June 6, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: Brahms: Serenades (Leipzig Gewandhaus/Chailly)

Editor’s Choice, Orchestral  – June 2015 And the question remains – why aren’t Johannes Brahms’ Serenades staples of the concert repertoire? Would conductors rather cut to the chase and perform his four symphonies? Or is the truth more that, conceived when Brahms was grappling with the structural minefield of his First Symphony, those two works remain peculiarly difficult to classify? Ought conductors plot a quasi-symphonic pathway through their structures? Or in reality is each movement a self-contained character piece that would likely buckle under the pressure of a consciously symphonic treatment? As Riccardo Chailly points out, Serenade No 1 clocks in at 40 minutes, longer than the symphonies, and no one should be lulled into any sense of false security. The Serenades might exhibit a lightness of surface, but underneath that whimsical charm Brahms’ orchestration, his rhythmic litheness and complex web of internal tempo relationships are difficult to achieve – darn difficult in fact. Chailly’s mettle as a Brahms interpreter crystallised around his 2013 cycle of the symphonies: tempos rethought, textures thinned, traces of Germanic stodge erased. An approach that sets him up well for the Serenades; expect an artful fusion of dramatic contrast operating hand-in-hand with a certainty that…

May 14, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: Lorin Maazel: The Cleveland Years

The late Lorin Maazel came to Cleveland as successor to Georg Szell in the early 1970s and, for Decca, recorded a number of discs of colourful repertoire in disciplined, lively and exciting performances. It was definitely a partnership worth preserving, and this set brings together all their recordings of the period.  Separate reissues of Maazel’s work have appeared on Eloquence, including much of what is here. The Eloquence issues range wider: if you mainly want the Russian masters, or the recordings of Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé, Debussy’s orchestral works or the admittedly weaker set of Brahms’ Symphonies, you should opt for Eloquence. What this box does contain are two iconic performances that every music lover should own: the bracingly punchy complete Romeo and Juliet ballet of Prokofiev, and the first recording of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess to treat the work seriously as grand opera. A highly impressive performance of the Berlioz Requiem is included, and a Respighi Pines of Rome and Roman Festivals that will knock your socks off. On the final disc Maazel accompanies cellist Lynn Harrell in Tchaikovsky’s Rococo Variations and the Elgar Concerto, showing the breadth of his musical interests. The vibrant sound is the work of…

May 13, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: Seiji Ozawa: The Philips Years

Seiji Ozawa began his career with the highest credentials: assistant to Bernstein in New York, and mentored by Karajan. His first major conducting post was in Toronto. In San Francisco he epitomised the hip, flower-power zeitgeist, then brought the beads and skivvies to Boston where he led the orchestra from 1973 to 2002. He guest conducted frequently in Vienna and Berlin, and in 1992 set up the Saito Kinen Orchestra in his native Japan. Since 2010, illness has curtailed his activities. As a recording artist (primarily for Philips) Ozawa was never extravagantly lauded, but neither was his work as divisive as some. Perhaps this is because his sound is not particularly identifiable (like Karajan) or single-minded (like Boulez). Despite this he produced some of the top recommended recordings, such as a full-blooded Orff Carmina Burana (with Gruberová and the Berlin PO) and a compelling Schoenberg Gurrelieder (with Norman and Troyanos). Both are included, as is his complete Mahler symphony cycle. While interpretatively middle-of-the-road, Ozawa’s Mahler is enjoyable because of the Boston sound, uniquely combining European richness of tone with American precision and clarity. The Saito Kinen sonority is leaner, and their readings are on the cool side. Repertoire is wide-ranging,…

May 11, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: Volkmar Andreae: Symphony in F (Bournemouth Symphony)

The Guild label’s mission to restore Volkmar Andreae to the “pantheon of 20th century Swiss composers” continues apace with the third release of his orchestral works, with the excellent Bournemouth Symphony conducted by the composer’s grandson Marc Andreae. The Symphony in F was composed when he was just 20 and was his first large-scale orchestral work. Its debt to Brahms is undeniable, but it also shows the Wagnerian influence of Andreae’s teacher Franz Wüllner, who premiered Das Rheingold and Die Walküre. Andreae is best known for his recordings of the Bruckner symphonies and it is obvious from this early work that he has studied the Austrian master’s command of symphonic structure. Andreae was offered to succeed Mahler as conductor of the New York Philharmonic but preferred to stay with the Tonhalle Orchestra Zürich. However, like Mahler he did compose some settings of poems by Li-Po after Hermann Hesse pointed out the Tang dynasty poet’s works. Li-Tai-Pe, here beautifully sung by English tenor Benjamin Hulett, is the jewel in the crown of this album. The eight songs are worth the purchase price alone. However John Anderson’s performance of the Concertino for Oboe and Orchestra is definitely an added bonus. In all,…

May 9, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: Beethoven: Piano Concertos Nos 3 & 4 (Maria João Pires)

