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…

April 15, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: Orchestral Works (Karajan)

I’m sure everyone has a favourite Karajan recording – no doubt he’s a regular in this feature. But my pick isn’t a Beethoven or a Mahler Symphony, nor is it mighty Wagner. No, I’m a sucker for the Berlin Philharmonic’s Baroque – and I don’t even mean their Four Seasons. One of my all-time favourite recordings is a very modest 1987 Deutsche Grammophon compilation of random Baroque gems, most of them Italian. This CD has been a part of my life since childhood – and surely all good classic recordings have an element of nostalgia attached to them. But what I find most endearing about Karajan’s Baroque is the orchestra’s sumptuous, full tone (boosted by generous helpings of vibrato). These recordings were made between 1970 and 1972, at a time when the Historically Informed Performance (HIP) movement was picking up in Europe and specialist ensembles were being founded all over the place to give us authentic readings of all that early repertoire.  Don’t get me wrong: I absolutely love contemporary approaches to early music performance, and I’m usually for the ‘less is more’ approach when it comes to vibrato. But there’s something about the way the Berlin Phil’s playing never betrays…

April 9, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: Mozart: Piano Concertos (Mitsuko Uchida)

Mitsuko Uchida is a force to be reckoned with. Her interpretations of Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert and Schoenberg have won her numerous prizes and accolades (including a Damehood), as well as garnered her international acclaim. Here, she continues her Grammy award-winning recording project of the Mozart piano concerti with the Cleveland Orchestra.  The disc opens with the concerto No 19 in F, a more softly spoken work than No 18 in B Flat. The Cleveland Orchestra is in fine form, with a sound that’s warm and gentle, and beautifully balanced against the piano. Uchida’s first notes say it all: pristine clarity, perfect technique, finessed but not a hint of ostentation (particularly in the delicate second movement). She conveys the sincerity of the music, and the result is just gorgeous. The final movement is a bright and robust end to this charming work.  The opening of No 18 is another delight – buoyant and fun. The second movement is a darker and more sombre work, while the finale is more light-hearted and joyful. Uchida’s performance contains the sparkling refinement for which she has become famous. Her method is never exaggerated or muddied, and she never compromises her tone in exuberant moments. She…

April 8, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: Bruch: Violin Concerto No 3 (Liebeck)

Bruch’s reputation was dealt a blow during the Nazi period as the dopey fascists thought that, as a result of his fine cello work, Kol Nidrei, he was probably a Jew and consequently banned his music. It took a long time for it to be returned to favour. The Scottish Fantasy is among his most popular works, and deservedly so. The mordant opening doesn’t promise much, but the violin soon emerges in a series of ruminative phrases and beguiling sea surges from which the fine melody (for which the work is famous) develops. The Adagio is gorgeous and the five-movement fantasia finishes with a robust swirl of the kilts. His third violin concerto is rarely played and it’s not hard to see why. Although professionally written, it seems to have little appeal and cannot hold a candle to the popular First Concerto. The final movement is the strongest, with many attractive phrases reminding us of his better works. At the risk of seeming a smart-Alec, it may have helped had he included some Scottish folk tunes. Nonetheless, Bruch considered it his best concerto and who am I to argue? He might have coined the phrase: ‘A poor thing but mine…

April 7, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: Europa Konzert 2014 (Berlin Philharmonic/Barenboim)

Daniel Barenboim recorded a fine Elgar Falstaff with the London Philharmonic in 1974 so it is touching that he should program the work 40 years later for this Europakonzert recorded in Berlin’s Philharmonie. It is thrilling to hear players rip into the piece as though it were Don Juan or Till Eulenspiegel and the performance emphasises Elgar’s affinity with Strauss. The big moments come across with visceral impact while the gentle reflective moments are breathtakingly beautiful.  Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony may divide opinion; those who believe the Russian way is the only way will turn their noses up, but those with open ears will recognise a deeply emotional reading with broad tempi and grandly moulded gestures. Barenboim goes straight through with barely a breath between movements, and his conducting is a miracle of economy; there are big rallentandi and obvious gear changes but they are always organic and the orchestra stick to him like glue.  Tonal resources mean there’s always something in reserve and the huge climaxes are always rounded; an iron fist in a velvet glove. Individual contributions are predictably superb but principal clarinettist Wenzel Fuchs stands out – the players are clearly enjoying themselves. Vision is crystal clear and…

