November 10, 2016
CD and Other Review

Review: Soar

Excellence. If you want to hear some, listen to the first track of Gondwana Chorale’s debut album Soar. The opener, Dan Walker’s Concierto del Sur, offers us a breath of life as this exquisitely produced recording brings together more than 50 of the brightest young singers in modern Australia. The dynamic texture of Orlovich’s Butterflies Dance continues the journey of divine music and sound, while another highlight is Abbott’s Fool – a percussive and masterfully articulated song from Words of Wisdom, a collection of works drawing on newspaper quotes. Also of note is the strength in upper voices found in Lament to Saint Cecilia by Stanhope. Gondwana’s voices are worthy of a five-star review. But something about this album doesn’t sit right. The bold cover photography shows our blue sky and red land; inside, notes boast “new Australian works that capture the mystery and grandeur of our land” sung by children of dairy farmers and flying doctors. The inclusion here of sacred works from Guerrero, Monteverdi and Rachmaninov does not represent contemporary Australia, nor does it push to establish a national sound from a young generation of singers. And with their talent, they have the power to unite people in…

November 10, 2016
CD and Other Review

Review: English Romantic Madrigals

Jeremy Dibble, indefatigable scholar of all things English, Romantic and musical, has exhumed a sizeable body of madrigals written in the Victorian and Edwardian eras. Some of the composer’s names will be familiar: Elgar, Stanford and Parry. Some choristers will be familiar with Stainer, whose oratorio, The Crucifixion makes an annual appearance on Good Friday at St. Paul’s, Melbourne. The names of Leslie, Goodhart and Pearsall will more often than not draw a blank. Pearsall is best known for his arrangement of In Dulci Jubilo in Willcocks’ Carols for Choirs 1. Encouraged by societies who ran competitions with generous prizes, these composers and many others turned their hand to the form of the madrigal, attempting on the one hand to evoke something “antique” and on the other to push the form’s harmonic and textural envelope in new directions. Victorian prudery is evident in the lack of any salacious Elizabethan texts. Hard by a Crystal Fountain and Come Again, Sweet Love are definitely out. Stanford and Pearsall, each in their own way, are the best of this bunch. Stanford unashamedly displays his ‘modernist’ credentials in daring but deftly handled harmonies in God and the Universe and On Time. Pearsall in ‘antiquarian’ mode…

November 10, 2016
CD and Other Review

Review: Zelenka: Missa Divi Zaveri & Litaniae de Sancto Xaverio

A composer of Catholic liturgical music in a Lutheran society, Jan Dismas Zelenka (1679-1745) was fighting an uphill battle for popularity even during his own lifetime. After his death, his music all but disappeared from the repertoire, and still remains firmly on the fringes of concert programming. One ensemble, however, is doing more than any to change this. For over 20 years, Czech conductor Václav Luks and his superb Collegium 1704 choir and orchestra have been turning out eloquent recordings that celebrate the  intricate counterpoint and bold harmonic gestures of the composer JS Bach so admired. Their latest is particularly interesting: a world premiere recording of the Missa Divi Zaveri, a major 1729 work thus far silenced by the poor condition (including lost parts) of its surviving manuscript. Now Luks himself has produced a complete edition, and the results are thrilling. The Mass features the largest forces Zelenka ever composed for, including four trumpets, timpani, doubled flutes and oboes as well as strings, chorus and SATB soloists. The result is truly festal in scale, possibly an informal audition for the job of kapellmeister at Dresden that would eventually go to Hasse.  With no Credo, the centre of musical gravity shifts…