Onyx’s first installment from Portuguese pianist Maria João Pires shows how foolish Deutsche Grammophon were to let her go. Pires is unafraid to take risks. Her view of Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto not only enters into a pianist-composer dialogue, but also probes our relationship as consumers of this (too) regularly recorded masterwork. With Daniel Harding and the SRSO resonating in empathy, Pires stretches the opening movement to just short of 20 minutes which, although not unprecedented, blows air through the structure, allowing us time to look around, to reacquaint ourselves with what we know from a slightly oblique angle. Some of my reviewer colleagues have suggested that at this tempo Pires and Harding let the momentum droop, but personally I hear liberation within their deliberation. Pires’ analytically detailed playing tunnels deep inside the poetic soul of Beethoven’s score; no glossing over his abrupt changes of mood, the confrontation between soloist and orchestra in the slow movement given Stravinskian objectivity – although you do wish the Finale could have been a little more peppery and genuinely vivace. The Third Concerto is as bold as brass too, the first movement peaking as Pires rips through the cadenza before tip-toeing around the graceful…

May 8, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: Hush Live in Concert (Hush Collection Volume 14)

Hush Live in Concert is the 14th in a series of albums released to calm and comfort families facing stressful medical procedures. It’s a compilation of Hush Foundation recordings selected by former ABC Classic FM presenter Emma Ayres.  Opening with two of Paul Grabowsky’s Ten Healing Songs, it is apparent that this is anything but the conventionally soothing ‘Debussy for Daydreaming’ or ‘Relaxation Made Easy’ album.  Andrea Keller’s A Castle for All is oddly uplifting as it cycles repetitively through the same series of chords. Brass, wind and percussion instruments appear to improvise around Keller’s piano, and while it has plenty of musical tension, the overall feel is not a dark one. Tony Gould’s Gentle Conversations is as it sounds – a smattering of percussion, a gentle pulse, and a layering of instruments simulate just that. Though magnificently played by the Grigoryan brothers, Songs with Strings is perhaps a touch too intense and emotionally confronting for this album. Mark Isaacs’ romantic and visually evocative The Wind in the Willows is more fitting; one can imagine a little bushland animal emerging from the tooting of Geoff Collins’ flute. The childlike journey continues through Paul Stanhope’s tinkling The Magic Island, performed by…

May 6, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: Wiener Philharmoniker Symphony Edition (Vol 1 & 2)

Its policy towards female musicians, the behaviour of both administration and players towards Jewish colleagues during the Second World War, its variable performance standards and its exaggerated, hypocritical, archaic formality have all made the Vienna Philharmonic the most enigmatic of great orchestras.  The fact that John Culshaw, arguably the greatest recording producer of the 20th century (and genius), who did more than anyone to create the orchestra’s recorded legacy, was expected to regard his invitation to attend a meeting of the Orchestra’s board as a singular honour, says it all. In fact, Culshaw’s contribution to what Germans/Austrians call a festschrift, or series of celebratory articles, contains some of the more honest comments. To paraphrase him, “At its best, it’s sublime; anything less is usually pretty awful.” Mahler, as the Director of the Vienna State (Court) Opera, observed this more than a century ago when he referred to schlamperei masquerading as “tradition” among the State Opera Orchestra, from which all VPO players are drawn. Compared to the Berlin Philharmonic or the Amsterdam Concertgebouw, it was less versatile. In the 1960s, Barbirolli was bemused at their inability to grasp cross rhythms in Debussy’s La Mer. At the same time the Principal Trumpet…

May 5, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: Oswald, Napoleão: Piano Concertos (Artur Pizarro)

Hyperion’s latest Romantic Piano Concertos disc features the work of Henrique Oswald and Alfredo Napoleão. Hailing from Brazil and Portugal respectively, both were born in 1852 and enjoyed fruitful careers as pedagogues, performers and composers. Oswald’s Piano Concerto in G Minor is rich with opportunities to demonstrate musical artistry and Portuguese virtuoso Artur Pizarro executes the solo line with class. It is clear Oswald, like Rachmaninov, knew how to use the form to demonstrate his own ability as a pianist. The soloist has to possess impressive stamina to complete this technical marathon. In the first movement, Pizarro embodies nervous energy as he dances around the keyboard. A brief moment of respite comes in the second movement where the orchestra gently sings the theme as Pizarro plays arpeggios. The BBC National Orchestra plays beautifully under Brabbins with no trace of difficulty in executing the challenges of the third movement. Strident opening chords make it apparent that Napoleão’s Second Piano Concerto is a dramatically different piece. The second movement is cheeky and intimate, while a gentle clarinet solo gives ample opportunity for Pizarro to play with the final movement’s character, colour and texture. This is a terrific concerto and, for this reviewer,…

May 4, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: Bach: Orchestral Suites (Academy of Ancient Music)

It is interesting to compare this ensemble’s earliest recordings to their latest. You’ll note how their playing standards have soared and observe the evolution in stylistic practice over the past 50 years. Egarr’s approach is to use one player per part but offset the potential for lean asceticism by tuning down to French Baroque pitch (A=392). Although I still prefer the grandeur of massed strings, the result here is close to a best of both worlds rendition with the clarity of the chamber approach warmed by rich umber tones. There is also a conscious move away from breathless tempi to relaxed natural speeds that still move forward. Short cellular phrasing is replaced by longer flowing lines. These changes are unexaggerated so don’t expect the stodgy tempi of yesteryear’s non-specialists; Egarr’s choices are mostly ideal, although surely the Passepied I and II of BWV1066 could flow a little faster. The various Bourrée come across a little too leaden; more lift to the rhythms and a little more schwung would have done wonders and elevated this to the top of list. However, the excellent playing and characterful tonal colours are a delight in themselves. There are illuminating shifts of balance with Egarr’s…