March 23, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: Beethoven: Complete Symphonies (Berlin Philharmonic/Karajan)

As we leave CDs behind and move into downloads – where music will no longer be a collectors item but just another dreary list on your computer screen – somebody at Universal Classics at least has a sense of history.  It is five decades since Herbert von Karajan’s 1963 set of the Beethoven symphonies with the Berlin Philharmonic was released. It was not the first recording of these works by the one orchestra and conductor – Karajan himself had recorded them in the 1950s with the Philharmonia – but it was the first to be released and marketed as a set. DG executives were worried the gamble would fail and they wouldn’t break even, but within ten years a million copies had been sold. I once stayed with two lumberjacks in Banff, Canada: these were only classical records they owned. It was everybody’s introduction to Beethoven. The orchestra made these recordings after five years with Karajan in charge. During that time he had hired young players and retired older ones. He also had begun to insist on the ‘long line’ of lyrical impulse, but not yet the moulding of orchestral balance to prioritise beauty of sound over energy and attack….

March 21, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: Shostakovich: Violin Concertos (Tetzlaff)

Shostakovich’s First Violin Concerto is, more or less, in the mainstream but, I have to confess, I’d actually forgotten that he actually wrote a second! Tetzlaff is up with the best in virtually anything he does and his performance and interpretation is very fine. My favourite movement is always the introductory Nocturne, with its sinuous (and in this case sinewy theme). The two even numbered movements provide colour and movement with all the deliberately sinister overtones of forced hilarity and rejoicing they always convey in Shostakovich’s scores. Tetzlaff is alive to every nuance here. In the great Passacaglia, the work’s center of gravity, he is genuinely moving with rock steady tone and dignified phrasing. Of course David Oistrakh, for whom both works were written, casts an eternally long shadow. Nonetheless, Tetzlaff is eminently recommendable.  The Second Concerto was composed in 1966 and is a very different kettle of fish. More sparsely orchestrated, it consists of mainly slow music until the last minutes. The first movement has the sphinx-like inscrutability common to many Shostakovich late scores and the second tends to meander. Tetzlaff is impressive here, but it’s not surprising the work features rarely in concert. Ondine’s sound, Storgårds’ conducting and…

March 15, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: Phase 4 Concert Stereo (Various)

The Decca Phase 4 label began as part of London Records, Decca’s American branch, to specialise in sonic spectaculars. The opposite of Mercury, which employed two microphones, the Phase 4 engineers multi-miked orchestras and highlighted instruments and sections at the mixing desk. From 1964 to 1978 they recorded classical music, often hiring famous but neglected conductors. This anthology gives a wide cross section, from Robert Merrill singing American patriotic songs with soupy arrangements, to Paco Peña’s flamenco guitar, to Orff’s Carmina Burana. Much is no longer popular, nor does it have the ‘cool’ factor to warrant a revival. Stokowski conducts Berlioz, Russian music and Vivaldi’s Four Seasons at the end of his career, but is far better served by his 1950s EMI recordings. (His best Phase 4 disc, coupling Ives and Messiaen, is absent!) Stokowski’s Beethoven 9, along with Leinsdorf’s Mahler 1 and Doráti’s New World Symphony are comparatively successful, while Stanley Black is a good conductor of light music. The most interesting recordings are of Herrmann and Rósza conducting their film scores, but these are more extensively covered in Eloquence editions. Decca’s English executives pooh-poohed the Phase 4 sonics, and they were right. The sound is dry, unnaturally close,…

March 13, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: Vivaldi: The Four Seasons (Rutter)

