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…

September 9, 2016
CD and Other Review

Review: Desplat: Florence Foster Jenkins (OST)

In my youth, a popular party piece was to haul out a recording made by New York socialite Florence Foster Jenkins and all fall about laughing as we listened to her murder The Queen of the Night. It was so innocently bad. It took great skill, imagination and sympathy to bring her story to the screen, for where is the modern audience for a truly bad opera singer from the 1940s?  Enter director Stephen Frears. He has produced a remarkable film, drawing on the brilliance of Meryl Streep as Jenkins, Hugh Grant as her husband (one of his best performances) and a wry, comic turn from Simon Helberg (of Big Bang fame) as Madam’s hapless pianist. The film is beautifully written and produced, an absolute delight. Frears makes it convincing, including showing how Jenkin’s devoted husband shielded her from the truth of her foolishness.  Meryl Streep sings all the Jenkins extracts, and it is a tribute to her taste and skill that she doesn’t make it sound like a poor take-off as she reproduces Jenkins’ famously bad singing. It’s a star turn, especially as it takes great skill to sing badly, convincingly. Alexandre Desplat provides a small amount of original…

August 12, 2016
CD and Other Review

Review: With Love and Fury (Katie Noonan, Brodsky Quartet)

Song is a powerful tool for relating human experience, regardless of the genre. With Love and Fury is a new selection of Australian songs, conceived by popular songstress Katie Noonan, which brings together a most eclectic bunch of musical minds: a ‘jazz’ singer-songwriter, a ‘classical’ string quartet and a diverse catalogue of Australian composers. All the artists involved are friends of creative crossover, and here they’re all engaged in reinterpreting the work of the great Australian poet, environmentalist and Aboriginal rights campaigner, Judith Wright. With Love and Fury is a voyage in poetry and music – and a gorgeous one at that. It’s hard not to be bewitched by Katie Noonan’s singing. Her lyrical, pure voice soars across the album with a pristine perfection, and is reason enough to buy the CD. The London-based Brodsky Quartet is also a solid presence throughout, serving as more than mere accompaniment to the vocal line. The quartet’s approach to tone colour is a particularly attractive feature of the disc, and serves to evoke the atmosphere created by each composer. Paul Grabowsky is a long-time collaborator with Noonan, and sets his beautiful vocal melodies amongst a sea of curious string effects. A number of…

July 4, 2016
CD and Other Review

Review: Magdalena Kožená: Monteverdi (La Cetra/Andrea Marcon)

After earlier Vivaldi and Handel recitals with the Venice Baroque Orchestra and Andrea Marcon, it’s back to the Baroque for Czech mezzo Magdalena Kožená, who again teams up with Marcon for a programme devoted to the music of one of Kožená’s teenage crushes: Claudio Monteverdi. Apparently Kožená was just 16 years old when she co-founded her own early music ensemble to perform the Mantuan master’s music. So this recording is a homecoming of sorts, and if Kožená is nowadays more associated with Romantic repertoire you need only look to the complex, extravagant and emotionally charged music and lyrics of these madrigals and opera excerpts to see how there’s not really that much of a leap between Monteverdi and Mahler. Of course, there’s also a lot more scope for improvisation in Renaissance and Baroque repertoire, and therefore more legitimate opportunities for the performer to stamp their own personality on the score. This heightens rather than diminishes the music’s emotional impact. There is also more room to ‘orchestrate’ in the sense of which instrumental colours to include; here, La Cetra comprises strings, a cornett, lutes, guitar, psaltery, harpsichord, organ and percussion. Thus the opening Zefiro torna, e di soave accenti from the…

June 2, 2016
CD and Other Review

Review: Bussey: Through a Glass (Marcus Farnsworth, James Baillieu)

