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…