October 21, 2016
CD and Other Review

Review: Lotti: Crucifixus

Maestro di Cappella of St. Mark’s Venice, author of over 20 operas and nearly 150 sacred works, teacher of Marcello, Galuppi and Zelenka and admired by Bach and Handel, Antonio Lotti’s diverse and successful career has latterly been distilled down to just two pieces: the unaccompanied Crucifixus settings for eight and ten voices. Now, in a recording dominated by contemporary premieres, Ben Palmer and his Syred Consort attempt to fill in the gaps and restore the reputation of this Baroque master. This is music that sells itself. In Ben Byram-Wigfield’s new editions, it emerges lively with rhythmic interest, texts carefully shaded with word-painting and contrasting solo and ensemble colours, supported by light-footed orchestral accompaniments. These are large-scale festal works of tremendous charm. Where Lotti does fall short of his near-contemporary Vivaldi is in melody. More interested in vertical texture than horizontal line (as both Crucifixus settings so clearly demonstrate), individual vocal parts do suffer from a certain anonymity.  Both Lotti’s Crucixifus a8 and his a6 setting form part of larger stand-alone, Credos. The former is presented here as part of the Missa Sancti Christophori – a composite work created from Lotti’s individual Mass movements by his pupil Zelenka (and supplemented…

October 21, 2016
CD and Other Review

Review: Where’er You Walk

We’re so used to hearing Handel recitals from sopranos or countertenors that one from a tenor is somewhat of a novelty, and we have to go back to Mark Padmore’s terrific 2007 release As Steals the Morn for something comparable. Basses fare even less well, and Bryn Terfel’s Handel Arias is now almost 20-years old. So English tenor Allan Clayton’s recital focusing on songs either written for or sung by the great Handelian tenor John Beard (c.1715-1791), who seems not only to have had a fine voice but acting skills to match, is most welcome. Beard created some of Handel’s most famous roles, including Samson, of which there are excerpts from not only that version but William Boyce’s; there are also arias from Ariodante, Alcina and Semele, as well as from Judas Maccabaeus, Samson, Jephtha, Alexander’s Feast and more. For As steals the morn from L’Allegro, Clayton is joined by soprano Mary Bevan; for Happy Pair from Alexander’s Feast, the Choir of Classical Opera; the recording opens with Sol nel mezzo risona del core from Il Pastor Fido, in which Bevan duets with James Eastaway’s sweetly plangent oboe. Of course the orchestral playing under the ever-musical direction of Ian Page…

October 21, 2016
CD and Other Review

Review: Monday’s Child

This is the third instalment in Stone Records’ fine series resurrecting Australian Art Songs that are “united in their unwarranted neglect,” as David Wickham puts it in his comprehensive liner notes.Soprano Lisa Harper-Brown and pianist Wickham both performed on the first two discs in the series; this third is a slight departure in its inclusion of works also scored for oboe and clarinet. It also features soprano Katja Webb, a graduate of the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts based at Edith Cowan University, where this album was recorded. Margaret Sutherland is heavily represented, with the two cycles Five Songs and Three Songs for Voice and Clarinet, as well as The Orange Tree and The Gentle Water Bird. Three of Geoffrey Allen’s cycles, Nursery Rhymes, Stile and Stump and Four Songs are included here, along with two by Melbourne composer Dorian Le Gallienne. This collection of material is dominated by themes relating to children, from settings of nursery rhymes to more oblique references to the life cycle. Webb’s fruity soprano is lithe and adventurous, tackling this little-heard repertoire with thoughtful poise and relish; Wickham is precise and sympathetic. This is an important series noteworthy for its excavations of musical expressions…

October 13, 2016
CD and Other Review

Review: Liszt: The Complete Songs Volume 4

Liszt has always struck me as a latter-day John Donne: passionate, creative and a ladies’ man in his youth; turning more inwards and closer to God later in life; yet ultimately leading a conflicted life, since both states coexisted in one form or another from the start. That’s what makes Hyperion’s non-chronological complete survey of Liszt’s songs such a fascinating listening experience – apart, of course, from the quality of the songs themselves and the superlative nature of the performances. One gets the whole man, rather than just a slice. Previous volumes from Julius Drake with tenor Matthew Polenzani, mezzo Angelika Kirchschlager and bass-baritone Gerald Finley have already set the bar high. But Grammy Award-winning American mezzo Sasha Cooke is right up there, with a voice as rich and responsive as her musicality. The majority of the songs here, drawn from across a 37-year period, tend towards the introspective and one has only to listen to the lush repose of the opening Des Tages laute Stimmen Schweigen Cooke evokes as the day draws to an end. Or the tastefully characterised romantic drama of Il m’aimait tant! Or the delicate rendering of Liszt’s marvelous setting of Blume und Duft, or the…

