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…

February 20, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: Sculthorpe: The ABC Recordings

According to interviews, the late Peter Sculthorpe stipulated that from the earliest he could remember, he wanted to not only be a composer but, more specifically, an Australian one. And it was during the late 50s and 60s that he came of age with innovative works like Irkanda and the seminal Sun Music I – IV – a time when Australian literature (Patrick White) and art (Drysdale, Boyd, et al) would present our land of ‘wide and open plains’, not to mention indigenous culture to an international audience. In this generous boxed set containing several ARIA winners, we see his growth as a composer, often leading to to a later rewrite. For example, there are two performances of Sun Music (the old EMI recording led by John Hopkins and a later one featuring the Adelaide Symphony with David Porcelijn which replaces western style drones with didjeridu). Irklanda IV has three recordings, the bird-like glissandi and static approach reflecting the heat of the outback. The orchestral recordings culminate in his late masterpiece, his Requiem which brings together the Adelaide forces under Arvo Volmer with didjeridu virtuoso, William Barton. An equally important bonus lies in a DVD devoted to the works that arguably…

February 5, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: Shostakovich: Cello Concertos (Oslo Philharmonic)

In my recent review of Petrenko’s recording of Shostakovich’s Fourteenth Symphony, I said it made his other lugubrious works sound like Offenbach. Well, I spoke too soon. Despite excellent playing, conducting and engineering, I strongly recommend against anyone in anything like a fragile state listening to this CD. Mørk has covered these works before but I doubt whether those recordings could top these. The Oslo Philharmonic’s accompaniment certainly reinforces Petrenko’s reputation as one of the great Shostakovich conductors of our age. Mørk also distinguishes himself throughout, conveying the gruesome parade of fear, anxiety, despair, grotesquerie and sheer bafflement. They keep the first movement of the First Concerto moving in a business- like way, making it even more sinister. In their hands, the final movement’s inclusion of a supposedly favourite folk song of Stalin is more sardonic than ever, while the threnody-like second movement sees a few green shoots of warmth and lyricism. The Second is far less known and for me the most telling moment, especially in the current international context, was the way the orchestral climax in the first movement is brutally quelled by the bass drum, as if to kill any momentum. Petrenko and Mørk’s tempi in this work are among the…

February 3, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: Mozart: Piano Concertos (Angela Hewitt)

Angela Hewitt has made a career as the other great Bach pianist from Toronto, though like her predecessor, Glenn Gould, she has recorded much more widely – from Couperin to Ravel. This is the third instalment in an ongoing cycle of Mozart’s Piano Concerti – this one devoted to two of his larger scale later works, No 22 with its varied instrumental accompaniment and the grand C Minor with its inventive clarinet obbligato. Hewitt has chosen live performances – though you’d never guess it, so quiet and unobtrusive is the audience. And while there is an occasional blurred or overplayed passage where the left hand dominates, the variety of colour is amazing. Her performances are informed as much by earlier piano practice as individual insight. She is joined by the National Arts Centre Orchestra who are equally vividly caught by the microphones, bringing out those inner incisive rhythms that we associate so strongly with Mozart. These are personal performances which admirably capture much of Hewitt’s live allure and we must remember that these concerti were ‘cutting edge’ when Mozart wrote them in the mid 1780s – so new in fact, that this was a mere decade after the introduction of the clarinet…

February 2, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: Martha Argerich & Friends (Live at the Lugano Festival 2013)

The range of pieces here is so wide that all I can do is comment on the individual works. But I must admit I like live performances, where we know that minimal ‘tarting up’ has taken place. Drawn from a concert given at the Lugano Festival in 2013, we begin with Beethoven’s First Piano Concerto. This delightful work proceeds with more punch than usual and Argerich is in fine form. The last movement, arguably the bounciest piece Beethoven ever wrote, is splendid. Argerich delivers the same incisive standard in the rarer Second Cello Sonata. The cellist, Gautier Capuçon, does not quite match the level of his accompanist. One would be hard pressed to recognise the usually flamboyant Respighi, the composer of the great Roman orchestral triptych, by his more sober and formal Violin Sonata. Workmanlike is the best word I can find for it; still it’s worth having, especially the lyrical final movement. Minor Liszt and less familiar Shostakovich follow, both initially hiding their identities, they give cellist Capuçon some fine opportunities to shine. The third disc is soley devoted to French music, beginning with the rapturous Ravel Violin Sonata. Wistful and elegant, it wends its way for 16 minutes across…

January 31, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: Mendelssohn: Symphonies, Hebrides Overture (CBSO/Gardner)

