November 3, 2017
CD and Other Review

Review: Songs by Donald Swann (Lott, Rudge, Ainsley, Williams, Glynn)

Around the time skiffle was taking off in England and Bill Haley and the Comets were rocking around the clock, two men went on stage in a west London theatre with At The Drop of a Hat, a collection of funny songs they’d been writing since they were at school together. It was an instant success, with the witty wordsmith Michael Flanders declaiming from his wheelchair while at the piano, looking slightly daffy, was Donald Swann. Over the next decade the British radio public came to love their bestiary of wallowing hippopotami and gnus, the botched visit of the gasman and the pleasures of riding on a London Transport 97-horsepower omnibus. But Swann had his serious side. He was a much better pianist than these ditties allowed and throughout his life he set several poems to music. He was an eclectic reader because alongside English poets Blake, Hardy, Milton, Tennyson and Rossetti, this Hyperion two-disc set features settings of Europeans Hesse, Rilke and Heine, the Americans Dickinson, Frost and Millay as well as Alexander Pushkin. Swann’s father grew up in Russia, giving his son an abiding fascination with the country. Nothing on this collection lasts longer than five minutes and…

November 3, 2017
CD and Other Review

Review: Rudi Stephan: Chamber Works and Songs (Hanno Müller-Brachmann, Tehila Nini Goldstein, Hinrich Alpers)

Despite being virtually unknown today, Rudi Stephan (1887-1915) achieved considerable notoriety in the years immediately preceding WWI, which was to claim his life at the age of just 28. Born in Worms on the Upper Rhine into a wealthy family, he had, by the time of his death, amassed a critically acclaimed body of work. Musicologist Karl Holl then took charge of Stephan’s oeuvre, arranging for the publication of selected works. Tragedy again struck in 1945 when the entire archive of Stephan’s unpublished papers was destroyed during an air raid on Worms, so a very small portion of his compositional output has survived. This release is the result of many years of dedicated archival research by pianist Hinrich Alpers, and it brings together two song cycles, a handful of individual songs and, for the first time, all surviving chamber music. Of particular note is Music for Seven Instruments in a Single Movement and a Postlude (1912), scored for string quartet, double bass, harp and piano – an unusual combination of instruments that, in Stephan’s hands, produces a lush, mysterious and captivating result. The Lieder are in late-Romantic style with hints of Mahler and Strauss, and the performances, particularly Alpers on…

November 3, 2017
CD and Other Review

Review: Machaut: Sovereign Songs (The Orlando Consort)

Some music is so old it sounds new. Perhaps the songs of that great exponent of the medieval Ars Nova, poet and composer Guillaume de Machaut (c.1300-1377), falls into that category. More likely, however, it’s because Machaut was a genius that his music sounds as fresh and novel as it must have to its first listeners. This is the fourth volume in UK vocal ensemble The Orlando Consort’s survey of Machaut’s songs, using a new performing edition (The Complete Works of Guillaume de Machaut) published by the University of Michigan Press. The first volume focused on the nine songs from Machaut’s masterpiece Le Voir Dit; the second, The Dart of Love, showcased some of the composer’s favoured genres; the third, A Burning Heart, zeroed in on Machaut’s take on courtly love. In Sovereign Beauty, countertenor Matthew Venner, tenors Mark Dobell and Angus Smith, and baritone Donald Greig return to some of Mauchaut’s earlier works, in which he was experimenting with the ballade, rondeau, virelai, lay and motet – later examples of which featured in The Dart of Love. All, without exception, are possessed of a spare, haunting beauty, from works for solo voice such as the virelai Foy porter to…

November 3, 2017
CD and Other Review

Review: Ablaze With Light (The Rose Singers/Peter Foggitt)