October 13, 2016
CD and Other Review

Review: Roma æterna

At first glance, you may wonder whether we need yet another disc of some of the Counter-Reformation’s greatest hits. Palestrina’s Missa Papae Marcelli, Tu Es Petrus and Sicut Cervus as well as Victoria’s Missa O Quam Gloriosum have been recorded countless times and surely there are many interesting and lesser-known pieces to explore? After all, Palestrina did write at least 104 masses and how many of those do we get to hear? These are quite legitimate questions, but New York Polyphony makes a plausible case for saying there’s always room for one more account of core repertory. The group’s main point of difference from previous recordings is that they perform the music one voice to a part and at a pitch to accommodate their four male voices (countertenor, tenor, baritone and bass). The fine quartet of main singers (Geoffrey Williams, Steven Caldicott Wilson, Christopher Dylan Herbert and Craig Phillips) are joined by countertenor Tim Keeler; tenor Andrew Fuchs and bass-baritone Jonathan Woody for the Palestrina mass and motet, and for some chant propers for Easter that are interwoven with the mass. Singing the Missa Papae Marcelli a fourth below its regular pitch creates quite a different sound world, particularly requiring…

September 30, 2016
CD and Other Review

Review: Decades: A Century of Song Volume 1 (1810-1820)

The big hitters of 19th-century song are well known, but how did they earn their reputations, who were their respected contemporaries, and how did the art form progress over time? It’s always been easy for a competent, or even an inspired composer, to get buried by the sheer overwhelming enthusiasm for a Beethoven or a Brahms, so a chance to examine the development of song from 1810 to 1910, decade by decade, might be expected to throw up a few surprises. And so it proves in the first of an excellently curated series from accompanist Malcolm Martineau and a stellar quintet of leading singers. Taking Schubert’s miracle years – 1815 and 1816 – as its starting point, Martineau chooses 16 of his finest as a peg on which to hang a thoroughgoing and eclectic selection of the greatest Lieder and song that were around at the time. Ranging across Europe, we visit Spain, Italy, Czechoslovakia, German  and France in a song lover’s magical mystery tour. The under-recorded Canadian tenor Michael Schade gets the lion’s share of the disc and the majority of the Schubert. Like Peter Schreier, to whom he bears a striking vocal resemblance, he’s a dab hand with…

September 15, 2016
CD and Other Review

Review: Hugo Wolf: Kennst du das Land

I have been aware of Belgian soprano Sophie Karthäuser’s fine work in early repertoire for some years now but somehow missed her first release on Harmonia Mundi of Poulenc, which Andrew Aronowicz praised in these pages back in 2014; on hearing this latest delight I shall eagerly hunt out the former. Wolf has a reputation as a tough nut to crack for most listeners; his melodic style is a world away from Schubert, with wild, chromatic harmonies of Wagnerian sensuality, although naive simplicity sometimes pops up unexpectedly and he mostly avoided repetitive strophic form so that each setting is a miniature dramatic scene. His accompaniments, often carrying a bold subtext, can sometimes seem more inspired than the vocal line with evocative scene-painting and extended epilogues. In the wrong hands those accompaniments can sometimes turn turgid (like Schumann on acid) but no concerns here; Eugene Asti’s work is breathtakingly beautiful, perfectly graded and balanced – the recording is stunningly clear and present, every pellucid touch audible.  As for the singing – I was bowled over. While expecting the clarity and tonal beauty of such a fine Mozart exponent I was surprised by the dramatic range on offer. The top of the…

