February 18, 2016
CD and Other Review

Review: Silvestrov: To Thee We Sing (Latvian Radio Choir/Kļava)

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, composers like Valentin Silvestrov have been free to reap the fruits of artistic freedom in a way that once must have seemed unimaginable. ‘Soviet realism’ has given way to a search for beauty and the reacceptance of Orthodox Christianity has also allowed composers to create sacred music.  This sense of freedom pervades this collection of Silvestrov’s choral pieces, written between 1995 and 2006. Dubbing his style as “metaphorical music” or metamusic for short, the composer feels free to assimilate a wide variety of influences from Romantic and post-Romantic Western music, with the aim of creating a personal, other-worldly effect. Debussy, Wagner, Rachmaninov, Poulenc, Stravinsky are just some of the names that come to mind when listening to his extraordinarily luscious harmonies. Silvestrov could not have better advocates than the Latvian Radio Choir who sing with empathy and impeccable intonation (absolutely essential in this highly chromatic music), all given an acoustic halo by the cavernous reverberation of St. John’s Church, Riga. It may be tempting to think that all this artistic liberty is just a gateway to escapism, but that is far from the case. Silvestrov actively celebrates his Ukrainian identity, setting a poem…

February 9, 2016
CD and Other Review

Review: Juan Diego Flórez: Italia (Filarmonica Gioachino Rossini)

This attractive collection of largely Neapolitan songs is given bracing treatment by the talented Señor Flórez. The great Italian song writer, Tosti is represented by Marechiare and Leoncavallo (of Pagliacci fame) by the popular Mattinata. Apparently, this song was the first ever commissioned by HMV way back in 1904. Also by Tosti is the ravishing L’alba Separa dalla Luce l’Ombra, (Dawn separates light from shade) which Flórez sings with utter commitment. In the more demanding material, such as Rossini’s Bolero, he shines brightly, his heroic style ideally suited to the music. He then tosses off La Danza with equal aplomb. His interpretation of that old pot-boiler, Volare, is the finest I have ever heard. Simply exhilarating. It is worth noting here that the singer’s diction is impeccable, making the song sound freshly minted. Less well known is Ernesto De Curtis’ Non ti Scordar di Me (Don’t Forget Me), Musica Proibita by Gastaldon and Vaghissima Sembianza (Vaguest appearance) by Stefano Donaudy. Finally, O Sole Mio finishes the concert. There is not a great deal one can do with this warhorse, but Flórez does it well. This is a splendid recording, and the accompaniments by the Filarmonica Gioachino Rossini under Carlo Tenan…

February 9, 2016
CD and Other Review

Review: Pablo Neruda: The Poet Sings (Conspirare)

Editor’s Choice, Jan/Feb 2016 – Vocal & Choral “Those who find everything beautiful are now in danger of finding nothing beautiful.” So wrote Theodor Adorno in Minima Moralia. And yet according to composer Cary Ratcliff, the great Chilean poet Pablo Neruda “wrote four volumes of odes to ordinary objects”. Of course that’s not all he wrote; Neruda was after all one of the greatest love poets of all time, and the other two composers featured on this recording of choral settings of Neruda’s poetry have availed themselves of some of his most moving love poems. Texas-based vocal ensemble Conspirare’s director Craig Hella Johnson writes in a booklet note that he hopes these settings “can serve as a conduit for an ever deepening experience with this sublime and powerful poetry.” And indeed they may, so convincingly do they translate Neruda’s delicate emotional chiaroscuro into accessible music of great lyrical potency. In Ratcliff’s Ode to Common Things, it is clear that the poet “loves all things” because of their connections with humanity: whether a bed, a guitar, a loaf of bread or a pair of scissors, they are for the poet “perfect things built by human hand” and “so alive”. In Kirchner’s…

January 8, 2016
CD and Other Review

Review: Beethoven, Haydn, Mozart: Songs (Mark Padmore, Kristian Bezuidenhout)