Basing a Mendelssohn cycle on his appearances in Birmingham with the local band is a rather jejune connection. Was there anywhere Mendelssohn didn’t go? That said, I greatly enjoyed these performances in which Edward Gardner, yet another glamorous and talented young conductor, cuts a swathe through familiar works. I’ve never heard the last movement of the Italian Symphony dispatched with such brio. It’s altogether sunnier than Brüggen’s recent recording. I also commend the way Gardner observes the first movement repeat, which has what must be the loveliest ‘lead backs’ in music. The Reformation Symphony was composed to mark the 300th anniversary of the Augsburg Confession, a major milestone in the formation of the Lutheran Church. (Despite his Jewish heritage, Mendelssohn became a Lutheran convert.) In the Symphony, he uses ‘Catholic’ polyphony which is ultimately overcome by the Lutheran Chorale Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott. Scoring and structure are simultaneously grandly architectural and austere, though I was bemused to read one description of the waltz in the scherzo as “louche”. Calling anything by Mendelssohn “louche” is like saying one of Bruckner’s scherzos is “chic”. Chandos’s sound and the CBSO’s playing are gorgeous, especially the Principal Flute, which intones the hymn tune. This work deserves the same…

January 31, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: Mlynarski, Zarzycki: Violin Concertos

Hyperion continue their excellent work in unearthing rare concerti, giving the lie to the cliché that interest in classical music, especially non-mainstream works, is in decline. Music by two Polish composers from the late 1800s is under the microscope on this occasion, wonderfully played by violinist Eugene Ugorski and the Scottish Orchestra conducted by Michał Dworzyński. Emil Młynarski studied composition with Liadov and orchestration with Rimsky-Korsakov. The brilliance of the latter’s instruction is clear in Młynarski’s work. He was a conductor of opera and orchestras, working across the musical spectrum in Poland all his life. His two concertos are fine, romantic works, so good as to wonder at their eclipse over the last century. Twenty years separate the two concerti, the second emerging as the more subtle of the two. The Ukrainian, Aleksander Zarzycki, studied in Berlin before settling in Warsaw in 1871. A popluar dance at the time known in Paris as the cracovienne and in Vienna as the krakauer, emerges here as the attractive two-part Introduction et Cracovienne. The Mazurka is dedicated to the Spanish composer, Sarasate. For me, it is the most familiar piece on the disc; a delightful work. These are all very attractive compositions, and I…

January 30, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: Brahms: Complete Symphonies (Staatskapelle Dresden)

Christian Thielemann may have attracted some unfavourable headlines in his time – fallings out with big opera companies and run-ins with Simon Rattle and Daniel Barenboim – but there’s no doubting he’s a worthy keeper of the flame when it comes to the core Austro-German repertoire. The boyish-looking 55-year-old’s new “dream job” as chief conductor of Staatskapelle Dresden is already producing treasures with this DVD set of Brahms’s four symphonies. The live performances in Dresden and Tokyo are compelling viewing and listening with the orchestra’s famed soft and burnished sound ideal for this material. Thielemann is authoritative and punctilious throughout, setting excellent tempi and showing us how well he absorbed his work experience jobs with Karajan in Berlin and Barenboim at Bayreuth. An added bonus is a fascinating documentary in which the conductor is a companion on this journey through the symphonies. He shows us each work’s distinctive character and points out pitfalls for the unwary. He says the third symphony is the most enigmatic, mainly because it “implodes” rather than ending in a blaze of triumph. “There’s a kind of archaic violence that emanates from Brahms… if violence can be positive then it is in Brahms,” he concludes. You may not…

January 28, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: Sibelius: Symphonies (BBC Philharmonic)

Do we really need another Sibelius Symphony Cycle? Probably not, especially when, good as it is, it doesn’t come anywhere near to rivaling existing versions. The BBC Symphony plays very well for Storgårds and I can only echo other writers in saying that the sound is as excellent as the playing. However, Storgårds’ tempi are often questionable. The First Symphony has a coda so drawn out it seems interminable. The Second has been recorded so many times I find it almost impossible to summon any comments at all. The so-called “Classical” third interests me much more, partly because Karajan avoided it (despite recording the equally unfamiliar Sixth three times and the Seventh twice). Storgårds adopts swift tempi but his final movement lacks the sheer exuberance of the old Kletzki version with the old Philharmonia. No one has ever managed those horn “whoops” in the finale with the same untrammeled abandon as the sainted Dennis Brain. Storgårds’ Fourth is excellent: he plumbs the depths of this most enigmatic of symphonies masterfully: only Karajan sees more in this morose Stygian drama. The Fifth sees impressive tempi integration in the first movement but the last lacks the great schwung Karajan brings to it. The Sixth also seems rushed…