September 15, 2016
CD and Other Review

Review: Ginastera: The Vocal Album (Santa Barbara Symphony Orchestra)

Argentinian composer Alberto Ginastera’s music is neatly divided into three styles: nationalist folk (or Gaucho); ‘subjective’ nationalism influenced by Stravinsky, and Neoexpressionism, which is infused with Serialism. His vocal pieces reflect those phases. Uruguayan Gisèle Ben-Dor conducts the Santa Barbara Symphony with superb vocalists. Ginastera’s five popular Agentinian songs are here sung delightfully by Puerto Rican soprano Ana Marìa Martìnez. They have a touch of Cantaloube’s Songs of the Auvergne about them, especially the much-loved lullaby Arroro which Ben-Dor, like most South American mothers, sang to her children. Argentinian diva Virginia Tola features in the other two works on this disc. She’s alongside Plácido Domingo for two excerpts from Ginastera’s opera Don Rodrigo. Domingo reprises his role from his 1960s hit at New York City Opera, which was overseen by the composer. Challenging for both singer and listener, Domingo’s radiance and energy here seem undimmed by age. Listen out for The Miracle scene when all the bells of Spain ring out unaided by human intervention in a serialism-meets-Mussorgsky showstopper.  Tola makes superb work of the cantata Milena, based on Franz Kafka’s letters to his lover. This is an interesting tribute to the composer, beautifully produced and vibrantly performed by all.

September 15, 2016
CD and Other Review

Review: Du Mont: Motets & Élévations (Ensemble Correspondances)

The name of Henry du Mont has rested in the shadow cast by those giants of the French Baroque, Lully and Rameau, yet this ‘foreign’ composer (born near Liège in 1610) rose to the heights, directing Louis XIV’s chapel from 1663 to 1683.  Inspired by the Italian-style encountered in his Flemish upbringing, du Mont wrote numerous petits motets for two or three voices with instrumental parts and was one of the first to introduce basso continuo into French music. His other great contribution was to develop the grand motet, which pitted a petit choeur of soloists against a grand choeur and interleaved instrumental episodes in which many of the king’s famous string players featured.  Sébastien Daucé and Ensemble Correspondances give polished and empathetic performances of both forms of motets. Smaller works such as the heartfelt Sub Ombra Noctis Profundae allow solo voices, like that of bass, Nicolas Brooymans to display emotional range while larger works, in particular O Mysterium and Super Flumina Babylonis, brilliantly evoke the splendour of Louis’ court with voluptuous textures and elegant turns of musical phrase. Daucé’s forces communicate with energy, passion and precision. Engineering and presentation are of Harmonia Mundi’s usual high standard.

September 14, 2016
CD and Other Review

Review: Howells: Collegium Regale (Trinity College Choir Cambridge)

Every cloud, they say, has a silver lining. In the dark days of World War II, Cambridge was a bleak place; emptied of students and the famous windows of King’s College Chapel put in storage. Attempts were made to keep up appearances. Services in college chapels were more or less maintained, despite a dearth of adult male singers and college organists being called up. A middle-aged Herbert Howells was called upon to deputise at St. John’s College. Having weathered the death of his young son from meningitis and finding his style of music increasingly unfashionable, Howells found solace in university life. Amongst the supportive colleagues he found at Cambridge was the Dean of King’s, Eric Milner-White. He suggested that Howells should write some settings of the canticles for the college chapel. Taking up the challenge reinvigorated Howells’s composing career and gave Anglicans some of their most beloved 20th-century music. Howells eventually completed his music for King’s, setting all three choral services: Matins, Holy Communion and Evensong under the college’s Latin name.  One of the many advantages of this new recording is having all three services on the one disc. The evening canticles have been recorded countless times, but the other…

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