William Petter spent his short life in the bosom of the English choral establishment. Born into a musical family, he was a chorister at New College, Oxford; played piano, organ violin and guitar; studied voice at the Royal Academy of Music; sang in choirs and as a tenor soloist. He also studied for a neuroscience degree before becoming music director at the historic Anglo-Catholic church of St Magnus the Martyr, London Bridge. On top of all that, he was a composer of considerable promise, as this disc reveals. But at age 34 he was dead of clear-cell sarcoma. Petter’s music is delightfully packed with the kind of youthful excesses enjoyed by choral scholars: close harmonies, jazz-style sections, soaring soprano lines and plenty of solo opportunities. This is particularly true of the Vigil Mass which takes the plainsong Missa de angelis as its basis. The more austere St Magnus Mass pays homage to Franck Martin’s double-choir Mass and its use of solo cello in two movements creates some hauntingly atmospheric moments. Three motets reveal Petter’s ingenuity and range of expression. Hushed and fervent, The Lord’s Prayer contrasts with the Easter joy of The Good Shepherd has Risen. Come down, O love…

November 3, 2017
CD and Other Review

Review: Decades Volume 2 (Martineau, Maltman, Connolly)

The second of Malcolm Martineau’s projected ten ‘Decades’ CDs arrives at the period from 1820 to 1830, Schubert’s heyday of course, but also a time that would see the first teenage stirrings of Mendelssohn and Schumann while witnessing the rise of complementary songwriting styles by composers from Italy, France and even Russia. Among the intriguing parallels drawn here are the ways in which composers like Bellini eschewed the sophisticated emotional and philosophical intellectualism of the German Lied, dominated as it was by profoundly searching poets like Goethe, and drew on the simpler formats of their native popular song traditions, or in the case of Glinka, felt the tug between his inclination to the German and the popular Frenchiness that pervaded the upper echelons of Russian society. Like Volume 1, musical standards are sky high with distinguished British singers like John Mark Ainsley, Sarah Connolly and Christopher Maltman all in excellent voice, and engaging contributions too from rising star Robin Tritschler, Portugese tenor Luis Gomes, and Armenian soprano Anush Hovhannisyan. Behind it all is the ever-insightful and enlightening musicianship of Martineau, arguably today’s most imaginative, bold and informative pianist, whose sensitive accompaniment, inventive detail and sheer rightness of approach across an…

October 4, 2017
CD and Other Review

Review: Bach: Celebratory Cantatas (Bach Collegium Japan/Suzuki)

Masaaki Suzuki and Bach Collegium Japan have never been content to rest on their considerable laurels. Having completed the Herculean task of recording all of Johann Sebastian Bach’s sacred cantatas in 2013, they have continued to explore the master’s diverse range of secular cantatas, arriving at this volume of celebratory works. Along the way Suzuki and his forces have revealed the richness of Bach’s musical imagination and his sense of humour in these works. The very first volume of the series recorded back in 2003 contains arguably his most popular secular cantata, the so-called Coffee Cantata (BWV211), in a robust account with soprano Carolyn Sampson as the wayward, coffee-drinking daughter and bass Stephan Schreckenberger as her strict and exasperated father. In the fourth volume, the glorious wedding cantata, Weichet nur, betrübte Schatten (BWV202) is radiantly sung by soprano Joanne Lunn, while in the seventh volume the Peasant Cantata (BWV212) is given a lively and well-paced performance featuring soprano Mojca Erdmann and bass Dominik Wörner. Other volumes in the series neatly group together various works: academic cantatas, cantatas for birthdays and funerals; reminding us that most of these cantatas were written to order. The state events that occasioned the works in this…

September 29, 2017
CD and Other Review

Review: Ballads of the Pleasant Life (Peter Coleman-Wright, Nexas Quartet)