April 22, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: Escape to Paradise (Daniel Hope)

Daniel Hope is one of those musicians who can convince in just about any repertoire; he’s recorded unusual concertos like the Berg and Britten, and performed Max Richter’s reimagining of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. Here, he turns to that unfairly maligned genre, film music. Hope was inspired by the way that many of the early twentieth-century European composers persecuted by the Nazis escaped to America, and arrived in Hollywood. As a result, the ‘Hollywood sound’ of early films (think of the dramatic, sweeping scores of the silent film era) can be traced directly back to the late Romantics – the style of Rózsa or Korngold is not so different from that of Strauss, or Schoenberg’s early works. There’s quite a cross-section of composers here. In crafting the program, Hope’s starting point was Korngold’s Violin Concerto, though there are tracks from later film composers like Williams and Morricone included as well. The Korngold concerto is given a stirring performance, but it is, disappointingly, the only solid chunk of music on the CD. The other tracks are fairly short, and so I’m not sure that it’d be comfortable to listen to the entire CD in one sitting – the tracks have a tendency…

April 21, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: Brahms: Symphonies and Overtures (Thielemann)

If you’ve been hooked on Chailly’s lean, muscular Brahms cycle with the Gewandhaus Orchestra from earlier this year, you’ll find a very different but no less satisfying experience with Thielemann and the Stattskapelle Dresden. Thielemann’s Brahms, taken from live recordings made between 2012 and 2013, is equally revelatory. Chailly achieves maximum emotional impact through absolute clarity of line and texture: his is ‘classical’ Brahms, but with grunt. Thielemann’s Brahms is, by contrast, über romantische. That’s not to imply a lack of precision or idiosyncratic liberties being taken with the score, mind: Thielemann is a master technician, but with a heart emboldened by years of conducting opera.  Aided by some glorious orchestral playing – the strings rich and full-bodied, the brass heroic in the tutti climaxes, the winds flexible and focused – he builds up impasto layers with searing brushstrokes on a broad canvas. This binds the terrific climax in the First Symphony’s Finale with the dark tragedy of the Fourth Symphony’s final passacaglia, and all that lies in between, with intimations of mortality that shine through even the beautiful simplicity of the Third Symphony’s third movement.  My only regret is not having had access to the full set, which includes a DVD of…

April 18, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: Pierre Boulez: The Complete Columbia Album Collection

Anyone who still considers Pierre Boulez to be a threat or a dangerous malcontent – where to put those obligatory mentions of torching opera houses and valueless tonal music? here will do – might be pleasantly surprised at the playlist served up by this box of Boulez’s complete recordings for Columbia Records. Berlioz, Mahler, Debussy, Stravinsky, Ravel, Bartók and Wagner are the dominant narrative. The occasional disc of music by Elliott Carter, Luciano Berio and Boulez himself oblige us to play plink-plonk; but even these apparently unwelcome brushes with the avant-garde get offset by a performance of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and discs of Handel Water and Fireworks Music. And as he prepares to celebrate his 90th birthday in 2015, the most dangerous truth of all is revealed. Boulez was an insider all along, who, unlike his frenemy John Cage, has always viewed progress as an embedded part of, and never an alternative to, tradition. That said, admire Boulez as I do, as a Beethoven conductor, he ain’t no great shakes. A plodding, micro-managed Fifth Symphony plays the notes but utterly misses the music. His Handel, though, is rhythmically assertive and detailed. Makes you wish Boulez had recorded some Bach. The…

April 17, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: Debussy, Zimmermann, Stravinsky (Klavierduo Huber/Thomet)

The Rite of Spring can sound even more raw-boned and serrated on piano than in Stravinsky’s orchestral concept. The timpani of fingers against keyboard; this is no place for soft-pedalled or inappropriately decorative playing. In the hands – four of them at one piano – of Susanne Huber and André Thomet the score becomes a terrifying edifice, breathing with a directness that chills the soul. We’re used to hearing the introductory bassoon solo emerge as though from a faraway horizon, Stravinsky’s line stooping against metric regularity as it inches centre stage. But now we’re thrown bodily inside the unfolding argument, snow-blinded by the busyness of Stravinsky’s counterpoint.  Some recordings of this four-hand redux can sound overly polite and too ‘pianoey’. But Huber and Thomet make their intentions clear with “Danses des adolescents”, as those accented string chords are pummelled with pile-driver might.And ditto the crunchy reading of Debussy’s two-piano En Blanc et Noir (1915), the black and white of the piano keys symbolising the black and white morality, as Debussy saw it, of one nation imposing itself on others during the Great War. German composer Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s Monologe (1964) slices through history as source material co-opted from Bach, Mozart…