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…

April 1, 2016
CD and Other Review

Review: One Voice (Adelaide Chamber Singers)

In a land where scythe-wielding grim reapers are only too happy to cut down artistic tall poppies, it is marvellous to see groups like the Adelaide Chamber Singers flourishing, and better still celebrating their 30th anniversary. Doubtless, this is in no small measure due to the vision and dedication of the group’s Founder and Artistic Director, Carl Crossin. In this anniversary celebration (and the group’s seventh disc) we are treated to a well sung, but eclectic programme that reflects the singers’ particular expertise in early and contemporary music. Opening with the flamboyant Deus in Adiutorium by Mexican baroque maestro Juan Gutiérrez de Padilla, the singers immediately impress with their rhythmic acuity and their fine sense of vocal and textural clarity. Such qualities are also evident in their accounts of the other early pieces on offer: Palestrina’s classic motet, Sicut Cervus (together with its lesser-known second part, Sitivit Anima Mea) and Monteverdi’s heartfelt lament from his sixth book of madrigals, Dunque Amate Reliquie.  Moving into the sphere of contemporary compositions, the ACS has commissioned a number of Australian works for its anniversary season. Anne Cawrse’s How Can I Keep From Singing is suitably celebratory whilst In the Bleak Mid-Winter Snow by…

March 23, 2016
CD and Other Review

Review: Caldara (Valer Sabadus)

Antonio Caldara, born in Venice in 1670, became vice-Kapellmeister at the Viennese Hofkapelle in 1716 remaining until his death in 1736. There he had a fine ensemble of musicians and this recital showcases some of the more unusual instruments he had at his disposal including the salterio – a large hammered dulcimer. Valer Sabadus, one of the five star countertenors on Virgin’s lauded recording of Vinci’s Artaserse, performs a brace of arias from opera and serenati. His bright bell-like tone and effortless fiorature is startling from the get-go and his accompanists play with gusto. Sample track five Ahi! Come quella un tempo città, where a plethora of plucked instruments is a sheer delight with the state-of-the-art recording capturing every nuance from thrumming bass notes to glittering treble. Ditto the following Ah se toccasse a me with a pair of lutes duetting in call and response. Questo è il prato pairs haunting flute and chalumeau – a primitive ancestor of the clarinet with a peculiar rustic sound of its own.  Lute aficionados will enjoy this disc as Caldara wrote for the great Francesco Bartolomeo Conti, and Michael Dücker (who leads the ensemble) is a thoughtful player. Cellist Ulrike Becker and ensemble…

February 22, 2016
CD and Other Review

Review: Poetry in Music (The Sixteen/Harry Christophers)

Harry Christophers has crafted this superb programme around four settings of King David’s lament for his slain son When David heard and describes it as “a best of poetry in music” – a big call, bearing in mind it is mostly sacred.  William Harris’s Faire is the Heaven and Bring us, O Lord God are sumptuous double-choir anthems full of delicious added-note harmonies and make a glittering wrapping for the delights within. James MacMillan’s The Gallant Weaver is a modern miniature masterpiece of accessible appeal with its gentle hints of Scottish folksong; such a clever piece of vocal writing – its decaying repetitions at different speeds evoke the stacked digital delay effects of modern-day electronic techniques. A surprising rarity is Ivor Gurney’s Since I Believe in God the Father Almighty, an anthem for double choir that is a deeply moving prayer from a troubled soul; Gurney’s experiences at the Western Front haunted him and despite a brief flourish of creative activity after the War he spent the rest of his days institutionalised where he wrote this work. The austere lines set against rich harmonies with surprising side-steps of tonality betray a fragile bipolar state of mind. Sample the line “And…

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…