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.

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…