January 27, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: Martha Argerich & Friends (Live at the Lugano Festival 2013)

The range of pieces here is so wide that all I can do is comment on the individual works. But I must admit I like live performances, where we know that minimal ‘tarting up’ has taken place. Drawn from a concert given at the Lugano Festival in 2013, we begin with Beethoven’s First Piano Concerto. This delightful work proceeds with more punch than usual and Argerich is in fine form. The last movement, arguably the bounciest piece Beethoven ever wrote, is splendid. Argerich delivers the same incisive standard in the rarer Second Cello Sonata. The cellist, Gautier Capuçon, does not quite match the level of his accompanist. One would be hard pressed to recognise the usually flamboyant Respighi, the composer of the great Roman orchestral triptych, by his more sober and formal Violin Sonata. Workmanlike is the best word I can find for it; still it’s worth having, especially the lyrical final movement. Minor Liszt and less familiar Shostakovich follow, both initially hiding their identities, they give cellist Capuçon some fine opportunities to shine. The third disc is soley devoted to French music, beginning with the rapturous Ravel Violin Sonata. Wistful and elegant, it wends its way for 16 minutes across…

January 27, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: Mahler: Symphony No 5 (Leipzig Gewandhaus)

Riccardo Chailly’s way with Mahler is a known quantity thanks to his superb CD cycle with the Royal Concertgebouw, probably the most recommendable complete set with magnificent orchestral playing and stunning sound. He occupies a pragmatic middle ground between the two schools of Mahler style; the classically restrained, if sometimes dull, with the emphasis on structural logic versus the wildly emotive, if self-indulgent, with live-for the-moment thrills and spills. His acute ear for sonority reflects his progressive tendencies but his old school operatic training is evident with his projection of a singing line and careful dramatic pacing. Since moving to Leipzig he seems to have refined his approach to suit the different character of his orchestra with its dark hued strings, mittel-Europa wind timbres and gleaming brass. The mark of a great orchestra is the quality and focus of playing at the lowest dynamic levels – listen to the closing moments of the Adagietto; the strings fading to the merest whisper yet still perfectly blended together like a delicate silken thread. Chailly’s ability to clarify telling details is typified by the empty rattle of hard-stick timpani strokes in the opening funeral march that are so often lost in the mix….

January 27, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: Walton: Symphony No 1, Violin Concerto (BBC Symphony Orchestra)

Editor’s Choice – October 2014 I’ve long considered William Walton’s First Symphony as equal to Elgar’s two masterworks, although seriously underrated as one of the pillars of 20th-century symphonic repertoire. It also marked one of the great “breakthroughs’  in 20th-century music, when Walton served notice he had broken free of the louche, epicene aristocrats of his early creative life – from Bright Young Thing to Angry Young Man. I recently heard Walton’s music described as “tame”. I suggest the writer consult an audiologist.  The First Symphony’s greatest recording is almost universally judged to be André Previn’s 1966 LSO, all the more amazing since Previn’s exposure to British music had been minimal. The composer’s own recording of the work with the old Philharmonia in its palmiest days was also excellent (giving the lie to the notion that most composers, except Bernstein, made lousy interpreters of their own scores). Previn’s reading captured the rubber-on-tarmac, pedal-to-the-metal velocity, brilliantly maintained tautness and rugged glamour, not to mention one of the best “travelling tunes” ever composed. “Tasmin Little brings out the mercurial shifts in Walton’s marvellous score” Edward Gardner doesn’t surpass Previn in any of these but gives a performance that is, nonetheless, impressive and…

January 19, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: Schumann: Symphonies (Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra)

For long regarded as a lower grade symphonist by sniffy critics of the past, Robert Schumann’s orchestral output has been reassessed thanks to illuminating period aware performances that have aerated his supposedly thick orchestration and revealed a timbral spectrum that was obscured by the overlay of late-19th-century orchestral technique. Conductors on the traditional side have overcome problems with textual tampering while revelling in the weighty sound at their disposal, so it’s no surprise that Sir Simon Rattle chooses to sit on that particular fence considering the character of his orchestral forces. Despite the essay espousing the Berliner Philharmoniker’s long tradition of Schumann performance, today’s orchestra sounds very different to earlier incarnations with a vibrant transparency and a responsive flexibility that allows the ensemble to turn on a dime – a long way from the luxurious juggernaut of yesteryear.  The string sound, while still luxuriant, is exquisitely focused and supple while the wind section is predictably magnificent, boasting starry names such as Emmanuel Pahud and Albrecht Mayer. Symphonies 1 & 4 (here in its original 1841 form) inhabit a Mendelssohnian sound world that suits Rattle’s approach and for me the fourth symphony is the standout performance of the set. The aforesaid…