Through a Glass is the world premiere recording of a series of songs by Martin Bussey, a choral scholar at King’s College, Cambridge. The opening work Blue Remembered Hills introduces baritone Marcus Farnsworth and pianist James Baillieu with immediacy, delving into an obscurity marked by dissonances and startling dynamics.  Through a Glass, Darkly was crafted with text from different authors. The composer’s notes tell us the work refers to the relationship between reality and dreams and is “the most ambitious musically and thematically”. The fourth song The Secret Sits breaks the flow with a trumpet that simply sticks out. The closing song in the cycle Lay Your Sleeping Head crafts brief whirlwinds of angst before resolving into the most conventional sounding progression of chords we’ve heard yet – a happy ending to an eccentric piece. Farnsworth is superb – not only for the clarity in his timbre but for allowing us to identify every word. Though he leans into every note almost theatrically, Through a Glass, Darkly shows unexpected changes in character. By contrast, The Windhover is part-challenge, part-conversation between Farnsworth and solo violin, while Garden Songs features texts written across the centuries about flowers and trees. The final song…

June 2, 2016
CD and Other Review

Review: Schnittke: Penitential Psalms (RIAS Kammerchor)

Alfred Schnittke’s early life, with a Jewish father, Volga German mother and a musical education in occupied Vienna, was haunted by the fears and tensions of the outsider. The ‘polystylist’ language he eventually developed, with its wild juxtapositions of the ‘banal’ and ‘refined’ and a jabbing irony that confounded Soviet apparatchiks, may thus have been a fortified wall shielding a serious avant-gardist, but he risked coming across as a composer in search of a voice.  As time passed by and regimes began to crumble, he allowed cracks to appear in that wall and offer glimpses of the vulnerable artist within. Declining health in the 1980s revealed spiritualist tendencies, most apparent in the Penitential Psalms for mixed choir a cappella, written in 1988 to commemorate the millennium of the Christianisation of Russia.  Setting poems for Lent by anonymous monks from an anthology of Old Russian texts, the principal themes are that of original sin, the wrongs of the past and the need to repent and forgive; significant sentiments as the Soviet Union was breaking apart and old scores were being settled. The work has elements of traditional Russian Orthodox Liturgical chant with syllabic declamation and hummed drones, but tight contrapuntal lines…

May 19, 2016
CD and Other Review

Review: Cavalli: L’Amore Innamorato

As Ilja Stephan writes in her informative booklet note to this exquisite new release from French period instrument ensemble L’Arpeggiata, Francesco Cavalli “rode the crest of Venetian opera’s wave”. This full-time church musician composed 40 operas on the side and made a fortune in the process (though a prudent marriage to a rich widow also helped). The programme offers up a selection of arias and instrumental works from six Cavalli’s works – L’Ormindo, Il Giasone, La Rosinda, L’Artemisia, La Didone, L’Eliogabalo and the famous La Calisto – plus instrumental works by contemporaries Kapsperger and Falconieri. As Stephan points out, “the poetic text was a literary work of art in its own right” and Cavalli was lucky to have the talents of such masters as Giovanni Francesco Busenello (who furnished Monteverdi with the libretto for L’Incoronazione di Poppea). In her usual imaginative fashion, Christina Pluhar, directing from harp or theorbo, has filled out the skeletal scores by employing a rich array of instruments including lutes, harps, psalteries, percussion and a harpsichord and chamber organ. And if sopranos Nuria Rial and Hana Blažíková dazzle with their pure, sensuous tones and expressive, lightly virtuosic declamations, recriminations and laments, cornetto player Doron David Sherwin is…

May 19, 2016
CD and Other Review

Review: Janaček: Orchestral Works (Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra/Edward Gardner)

At the centre of this engaging disc is a fresh and vibrant account of Janáček’s famous Glagolitic Mass, so named because the old church Slavonic text is written in Glagolitic characters, a precursor of Cyrillic script. This new recording enhances all the reasons why this work has remained a firm favourite with audiences since its premiere in 1927. The broad and colourful orchestral canvas (including a major part for organ) is vividly conveyed by the super audio engineering. Edward Gardner and his Bergen forces convincingly project the red-blooded and often emotional response to the text with well drilled orchestral playing and evocative singing by the chorus.  Another major contribution is made by Australian Heldentenor Stuart Skelton who delivers the challenging tenor solos with unflinching confidence and surety. Skelton is well complemented by the attractive voice of American soprano, Sara Jakubiak. Mezzo Susan Bickley and bass Gábor Bretz acquit themselves in the smaller roles with distinction. Thomas Trotter deploys the Rieger organ of Bergen cathedral with finesse, especially in his quasi-Bacchanalian seventh-movement solo. Filling out the programme are the orchestral Adagio (c.1890), the Zdrávas Maria (Ave Maria) from 1904 and Otče náš (Our Father) from 1901, revised five years later. These…