Australians can thank comic genius Barry Humphries for the revival of interest in songs from the interwar Weimar Republic in Germany. As a young man he trawled Melbourne’s used bookshops and found a collection of scores from composers such as Kurt Weill, Franz Schreker, Hanns Eisler and Alexander von Zemlinsky, among others – all of them obscure names (apart from Weill, thanks to Louis Armstrong’s then recent version of Mack The Knife). The discovery sparked a lifelong passion, so much so that he put on a Weimar show with “kamikaze” cabaret star Meow Meow and the Australian Chamber Orchestra a few seasons back. More recently, several classical artists have turned their attention to this period in music history and the composers that either went into exile across the world or died in the Nazi death camps. Now it’s the turn of Australian baritone Peter Coleman-Wright and the excellent Nexas saxophone quartet with Ballads of the Pleasant Life on ABC Classics. There’s a good smattering of Weill, including favourites September Song, Mack the Knife and the ballad that gives the album its title, but the real finds are the political and work songs of Eisler and Zemlinsky and, a little pearl,…

September 29, 2017
CD and Other Review

Review: Monteverdi: The Other Vespers (I Fagiolini/Hollingworth)

Robert Hollingworth has, with customary thought and flair, thrown his little beans (I Fagiolini) into an interesting musical salad to honour Monteverdi’s 450th birthday and his own group’s 30th. His starting point is the only contemporary account of Monteverdi conducting Vespers: a Dutch tourist espied the maestro working away from St Mark’s on June 24, 1620 (the feast of the birth of St John the Baptist). Drawing key elements from Monteverdi’s monumental 1641 collection of liturgical music, Selva Morale e Spirituale (The moral and spiritual wood) Hollingworth fashions a Vespers service for that feast, embellished with vocal and instrumental music of the period. There is much exuberant singing and playing to enjoy in this programme, which eschews the perhaps more famous 1610 collection of Vespers music. (Mind you, 1641 contains the ever-popular Beatus vir with its walking bass.) Hollingworth is happy to give his cornettists, Gawain Glenton and Andrea Inghisciano free rein in the realm of ornamentation. The results are brilliant and impart a splendid sense of occasion. Florid vocal passages are also handled with consummate ease and clarity (Dixit Dominus) while intimate devotional moments, like Donati’s Dulcis amor Iesu! are equally touching. Together with The English Cornett & Sackbut Ensemble and…

September 29, 2017
CD and Other Review

Review: South of the Line (Birmingham Conservatoire Chamber Choir/Paul Spicer)

South African-born English composer John Joubert turns 90 this year and SOMM Recordings are celebrating. In July, Clive Paget reviewed their recording of the opera Jane Eyre, remarking on Joubert’s stylistic resemblance to Britten. It’s very apparent in this choral music, written between 1952 and 2015. The polytonal harmonies, the word setting, and the choral voicings strongly recall the early Britten of A Boy Was Born and Cantata Academica, although Joubert’s settings are more robust. These traits appear clearly in Three Portraits, a setting of poems by Tudor poet John Skelton. The works are mostly unaccompanied, one exception the charming Autumn Rain (1985). The longest, most interesting work is South of the Line: an anti-war cantata, setting Hardy’s poems about the Boer War. The singers are accompanied by two pianos, percussion and timpani (very Noye’s Fludde), excitingly used. Two movements employ solo vocalists: soprano Chloe Salvidge is impressive in the demanding tessitura of A Wife in London. The Birmingham Conservatoire Chamber Choir used boys in their 2014 Howells recording, but this time the sopranos and altos are female. In fortes (such as Chorus 1 of Incantation, or the Sonnet Op. 123) the women overpower the men, whose tone is fairly…

September 22, 2017
CD and Other Review

Review: Lucrezia Borgia’s Daughter (Musica Secreta & Celestial Sirens)