How gratifying it is to enjoy the fruits of this generation’s lively interest in the art song, and in particular, German lieder. Recently, Australian audiences have had the good fortune to soak up the superb artistry of Ian Bostridge and Florian Boesch, two of this era’s greatest singers. Nor should we forget that outstanding singing is only one side of the lieder equation. Splendid accompanists are also indispensable in consummating the marriage between text and music. Whilst current concert-hall performances of lieder undoubtedly bring huge musical rewards, they are obviously scaled to the performance space. With the piano often on full stick, singers are not afraid to calibrate their delivery accordingly. On the other hand, it is a pleasure to be reminded by Padmore and Bezuidenhout of lieder’s more intimate origins. The South African born fortepianist (who began his studies in Australia and is back here this year guest leading the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra) uses a sweet-toned instrument by Rosenberger from about 1820 that is the perfect complement to Padmore’s lyrical tenor. Together they explore the tentative beginnings of lieder through the works of Haydn and Mozart, amongst which we have some delightful floral references; Haydn choosing a forget-me-not and Mozart…

January 8, 2016
CD and Other Review

Review: Purcell’s Revenge (Concerto Caledonia/David McGuinness)

Once you accept music as a living, breathing language, and that there’s a big difference between restoration and renovation, you can really let your hair down and have some fun. As Concerto Caledonia’s director David McGuinness writes in the booklet accompanying this thoroughly entertaining follow-up to their equally irreverent 2011 take on Britten’s folksong arrangements Revenge of the Folksingers, “there’s almost a generally accepted international style in which to play baroque music, an idea which would have seemed preposterous in the musically diverse Europe of the 17th and 18th centuries.” As with the earlier CD, Purcell’s Revenge is based on a live gig, and Concerto Caledonia (whose lineup includes early music luminaries like recorder player Pamela Thorby and Alison McGillivray on gamba), again teams up with folk musicians. Countertenor legend James Bowman is thrown in for good measure. The repertoire ranges from arrangements of Purcell faves such as the Rondeau from Abdelazer, Sweeter than Roses and Fairest Isle to Purcell-inspired originals such as Chaney’s Cassiopeia and Silvera’s Halos. Despite mixed results – I was more convinced by Jim Moray’s electric guitar than his vocal abilities – the overall effect is intoxicating. But the highlight must be Chaney’s utterly exquisite arrangement and performance…

January 8, 2016
CD and Other Review

Review: Planctus (Capela de Ministrers/Magraner)

This accomplished Valencian ensemble under Carles Magraner has amassed a fine discography since 1987 but has been over-shadowed by the prolific output of a certain Catalan group with a charismatic front man. A shame, but such is the whim of the market. The programme, evoking the key date of 1414, intersperses movements of the Requiem with laments. It could be a grim affair but works a dark charm thanks to inspired realisations and vivid performance. Vocal ensembles have that sensuous Iberian manner with ochre colouring and characterful soloists. Tenor Miguel Bernal is superb; his fervour bordering on the histrionic in the sequence Clangam, Filii and Agnus Dei. Hair-shirted purists might sniff at the degree of conjectural instrumental elaborations but non-specialist listeners will enjoy the variety of timbre within the prevailing style, with interesting use of an exaquier, a sort of small primitive harpsichord, and exquisite work on flute by David Antich. For the final three tracks the listener is jolted out of medieval Iberia with a brief jaunt across the Alps for Ir Tanezer und Spranezer, a literal dance of death, before being eased into the more familiar idiom of plainchant settings Recording quality is reference class, spectacularly present and natural with…

January 8, 2016
CD and Other Review

Review: Evensong Live 2015 (The Choir of King’s College Cambridge/Stephen Cleobury)