May 16, 2016
CD and Other Review

Review: Tchaikovsky: The Snow Maiden (MDR Sinfonieorchester/Kristjan Järvi)

This recording of Tchaikovsky’s incidental music for Alexander Ostrovsky’s The Snow Maiden is a pure delight. Written in 1873, after the composer’s first two versions of the Romeo and Juliet fantasy overture (1869-70) and just before his first ballet, Swan Lake (1875-77), the work falls into a period when Tchaikovsky often found recourse to love stories that end badly. In Ostrovsky’s tale the immortal child of Spring and Ded Moroz – a sort of Russian Santa Claus – covets the companionship of mortals but is unable to know love. After her mother takes pity and grants her the power to love, growing fond of a shepherd, the emotion warms not only her heart but her entire being, to the point at which she melts. Estonian mezzo-soprano Annely Peebo sings the ill-fated maiden, her mellifluous tone and warm vibrato a pleasure to listen to – try any of Lehl’s Songs; they’re all superb (the principal clarinettist here and in the first two Entr’Actes deserves special mention for sympathetic phrasings and solo work). As her shepherd, Vsevolod Grinov’s tenor is powerful and clarion with a nice weight at the bottom and a ringing top that comes across well in Brusilla’s Song. Kristjan Järvi conducts the exceptional MDR Sinfonieorchester and Chorus…

May 13, 2016
CD and Other Review

Review: Autograph (Ian Bostridge)

Autograph is a career-spanning seven-disc set personally selected by English tenor Ian Bostridge in celebration of his 50th birthday. Organised thematically, discs 1 and 2 cover the Lieder for which Bostridge is justly famous – Wolf, Schumann and Schubert, including Winterreise in its entirety. Discs 3 and 4 are devoted to early music, with a lengthy selection of excerpts from Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo, and including briefer coverage of Dido and Aeneas, Mozart’s Idomeneo and Die Entführung aus dem Serail, plus a sprinkling of Handel.  Then it’s on to substantial excerpts from Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia, Billy Budd, and The Turn of the Screw, before returning to two complete Lieder cycles. In an usual pairing, Schumann’s Dichterliebe and Janácˇek’s The Diary of One Who Disappeared are bracketed together under ‘Allegories of Love,’ the rationale for which you can hear Bostridge discuss on the final disc, a lengthy (80 minutes!) interview.  It’s extraordinary for a singer to have such command of the differing vocal demands of repertoire covering four centuries, and if your early music preferences are with period performances, Bostridge’s readings may not quite be for you. He is especially good with Britten, and, not surprisingly, at his transcendental best with the…

April 19, 2016
CD and Other Review

Review: Schoenberg, Potera: Pierrot Lunaire, Red Music (Ensemble Bios/Andrea Vitello)

Ensemble Bios is an Italian group led by conductor Andrea Vitello, dedicated to performing works of the 20th and 21st centuries. Their first outing for Italy’s Continuo label features “actress of the voice” Anna Clementi in Schoenberg’s 1912 song cycle Pierrot Lunaire.  Broken into three lots of seven (reflecting the composer’s obsession with numerology), it famously utilises Sprechstimme, a semi-spoken technique associated at the time with melodrama and to some extent Lieder and cabaret. Clementi’s delivery is deft, mocking and expressionistic, soaring and plunging while detailing Pierrot’s macabre exploits as the instrumentalists sensitively weave around her vocalisations. A century on, it still sounds thrillingly modern.  It’s paired here with a recent work by Florentine composer Andrea Portera (b. 1973), whose symphonic, theatrical and chamber works (over 120) have met with critical acclaim and two silver medals from the President of the Italian Republic. Red Music consists of three quite beautiful pieces for chamber ensemble, all just over four-minutes long, and dedicated to Prokofiev, Shostakovich and Rostropovich respectively. Each work subtly evokes the subject of its dedication – the frenetic dynamism of Prokofiev’s piano works, Shostakovich’s deeply unsettling strings, or the sound of Rostropovich’s rich, expansive cello. It makes for an…

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