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…

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…