January 18, 2017
CD and Other Review

Review: Songs of the Nativity (The Sixteen)

Trust Harry Christophers and The Sixteen to get to the heart of the matter. This selection of 22 carols is an engaging mix of old and new, sung unaccompanied and without the cloying sentimentality that often mars the Christmas season and threatens to make a mockery of a story that could have particular resonance in our own age of mass human displacement. Here we have singing that conveys wonderment and joy, but also empathetically touches on the less glamorous aspects of the human condition. The older carols are not necessarily well known. As Christophers notes, some are out fashion, but none the worse for that. Traditional compositions such as This endris night with its catchy tune together with the Somerset Carol and the Gallery Carol both of which evoke innocent merriment, are all worth reviving, while better known 20th-century favourites such as Peter Warlock’s Bethlehem Down, John Ireland’s The Holy Boy and Henry Walford Davies’ O little town of Bethlehem have an appealing intimacy. A welcome stylistic variety informs the choice of newer carols. Whether it is the close harmony of Morten Lauridsen’s O magnum mysterium, the subtle but effective motoric minimalism of Howard Skempton’s Adam lay ybounden or the…

January 18, 2017
CD and Other Review

Review: Shakespeare Songs (Ian Bostridge)

Renowned conductor Antonio Pappano is best known as music director of the Royal Opera House, but he is also a very fine pianist. Songs on texts by William Shakespeare finds Pappano accompanying the equally renowned English historian and tenor Ian Bostridge on an expansive collection featuring composers across five centuries who have set Shakespeare’s texts and musical dramatic devices, very few of which are stand-alone songs, to music. Not surprisingly, English composers are a strong presence: these include Morley, Byrd and their contemporary John Wilson, whose Take, o take those lips away is a highlight. Quilter’s Come away, death is mysterious and affecting, greatly impressing and influencing  Warlock, who is also featured here, along with Britten and Tippett.  Bostridge is commanding throughout, and justly famous for his attention to detail and extraordinarily nuanced delivery. The recording is glorious: rich, spacious and resonant. The final track on this collection, When that I was and a little tiny boy (Anon.), sung a cappella by Bostridge, is nothing short of extraordinary, from both performance and recording perspectives.  The sumptuous packaging contains meticulously researched and detailed liner notes by Christopher Wilson, and includes all song texts. This is an excellent and beautifully presented collection…

January 18, 2017
CD and Other Review

Review: Rubbra: Choral Works (The Sixteen)

Edmund Rubbra is a composer who has faded from English musical history, written out of a narrative that jumps straight from Vaughan Williams and Holst to Britten and Walton. But this release from The Sixteen is a defiant and overdue attempt to rewrite that history, to establish Rubbra where he belongs, as one of the most distinctive harmonic voices of his generation – not the conservative throwback he has been painted, but a composer for whom the possibilities of tonality were far from exhausted. That voice might emerge most emphatically in Rubbra’s 11 symphonies, but his choral works distil their harmonic language into something cleaner, more concise. The sonic imagination here roams widely, from the craggy, sharp-edged beauty of the Tenebrae Motets to the gauzy clouds of modal richness established by the two choirs of the Missa Cantuariensis and the lightly-worn contrapuntal skill of Vain Wits and Except the Lord. This music gives little away on the page – its impact is all in the pacing and careful textural balance of performance. Harry Christophers deploys his singers with care, ensuring absolute vertical clarity and balance, but also a horizontal flow that propels music whose organic, evolving structures can easily become…

January 18, 2017
CD and Other Review

Review: Krenek: Reisebuch aus den österreichischen Alpen (Florian Boesch)

Ernst Krenek’s resumé reads like a pro forma template of Austro-Germany’s forgotten composers sent into exile by the political climate of the 1930s. Studying with Franz Schreker and a short-lived marriage to Mahler’s daughter Anna ensured a thorough grounding in heady Late Romantic expressionism, dabbling with atonality before embracing Hindemithian democratic craft and making a big splash in 1927 with Jonny Spielt Auf; a key example of Zeitoper. Staged in over 100 European theatres, the pseudo-jazz inflected score and Jonny’s ethnicity would bring fame and notoriety but aroused the ire of the racial purifiers waiting to seize power. Krenek’s adoption of Schoenberg’s serial technique in the 1930s would seal his fate; his opera Karl V would be banned by the Nazis and he would be denounced as a “degenerate” so he decamped to Palm Springs, sheltering in academia for the rest of his life where he produced a steady stream of fine compositions that, apart from occasional performances in rebuilt Germany, were ignored.  His Reisebuch aus den Österreichischen Alpen song cycle of 1929 was a response to the previous year’s 100th anniversary of the death of Schubert. Spurred by a visit to the Alps, it is a revisionist take on…