According to 16th-century clerics, convent polyphony was dangerous, liable to lead nuns into vanity and other wickedness. Listening to the sensuous contrapuntal writhings and twinings, the ecstatic, rapturous beauty of these motets – possibly by Lucrezia Borgia’s daughter Leonora d’Este – you wonder if they didn’t have a point. The motets are from the Musica quinque vocum motteta maternal lingua vocata – the earliest published collection of polyphony composed for nuns. As piece after piece of graceful, equal-voice counterpoint unfolds, what’s striking is how progressive and sophisticated the style is for the 1540s, its smooth consonance spiced with occasional hits of chromaticism, its long lines embellished with little gilded flickers of ornamentation. With voice-parts confined to a two-octave range the risk is of a lack of scope. But thanks to careful deployment of solo and collective forces – the professional singers of Musica Secreta and excellent amateurs of Celestial Sirens – and judicious use of bass viol and organ, there’s enough delicate variation to keep things interesting. Haec dies is rejoicing, kept from all-out ebullience by its dark modality, while the filmy Hodie Simon Petrus, with its imitative upper voices and lace-like detailing, unfolds in rapt arcs. The longest work,…

September 22, 2017
CD and Other Review

Review: Dvořák: Stabat Mater (Czech Philharmonic/Bělohlávek)

Like encountering some extraordinary Pietà, listening to Dvořák’s grandiose evocation of Mary at the foot of the Cross leaves a lasting impression on the imagination. Written at a time when the composer was finally gaining recognition, it was to be the best and the worst of times. To have lost one child (as Dvořák did in 1875) was tragedy enough, but to lose his remaining two children the following year would have been more than most parents could bear. The surging opening of the Stabat Mater in particular witnesses to this deep grief. Bělohlávek and his forces harness all of this turbulent emotion, creating towering climaxes that immerse the listener in the crucifixion drama. Lasting nearly 20 minutes, the sonata-form first movement signals Dvořák’s intent to create a work in which his skills as symphonist, melodist, nationalist and believer are all given potent expression. To a large extent Dvořák succeeds in this artistic quest. The nine shorter, succeeding movements are creatively varied. After the Quis est homo in which we hear the well balanced solo quartet at close quarters, the pulsing, choral Eja Mater, fons amoris ushers one of the most striking movements of the work, Fac, ut ardeat. Here South Korean bass…

August 31, 2017
CD and Other Review

Review: Music for the 100 Years’ War (The Binchois Consort)

As with previous recordings by The Binchois Consort – such as Music for Henry V and the House of Lancaster – Music for the 100 Years’ War places a cappella sacred music in its historical context through a judicious mix of scholarship and speculation. The motivation in this case was to celebrate the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt on October 25, 1415. But as the consort’s director Andrew Kirkman and Philip Weller write in their detailed booklet note, “In doing so [the programme] also casts its net wider, embracing other aspects and events” of the war of which Agincourt “formed but one part – albeit a heroic and iconic part.” Here, therefore, are carols, motets and sections of masses which might have been performed during Henry V’s campaign by members of “an enormous retinue”, which included a fully functioning liturgical and musical chapel. Such is the quality of the music and the performances that one can be left in no doubt that the creativity which grew out of the greater culture of the time and nourished it in turn can be equally inspiring today. This is music that sounds as fresh as though it were written just yesterday…

August 4, 2017
CD and Other Review

Review: Schumann: Einsamkeit Lieder (Matthias Goerne, Markus Hinterhauser)

The German bass baritone Matthias Goerne must spend most of his professional life in recording studios at the moment. Over the past two years, around a dozen of his albums have been released or reissued, including plenty of Schubert and Brahms, as well as music by Berio, a complete Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle and his ongoing Ring project with Jaap van Zweden and the Hong Kong Philharmonic. He has also returned to the songs of Schumann with this excellent Harmonia Mundi album Einsamkeit, which covers some of the same ground as his 2004 Decca release with pianist Erich Schneider. Goerne has matured into one of the most in-demand and compelling singers amongst an impressive field of bass and baritone Lieder specialists, his warm, full and dark timbre ideal for this thoughtful collection covering the full span of Schumann’s output, from Myrthen – his 1840 wedding gift to Clara – to Abenlied, written some 12 years later. Goerne is also making his recording debut with Italian-born Austrian pianist Markus Hinterhauser and their musical chemistry is immediately apparent from the seductive opening track Meine Rose. The duo made a huge impression when they performed Schubert’s Winterreise in last year’s Sydney Festival. Their partnership…

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