Thanks to its in-house recording system, the King’s College Choir is able to offer us a snapshot of its musical activities during the past academic year. As you would expect, the range of music in any season would be rather diverse, and so it is here. There is a central core of English fare: Tallis, Parsons, Parry and Vaughan Williams, but continental influences include Poulenc and Mendelssohn, whilst more recent music by Giles Swayne and Henryk Górecki is also included. Having listened to many recordings of this choir over the years, I was struck by the freshness and clarity of the sound that the current microphone placement delivers. This clarity, combined with the live nature of these performances, shows the choir (and its chapel’s famous acoustic) in a different light. Take, for example, Swayne’s Magnificat. A certain exuberance and spontaneity add to the choir’s customary technical precision. The result is a livelier and slightly less homogenous sound than some of the choir’s ‘studio’ recordings – this is no bad thing. Whether it be the intimacy of Poulenc’s Christmas motets, the intensity of Górecki’s Totus Tuus, the grandeur of Parry or the romanticism of Mendelssohn, there is a welcome vibrancy to…

December 9, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: Haydn: The Creation (Handel and Haydn Society)

Recording of the Month – January/February 2016 How wonderful for an organisation to be celebrating 200 years of performing The Creation! Part One of Haydn’s masterpiece was performed in Boston on Christmas Day, 1815 by the Handel and Haydn Society to a rapt audience of about 1,000 people. It’s hard to imagine how the 13 instrumentalists on that occasion coped with Haydn’s colourful score and supported the chorus of 90 men and ten women, but the pioneering spirit of that performance has born lasting fruit: H+H is still going strong, as this excellent recording attests. Harry Christophers, the current Artistic Director of Boston’s Handel and Haydn Society eschews the ‘blockbuster’ approach of Paul McCreesh’s 2008 account and opts instead for medium-sized forces: a chorus of 42 accompanied by an orchestra of 47 that perform in Boston’s hallowed Symphony Hall. This means that tempi are on the whole slightly more flowing and less monumental, allowing some of the more intimate moments to shine through. Haydn’s English text has always been troublesome. Christophers adopts a less interventionist approach than McCreesh, with the happy result we still have some favourite turns of phrase: the “flexible tiger”, “with verdure clad” and “the wonder of his…

October 20, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: Anne Boleyn’s Songbook (Alamire/David Skinner)

Editor’s Choice, Vocal & Choral – November 2015 “Divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded survived” – the old schoolroom rhyme is still a good way of recalling the fate of the six colourful women who married Henry VIII. Anne Boleyn, the second wife and the first to get the chop (literally) had quite an interesting life before she came to Henry’s attention. As a maid of honour to Margaret of Austria, a great musical patron, then in the French court of Henry’s sister, Mary and later in that of her stepdaughter, Queen Claude, Anne would have been exposed to a wide variety of musical styles, as well as being given ample opportunity to develop her own musical talents. All the more intriguing then, is a music book kept in London’s Royal College of Music that bears her name. It contains 42 works, both sacred and secular, by a variety of composers. Some are smaller works destined for domestic or devotional settings, while others are grander, liturgical works. David Skinner and his vocal consort (named after the Tudor singer, composer, music copyist and political informant, Petrus Alamire) offer a generous sampling of the book’s diverse contents. What is immediately noticeable is the…

October 12, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: Father & Son (Christoph & Julian Prégardien)

There is something special about the blend of voices among family members – witness the Everlys or the McGarrigals in the pop world  – but there are few instances that exist in the field of classical music. German father and son team Christoph and Julian Prégardien, however, are two exceptional tenors in their own right and have been performing duets over recent years. Now they have taken their popular recitals with pianist Michael Gees into the studio for the Dutch label Challenge Classics. The result, Father and Son, is an entertaining collection of curiosities and rearrangements of what some may consider to be sacred cows. The arrangements, mostly by Julian Prégardien and Gees, include 12 Schubert songs and were the product of rehearsals followed by in-the-moment improvisations, much like you would hear in a folk club. This, they argue, is in the spirit of contemporary accounts of the original Schubertiade evenings. The Goethe setting Der Erlkönig divides logically into the two roles of the night-riding father and the son who dies in his arms. Other songs sit less comfortably as duets, for this listener at least, although the Prégardiens and Gees perform them all impeccably. Two little-known German composers are…