December 16, 2016
CD and Other Review

Review: Rautavaara: Vocal Works (Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra)

At the time of writing this review, it has only been little more than a month since we lost this great Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara to the darkness. He was 87. But why talk about death or count the years in relation to a composer of such stylistic breadth and a man who had a seemingly illimitable trust in the unconscious to bring forth ideas?  Take his recent song cycle for baritone and orchestra, Rubáiyát, commissioned in 2014 by the Wigmore Hall for the great Canadian bass-baritone Gerald Finley, who performs it on this recording. Rautavaara was a 20-something music student when he first encountered the poetry of Omar Khayyam and swore that he would one day set it to music. Decades later, here is such a cycle, as warm, romantic, lyrical and mysterious as Khayyam’s words, as rendered by his most famous English translator, Edward FitzGerald. Finley is, as you’d expect, the perfect interpreter, every word as distinct as it is coloured with hues mellow and bright.  Some of the cycle’s glowing sensuousness can also be found in Rautavaara’s 2014 Lorca setting, Balada, for tenor, mixed choir and orchestra. Lorca was another of the composer’s favourite poets. It is…

December 16, 2016
CD and Other Review

Review: Penderecki conducts Penderecki (Warsaw Philharmonic)

If this well produced disc is anything to go by, Krzysztof Penderecki, the grandfather of Polish music, remains a powerful expressive force, both as composer and conductor. Spanning nearly 60 years of compositional endeavour, the works display Penderecki’s prowess in the field of large-scale religious works. His 2014 Dies Illa, written to commemorate the victims of World War I on the centenary of its outbreak, is a vivid soundscape that takes inspiration from Verdi’s Requiem. The Warsaw forces perform expertly and soloists (soprano Johanna Rusanen, mezzo  Agnieszka Rehlis and bass Nikolay Didenko) deliver texts with empathy and commitment. Two 1997 commissions demonstrate Penderecki’s ability to bring his keen appreciation of history to bear on works for grand occasions. Hymn to St. Daniil for the 850th anniversary of the foundation of Moscow, has a strong flavour of Orthodox chant, culminating with brass and bells. Hymn to St Adalbert for the millennium of the city of Gdan´sk grows into a fervent and exultant outpouring of praise. Psalms of David from 1958 won the composer several prizes that helped establish his international reputation. A fascinating blend of avant-garde and traditional, they have a likeable freshness and originality that has not dimmed in the…

December 16, 2016
CD and Other Review

Review: Songs by Max Reger (Sophie Bevan)

In songwriting terms, Reger remains a one-hit wonder: his Mariä Wiegenlied, but heaven help anyone seeking the rest of his vast Liederoutput. Now Hyperion has come to the rescue,  but even they supply a mere 33 of the nearly 300 songs which Reger left. Repeatedly discernible in this selection dominated by miniatures is the composer’s tendency to resort to restless chromaticism in songs that begin as folk-like, almost drawing-room productions. No wonder recitalists have shied away. Far easier to master a song that stays in the same mood throughout, rather than switching within seconds from Schubertian quasi-naivety to Hugo-Wolf-style anguish. Significantly, Reger preferred minor poets: no Goethe, Schiller or Heine here. Occasionally Reger uses a verse familiar from Strauss: Mackay’s Morgen!, which Reger makes almost indistinguishable from a Wagnerian dusk. But other Reger settings show him in a much better light and they deserve more frequent airings. This reviewer was particularly taken by the martial Zwischen zwei Nächten, the impressionistic Aeolsharfe(like Debussy to German words), and above all the deliberately antiquarian In einem Rosengärtelein. Sophie Bevan has a big timbre which nevertheless encompasses considerable delicacy when needed. Malcolm Martineau is perfectly attuned to Reger’s unrelenting demands. Engineering and booklet annotations…This…

December 16, 2016
CD and Other Review

Review: Reverie (The Australian Voices)