Vivaldi’s most famous work readily lends itself to being performed on flute or recorder, the instruments’ pastoral and avian associations making them a natural fit for these bucolic tone poems overflowing with evocations of birdsong, peasant dances and storms. Jane Rutter and Sinfonia Australis take a hybrid approach, combining modern flute with a small period band under the brilliant Erin Helyard conducting from the harpsichord. Many of the players are Brandenburg Orchestra regulars, including Matt Bruce, Kirsty McCahon and Tommie Andersson on theorbo. The argument thus becomes less about authenticity per se and more about marrying an appropriate period style to an anachronistic tonal palette. Fortunately, it works a treat. Adopting a flexible approach to pulse and tempo throughout – both qualities can be heard right from the outset in Spring – Rutter steers a middle course between highly articulated declamation and floating lyricism in the midst of Sinfonia Australis’ sharply drawn yet delicately rendered sylvan landscapes. Of the two works included which Vivaldi actually did write for flute, the ever-popular Concerto in D Minor RV428 “Il gardellino” and the Concerto in G Minor “La notte”, Rutter uses a 19th-century instrument with an ebony joint for the latter. The sound…

March 10, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: Haydn: Piano Concertos (Bavouzet)

No other composer, in my experience, had such a warm and simple character (but a multi-faceted musical personality) as Joseph Haydn. Widely contrasting elements of Rococo delicacy and sturdiness combine with exuberance and melancholy, seriousness and wit, forcefulness and elegance. However, unlike Mozart, Haydn’s only concertos to have fared well are the two cello concertos (one discovered relatively recently) and his trumpet concerto. Neither the violin nor the keyboard concertos have entered the Haydn ‘canon’.  In the case of the keyboard concertos, it’s not for want of distinguished advocacy: In the mid ‘70s, Michelangeli (of all people ) recorded two with the Zurich Chamber Orchestra under Edmund de Stoutz and, more recently, pianists of the calibre of Andsnes and Hamelin have essayed their considerable charms, with impressive and persuasive results. Now, Jean-Efflam Bavouzet has interrupted his Haydn Sonata cycle with three genuine concertos ie. the three without textural or chronological ambiguity to cast doubt on their authenticity.  Bavouzet has been around for a while but recently he’s entered the “Is there anything this guy can’t do?” stratosphere with an acclaimed Beethoven Sonata cycle, an award winning Prokofiev Concerto cycle, Debussy, and miraculous Ravel, as heard in his Sydney recital last…

February 27, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: Concerto (John Williams)

Entering his fifth decade of performing, it would be natural to expect John Williams to take a creative step back. Instead, it seems that he has undergone a creative resurgence, beginning to publish his own compositions on his own website, and now making recordings himself, too. In the last year, he’s recorded a new CD of solo guitar works, but Williams here turns to concerto repertoire.   This stylistically varied recording begins with a re-visiting of Williams’ collaboration with Chilean group Inti-Illimani. Danza’s Peregrinas is re-worked material from Inti-Illimani’s repertoire, expanded for three soloists and orchestra. The orchestrations here are rather lush, and it’s difficult to resist the rhythmic precision and playfulness of these danzas.   Williams has been a notable supporter of Australian composers, so it’s appropriate that he includes a home-grown work (originally written for him in the 90’s) on this recording with Ross Edwards’ Arafura Dances. Utilising Edwards’ familiar maninyas, the work is an exploration of virtuosic rhythms.   Stephen Goss’s music has been gaining popularity, having been added to the repertoire of some of the major names in the guitar world such as young virtuoso Xuefei Yang. I’ve not yet been converted, finding his works laboured….

February 20, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: Cole Porter in Hollywood

It is now six years since aficionados of the classic Broadway musical mourned the tragically early death of John McGlinn, who did such exhaustive work creating definitive recordings with authentic orchestrations and vocal arrangements. We can thank EMI (now Warner Classics) for signing John Wilson who has continued in the tradition but with a focus on the film musical.  The first two albums, That’s Entertainment and Rodgers and Hammerstein at the Movies, were delightful romps and this latest is likewise. Wilsons’ reconstructions of the souped-up Hollywood orchestrations are delivered by his hand-picked band in period style with swoopy strings and fruity saxes, but with just enough British reserve to avoid going over-the-top in glitz; one can still visualise a knowing campy twinkle in the eye.  His casting of singers is impeccable; genuine Broadway style voices with no nasty modern pop-vocalist mannerisms or plum-in-the-gob operatic diction – oh, how nice it is to hear every delicious Porter lyric clearly enunciated in a natural idiomatic style.   Most of the program is from the 1950s, so the opening number from Silk Stockings makes an apt curtain raiser as a paean to the technological innovations of that decade with Anna-Jane Casey and Matthew…