October 12, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: Nicolai Ghiaurov: Russian Songs and Arias

A wonderful mixture of power, passion, beauty and expressive intensity, the distinguished Bulgarian-born bass, Nicolai Ghiaurov was a fine exponent of many aspects of opera and song, not least the Italian and French schools. He and his second wife, the great Mirella Freni, made a formidable operatic duo. Now dead for over a decade it is timely that Decca honour Ghiaurov with this generous and varied survey of his work in the field of Russian music. In the operatic realm, we have a selection of important arias sung with the London Symphony under Sir Edward Downes. Ghiaurov presents impressive characterisations in roles from Eugene Onegin, Prince Igor and most notably Boris Godunov, for which he became particularly famous.  A selection of songs by Tchaikovsky, Borodin, Glinka, Rubinstein, and the now-forgotten Dargomyzhsky, shows the singer to be capable of great warmth and intimacy, especially in favourites such as None but the Lonely Heart and Rubinstein’s Melody. Ten folksongs performed with the Kavel Orchestra and Chorus under Atanas Margaritov are a welcome reminder of the other side of Russian music which Ghiaurov obviously enjoyed. The lusty singing of the male chorus together with a band that includes accordions and balalaikas make for…

October 11, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: Tallis: Ave, rosa sine spines (The Cardinall’s Musick)

This offering of Tallis’s motets reflects the changing demands on composers during the English Reformation. Henry VIII’s spurning of Catholicism in 1534, along with the taste of the early Reformation leader Thomas Cranmer, had a handsome effect on the composition of sacred vocal music. A syllabic, non-melismatic approach to word-setting was favoured – a trend reflected here in the blazing Mass for Four Voices. This music is full of striking harmonic effects; false relations abound! The spidery conclusion of In Manus Tuas, Domine is deftly handled: artful elegance applied to such dissonances gives the ear time to absorb the harmonic logic. Occasional intonation slips are just noticeable: a sharp soprano in the opening notes of Wipe Away My Sins, reaffirms her sharp inclinations in the otherwise sublime Miserere Nostri. The Cardinall’s Musick takes a rather reserved approach to the music, utterly appropriate to the style. Well-judged, vigorous singing flares up in the Gloria from the Mass for Four Voices. In that work, incredibly stellar chordal writing is intelligently balanced: a clear hierarchy in chordal notes is reflected in the tuning and volume of each note. As though a road map is placed in front of the listener, each phrase is…

October 11, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: Leighton: Crucifixus (Trinity College Choir Cambridge)

Kenneth Leighton came to prominence in the 1960s with a unique musical language that suited the times. His output had a ‘mod’ feel: edgy harmonies and propulsive rhythms seemed to proclaim a bold, new outlook that challenged both the musical and ecclesiastical status quo. Looking deeper we discover that Leighton’s music was anchored by a fair weight of musical history. Five years as a boy chorister at Wakefield Cathedral imbued him with a love of the Anglican tradition, whilst his later experience as a student of strict counterpoint, under the stern eye of his teacher Petrassi, ensured he knew what rules he was breaking. Stephen Layton and the Trinity choir have done a magnificent job in bringing out all the colour and drama of this selection of Leighton’s church music. Much of the disc has been recorded at Lincoln Cathedral where the weight of the organ adds to the intensity of the performances, even if it means some detail is blurred.  Crucifixus Pro Nobis is splendidly realised with superb attention to the text by Patrick Carey and Phineas Fletcher. Tenor Andrew Kennedy wrings all the pathos from the score providing some hair-raising moments which are worth the price of the…

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