The most recent release by The Australian Voices is their first with current director Gordon Hamilton at the helm. As a composer, Hamilton is no stranger to eclecticism, and Reverie offers works that draw on classical, jazz and popular styles, with texts and subjects not limited to war, nonsense and political speech. The most classical offering is Hamilton’s arrangement of Australian-British composer and soldier Frederick Septimus Kelly’s Elegy – In Memoriam Rupert Brooke. It complements other reflective works by Hamilton on the disk, including a sombre meditation on the ANZAC experience, Dark Hour and the radiant, existentialist Who Are We? Graham Lack’s Reverie of Bone, with percussion by Claire Edwardes, dwells in a similar space. At odds with these more sober offerings are groove-driven works, like Lisa Young’s Misra Chappu and James Morrison’s Underwater Basket Weaving, a cute bluesy work featuring Morrison himself on trumpet. But top reason to own this disc is the diptych of politically themed works by Robert Davidson: Total Political Correctness, a musicalisation of the Trump-Kelly debate, and the viral internet sensation, Not Now, Not Ever! – Davidson’s reworking of Julia Gillard’s speech against misogyny. Hamilton says the works each “embrace… the banal in equal measure…

December 16, 2016
CD and Other Review

Review: Muffat: Missa In Labore Requies (Cappella Murensis)

Born in France of a German father and with Scottish forbears, Georg Muffat was something of a polyglot in more ways than one. As a result of his many travels, either for study or in search of work, Muffat was destined to introduce into Germany the fashionable baroque styles of both Italy and France, having met both Corelli and Lully. In his splendid and lavish 24-part Missa In Labore Requies, both styles happily coexist. It is thanks to Haydn, who possibly acquired the autograph score from Muffat’s son, that the Mass is still extant, even though it was neglected up until the 1990s probably because it was thought to be spurious. (It has now been authenticated.) The abbey church at Muri in Switzerland, with its four galleries and two organs is a wonderfully apt recording venue. Such spatial differentiation is reminiscent of the four organ galleries of Salzburg Cathedral. The cathedral was possibly the venue for which the work was originally written, as Muffat had to return from a study tour to assist in the celebrations for the 1,100th anniversary of the founding of the diocese. The musical forces of the Mass are divided into five groups – two choral…

November 17, 2016
CD and Other Review

Review: Arnold & Hugo de Lantins: Secular Works (La Miroir de Musique)

The music of the Medieval and early Renaissance is a startlingly unfamiliar language for modern ears with its strange clashes and cadences. Thanks to the tireless work of scholars, specialist performers and boutique labels, nowadays we can immerse ourselves in order to become sufficiently ‘fluent’, yet one can only wonder at what emotional responses this music must have triggered in the average 14th-century listener. Next to the big names of the Burgundian School, Arnold and Hugo de Lantins were second league but their works pop up in various codices alongside Dufay and Binchois. Little is known about Arnold but even less about Hugo – we’re not even sure they were brothers – but they were both clerics in the diocese of Liège. The first evidence of their work appeared in Northern Italy. This recital by Le Miroir De Musique, a superb ensemble of four singers and six instrumentalists, offers a lovely programme of secular chansons and rondeaux interspersed with instrumental arrangements.  The vocalists here strike an ideal balance of disciplined purity with an unforced, open vocal delivery. Clara Coutouly is especially enchanting in her solo turns Hélas amour, que ce qu’endure and Puis que je voy, belle, que ne m’aimes;…

November 17, 2016
CD and Other Review

Review: Lobo: Lamentations (Westminster Cathedral Choir)

Listening to Alonso Lobo’s music it is easy to understand why the great Victoria considered him an equal. Having trained under Francisco Guerrero at the cathedral of Seville, Lobo was appointed as his teacher’s assistant in 1591, but was two years later appointed to the prestigious post of maestro de capilla at Toledo cathedral. There he remained for a successful decade before returning to Seville in 1604 where he worked until his death in 1617. This impressive programme begins with Guerrero’s Easter motet, Maria Magdalena et Altera Maria followed by Lobo’s own Missa Maria Magdalene. Lobo’s homage to his master is also sumptuously cast in six parts and is full of wonderfully awe-inspiring moments, such as the Et Incarnatus and the Osanna in Excelsis. Such was Lobo’s fame his music was often copied, finding its way to other countries and even to the New World. This is particularly fortunate in the case of his Lamentations. Two sets were written, but only one is performable, and that in a manuscript from 1772. Written to be performed in a darkened church during Holy Week, each lamentation begins with a letter of the Hebrew alphabet, which is set with flowing melismas, creating a mood…

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…