavouzet’s playing shot through with a sparkling lyricism that he even manages to inject into the 12-tone Movements. And if the piano in Pétrouchka is merely a member of the orchestra, Bavouzet nevertheless relishes his role in contributing to one of the tightest yet most theatrically lavish performances of…

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…